Politics are a fact of life. Here’s how to make sure they don’t slow down yours

Not only great music, but also rivalry, jealousy, and betrayal are at the heart of “Amadeus”. At 4:59 of this clip, Mozart humiliates the powerful composer Salieri at the court of the Austrian Emperor. And as the talented Mozart gains recognition, Salieri becomes consumed with plotting Mozart’s downfall.

Stories like these feed the notion of politics as nefarious scheming: it’s not enough that I win, but you most lose. In other words, politics gets a bad rep when we fail to put something greater than ourselves first, or when we fall short of doing the right thing.

But politics, per definition is neither good nor bad. Being politically competent involves applying our skills and strengths to be more effective. It describes informal efforts to sell ideas, influence others, increase power, or achieve other objectives. Aristotle described human beings as “political animals”, noting our tendency to live in “polis” – organized social units. Mix people and power, and you get politics.

As coaches, we sometimes see careers derail because of a lack of political competence. If we ignore politics, we risk being under-political and naïve. If we fall prey to naked self-interest, we become over-political and lose the trust and support of those around us. Ironically, both situations can lead to isolation.

Not surprisingly, political skill is an important component of successful leadership and starts from the inside out. When is the last time that you have carefully assessed your own degree of political savvy? Dr. Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman assessment can help you get clarity.

Their assessment lets you confirm your preference for an either less or more political style, broken down into six individual dimensions for each style. This instrument also helps you identify areas where you may in fact be under or over political, and you can start taking measures to self-correct. As with any assessment, a feedback and review session with a trusted third party is an essential part of the process. This could be a friend or a colleague, but if you prefer an outside source, consider partnering with a coach who can ensure that you optimize rather than overcorrect.

Here, finally, are some of the lessons we have seen play out time and again among our most politically astute clients:

1/Be sincere and authentic.

Inspiring trust is the foundation of being a politically competent leader. Contrary to what many think, being straightforward and transparent around our agendas helps to de-politicize issues rather than add to them. As others know what our agenda is, we invite stakeholders into the decision-making process, clarify their needs, and can start looking for win-win solutions.

2/Think before you act.

Beware of amygdala hijacks…This is one of the highest predictors for career derailment if we don’t’ know whether, when and how to voice our thoughts. If we are in a situation that triggers us, we need to take a deep breath and center ourselves in the presence. Only then are we able to think clearly through what would happen if we acted in a certain way and can explore alternatives.

3/Scan your environment.

First, start by identifying distinct stakeholders and their degree of influence in the organization. Next, in order to influence these stakeholders, we must be able to observe and, understand what matters to them. By paying attention to what they say (and what they don’t say), their non-verbal cues and facial expressions, we can get a better idea of their concerns and hot buttons. Putting ourselves in “their shoes” and validating our perceptions with someone that we trust to compare notes with.

4/Be plugged in.

Many successful executives have stalled their careers as a result of poor networking. This includes their immediate teams, managing up effectively (how well do we keep our boss in the loop at all times?), but also people outside of the organization as well as lateral and vertical relationships in the organization. Forging alliances, tapping into the grapevine, and identifying sponsors is what we call basic career hygiene. Not only will these connections support our growth when all goes well, but they also can have our back when we experience a professional low. Unsure about the “how to”? Consider observing effective networkers and see what you can learn from them.

Or read up on how effective leaders create and use networks.

5/Tell your story (or others will do it for you).

By engaging in negative self-talk and holding ourselves back we sabotage our ability to succeed. Do you want to be universally liked or do you want to get promoted? Ask yourself: “What kind of impressions do I make on others and what kind of impressions about me do I want them to walk away with?” Being proactive, putting ourselves out there and ask for assignments allows us to be visible and take credit.

Now, if you are a normal mortal, but – like Mozart – already have made an influential enemy, here are some great ideas on how you can make your enemies your allies. The good news: political savvy can be learned and previous blunders can be overcome.