Most of us regard politics in organizational life with a degree of suspicion. Office politics — that behind-the-back world of gossip, whispering, manipulation, and Machiavelli — has tainted the positive aspects of having political skills. The difference between someone who can get an idea off the ground and accepted in an organization and someone who can't isn't a question of who has the better idea. It's a question of who has political competence.
Political competence isn't something you're born with, but a skill you learn. It's an out-in-the-open process of methodically mapping the political terrain, building coalitions, and leading them to get your idea adopted. Building a coalition lets you improve your chances of implementing your proposal, increases your chances for surviving any unintended consequences of your initiative, and enhances your position for pursuing future opportunities. Many of us absorb these things as we go, but a systematic approach can be helpful. Think of it as Brooklyn meets Harvard Business School. Here are a few ways to start learning those skills.
You want others to see your idea as you see it. The only way to do that is to constantly reverse the process and think about them and their needs as related to your idea. You have to anticipate what people will say. If you're a newly appointed leader who wants to shift your organization's strategy, there's bound to be resistance. Some may think it's too risky, while others may believe it'll make things worse or wouldn't change a thing. What would you expect? That your colleagues would wrap their arms around you as if this was what they'd been waiting for?
Political competence is methodical. Only through careful preparation and analysis can you understand to what degree key people in your company share your goals and approach. Few people will directly tell you their agenda, so you have to figure it out. Ask yourself: What are their goals? How do they approach implementing change? Determining potential allies and resisters to your idea will make it easier to build a coalition.
Words and approach matter. Persuading people to buy into your coalition is a question of language, expression, and the use of words. It's critical that you not talk past them; you need to make sure that you're talking to them on the same level. If Jeff is talking about IT security and droning on about servers and "Active-X controls," he's going to lose Melinda, whose knowledge of computers stops with email and the Web. Some may view your proposal as being broad and ideological; they're going to want to discuss subtle issues of meaning, symbols, and understanding. Others may consider your idea very specific and will want to get into the who, what, when, where, and why.
The small stuff makes a big difference. Ideally, in trying to persuade others, you should deal with big-picture issues first and then work out the nuts-and-bolts tactical matters. That said, tactical details can be the key to winning over those who disagree with your strategic goals. It may be easier to begin the dialogue with the details and develop trust and understanding that will result in consensus. You have the opportunity to persuade folks on a line-by-line basis. Consider politics in the Middle East. No one can agree on what the broader, strategic goal of peace means. So it's difficult to build a coalition that can support conflicting notions of peace — everything from "live and let live" to significant cultural and commercial exchange. Rather than being caught in the continual debate, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders could negotiate the basics of a shared industrial zone, maybe peace would follow. You need to know when to focus on nuts and bolts and when to focus on principles.
Proactive political competence is empowering and essential to good leadership. And if done correctly, it'll serve you well.
Samuel B. Bacharach is McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University and director of its Institute for Workplace Studies. He's the author of Get Them on Your Side (Platinum Press, May 2005).
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.