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Political astuteness: an essential workplace skill

Political astuteness is about working with conflict to achieve organisational goals, says OUBS

Increasingly leaders need to deal with and manage a range of stakeholders with diverse goals, values and priorities; political astuteness, aka understanding the lay of the land and using it to your advantage, is a valuable tool in influencing and engaging stakeholders. It also helps leaders to understand others and achieve organisational outcomes.

Historically politics has been a dirty word in management circles, used only by those who are manipulative, devious and self-serving. This view is changing; politics is not only about conflict but also about creating sufficient agreement to work more productively as an organisation. Dubbed the 'art of getting things done', political astuteness is about working with contest and conflict to achieve organisational and social goals.

Research evidence has shown that people use their political astuteness in a variety of work-based situations. Such skills are invaluable when leaders are dealing with people within their organisation, including factions and disagreeing tribes; leaders can also apply them when liaising with partners and in strategic alliances.

In a UK survey we asked 1,500 people to identify situations where political skills were most often applied, out of 15 choices. The following percentages indicate where people found such skills to be valuable or very valuable.

  • 76% working with influential people within the organisation
  • 73% working with partners and strategic alliances
  • 68% thinking about how public opinion impacts upon the organisation
  • 62% working with regional or local government
  • 62% influencing regulators / influencer within the sector

As part of an internationally collaborative research project we have recently created a skills framework, identifying what political astuteness skills are and how they can best be utilised by leaders.

Personal Skills

  • Having self awareness
  • Being able to exert self control
  • Having a pro-active disposition i.e. someone who tried to anticipate and develop the agenda

Interpersonal Skills

  • Listening to others
  • Encouraging people to be open with you
  • Being curious with people, making them feel valued

Reading people and situations

  • Being able to see others' perspectives: what their values, motives, interests and goals are
  • Understanding organisational goals and power structures
  • Recognising the threat you (individually or organisationally) cause others

Building alignment and alliances

  • Understanding who you can work with and who to exclude in order to achieve organisational goals
  • Making alliances in situations of competition
  • Knowing when to collaborate or compete
  • Understanding organisations differences in alliances

Strategic direction and scanning

  • Retaining a sense of purpose
  • Understanding when to move fast on your agenda and when to hold of as the timing is wrong
  • Picking up signals from others (trade press, colleagues, external sources) highlighting changes in situation and helping you to identify what is over the horizon

A key part of understanding how to develop political astuteness in leaders is identifying how people acquire and enhance these skills. Our research has shown some surprising and shocking results; when people were given 24 choices on how people developed their political astuteness skills the most frequent learning opportunities came about through failure or mismanagement.

  • 88% learnt from their mistakes
  • 86% gained on the job experience
  • 85% learnt from handling a crisis
  • 77% followed the good example of a senior manager
  • 70% learnt through observing bad behaviour from a senior manager

Interestingly hardly anyone developed their political astuteness skills through training courses, and where they had these were negotiation courses. Experience, either good or bad, has been identified as the best source for developing this vital leadership skill.

However, mistakes within organisations are often swept under the carpet or managers shift the blame from themselves, instead of taking an objective view of their own role and how they could have handled situations to deliver better organisational outcomes.

There is obviously a training gap in the market in this respect, that we at the Open University Business School are looking to fill. In the meantime, however, it seems that the best way to develop political astuteness, and ultimately enhance leaders' effectiveness at delivering organisational outcomes, is to examine how the past can teach us what we need to know to understand and predict the future.

Jean Hartley is professor in public leadership at The Open University Business School, partner of HR Most Influential