Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #8. Nine Ways to be Politically Savvy at Work

March 24, 2022 Jean Balfour Season 1 Episode 8
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #8. Nine Ways to be Politically Savvy at Work
Show Notes Transcript

All organisations are inherently political. However, many people would rather not engage in politics at work as it often has negative connotations. 

In this episode Jean Balfour introduces the importance of being politically savvy and its importance in enhancing both workplace performance and career prospects. She 

  • Shares how to balance being politically astute while also acting with integrity. 
  • Identifies the specific behaviours demonstrated by people who get this balance right.
  • Introduces 9 strategies to becoming more politically savvy. 


Jean:

Hi everyone. And welcome to this episode of making sense of. If I ask you what you think about organizational politics. I'm wondering what would come to mind when I ask this question in workshops. So with my coaching clients, I generally hear things like it's people backstabbing or people building their own empire. There's a lot of language around game-playing people doing things behind my back to get things done. I do also hear things about. Influencing but the main messages are negative and they always, always outweigh the positive. The problem with this is that all organizations are political. We really can't escape it. In fact Winston Churchill said, but if you put people and power together, you get politics. All organizations involve people and power the hierarchy on its own creates a power dynamic. And so despite all of that, I'm guessing that for you, many of you will be thinking how much you dislike it. So in the podcast today, I'm going to aim and seek to demystify political savvy and to help you think about it in a fresh way to help you see how you could engage with organizational politics in a way that will sit comfortably with you. The thing is that unless we find a way to be politically savvy, things may happen. That may cause us problems in our career and in our jobs, many of the people I've coached, who have struggled with us have seen that their career stalls, because they haven't worked out how to navigate the relationship. In the organization to unstick it. I've seen people struggle to influence others. And this is often come back to not understanding the landscape, not understanding how our relationships are built and where people are on particular decisions. And this can lead to ideas or suggestions, not being translated into action, even if they're brilliant. But if we don't understand that landscape, if we don't. Um, how decisions are made. It can be really hard to have that level of influence. So I believe really strongly. We have to learn to do it, and we have to learn to do it well in order to have a successful and fulfilling career. And in the session today, I'm going to share some really practical ways to help you to do that, to help you to do it in a way that doesn't compromise your values, and yet leaves you feeling that you are politically astute and capable, that you have a skillset to help you to be politically savvy. One way of starting the conversation today is to think about whether we might change and replace the word politics with relationships. From my perspective, political savvy is actually about understanding where relationships are in the organization and who has strong relationships with other people. How do people influence those people? And so we might want to think about it as relational savvy rather than political savvy, but I'm going to leave that with you to think about as we go through this session, think, is it relational savvy or is it political savvy? As ever, I'd like to start with a couple of personal examples of how I've not actually myself been politically successful. And I want to share these because I think that we, all of us have times where we stall on our political savvy. Neither of these actually paint me in a very good light. I am generally pretty good at organizational politics. I'm a relational person. And so I build relationships with people and. Seek to understand their perspective and think about how I can influence them. But in both of these cases, I didn't do that very well. In one case I behaved badly and I'm going to share that. And in another case, I was a bit naive and didn't really work out what was going on. And for both of these, I think that these are examples that. Think about yourself and think about how does this resonate with me? How does this resonate with how I've behaved as well? The first one is the one that's most uncomfortable for me to tell. I don't know that I've ever told this story in public, but here goes, uh, when I was in my. Twenties, there was the organization. I was in merged with a neighboring organization and my role was put at risk as often happens in mergers. There was one person in my role in the other organization, as well as me. Of course, I was invited to apply and compete directly with my counterpart from the other organization. Now I really wanted that role. It was like some ambition that kicked it to me and I was really, really keen to get it. I knew that if I didn't get it, I would find another place in the organization. But I wanted that role. I thought it kind of had my name on it. I already had good working relationships with a lot of the key players. I understood the organization well, and you can hear it. I wanted it. So in that case, what I would offer to people normally is to do a bit of influence and lobbying and just help people to understand what the strengths are that a person would bring for that role. And I did that. I went to talk to people. I shared why I thought I was a good person for the role. Um, and. Actually I thought I could bring some value and experience that I had into that role, but unfortunately it didn't end there. I also told people why I thought the other person wasn't a fit for the role. And I do not feel good about this behavior. It's something that happened to me. I can't justify it. I mean, I was young. I was worried about what would happen if I didn't get it. But actually there's no justification for me telling that person's story in that way. And if I could, I would really massively apologize because it didn't play well for me, actually, I got the role and, uh, I enjoyed the role and it was a good role for me, but I have always felt guilty about how I behaved in that process. The second story is less about poor behavior and more about my own naive, witty. This was when I was in a senior leadership role. I was, um, working on a big change that was happening in the organization. And I needed to take the final decision to the executive team for approval, which is what I thought I was doing. And when I got to the executive team, the decision did not go my way. And in fact, the final decision that was made was actually not good for the organization overall. And I had messed up the process of. Decision-making I had not read the scene. I hadn't understood what was going on behind the scenes about it. And again, actually I felt really guilty because it did affect some people in the organization. What happened in this case was that I didn't do the work of lobbying if you like of understanding where other people stood and, um, and trying to either influence them to understand my perspective or in fact, take the decision away till we came up with a third option that would work for everyone. I should have gone and had quick chats with people. Their doors were open. I had a good relationship with the Ft and then CEO who were both. Essentially the final decision-makers and I would have talked to me about it. They might've told me some things that I didn't know. And then I would have held off on that decision until we came up, as I said, with a third option. So it was another point of my career when I look back and think, huh, I should have done that differently. And both of these examples are examples of poor political savvy. And I share these because as I say, I think I'm pretty good at ethical organizational politics, but in both of those are really failed. And I think we all do at times. However, there is a way for us to think about how we're doing it and to do it well and effectively. Before I go into that, I want to talk a little bit about why it matters so much. The people who, write research about organizational politics often describe it as being the art of understanding that informal and formal networks through which decisions are made. And also about being canny in working with those networks, those decision-making networks. And because as I've said, all organizations are political. We actually can't avoid this. So if we want to be successful in our roles and in our careers, we need to get good at understanding those informal networks and decision-making processes. Because if we do that, we can be influential and it can help our careers. And if we don't do it, it might be a struggle for people in our teams, or it might really negatively impact as we go along. The other thing about this is that as you get more senior in the organization, it matters more and more. If you step back and look at some of the senior leaders in your organization, or even the people in the co, what you will see is that a lot of their time is influencing and negotiating across parts of the organization. We could call that organizational politics. Their role is about helping things happen in the organization, helping the people in, um, in less senior roles to be freed up, to do their jobs well. And for those to happen smoothly and easily with good relationships. So a very senior leader. Is often acting very politically. So if we are aiming to move into more senior leadership roles, we do have to find a way to get good at it. Otherwise it would be much harder to get into those roles. All we'll get it. And we will struggle to do the role success. And if we learn to do that, then we can begin to read what's happening. So when things are changing, when decisions coming up, we can work out who are the people we need to speak to who, where are the different agendas in the organization? Who's, who feels strongly for this or against this? How does that work? And if you. Back to my example, the second example, I didn't understand that I didn't work it out. I didn't get to the bottom of it. And so it had a negative impact. So if we learned to do that, well, we can have a broader and more positive impact in the organization. And as I said, if you're in a management or leadership position, this is so important because it can really negatively impact your team. If you don't do it. There's a wonderful model that I often share on workshops, which helps to describe this a bit and bring it to life. It helps us to look at what are the different types of political behavior and how can we think about where we are in those? And the model was developed by Simon Baddeley and Kim James. And what they did was they gave, uh, animal names to their models so that we could remember anything. I'm going to describe the model, a little tricky on audio, but they're with me. at the heart, if they model, uh, two axis and, uh, on one of the axis, they're asking this question, am I acting for my own gain, or am I acting for the gain of the organization and to others as well as myself. So that's, am I out just for myself or do I hold others interest at heart? And if you think that's on the horizontal axis and then on the vertical axis, the question is, am I politically savvy? So am I engaging in political activity? Or am I likely to just get on with my work and not do it? And then they of course created a table, a two by two table, which we all love and gave each of the quadrants and animal name. The first of these quadrants that I want to bring up today is the Fox. If you think about political savvy and organizations, it's often Fox like behavior that we think about this is when somebody's got high political abilities. So they're good at understanding where the decisions are made, but they're mostly out for their own gain. And they're looking out for themselves and this could end up being a bit self-serving or this is sometimes where we end up with a bit of backstopping. So I'm ashamed to say this is essentially actually, where I was, when I was doing my poor behavior. The thing about Fox, like behavior is because we see it in others. And because that's the behavior we most often associate with organizational politics, we then withdraw from organizational politics because we think, well, I don't want to have anything to do with that. I don't like that behavior. Now, firstly, I believe that at some point we, all of us engage in this not great behavior. Every time we gossip about somebody in the office where acting a bit Fox like, because that's about us, we're talking about them and that is not good for either us or the other person or for creating a positive organizational climate. So in my first place to start is to say in the. Speed at which people normally start by saying I've seen that person behaving like that. Yeah. I didn't like it. Let's also look at ourselves and own up to the times when we also behave like that when we do that. So the aim of course is for us not to be functioning as the Fox and also to learn if we're in the presence of Fox, like behavior. How can we do that? The second that I'm going to share is the sheep, the sheep who is not taking part in political activity, but they are looking out for others. They have the organization's interests at heart and the language that we would use here as being a bit naive or innocent. So doing everything for others, but not actually promoting themselves. If you think back to my second example, this is close to. Because what I was doing was naive. I didn't go in and understand the politics of the situation. There were two challenges with sheep, like behavior. First of all, actually, if we behave like this, we don't promote ourselves enough. And therefore we may struggle to influence others. People may not know about us. The second is if we're leaders. And then we're not playing into the organization. Our teams might suffer as a result of that. We may not understand the relational landscape, or we may not want to be part of it. And because we're not being part of it, maybe some decision that needs to be influenced is very hard to be influenced by us and that can affect our teams. The third that I'm going to talk about today is described as the wise old owl. This is where we are both looking out for the organization and we're being relationally or politically. savvy you can hear that we still will have our own interests at heart, but we hold everybody. Else's interests at heart at the same time. And we work out what's the political landscape and how do I get this decision through, how do I influence in that landscape? And some of the behaviors that we might see here are about being really open and transparent sharing information when we're functioning from owl like behavior with. Uh, win-win we're seeking win-win we want to take account of people's perspectives and look for solutions that can help everybody wherever possible. That's not always possible, but even if we can't achieve that, at least we can acknowledge and understand other people's perspectives. When we're functioning in this quadrant, we're listening to people. We're curious about what's happening, why people feel a certain way. And then when we go to try and solve problems with trying to do that in a way, which works for everyone. So those are the three that I'm going to describe today. As you can hear, we, all of us, I believe slip into all of the different types of political behavior at times, but our goal is to see if we can begin to embody more of the owl behavior, more of the open, transparent influencing behavior that can impact, uh, careers and impact the organization. I've identified nine different things that we can do that can help us to be more relationally and politically savvy. And I'm going to share each of these with you now. They are very practical. They're things that you can do that can help you dial up your political behavior. The first one actually has just to be come a bit curious and study those people in your organization who are really good at this study. The experts, there will be some people who are perhaps in mid to senior roles who are very politically savvy. And everyone enjoys working with them because they know how to navigate the organization. They're respected because they go after win-win solutions, they embody listening and curiosity and they can be sensitive to the political landscape. Um, and they just know how it works. Like, know how decisions are made and they use that for the organizations. gain. It also shines where on them, if they do that well. So I would encourage you to think about one or two people in your organization who are really good at this, observe them. And maybe if you're feeling bold, invite them for a virtual or real coffee and be curious, ask them how have they developed their political astuteness and where do they see the politics in the organization? Number two is understand where power sits. So as Winston Churchill said, this has to do with power. And the thing about power and organizations is it doesn't always sit in the places we think it should. It sometimes sits outside of the hierarchy. It might be because a particular person holds a very important client account, or they bring in a lot of money for the organization or. Skill or competence that the organization really badly needs. And so that gives them some power. And because we so often think that power just sits in the hierarchy. We often don't look outside of that to see who has power here and then how do they influence people and how do they get influenced? So learning to understand that is really important. Number three is about developing your internal network. We are often very focused on developing external networks, but actually, unless you're really in a sales or client relationship role, your primary network. could and perhaps should be internal so that you have go-to people within the organization who you can go and talk to, to understand situations, to try and work out where those informal networks are and to build that now many people, I talk to say that they find it really hard to make time for networking during COVID. We know that. The networks have really suffered because that ability just to quickly go out for a coffee or something like that has got harder. Um, so we have to make time for this. It needs to be a priority in order to support our political savvy. What I've observed is that when people have really solid internal networks, they can get problems solved and get things done more quickly. And so whilst it feels like an upfront investment at the beginning, it can have a long tail of a lot of helpful, uh, time-saving things happening. Number four, it's about learning to lobby. Now I'm guessing that by using the term lobby, you're thinking about politics. You know, we've watched those characters on political dramas. I'm a big West Wing fan. And mostly we see them behaving badly or really tried to manipulate things. But for me, lobbying is about understanding where people stand. On decisions because most decisions happen through a series of conversations behind the scenes. It's usual that decisions come to meetings for rubber stamping. It's kind of seldom that those decisions are made in the actual meeting. And so lobbying is the art of carrying out those conversations. It's talking to people in the informal network so that you can have. Where people stand on a decision or project, you can take the time to understand that perspective and possibly influence them and win their support, or as the case was. In my example, if you discover that they're not going to vote for you, if you like or vote for your decision, then maybe change your mind or look for a different way. But if we don't lobby, we don't understand that landscape. We don't understand where things. Number five is learn to influence. A really key part of being politically savvy is their ability to help people to come over perhaps to a different perspective, to help them to see that there's another way of viewing something. And even if they disagree with your perspective, it gives you insight on. And I strongly believe that the first place to start with influencing is to stand in the other person's shoes. It's a listening and empathy exercise, because I can't influence you. If I don't understand how you're influenced the type of information you need, or if I don't understand your perspective, your world view where your organizational view And influencing therefore starts with this. It starts with the listening activities so that we can understand people. Number six is learn how decisions are made. This is sometimes described as mapping the political terrain. Um, when we look at decisions and organizations, that can be a bit of a mystery sometimes how those decisions came about. So one of the things that we can do. Is maybe take a decision that happened recently and see if you can track back who were the people who were influencing that decision? Uh, maybe gone talk to a couple of people who were involved in bringing the project up for approval or whatever it was and say, you know, how did you get that done? What were the processes that you made, who was the person who had the most influence over that decision? So what we're doing is we're going. A bit of a mission to try and understand to map that political terrain and to understand where those informal networks are outside of the formal network. All of this comes back to being transparent. So this is my point. Number seven, ethical political players are open and transparent about what they're trying to achieve. This is where we say, for example, if I'm having those informal discussions, I'm learning to be more politically savvy and I'd really love your help with it. Or if I'm in my case, I would have gone and spoken to those people and said, I know. The decision to the executive team. I'd love to know what your perspective is before we go into the meeting. I'd love to tell you what I think about it and see if we can get any alignment. Being transparent stops that Fox like sense that people are going behind. People's backs. We're sharing it. We're saying this is what I'm doing. I'm being open about it. Number eight requires us to promote ourselves. Being politically savvy involves having a wide range of people who know and trust and respect you enough to open the door and have those conversations with you. And if you're not sharing with them, the skills that you have. Uh, the successes that you've had, what your offer is, it's hard for them to know that it's a good use of their time or that they trust you. And so we really do need to engage in a little bit of self promotion in order to be really effectively, politically. So. And then number nine, the last one is something I've already mentioned in all of this. We always want to aim for win-win wherever possible. It's not always possible, but really seeking solutions that are going to benefit the organization. Hopefully me as well, the people were influencing really looking for ways so that we can do that. It's much easier to get things done in organizations. If people understand that their perspective was. In fact, if you can't achieve win-win and you've done a good job of being curious about people's perspectives and you've let them know that you heard them. At least people feel heard by knowing that their perspective was taken on board, even as the final decision went against them. So always go in with a, how can I make this work for people? Win-win as much as possible. And if I can't, I'm going to be really open to talking with those people who may not be happy about what happened and how the decision was made. That also goes back to transparent. So there you are. There's nine different strategies. If you like to help you to think about how you can be more relationally and politically savvy, it does take time and investment. It is a skill. It's a leadership skill that requires us to dial it up, to learn how to do it, to be mindful of developing those skills. And if you do that, it will help you in your current job and it will help you in your career. And it is possible to learn this and to get better at it. So I wish you well on your own political journey.