Why Being Politically Savvy Is Just Smart Business
Scheming, conniving and self-serving: These are the typical stereotypes we associate someone who's politically savvy; someone who — in service of his or her own gain — is willing to act without integrity. In my experience, however, true political savvy is about responsibly approaching organizational problems with a realistic understanding and clear perception of the lay of the land.
The ability to identify the internal and external politics of your organization, and be strategic in both your actions and attitude, is a 21st century survival skill. In short, being politically savvy in today's business world is not just a nice idea — it's a necessity.
Focus on Building Interpersonal Relationships:
For instance, you could be the smartest person in your company, but if you come across in a way that's offensive to others or don't know how to position yourself effectively for future opportunities — your career may get stuck in the slow lane.
Businesses, just like individuals, will choose to employ and surround themselves with people who are confident and competent in their jobs and positive thinkers focused on building interpersonal relationships.
The true currency of being politically savvy is being both an information and connection broker. By that, I mean being seen as someone who has access to information that other people want and positioning yourself as someone who has a network of people who others want to know.
Case in point: One gentleman I was coaching told me that his connections in Washington, D.C., were a big part of how he marketed himself inside his company and showcased his political savvy. His network served to validate his position with the inner circle of power in his organization. There are many people who, regardless of their title, have the ability to influence. Those are the people who are going to be leading their companies in the future, and they practice two types of political savvy.
Two Types of Political Savvy:
The first is building your reputation outside of your immediate company circle, as my client did. The second is being visible by seeking out opportunities to showcase your value to senior people within your organization by sharing ideas while in meetings with them. Be proactive and anticipate what needs to be done without being asked.
If you want to be an influential player, you can’t fly under the radar screen and abandon the game of politics. When you do, you also abandon your opportunity to be seen, noticed and talked about.
To this end, I meet a lot of people who are really good at managing across or down but not up. This does not mean establishing a deep relationship with the senior players in your company. It does mean having the confidence, courage and political wherewithal to create rapport with them and then initiate a dialog. As Will Rogers said, “Get others to toot your horn and the sound will carry twice as far.”
Here’s the caveat: Being politically savvy isn’t just about making friends with people in high places. If that’s your single strategy, you’re in trouble since the leaders in charge today may be ousted tomorrow — leaving you without a network to stand on.
Instead, think of networking as a two-way street for sharing resources, expertise, information and connections. Whether you’re looking for a job, helping another by passing along a contact, mentoring a junior person or being part of a professional group, ongoing networking can take on many forms that will serve you now and in the future.
If all the above are the do’s of the politically savvy, what are the don’ts? The biggest things I see people do to hurt themselves politically in the workplace include:
Speaking out vocally against leadership. That’s not to say you can’t disagree, but your alternative point of view has to be seen as helpful, offering solutions instead of complaints. Naysayers, complainers, backstabbers and whiners rarely make good political allies.
Being closed off to change. If you remain stagnant, overly traditional, unwilling to try new things and in general regard change as something bad, why would your company want to move into the future with you? One obvious and basic way this plays out is with people who don’t physically change their visual packaging. For instance, have you had the same hairstyle, makeup, wardrobe style for the past 15 years? Packaging yourself for the future is as important as enhancing your personal relationships in the present.
Leaving network building until you need it. Since engaging in internal and external networking is a key to being politically savvy, you should always be looking for ways to build your network - now. If you wait until you need a network to begin creating one, you’re already too late.
Being the smartest person around. No one knows how to tackle every situation they encounter, so the politically savvy don’t pretend to know more than they do. They’re not shy about asking for help, mentors, training and education in their quest to learn more and be better at their jobs. Trying to always be the smartest person in the room, especially in front of senior leadership, is politically damaging to your reputation.
Ultimately, gaining political power is about being a passionate and authentic person who is willing to showcase your accomplishments. It’s up to you to make sure all your hard work does not go unnoticed so you can stand out in a positive way. Accept and engage in change, all the while positioning yourself to be part of the new leadership — not just aligning with those who hold the power today. Recognizing the talents of colleagues, reports, etc. completes the recipe for success.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Where I am right now is just fine with me,” that’s your business. But please, still stay politically smart by providing new ideas, perspectives and nurturing a network others want to join. As long as you’re in the game, play it to win!
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