©2015 Terry Hildebrandt, PhD
Political savvy is often overlooked as a core competency for leaders at every level. I often hear my clients dismiss politics as something to be avoided, which results in them missing out on a key strategy for creating more influence in their organizations. Politics does not need to be negative. In fact, one can use political savvy in a very ethical and positive way to expand one’s influence and increase the probability of getting what you want at work and in life.
In this article, I reveal the five key steps to political savvy that work in every context.
Step 1: Key Players
In any given scenario there will be key players that will have parts to play in the unfolding of any organizational context. The obvious players include the executive sponsor, the team members, any relevant customers or suppliers, and supporting staff. What is less clear are the hidden players that work behind the scenes to influence the stakeholders to make certain decisions or take certain actions. It takes some research and thought to map out all the key stakeholders in any given situation. One best practice year is to create a Stakeholder Map listing each of the key players and their roles and relationships. You may need to ask, “Who else should we include or consult with regarding this situation?”
Step 2: Interests
Each of the key players identified in step 1 will have their own interests that need to be understood. These may include business objectives, strongly held beliefs, pet peeves, hidden agendas, financial interests, past grievances, or any other number of possibilities. While some of the interests will be clearly revealed by the key players, others will likely remain hidden. It is your job to build relationships with the key players in order to understand their true motivations. This will require some time and networking skills to talk to those close to key stakeholders to understand their perspectives. For example, you may not have access to a key executive, but you may know one of his or her confidants who would be willing to share the insider’s scoop. Another best practice here is to create a table listing all the key players and their interests as they become clear to you.
Step 3: Authority and Power
Understanding who has authority and who has power among the key players will help you understand how influence flows in an organization, how decisions are made, and how resources get allocated. Authority here is defined as those who have been empowered by the organization to make decisions. These are typically managers and executives who have the ability to approve expenses. Power here is defined as those who have the ability to influence those in authority to make certain decisions. While it is sometimes easy to understand who is in authority by looking at organizational charts and expense authorization documents, revealing who has power is less visible. Often there are many people behind the scenes who influence key decision-makers. Most executives have a close group of trusted advisors that they rely on as a sounding board for key decisions. Creating a power and authority map of who has access to the ears of key managers can help you better understand how power and authority flow in your organization.
Step 4: Conflicts and Alliances
In every situation there are likely to be natural conflicts and alliances based on the interests of the key players. It is important to remember that these conflicts will vary depending on the topic at hand. While you may have had a strong alliance with a key leader yesterday, a new topic may emerge where you now find yourselves at odds with that same manager. You can better predict likely conflicts by understanding the interests of key players more fully. This requires you to maintain strong relationships among your network. Frequent contact with the key players is crucial for political savvy. Mapping out the alliances and the conflicts in any given political situation helps you better understand how decisions may be influenced within an organization.
Step 5: Political Strategy
In this final step, you will synthesize steps 1 through 4 to develop your political strategy. Some of the key questions here will include:
- Who are my allies that are likely to support me?
- Who are my detractors, and how much power do they have?
- Do I have enough support to overcome objections?
- Who do I need to talk to further to better understand their positions, concerns, and interests?
- Do I have enough relationship capital to influence those in authority to get what I want?
- Is the timing right, or should I wait until there is more support for my position?
- If I move forward, what will be the likely outcome in terms of future support or resistance from stakeholders?
The bottom line is to estimate if you have sufficient allies to overcome any resistance to your position. It is also important to consider the potential fallout of offending those who may be opposing your position. The ultimate goal is to continually build alliances and to avoid making enemies over the long haul.
Political savvy can be used in an ethical way in an organization to increase your influence and build relationships. This requires significant time to build a network, understand key players and their interests, and build alliances. Ignoring political savvy puts you at risk of being blindsided by conflicts and detractors who will thwart your goals and undermine your influence. By understanding political savvy as a process, anyone can develop the skills to be successful in maneuvering organizational politics to achieve greater influence and business results.