Are You A Politically Savvy Leader?

This is a longer article from ASTD witten by Mark Antonucci. One which i think will be helpful for people who are “wandering” in corporate jungles wanting to get things done. Enjoy!


Many times as a training and development professional, I had the “right” solution, a can’t-miss response to an organizational issue, and I couldn’t wait to share the idea with others in the organization. But when I did, was I hailed as a visionary leader and innovator? Did I get a raise or promotion? Unfortunately the response was often much different than I anticipated.

While working in human resources for a major publishing firm, I had an idea to initiate a program to reduce newsprint waste—one of the major expenses for any daily newspaper. We always struggled with newsprint waste so I figured my idea for a new enhanced plan in this area would be hailed as an innovative step we needed to make. I outlined the proposal in a three-page memo and sent it to the president. I figured I would have to wait until maybe the end of the day when he went through his mail before I would receive a phone call from his office thanking me for this cost-saving suggestion. Maybe he’d even invite me up to his office for a private lunch. At least he would invite me to the key managers meeting the following week to take questions.
What I discovered was that our president did not like someone “reaching up and slapping him in the face,” as he characterized it. It was his view that if an idea is so good, he would have heard about it already.

The pressroom manager, when he heard that I had proposed this idea, was quoted to have said: “But he’s from HR. I thought those people handled salary and benefits? Why is he messing with the way the pressroom is run?” All the pressmen piled on. Their reaction was: “What do you think we have been trying to do down here all this time? We already do manage waste. Are you telling us it is not good enough?”

Even my boss at the time, the head of HR, was not happy with me because he felt that he hadn’t been adequately briefed enough so he could handle the question and inquiries posed to him by the president. He too had also been caught by surprise.

Suddenly my thinking changed from concern about my proposal to how do I survive without getting fired? I had invaded the turf of some, and bruised the egos of others. In trying to do good for the organization, I put myself and my career in jeopardy.

What I had done wrong? I violated the “unwritten” rules of how you get things done. I ignored the customary decision-making protocol in the organization. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back it was clear that I did.

My idea was shelved. I lost goodwill with some key people. Fortunately, I had an occasion to re-introduce the concept a few months later, with the support of the right people, including some pressroom foremen, and we did implement a version of what I had proposed. I was lucky to get a second chance. Many times that is not the case.

What tends to happen when these situations occur? We may all seek a way to sink back in our cubicles and stay out of the politics. We wonder why we bothered in the first place and resolve never to put ourselves in that position again. The biggest loser is, of course, the organization. Creativity and innovation disappear. We throw up our hands with an “I tried” attitude and go about our mundane business.

But now, because of the work of Joel DeLuca, we have a better option. DeLuca, a former captain and research scientist in the U.S. Air Force and a Yale PhD in Organizational Behavior, conducted research that offered insights as to why some succeed and some don’t at presenting their ideas. He documents this information in his book Political Savvy: Systematic Approaches to Leadership Behind the Scenes. The most critical factor is that you must take into account the political realities of the organization.

Because influencing involves competing for resources, time, and attention of decision makers, he discusses the politics involved in any organization. His point is that engaging in politics is inevitable if you are trying to be influential inside the organization. And be advised that engaging in politics and being ethical are not mutually exclusive.

Some people function very well in terms of influencing without resorting to the negative. DeLuca found these people in every organization. They were not high-profile individuals, just people who knew where to go and what to say to get things done. They were trusted and respected by their colleagues but they usually flew under the radar screen. These were the people DeLuca focused on while doing his research. He called those successful at using positive politics rather than negative the “politically savvy.”

DeLuca emphasized that the politically savvy do not see the organization functioning as a meritocracy, where the best answer is always rewarded and the best student is always promoted, as in grade school. The politically savvy recognize that organizations are “human” systems, run by very “human” people with all that entails.

While organizations strive to be rational, the decisions makers have their values, preferences, opinions, and egos that tend to affect how they make decisions. This human factor is real and it must be addressed when competing for time, money, and resources that are within the purview of these decision makers. Human factors usually “in play” typically involve issues of turf, departmental priorities, hidden agendas, affiliations, and personal values.

Some or all of these factors could play a part in the ultimate decision. If you ignore these “other than technical” factors, you minimize your chances of success.Truth be told, many of us have a tendency to balk at having to deal with the non- technical factors. “I shouldn’t have to spend time influencing other people…the technical details should be enough” is the cry of the rationalist. I wasn’t hired to be an “influencer.”

Maybe not, but being right is not always sufficient, says DeLuca. Sometimes you must exhibit leadership by actively influencing those who will take part in making the decision. You must understand that part of your role as a change agent is to get people on board. See people as the means to the end, not the obstacles. That is a mindset that you must cultivate within yourself because it will allow you to act and react differently to any challenge.

Here are a few of the widely practiced behaviors of the “political savvy.”

1. Seek out decision makers through informal channels to uncover potential roadblocks. Can you speak “off the record” with a key decision maker to discuss where your proposal is vulnerable, what issues you have overlooked, and whom you have to persuade? Doing so in advance of a formal meeting affords you time and opportunity to take remedial action. The savvy always use the informal channels because it is less threatening and confrontational than large meetings. People tend to be more honest and more open when they speak one-on-one.

2. Avoid meetings that are going to make a decision on your proposal unless you are sure that 51 percent of the influence in that room understand your proposal and are willing to explore it. Hold off until you are sure of your support. What is the use of going to a meeting only to get shot down? Meetings are quick ways to reach decisions, but what is the quickest way to getting a “yes” decision?

3. Know the interests and concerns of those who will make the decision. If you can link your agenda to theirs, you will make a strong ally.

4. Stay on “credibility paths” to build support. If you do not have a strong relationship with someone whose support you need, find someone who does. People tend to trust the judgment of those they are comfortable with. Sometimes others can open doors you can’t so put your ego aside and be smart about who should approach whom with the idea you are proposing.

5. Overcome the feeling that you are “manipulating” other people. If you have the good of the organization at heart and feel strongly about your cause, do your best to follow through. You can lead others to make the right choices if you do your homework, present a sound business case, and put together a thoughtful strategy for obtaining support.

6. Map out a comprehensive strategy. You don’t need unanimity, just critical mass. Identify who the key players are, what their degree of influence is, and how they might they vote on a particular idea. Then map out a strategy of who should speak to whom and what should be the gist of the conversation.
Re-group and re-strategize if and when you hit a bump in the road.

Mark Antonucci is a senior consultant with Evergreen Business Group. For the past 15 years he has served as the New York Regional Chairman of the Institute for Management Studies (, a private firm that conducts one-day seminars monthly in 26 locations worldwide.

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