- Developing political skills will foster relationships at work and build trust among colleagues and superiors.
- Good political skills involve excelling in four key areas: networking, social astuteness, interpersonal influence and sincere overtures.
- Political skills should never be mistaken for being political. Talking about politics could have detrimental effects in the workplace.
"Getting political" at work doesn't necessarily mean arguing about the election.
According to a 2016 study published in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, strong political skills – like building connections, fostering trust and influencing others – are essential qualities of a transformational leader, and they can make you happier, too.
What are political skills?
"Most people think of political skills as manipulative and negative, but basically, it is building connections with other people," Andrew Wefald, one of the study's authors and a professor at Kansas State University, said in a statement. "In a positive sense, politically skilled people foster supportive and trusting environments to benefit organizations and are going to be more transformational leaders, which will lead to higher job satisfaction."
Wefald said the four main political skills – networking ability, apparent sincerity, social astuteness and interpersonal influence – are all areas good leaders excel in. [See Related Story: DiSC Assessment: What Kind of Leader Are You?]
"Someone with those skills is going to be in a better position to help the organization because they will be better able to get things done than someone who doesn't have those skills," Wefald said.
For the study, the researchers surveyed 278 employees to assess the relationship among interpersonal skills, work engagement, transformational leadership and job satisfaction.
Why are political skills important?
The study's authors tested three types of interpersonal skills: emotional control, or the control of one's own emotions; emotional sensitivity, or the understanding of others' emotions; and political skills, or the ability to understand people and influence them in ways that contribute to success.
Out of the three skill types, only political skills had an association with transformational leaders and their job satisfaction.
The study's authors also discovered that employees who were highly engaged in their work had both high transformational leadership and political skills.
"Work engagement is the level of a person's physical, mental and emotional energy with their job and if they are fulfilled from that work," Wefald said. "Being engaged at work leads to several positives for the individual, such as more energy and stamina, and the organization, such as less employee turnover."
Wefald believes organizations can benefit by working to improve political skills in their leaders.
"Someone who is able to get along with everybody, get things done and is on board with the projects being done is going to help an organization as well as his or her own career," he said.
However, Wefald admitted that developing political skills is easier for some employees than others.
"It is a developable skill, but there are many personality traits and variables that may prevent a person from developing a high level of the skill from nothing," Wefald said. "Some people's window might be wider; some people's might be narrower. It's just going to depend on the person they are and their personality."
How to improve political skills
Developing political skills means learning to become a leader. Being a leader conveys you are someone others can trust. A workplace leader has confidence and knows how to delegate responsibilities, and a person with superior political skills inspires colleagues to work together to reach a common goal. A true leader has the innate ability to encourage a good work ethic in others as a way to better the organization as a whole.
Having political skills and learning to be an effective leader don't come easily to everyone. The good news, however, is that anyone can hone their political skills. To start, practice mindfulness. Think about what you plan to say in any work situation. Impulse control is essential to succeed in politics. Managers are most effective when they don't blurt out every thought that crosses their minds.
Good communication and transparency are additional political skills to practice. A leader is comfortable being assertive and not passive about communicating with superiors or colleagues. Political skills also mean bringing attention to problems encountered in the workplace. Concealing issues only hurts your reputation at work.
A leader has strong social skills at work. When you think of a politician, you're not likely to describe the figure as "awkward" or "unsociable." To improve your political skills, observe different social situations at work. Savvy individuals can read social interactions and interpret the meanings behind each person's behavior. Political skills involve entering a social situation and knowing how to interact in a meaningful way.
Leaders network differently, too. A leader never has the strategy of shoving business cards at every person they meet. When you have excellent political skills, you network gradually, with a focus on building meaningful business relationships. Networking is never one-sided, and if you have the expectation that it is, you're not going to advance in your career. Being political means being comfortable with reciprocal professional relationships.
There's one "political" skill you shouldn't have in the workplace, however: talking about actual politics. A 2019 survey from the Society of Human Resource Management reported the rise of political turmoil in the workplace. Over 20% of Americans have chosen to leave a job over the past five years because of a toxic work environment, the study found, and political disagreements were one of the cited reasons for departures. In the survey, 42% of respondents reported having political arguments at work, and 34% said their companies did not embrace different political views.
Leadership doesn't come naturally to everyone, but developing your political skills is one way to become a better leader.