In the second of a two-part article on organisational politics, David Buchanan and Steve Macaulay explore L&D role in organisational politics.
There is a tendency to see political and interpersonal skills as separate. However, an ability to relate well to others, a high degree of self-monitoring and awareness, plus the ability to develop confidence and trust is a valuable set of skills to work with others.
We can define political skill as: an interpersonal style that combines social judgement with the ability to relate well, and to demonstrate situationally appropriate behaviour in a disarmingly charming and engaging manner that inspires confidence, trust, sincerity, and genuineness.
Politics and power are closely linked. Power is the capacity to influence others. It can be legitimised by the social structure and might be formal by position or informal, by agreement. The use of power can involve force or, in organisations, the threat of force.
Political skill used in positive, constructive ways can make things happen
The use of power and politics is a control mechanism that maintains and preserves each party’s position. Power and politics have to be managed to achieve the required goals. The realities were spelled out by a senior manager in healthcare: “If you want to make things happen and get stuff done, then you have to know what the game is, who is where on the chessboard, who is connected to whom. If you try not to play, you will be marginalised”.
Politics is linked to change
The skills of the successful manager leading change are wide ranging and those required of the skilled politician build upon these. Flexibility over time and with those to whom the change manager is dealing is a must. For example, different tactics may be needed during the stages of a change programme:
Table 2: Political strategies and tactics during change
the politics of project presentation, issue-selling, justifying
the politics of project definition, recruiting support, coalition building
the politics of driving, steering, keeping momentum, blocking resistance
the politics of termination and withdrawal, reporting back, moving on
the politics of representation, tales and myths of problems and success
How L&D can contribute
Despite its importance, 80% of managers say they have had no formal training or development in political skill. Advising managers on how to be more politically savvy may not be regarded as a legitimate activity for L&D professionals – but we believe it should be.
We have often worked with managers and influencers to open up what can sometimes be seen as a taboo subject. We start with an open discussion, covering how people feel about politics: Do they see it negatively in terms of what goes on in Westminster? Is it underhand and destructive?
We then look at positive aspects of politics. Going more deeply, we examine definitions of politics and how to recognise political behaviour. A case study can help explore the range of options and their consequences, self-assessments can give additional personal insights, for example the Mach IV Personality Assessment.
Formal classroom instruction can only take you so far: the best approach is to observe role models in action. They are not difficult to identify and you know who they are. But be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. Politics is a long game, and the occasional error is to be expected. A mentor or coach can assist in building on lessons learned.
L&D and HR professionals must recognise that there is a political dimension to development and change in organisations. This should help them to, for example:
- See building reputation as a positive process you must work at
- Assess and develop links with allies and identify strategies to deal with those against you
- See resistance and conflict as requiring political skills.
Summary and conclusion
It is clear L&D and HR need to understand organisational politics and to capitalise on the potential benefits. A better understanding of politics and political skills will be advantageous in many ways:
- Can encourage better communication and cooperation
- Enables insight and buy-in to meet the interests and concerns of those involved
- Encourages flexible and responsive strategies appropriate to different groups
- Allows the development of inclusive goals which achieve buy-in from those involved.
Political skill used in positive, constructive ways can make things happen and get things done, more quickly than formal bureaucratic processes normally allow. This is a long way from the dark arts of Machiavellian manoeuvring and Game of Thrones fantasy tactics.
About the authors
David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield University’s centre for executive development; he can be contacted by email on: email@example.com