The friendly face of office politics

‘Politics’ is no longer a dirty word in the workplace. New research by the
Chartered Management Institute suggests that ‘politicking’ is an increasingly
important skill for managers. In today’s dynamic, rapidly evolving marketplace,
it has become widely accepted that developing expertise within your technical
discipline is simply not enough to excel. There is now a pressing need to work
within organisations both at a cross-departmental level and across a diverse
range of complimentary and competitive businesses.

But if politics is no longer a ‘dark art’ with Machiavellian overtones, and
if it is not about serving self-interest, what is political skill?

The CMI research Leading with Political Awareness shows that the
UK’s business leaders view ‘politicking’ as partnership and alliance building.
Only a minority still think it’s about ‘protecting their turf’ or ‘pursuing
personal advantage’. More common is the belief that good political skills are
about reconciling differences. Most view an ability to collaborate, both
externally and internally, as something that is for the collective good of the

So it is alarming to discover that most managers would only rate themselves
as ‘good’ when it comes to political prowess and just 1% are confident enough to
claim excellence.

As building external partnerships, promoting organisational reputation and
mitigating risks become major priorities for today’s business leaders, the onus
is on both organisations and individual managers to beef up these skills as soon
as possible.

What matters is developing the skills to build effective organisational
performance. To move forward, employers have a key role to play in ensuring that
their managers are equipped to lead with political awareness. Yet despite its
importance, too many organisations leave the development of political skills to
chance, rather than formalised training.

In at the deep end

According to the Institute’s research, the majority of individuals reported
having learned their political skills through bitter experience; 88% claimed to
have honed their political nous through their mistakes and a similarly high
proportion through managing crises. In some cases this is inevitable, but it is
also far from ideal as a learning mechanism.

Bearing in mind the essential nature of these skills, is it not time that
companies started building them into management learning and development
programmes? But for development programmes to work they must be practical.
Individuals need to be able to mix the theory of ‘why’ and the practical
application of reality.

The research identified a number of ways in which managers want their
organisations to develop political capability. Two-thirds said that working with
other organisations was an extremely valuable way to improve, just over half
cited secondment to another organisation and others made a case for professional
coaching. Despite this, the report found that secondments, coaching and formal
mentoring were not widely used to develop political skills.

This lack of proactivity is a concern as organisations look towards the
challenges of the next five years. Far from diminishing, the value of political
skills will only increase as the need to influence key external decision makers
– regulators, NGOs or government – grows.

As the nature of business moves towards greater interdependence between
organisations – and if UK plc is to compete on a global scale – ensuring that
employers have the skills and understanding to cope in a more collaborative
environment will become ever more essential.

To do this, organisations have to consider where strengths and deficiencies
lie to ensure any investment in training and development is cost-effective and
strategically worthwhile. After all, there is no point delivering a skills
programme if it focuses on areas that will serve no long-term purpose for the

To this aim, the Chartered Management Institute has teamed up with Warwick
Business School to develop an assessment framework. Its aim is to enable
organisations to measure political ability on five levels, from personal skills
through to strategic direction.

Because the impact of political skills is likely to vary according to
seniority in the business and industry sector, it is also important that
organisations take account of four different ‘contexts’ in which political
skills are required.

Outside influences

On one level, questions should be asked about the extent to which managers
understand the external environment in which they operate. Are they aware, for
example, of the competition, regulation and trade agreements, media interest and
public opinion affecting their sector? On another level, how much do they
appreciate the formal political context – how politicians may interact with them
to achieve outcomes of public interest?

Beyond these two areas, individuals also need knowledge of the strategic
context of any partnerships or alliances their organisation develops. By
extension this means developing an appreciation for how power blocs operate,
both internally and externally.

Political skills understood within these four contexts will go a long way
towards ensuring managers – and their employers – are able to operate within the
confines and demands of tomorrow’s business society. Without developing these
abilities, organisations will find it difficult to succeed and maximise
performance. In today’s business environment, no company or individual can act
in isolation.

Political skills must be mastered to increase performance for tomorrow, but
they are skills that need to be mastered now.

Jo Causon is director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered
Management Institute

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