Politics in the Workplace

An article similar to this appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 16 July 2021.

John Key had a few political gaffes, such as “ponytail-gate” and a somewhat cringeworthy performance on the David Letterman television show in 2009.  Not everyone agreed with his politics but he was our Prime Minister from 2008 to 2016.

While a bachelor of communications and a long career in Parliament might make our current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern more qualified to be “political savvy”, some people do not find her authentic.

By “politically savvy” I mean, do you make the most of your relationships at work and in business to reach your individual goals, your team’s goals or your clients’ goals?

If you are politically savvy you are likely to have better career and sales prospects. If you avoid or ignore the political realities of your workplace or the sector in which your clients operate, you are probably missing out on opportunities and connections.

Some people moan that they must even acknowledge the existence of workplace or sector politics, much less get involved in political behaviour in order to progress. Behaving in ways that feel manipulative and ultimately self-serving may not sit well with you naturally.

Ultimately, some of us end up “playing politics” as a necessary evil, while others refuse to play the game entirely, despite the likely negative impact on their careers.

Having “political savviness” may be required for people who work in large organisations or in the public sector where you deal with elected representatives, but it is also useful in other types of work situations where you need:

- Project management skills to deliver on strategic or operational plans.

- To engage with a wide range of stakeholders and collaborate on project delivery.

- Empathy to inspire staff to commit to a culture.

- To build networks for sales or other opportunities.

While the idea of political savviness generally gets more negative than positive thought, it isn’t always a bad thing. In my view, it comes down to what you think is effective leadership.

Leaders who maximise and leverage relationships with others around them are “politically savvy”. They have honed the following skills:

- Social awareness: They read and respond diplomatically to the behaviours and moods of people around them. They read non-verbal behaviours and understand other people motivations. By being more perceptive of yourself and others in social situations, you can improve your self-awareness and better interpret other people.

- Interpersonal influence: They encourage people to act in ways they want. They establish good rapport and communicate well. They have good judgement and know when to assert themselves so they grow collaborative relationships.

- Networking ability: They maintain and develop relationships of mutual benefit. They build work-based friendships with people who will support them. They reciprocate when called upon and see these relationships as part of a wider system beyond their organisations. They can lead to opportunities and help manage conflict.

- Active listening: They listen more than they talk. They listen to understand, rather simply to respond. They have impulse control and choose their “battles” wisely. In this way they are less likely to hurt their own careers, or create unnecessary friction within their relationships.

- Balancing managing up with managing down: They make an effort to understand the needs of their boss and their boss’ bosses, together with the needs of their team. They take a holistic view of their organisation and see all levels of people within it as being connected and equally as important.

There are tools to help you identify where you may be lacking such skills with tips on how to grow them. For example, EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Assessments For Leadership (ap.themyersbriggs.com/overview/EQ-i-20-8).

At an organisational level there are programmes such as the Academy for Political Leadership (www.tafpi.co.uk/). Alternatively, you could work with local leadership or life coaches to enhance your unique personal or organisational situations.

Personally, I see being politically savvy as a useful way to prevent conflict in and outside an organisation.

If used properly, being politically savvy can help you maintain a positive image in your workplace and the sector you work within, plus help drive your individual, team and organisational performance.

To be an effective leader you should be genuine and straightforward so you don’t come off as manipulative or self-serving — communicate authentically and act with integrity. Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.