How politically competent are you And does it really matter?
Updated: Jun 29, 2022
In leadership, there will always be times when you need to influence a room in one direction or another. Sometimes you will influence a group to do something easy that they are interested in, but that isn’t always the case. When it comes to problem-solving or change management, you will inevitably find an instance where you need to be able to read the room, identify those who will probably support, question, or even resist your ideas and recommendations, and act accordingly. This article will explore political competence and how it can help you excel in business leadership.
Defining Political Competence
We often think that political competence comes effortlessly, but this isn’t the case. Instead, it is the active practice of understanding your context and those involved in decision-making and recognizing the parameters that will affect your ability to influence the room in a specific direction.
Bacharach defines political competence in the organizational context as the ability to understand “what you can and cannot control, assessing the timing of taking action, identifying allies (and resistors), and determining exactly who you need on your side for you to push your change agenda forward. Political competence is about mapping the political terrain, gaining support, and leading a coalition. Political competence is critical to successful leadership.” It’s the ability to identify what can and cannot be changed, but it’s also recognizing who in the room might be resistant to the change or idea you are proposing. Being able to clearly acknowledge these factors can allow you to make informed decisions so you can create a strategy to get your plans and proposal approved and implemented.
Problems Faced Because of the Lack of Political Competence
When we fail to acknowledge the political terrain and gain support, it is very easy to make mistakes—and these mistakes can severely affect our ability to get our ideas approved and implemented. A few common issues can arise when political competence is not a part of your leadership strategy.
A Lack of Buy-In—When you want to implement changes or suggest courses of action without considering the political aspects involved, you run a significant risk of not having buy-in from the entire room.
Failure to Achieve Your Goals—Failing to recognize the political aspects and act accordingly can cause you to miss your goals entirely because you might not be able to win and sustain a coalition.
Miscommunications—When we act without a plan and consideration for others, our intentions can be easily misinterpreted, and our strategy and intent can be doubted and/or seriously questioned.
Distrust—Pushing an agenda without political competence can end in people questioning your intentions, resulting in a loss of trust by your employees or those involved in the decision-making process that can negatively impact your ability to gain momentum in executing your strategy.
The Role of Trust in Building Political Competence
Trust is crucial for political competence. People’s willingness to be influenced by you begins with how much they trust you and their confidence that you will do the right thing. When managers walk into a room and cannot build trust with the audience, they can be perceived as insincere or trigger high levels of suspicion, which can create pushback from the decision-makers in the room. On the other hand, an audience that trusts your intent will be more open to supporting the strategies you propose or employ.
How to Build Political Competence: Distinct Practices
Building political competence takes time. It will involve trials and errors and is a skill that can be developed over time. Being patient with yourself and focusing on learning more about building these relationships of trust will help you improve your leadership competence.
Common Practices Include:
Paying close attention to what interests and motivates the people around you.
Thinking before speaking and controlling your impulses not to act based on your emotions but rather on your full analytical capacity.
Trying to understand the relationship dynamics that exist in group settings.
Considering everyone in the room and how they will probably feel about specific topics or ideas and anticipate the possible arguments that your team might convey.
Keeping an eye out for strategies that elicit negative responses from groups.
Considering your goal from different perspectives and formulating a plan anticipating the expected resistance points.
Being ethical in the establishment and management of these relationships.
Performance, effectiveness, and career success are determined by intelligence and hard work.3 But how often have you seen people with great ideas fail simply because they couldn’t win and sustain a coalition that could put the idea to practical use in the organization? Other factors such as political skills are also necessary for successful leadership. The exercise of influence through persuasion, negotiation, and trust-building is an area that leaders need to invest in as part of their professional development.
Have you considered the implications of being politically competent? What are your insights on this topic? Leader Essentials Group can work with your management team on their leadership development plan and their focus on becoming more politically competent. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vera Alves is the Chief Consulting Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience in leadership development and business management. With over 12 years of experience as a C-suite executive, Vera is highly skilled in the areas of leadership, strategic planning, operations management, organizational behavior, and change management. She possesses highly developed communication, training, and linguistic skills reflective of a very strong and charismatic leadership style.
_________________________________________________________________________  Hill, L. & Lineback, K. (2012). To Build Trust, Competence is Key. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from To Build Trust, Competence is Key (hbr.org), 01/01/2022.  Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwarter, W. A., Kacmar, C. J., Douglas, C., & Frink, D. D. (2005). Development and validation of the political skill inventory. Journal of Management, 31(1), 126-152.  Johnson, L. K. (2008). Sharpen Your Political Competence. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from Sharpen Your Political Competence (hbr.org), 01/01/2021.