Is there a correct level of political behaviour required for career advancement?

In a professional context, an executive referred to as ‘political’ as recently as ten years ago would be seen as quite a negative.

The use of the term in contemporary management, in the more neutral adverb form for example, has changed the context of the P word:

She is politically astute; she knows who’s important and she knows how to prioritise her time with the right people”.

This comment came from a very senior referee of a candidate. The change in language has been subtle but distinct. ‘Political’ as a term has moved from being a negative adjective, to framing a context which judged how an individual behaves within an organisation.

Should senior executives be assessed for political acumen in an organisational context? Doing so accurately is problematic because of the inherent subjectivity – anyone on the receiving end of a clever political move may perceive it as manipulative.

How would you like your own political or broader organisational behaviour to be described?

“She’s very clever politically. She knows how to develop relationships, and to keep important stakeholders in the organisation happy.”

Is this a compliment? Twenty years ago, it may have been a description of someone who deliberately manipulated colleagues for their own ends. However, with the advent of Facebook and LinkedIn, it could be asserted that promoting one’s achievements is no longer impolite or seen as being pushy, but is now a necessity.

“He has sound political instincts. He knows how he is being perceived by others, and if he senses anything negative, he strives to address it by developing closer relationships with those critics who matter to his job.”

On the face of it, this is quite positive feedback. It states that the candidate has organisational perspective, and understands how to develop relationships and access people resources to do his job effectively. In context, then, it may be useful to investigate a candidate’s organisational effectiveness by getting him to be specific about the relationships he maintains, and to see if he is a sophisticated networker and collaborator.

An interesting tactic to assess an executive’s ability to operate effectively in an organisation is to ask her with how many former colleagues she maintains contact. Exploring the context of those relationships can be quite an insightful glimpse into the nature and ability of the executive to collaborate and, also to maintain and nurture extra-professional relationships over time.

Exploring a candidate’s (or one’s own subordinates’) working relationships and assessing the individual’s ability to operate in ambiguous organisations can help to create a mental map of that person’s organisational and political acumen. Arguably, the greater the organisational perspective, the more strategically-minded that executive is likely to be.

Being aware of an organisation’s political landscape is useful for any candidate or executive who plans to develop their career northwards.