Being Politically Savvy Is Not BS

by Copyright 2004, Carl Robinson, Ph.D.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard aspiring executives ask, "Do I have to BS or kiss 'you know what' to succeed?" I've even heard CEOs say this about dealing with Board members. There is a big difference between being politically savvy or aware and the other reprehensible activity. You can't succeed in business in the long run unless you are politically aware and effective . . . period.

Why? Organizations are systems of both visible and invisible interconnected relationships. The ability to decipher and understand political realities is essential to coalition building that enables someone to get things done no matter his or her role or actual authority. We all know people who can get others to do things even though they are not the other person's boss. We also all know people who have been promoted into positions because of their technical competency yet fail miserably because they tick people off with their new found authority. "Do it because I'm the boss," only goes so far before people practice overt disobedience or covert passive aggression. There is an old saying, "People are hired for what they know and fired for who they are."

If you want to become a champ at motivating others without authority, it's important to learn how to adjust to their behavioral preferences. We've all made the mistake of trying to influence someone who is analytical by talking about how wonderful a project or cause is when they want to know the dollars and cents costs and impacts first. Or, try influencing an amiable type of person without talking about how people will "feel about each other" after completing a project.

All of us have a comfort zone from which we relate to others. Some are more comfortable in informal settings, one on one, in groups, on stage or simply by themselves in front of a computer. To be effective in motivating others you need to understand your behavioral predispositions and then make allowances for the predispositions of others. Generally, we find ourselves on two different behavioral continuums (1):

Assertiveness: On the low end, you may find that you tend to be less confrontational, carefully think through decisions, exert less pressure and allow others to take the initiative. On the higher end, you would tend to exert more pressure, confront readily, be more risk-oriented and make quick decisions.

Responsiveness: On the low end, you would tend to limit gestures, come across as somewhat serious, focus on facts, and be less interested in small talk. On the other end, you would use dramatic gestures, be highly outgoing and socially initiating, focus and embrace feelings, and be less concerned about time.

Below are a few examples of ways you can adjust to and more effectively motivate others if you understand their behavioral predispositions:

When dealing with:

Assertive types who are low on responsiveness: Don't force small talk. Get to the point. Be prepared for pointed questions and quick decisions. Give an executive summary with bullet points.

Assertive types who are also high responsives: Be prepared for lengthy digressions that will require patience on your part while being assertive enough to bring him/her back to the original discussion. You have to get and keep their attention. They bore easily and you'll know it. You have to be agile with them. Be prepared to be drilled on the details.

High responsives who are low on assertiveness can't be pressured to make a decision until they have all the assurances and guarantees in place. These folks love references and referrals and pay more attention to those than to facts, especially if the decision impacts people.

High responsives who are also high assertives love attention. Don't compete. Give them all the credit. Think Donald Trump.

Don't get frustrated with analytical types. If they want more data, get it. Analytics tend to be low on assertiveness. If you act exasperated and they sense it, you'll get stonewalled. Worse still, they'll ask for even more data and may never give you an answer.

High responsive types need you to listen carefully to them. You'll need to learn to paraphrase back to them what they said so that they can "feel" understood.

There are many other nuances you can learn. The first step is to understand your own predispositions and then put the effort into deciphering others'. Pretend you are in a foreign country. If you want to communicate successfully, learn their language, don't expect them to learn yours. Don't be the business equivalent of the "ugly American." It takes a willingness to experiment. Take a stab at making a behavioral assessment, test your assumptions, refine and try again.

(1) Social Style/Managment Style: Developing Productive Work Relationships; Robert and Dorthy Grover Bolton, AMACOM, 1984
and thanks to Alan Weiss for his thoughts on the subject.