I am being honest, I cannot remember a time when people have not be-moaned the fact that they can’t get stuff done because of office organisational politics or claim to have fallen foul of it and had their career damaged as a result. I have been working in business for 30 years and it rears its head more often than not in coaching sessions. It can undoubtedly be a source of stress and conflict in the workplace.

I have worked across many different companies, in terms of size and sector but in all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, politics was a fact of life.  You do have a choice to observe or join in, but there are benefits and costs of that choice. Many clients have a dilemma of conscience about becoming more politically savvy.

Political players have a bad press – perceived as using their power and networks unfairly to their own advantage and not for the greater good; scapegoating and deflecting bad news. A hard fact from a research article [1] showed a demonstrable link between performance and those individuals who possessed high levels of political skill, essentially positive influence behaviours. A reason for this maybe that organizational politics can be boiled down simply to effective relationships and allies in the workplace. Mountains can be moved and favours secured.

So, how to be authentic and politically savvy at the same time? Brave if you need to be but not naïve? A good place to start is by mapping your landscape, making sense of the environment you work in. Where are the weeds (where you can hide or which may choke you), the hidden bear traps, the high peaks?  Also, look at the strength of your connections, where do new alliances need to be created, relationships cemented or neutralized? Developing your ability to be able to read what’s going on in your  organisation is key; to look at the map through your own eyes and then with a detached look – at decision processes, the open and hidden agendas, who has power and influence, the culture. Keep scanning the landscape regularly, it can be a changing and hazardous territory if left unwatched.

Baddeley and James devised a simple model to think about political skills and characterize “office” politicians.[2] The innocent sheep acts with integrity but is naïve and as result can’t read a situation. The sheep has also not invested in their network.  The clever fox is politically astute, reading and tapping into power dynamics. The fox exploits the weaknesses of others using controlling and manipulative behaviours.  The inept donkey sadly has no integrity nor any political nous – which is probably a bit harsh on donkeys! The wise owl is savvy and has integrity: the sweet spot of political success. It is a simple way to start to understand behaviours. More importantly, by mapping the landscape it can hopefully help us reason and avoid how we can be wise one minute and inept the next

“The distinction between good politics and bad is not so much the behaviour, more the intent,” says Dr Holbeche from Roffey Park. [3] I  was recently talking with a colleague about people we had known who consistently performed at this sweet spot: being savvy and authentic.

What were they doing?

  • They demonstrated their worth to the business, consistently, bottom line;
  • They were trusted and didn’t play games at meetings or with people; they shared information;
  • They generally did what they said they would as opposed to promises that can sound fabulous but disappear into the ether;
  • People could see the benefits of working with them. Indeed, people wanted to work with them and for the right reasons – they knew they would learn and develop;
  • They didn’t compromise, just to get something done, the lowest common denominator but tried to find a win-win option out of any conflict; they knew when to fight on and when to back off;
  • They had solid networks, which they worked at constantly and tapped into the grapevine. They really knew the critical few of their network – what motivated them, what kept them awake at night, what was important to them and how best to influence them. Essentially they identified effective ways to hear and be heard;
  • They were curious; perception is in the eye of the beholder – to scan the landscape well, you need to put yourself into many people’s shoes.
  • They knew they were not perfect. They didn’t get everything right. They were savvy and authentic. They were a rare breed.
[1] Social Influence and Interpersonal Power in Organizations: Roles of Performance and Political Skill in Two Studies: 2011
[2] Political awareness has been adapted from the work of Simon Baddeley and Dr. Kim James, of the Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham University. http://www.inlogov.bham.ac.uk/
[3] Politics in Organisations, Roffey Park,

Claire Dickson is a qualified Executive and Leadership Coach, helping leaders reboot their leadership, performance and career approach. “She helps create real change for individuals, teams and organisations and always adds long term value.” SP (Dep. MD/HRD).