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How Politically Savvy Are You?

Politics has been around for millennia and is an integral part of organisational life whether we like it or not. All organisations have scarce resources for which there is internal competition. Promotions and pay rises are no exception. The scarcer resources are and the fewer official processes are in place, the more likely it is that politics exist in an organisation.

Brandon and Seldman define organizational politics as “informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives”

While the manipulative game-playing of some organisational politics may not be your thing, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at political savvy which is a more positive skills set that will help you achieve outcomes in an organisation. Political savvy is different from politics in that it emphasizes the need for sincerity and integrity. Three other important elements are:

  • The ability to network

  • Interpersonal influence

  • Social astuteness

Networking ability

Networking is all about identifying and building relationships with people who hold valuable assets for your personal and organisational gain. The problem that most of us have with networking is that at best, we stay in touch with people who we have met. Many of us don’t make enough time to build new contacts on a regular basis and only a small minority of us reach out proactively to the contacts that can help us achieve our goals.

Analyse Your Network

Here is a quick exercise from our Political Savvy workshop to assess the strength of your network. Write down the names of your most important contacts for each of the eight networking categories below

What do you notice?

· How many names do you have in each of the eight categories?

· Are you relying on the same people for all eight categories?

· How influential are your contacts?

· When did you last touch base with each person?


Influencing is an important part of political savvy. The best network won’t be able to help you achieve your goals if you are not able to convince your contacts to support you.

Important factors for effective influencing are:

  • Consider your target audience - who are the main stakeholders and decision-makers to influence? Who are your allies and who are your opponents?

  • Be clear about your desired outcomes – what would you like to achieve and what would you like the other person to do for you?

  • Listen – this will help you understand the other person’s desires and how you can align your proposal to what they may be hoping to achieve. It will also help you understand what influencing style to use and what their concerns may be about your proposal.

Levels of Active Listening

Here is a great reminder for levels of active listening:

1. Listen superficially – listening to reply and to keep the conversation going

2. Listen for information – understanding facts and figures and diving deeper for factual insights. This involves follow-on questions and summarising to check one’s understanding.

3. Listen for what is not being said – are there any topics or points that are given less airtime than others? Are some things not addressed at all? Listening for what is not being said can tell us a lot about what the other person values and what not.

4. Listen for emotions – this is as much about non-verbal communication as it is about listening for feelings in the language our counterpart chooses. When you probe into someone’s emotions, do it with care. Avoid why which tends to make people defensive. A better question is: What are the reasons for...?

Influencing Styles

When it comes time to put your proposal forward, it pays off to adapt your influencing style to the other person’s style. Look at the short descriptions below to answer the following questions:

  • Which of these styles is your preferred style?

  • How likely are your key stakeholders to respond favourably to this style?

  • Which is your least preferred style?

  • Which of your stakeholders are likely to respond best if you used this style?

  • Which of the styles will you benefit from developing?


This style relies on charisma. It’s about telling a story or painting a picture of the future and of what could be. It appeals to emotions and generates excitement.


Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, listening and displaying empathy. Making others feel valued.


Appealing to the head and logic. Using facts and figures and being well prepared with relevant knowledge. Talking in terms of costs and benefits.


Using personal or positional power to get others to agree to your point. Clearly sharing expectations.

Social Astuteness and Integrity

A fun way to look at social astuteness as well as integrity is Baddeley and James political animal typology. They have come up with 4 animals to depict a person’s political style along two dimensions: political awareness (PA) and integrity (I).

For the first dimension, political awareness which is a form of social astuteness, people tend to fall somewhere along a continuum from being political aware to being blind to power. People who are blind to power rely on rationality and positional power. They are surprised when people without expertise or in junior roles can exert influence. They also regard politics as unethical. Those who are politically aware, on the other hand, understand the importance of power dynamics and unwritten rules.

Along the second axis, the integrity axis, people can range from having integrity to playing political games. We have already come across the importance of integrity as the differentiating factor between politics and political savvy.

Four political animals

The four political animals are:

The Owl (High PA, High I)

Hunts for prey, is a high performer and is high on integrity. They keep a high-level overview and choose their prey very carefully.

The Fox (High PA, Low I)

Pretend to be one thing but really is something different. Is politically aware but acts to the detriment of others.

The Lamb (Low PA, High I)

Principled and ethical. Regards authority as the only legitimate means of influence. Sticks to rules. Does not approve of organizational politics.

The Donkey (Low PA, Low I)

Is incapable of forming effective alliances and low interpersonal skills. Driven by own goals and tries to wield power but does so ineffectively. Doesn’t listen to others and sees things in a black and white manner.

To supercharge your political savvy, identify which political animal your are, reach out to one person this week to start strengthening your network and try your hand at a new influencing strategy.


  • Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman: Survival of the savvy: High-integrity political tactics for career and company success. New York: Free Press. 2004

  • Jane Clarke: Savvy: Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work. London: Kogan Page. 2012

  • Gerald Ferris and colleagues: Development and validation of the political skill inventory. Journal of Management, Vol. 31, pp. 126-152.

  • Simon Baddeley and Kim James of the Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham: Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers’. Published in Management Education and Development Vol.18 1987


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