Re-framing the Narrative on Political Savvy — to help you get ahead and stay ahead.
Over 20 years of coaching, I see patterns. Two that stand out are, first, an overemphasis on driving ‘hard’ results without fully understanding the bruising of relationships. Second is the avoidance of working on one’s political savvy. When I’m asked to coach, the ‘driving results’ mode is often in overdrive, and political adroitness is low. Results may well be achieved, but in doing so, there’s carnage.
Being under-skilled or over-skilled in any practice has the potential to derail a career. Each strength has a corresponding blind spot. For instance, someone incredibly skilled at achieving results may tend to over manage, or be overly tactical. Another person who’s politically aware may be viewed as scheming and unscrupulous, which lessens trust.
Whatever the weakness, change is possible — though doing so takes time. The first step is always awareness, followed by acceptance. In my experience, it’s harder to achieve with political savvy than any other skill. Why? People have a visceral dislike for the phrase. Why change when even the word ‘politics’ evokes a sense of illegitimate rewards, of ‘selling out’ or ‘game playing.’
So I spend a lot of coaching time re-framing political savvy, from negative to positive. That’s not an easy exercise. It requires the time to reassess all sides of political savvy — from the self-serving ploys and tactics to values-based actions with integrity.
But it absolutely can be accomplished.
A Politically Reluctant Coaching Client
A few years ago, I worked with Claudia, a high-potential with a tech consultancy. She was one of the few women to lead a team in Asia-Pacific, loved the work, excelled at her role, and widely considered to be a ‘superstar.’ She put in the hours and set the bar high.
The company grew and new partners joined. But while Claudia was viewed as one of the high-performing individual contributors, she’d remained in the same role for seven years and not considered to be ready for a leadership role. Linda, her boss, thought an executive coach would be beneficial.
“She needs savvy,” Linda said when we spoke. “Claudia has this visceral dislike of politics. She thinks if it’s not talked about, it goes away. I’ve tried to shift her thinking, but she’s up for promotion again this year, and I’m concerned she’ll be overlooked. The coaching seemed like the best approach.”
When Claudia and I first met, she said, “Linda briefed me on the coaching goals. ‘’If you’re here to talk about political savvy, let’s not waste each other’s time. I’m not interested.”
I asked, “What does political savvy mean to you?” and wasn’t surprised she’d fallen into the trap of seeing only one side of political savvy.
Some major re-framing was in order. In our first few meetings, we delved into the bright and dark sides of political savvy.
Moving from the Dark into the Light
One of the first things I consider when coaching is to help people question their assumptions. I ask myself ‘what reflective work needs to be done here?’ ‘As a coach and sparring partner, how can I move things forward?’ The process of reflection starts with understanding how you perceive a certain behaviour and seeing how you frame that certain behaviour. Those are ‘frames’ to show how that particular behaviour impacts you; how you define others with that behaviour, and whether you can (or should) use that behaviour yourself to get what you want.
In the original Greek definition, politics meant building coalitions for the good.
Is that how you currently see political savvy? Or, like Claudia — see it in a one-sided, negative mindset? Do you make generalisations about politics, or can you see it from multiple angles?
Once you have reviewed your perceptions and found your current frame, ask, “Do I want to do something to change this situation? And if so, what?”
The Power of Reflection
At this point, some people become unstuck. It’s hard to change ingrained behaviours, harder yet to know what the options are. This is where a coach or mentor can help. Talking things through with a sparring partner (I spar a lot) allows one to see the complex organisational realities, reduce the blind spots and clarify resistance to political savvy.
If you don’t have access to a coach, be your own coach. Start with the facts of any situation and take stock of how you read those facts. While a coach can help extract and challenge your interpretations, fundamentally they’re yours only.
Use a real-life critical incident — something that’s preventing you from moving a project or idea forward, or an issue that is derailing your career. Then use a series of questions to dissect the situation, and expand your range of responses, to see if you can think or act in another way.
Here’s a few reflective questions to consider:
1. What’s happening, where and when?
2. What were your immediate thoughts and responses to this situation?When you first realised there was a problem, what perspective did you bring into the situation? Was it a positive or negative view of political savvy?
3. What are your thoughts now? Do you think there may be other ways to interpret the situation? What else might be going on with this situation? Are there other ways of interpreting the situation? A sparring partner helps because we’re often tethered to our perceptions and use confirmation bias to affirm what we think.
A sparring partner can challenge those perceptions, but not by giving you a bloody nose.
4. What other solutions might you try, when looking at the problem through a different mindset? Take a page from problem-solving methodology to create a root-cause analysis of the situation. What new and different solutions to the problem can you generate, now that you’re looking at both sides? Who benefits?
5. What have you learned from this exercise? How might your approach change and develop as a result of this reflection? At some point in this reflective process, you will realise your biases not only caused you to misinterpret situations, but also drove your actions — and those actions may not be in your best interest. What can you do now to address your concerns, while staying true to your values?
I’ve encountered many Claudia’s over the years — intelligent, empathetic professionals who achieve great results for their organisation. But they’re naively under-political, chanting the “my work speaks for itself” mantra. But ignoring the importance of political savvy is an over reach akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Organisations are composed of people with different perspectives, agendas and interests.
No leader can sell a vision without being able to listen to the organisational heartbeat.
One of my greatest joys in coaching is to help someone re-frame ‘playing politics’, from fear-based to values-based, a skill that everyone can (and should) master. The questions I’ve given can help explore different sides of political savvy while offering a way to uncover solutions. Change happens when you put the work in, find the bright spots, prepare for action, and scale what clearly works.