Some commentators have suggested that political awareness is about sensitivity to public policy and government, and the agendas driving politicians. In its broadest sense, however—and certainly in the sense in which it is used in Emotional Intelligence—political awareness is about understanding the ‘currents’, or hidden agendas, in an organisation, and particularly the power relationships.
Many people may have been put off the idea of being politically aware by seeing people ‘playing politics’ or trying to manipulate others using political tactics. But used wisely and well, political awareness is a force for good, and for getting things done in organisations, and it is an essential skill in life.
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
Organisational Politics and Political Awareness
Organisational politics—which occur in any group, team or organisation, whether social, commercial or voluntary—is a phrase used to describe the power relationships of the group.
In other words:
- How do things really get done around here?
- Who really has the power to make decisions?
- Who acts on those decisions?
Organisational politics has very little to do with the official organisational hierarchy, and everything to do with people, in particular their relationships, personalities and past experience.
Political awareness is simply an understanding of these ‘power webs’ and an ability to navigate them, and therefore get things done.
Political awareness is closely linked to Commercial Awareness, except that where commercial awareness is chiefly focused on the external environment of the organisation, political awareness is more about the internal environment.
A Model of Political Awareness
Simon Baddeley and Kim James developed a useful model of political skills, using two dimensions:
1. ‘Reading’, or the skills that an individual uses to understand the world around them.
This dimension is on a spectrum from ‘politically aware’ to ‘politically unaware’, and measures the individual’s ability to ‘read’ the organisation’s processes, agendas (both hidden and stated), the location of power, culture, style, and so on. Political unawareness is defined as the inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to recognise any of these aspects.
The two ends of the spectrum might therefore be defined as ‘clever’ and ‘innocent’. The ‘clever’ people are those who understand and use political power within an organisation, and the ‘innocents’ are the ones who do not even notice its existence.
This dimension, then, describes an individual’s awareness of the politics of the organisation.
2. ‘Carrying’, or the skills that an individual uses to understand their internal world.
This dimension is about what the individual does, and intends to do, with their understanding or lack of it. In other words, how do they act upon it?
Baddeley and James suggested that this was on a scale from ‘acting with integrity’ to ‘playing psychological games’. This dimension therefore modifies the ‘clever/innocent’ scale to create four possible ‘states’: clever, innocent, wise and inept, each of which can be described in terms of an animal (see Figure).
The two states on the left, donkey and fox, are both characterised by self-interested behaviour. This is what people usually mean when they talk about organisational politics. The difference is in how well the political manoeuvring is carried out: ‘fox’ behaviour is adept, and ‘donkey’ behaviour is not.
Baddeley and James stressed that all of us have the potential to use all four behaviours at different times, and that the four states do not describe individuals.
In the bottom right, ‘sheep’ behaviour will not harm others. Those using these behaviours are largely oblivious to organisational politics, but act with integrity, in a way consistent with their values. Unfortunately, however, they will struggle to get anything done, because they are either unable or unwilling to recognise that integrity is not enough.
In the top right quadrant is the ‘ideal’: political awareness used as a force for good in the organisation, and not for self-interest. This is described as ‘wise’ or 'owl' behaviour.
The Essence of ‘Wise’ Behaviour
Wise behaviour can be summed up broadly as creating ‘win-win’ situations out of difficult political moments.
Those behaving wisely allow others to save face, and do not bring them down unnecessarily. For more about this, you may find it helpful to read our pages on Transactional Analysis. For a very good example of wise behaviour in action, read the case study ‘Persuasion Unseen’ on our page on Persuasion and Influencing Skills.
Baddeley and James stressed that this model is not about personality. It is about behaviour. It therefore follows that both dimensions of political awareness can be learnt and developed as a skill.
Develop your 'Wise' Behaviour
Wise behaviour comes from bringing together awareness and integrity.
To develop these behaviours, you may find it helpful to look at the following areas:
To improve your ability to read political and social situations, you will probably need to improve your communication skills, particularly listening, and your understanding of non-verbal communication.
To avoid falling into traps about ‘what people meant’, read our page on the Ladder of Inference.
To improve your ability to handle situations well, you may want to work on your Tact and Diplomacy, and also on your Assertiveness. Our page on Communicating in Difficult Situations may also be helpful.
Links to Other Aspects of Emotional Intelligence
Wise behaviour tends to be closely connected with very good emotional understanding. People who are politically aware, and use that awareness with integrity, tend to be good at understanding others (see our page on Understanding Others for more), and also have good self-control.
There is a very good reason why political awareness is defined as a key aspect of empathy, and it is also why nobody can afford to abandon it as simply ‘playing games’.