The Business Times

Political savvy is a skill - not a game

Avoiding office politics is like trying to avoid people. But you don't have to play dirty to be good at it

Published Fri, Mar 18, 2016 · 09:50 PM
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Think about one trait that your leaders at work share. No, it's not their work ethic. Nor is it charisma.

To cut it short, it is the ability to navigate workplace politics. Believe it or not, no one gets to the top by accident.

Being politically savvy often has negative connotations, so people rarely like to associate themselves with this quality.

But being savvy at navigating political minefields need not be seen with such a critical lens, leadership experts tell BT.

In fact, it should be considered a leadership skill just like any other competencies out there that people can learn or improve on. That way, both individuals and the organisation can benefit.

Reframing workplace politics

If you imagine political savvy to be the equivalent of protagonist Frank Underwood in House of Cards, you will be glad to know that it is not about scheming your way to the top.

The politically savvy keep their integrity and values intact, while building relationships at work to sell ideas, drive organisational efficiency and grow their careers, according to Marty Seldman and Rick Brandon in their book, Survival of the Savvy.

Similarly, Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half, says the savviest professionals practise workplace diplomacy.

"They remain attuned to political undercurrents but don't allow themselves to get pulled into situations that could compromise their working relationships or reputation."

Sounds like a tall order? Of course, it is - that's why political savvy is often described as an art.

Many people like the idea of avoiding office politics, but it is impossible to do so in reality, says John Bittleston, founder and chairman of Terrific Mentors International. "All life is political . . . businesses are inevitably political because there are so many people striving to attain power," he points out.

Leadership experts concur that people can remain credible only if their integrity and values are not compromised.

Mr Bittleston says political savviness gets a bad rap because of people who compromise their "fundamental beliefs", which he strongly condemns as "worthless behaviour".

Jane Horan, author of I Wish I'd Known That Earlier in My Career: The Power of Positive Workplace Politics, says that political savvy should be treated as a skill in organisations and embedded into learning and development programmes.

Critical leadership competency

This includes facilitating workshops or individual coaching to build this skill in staff for the good of the organisation.

"Politics increases during massive change given the uncertainty of the environment and working under scarce resources . . . Being savvy for the right reasons is a critical leadership competency, not a game," she explains.

However, if such opportunities are not available in companies, individuals can still take steps to brush up on this skill.

Firstly, and most importantly, one must be able to read people or situations.

Most people are not born with high EQ or emotional intelligence, but it can be learnt. Reading people requires interest, boundless curiosity and perseverance, says Mr Bittleston. For example, if you see your boss looking stressed or unhappy, the worst thing you can do is to drop another bombshell.

"Try to engage him, and discover what is causing your manager's trauma. Then judge the best way and time to raise your issue," he says.

This ability also helps you to be aware of your workplace dynamics - where power lies does not always depend on titles and positions.

Recruitment firm Robert Half suggests building a strong coalition of support. While it may be tempting to stick to cliques or associate with the "people in power", it is better to lobby for the respect and trust of all colleagues.

Giving credit when it is due and delivering on promises are some ways to win people over. After all, it is impossible to know whose endorsement or help you may need in the future, so it always pays to be kind and professional.

If you think you can get away with being rude to the office secretary, you will be surprised to know just what kind of reputation you have at the end of the day.

"Successful politics is a forward journey and not a backward stab. The politically savvy build other people up, not tear them down," explains Mr Bittleston.

Likewise, if faced with people who overtake you by "foul means", he suggests building these people up.

Mr Bittleston says that either their shame at what they are doing will stop them, or (more likely) the impact of their behaviour will work to their disadvantage.

Overly political offices where backstabbing and gossiping are rampant indicates a problem with leadership.

"If you have serious office politics that ends up disrupting things, then you are employing too many people, isolating them into silos and making their lives hell," says Mr Bittleston bluntly.

He adds that people who have meaningful, busy work lives tend not to dabble significantly in office politics as they are preoccupied with other, more worthy tasks.

To fix the situation, his suggestion is drastic: find out who is the worst detractor and either fire, or seriously warn, him or her.

Secondly, he says, transparency in the office is a must. While office politics will never be fully eradicated due to human nature, an open office is one way to destroy gossip.

Well-defined purpose

In his company, the wages, salaries and terms of employment of all staff are published for all to see, as part of an agreement prior to working for him.

Mr Bittleston believes that stopped a lot of "backbiting and jealousy".

He concludes that businesses must ensure that their purpose is well defined and adopted by workers.

"When there is no clear purpose, everyone has their own goals and most of their time is taken up promoting them," says Mr Bittleston. "A cauldron of agendas is not the basis of a happy or successful business."

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