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Developing Political Savvy

When I reflect on the critical times in my career, I really wish I had stopped and been more deliberate about developing important leadership capabilities. If I could teleport myself back in time and have a conversation with the ‘me’ who had just become a leader, I would say, ‘It’s OK, you don’t need to know how to be the perfect leader right from the start’ … ‘but think about getting a coach or mentor who can fast-track your learning as a leader’. Several aspects of leadership would be top of my list: I would coach myself in self-management and I would ask for advice in building political competency.

These days the theme of political competency (or political savvy) comes up a lot in our conversations with coachees here at Incorporate Psychology. But, it is a somewhat contentious topic; some viewing it as being a little inauthentic or manipulative, while others see it as a necessary tool for success. However, people often jump straight to determining whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ before seeking out a strong definition of what ‘it’ actually is.

Defining Political Savvy

Through increasing conversations surrounding this topic, we have come across several useful, easy to absorb articles (Bacharach, 2005; Johnson, 2008; Leslie & Gentry, 2015). Drawing upon these articles, we have characterized ‘being political savvy’ as:

  • Taking some time to map out your environment

  • Noting what you can and cannot control

  • Appraising all situations

  • Reading your workplace dynamics

  • Forging and maintaining the connections

  • Refraining from reacting, and instead, asking yourself ‘if and when’ it is appropriate to act

  • Determining the best approach

  • Leaving a good impression

When people think of political competency, the final component is often left out. However, it is arguably one of the most important, as leaving a good impression means remaining authentic and sincere both to yourself and your colleagues.

Therefore, operating with political savvy is essentially: actioning your ideas and achieving your goals by working your environment, but also by working with it.

Benefits of Political Competence

Our objective is not really to determine whether political competence is good or bad, since we feel that is up to each person to work that for themselves. However, we can say that ‘political savvy’ is a valuable tool when used appropriately.

In 2015, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) carried out research on the impact political competency has on one’s career. Findings indicated that those who operate with more politically savvy are more likely to have better business prospects and career trajectories, and less likely to derail in their career.

So, it is unsurprising that this topic keeps coming up in our coaching practice. In the interests of sharing some practical and useful tips, we have summarised 5 steps that can assist you in building your political savvy. These tips come from some of the readings that we have come across (Bacharach, 2005; Johnson, 2008; Leslie & Gentry, 2015), but also from practical experience with our clients. We hope these steps generate thought and can be of some assistance.

Steps to achieving ‘political savvy’

Map out your environment

Often-times in the busy, fast-paced environment of work, we feel caught up in the traffic and really involved in the action of work. This is great and should be celebrated, as it is much better than the alternative. However, there are times when it is valuable to give yourself time to think and reflect, and consider the ‘whole picture’. I had a leader once who called this ‘getting up on the balcony’, and it was a helpful phrase, as it gave us time to map out the environment. In a practical sense, it could mean thinking about the whole portfolio and revisiting the values and goals of your workplace, what is expected of you and what you can expect from your employer, as well as noting what you can and cannot control in your role.

Sometimes it is helpful to consider and reflect on peers and colleagues. Pay attention to the non-verbal communication, think about their drivers. What is motivating them? What are their personal values and goals? This reflection might mean you can collaborate faster and form alliances that achieve outcomes more readily.

Actively mingle and network

Through mapping out your environment, you may gain insight into who can support you in achieving your goals and who may have objectives that oppose yours.

Leaders who are more conscious about having political savvy tend to be a little more thoughtful about who they mingle with and how they go about it. By doing this they tend to network and build trusting relationships that can lead to mutual support and benefit.

Read the situations you are in effectively

Several of the articles we read through (Bacharach, 2005; Johnson, 2008; Leslie & Gentry, 2015) highlight the importance of reading situations effectively. This means slowing things down, taking time to think before you respond to a situation, and considering the perspective and motivations of others rather than reacting quickly, as well as incorporating the observations made while mapping out your environment.

An important aspect of reading situations is to remain objective in your observations, being mindful not to skew your reading of a situation due to your own bias and perspective. For example, a newly promoted leader may still be building confidence and capability in a new role. Therefore, they may hold the view that they are not great at their job yet, which can often lead to feelings of hypocrisy.

Respond (not react) and act appropriately

The Centre for Creative Leadership found in their study (CCL 2015) that the most significant factor for career derailment was a poor ability to ‘think before you speak’. Therefore, it is crucial to keep impulses under control and practice slowing things down. A phrase we use as a reminder is ‘respond don’t react’. This simple phrase can be used as a type of reminder when you are coaching yourself in every-day working life. A simple model or phrase is most effective when you are in a pressured situation. The ability to ‘respond and not react’ is especially valuable when you find yourself in a conflict situation.

Another tip is to weigh up the impact and benefit of acting before you do so. Consider using the question ‘If I do that, … what will happen then?’. This process involves working on self-awareness and adapting behavior – skills that can be strengthened through practicing mindfulness (see our other blog: A Practical Look at Mindfulness).

Leave a good impression

As we mentioned earlier in this blog, we consider this is one of the most important steps, as it is ultimately what differentiates political savvy from manipulative, self-orientated behavior. This step involves maintaining an honest and trusting relationship with co-workers, remaining sincere, and authentically representing your ideas and values, while respecting theirs.

On a practical level, it begins with self-awareness and being aware of the shadow you cast as a leader. Think across interactions and important events in your calendar, and reflect on the impression you left people with. Was the impression I left aligned with my intentions? Does it help or hinder me achieving my goals? Did I leave the door open for future collaboration and networking?

In conclusion, we believe that utilizing ‘political savvy’ appropriately can strongly benefit one’s career. We have witnessed the breakthroughs this technique has to offer, both through our own personal experiences and within the practice, through the experiences of our executive coachees. We you have enjoyed this article and found some benefit in it, if you wish to continue the conversation and seek coaching contact us at: or (07) 3852 2441

Reference List

Bacharach, S.B. (2006) Keep Them on Your Side: Leading and Managing for Momentum, Avon, MA: Platinum Press.

Gentry, W., & Leslie, J. (2013). Developing Political Savvy. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Leslie, J. B., & Gentry, W. A. B. (2015). Women and Political Savvy How to Build and Embrace a Fundamental Leadership Skill. Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, NC.

Johnson, L.K. (2008) Sharpen Your Political Competence. Harvard Management Update. Harvard Business Review.

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