What You Need To Know About “Political Skills” At Work (Hint: Your Career Success Depends On It)

person s playing chess

A recent study in Singapore, summarized in Harvard Business Review, shows why we should not dismiss “Political Skills.” In fact, it argues that we should better understand and leverage political skills for our own personal and professional success, and to better address workplace problems.

The study reinforces longstanding social science evidence on influence, power and interpersonal/political dynamics. It follows the major contributions on workplace politics and power, namely those of Gerald Ferris (political skills inventory) and Jeffrey Pfeffer (power in the workplace, see his books, Power, and its prequel, Leadership BS).

Warning: The takeaways here are not popular, nor readily followed – despite the evidence that they should be.

But I urge you, as I urge executives in my coaching practice, to give them a deep look. Understanding how the world and workplaces really operate, based on the evidence – is a crucial first step to making things better.

The 5 key takeaways from the Singapore study (conducted by Klaus J Templar at Singapore University of Social Sciences):

1) Political skills are a greater determinant of workplace promotions – more so than “working hard,” or “being smart.” Those with strong political skills were more likely to have high performance ratings, and those that are seen as top performers are more likely to be promoted. (Political skills are defined as “a positive social competence that helps people network, influence others, demonstrate social astuteness, and appear sincere in their dealings with others.”)

2) The bias towards promoting those with strong political skills can lead to the “wrong,” or even toxic people, rising in organizations. These are the people with the “dark triad” of personality traits, the ones we call “Machiavellian” manipulators, aggressive and insensitive psychopaths, or ego-driven narcissists. (I put “wrong” in quotes because the word carries a value judgement that may not always be helpful; in fact, studying these toxic people, precisely because they so often to rise to positions of power, can be extremely enlightening).

3) These difficult, “highly political” personalities sometimes are useful for organizations — and a skilled manager should learn how to deploy them. Often ruthless or rapid decisions are required for survival, or you need someone with an outsized ego who will find a way to forge ahead, and not listen to others. Successful startup founders or turn-around experts, for example, have a strong bias to action which helps them get done what others would only discuss.

4) Honest, humble and hardworking people should embrace (not ignore) political skills — and these skills can be learned. The research shows that acquiring political skills is most likely to help humble employees get promoted. Getting promoted can increase your power, which can lead to a greater ability to positively influence company performance. And “political skills” don’t necessarily need to be Machiavellian: Since when was networking, being in tuned to other’s needs, and having strong interpersonal and influence skills considered evil?

5) To combat toxic people from rising, it’s better to look at their histories and get data. The benefits of “highly political” personalities notwithstanding (see #3 above), no one wants a toxic workplace lead by bullies. Because they are so politically astute, it’s hard to spot them. Personality or behavioral assessments may help, but probably the best you can do is deeply assess someone’s track record with colleagues and subordinates. An increasing number of organizations are using data and finding smart ways to remove workplace biases, but I have yet to see any organization do it extremely well. (Aside: If you are dealing with a workplace bully, immediately consult Bob Sutton’s excellent guide.)

In my executive coaching practice and coaching in Stanford Business School’s executive education, I’ve helped scores of executives overcome their belief in a “just world” — and develop the necessary political skills and strategies to get ahead and become more effective at work.

Too many smart, hard-working people rely on feel-good aphorisms. Most of the coaching and leadership advice out there talks about being modest, authentic, transparent — and to stay above office politics. Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t help. In fact, it often sets executives back because it leads to self-handicapping beliefs and behaviors that cause them to stop growing – or worse, can cut short otherwise promising careers.

That’s why you should take a “realpolitik” approach — and draw from evidence-based research and techniques.

The Singapore study shows that political skills are just as relevant in the East as in the West, confirming research that shows these constructs are the same across cultures, time and company size.

Sharpening your political skills is crucial, period.

Is it the key dimension you are missing?

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