As if keeping up with our work during a pandemic weren’t enough, the officeless age is forcing us to learn how to navigate the new rules of organizational politics. One of the primary challenges is how, when you’re working virtually and far from your colleagues, to build and maintain the necessary political capital to be effective and successful at your job.
As we define it, political capital—a bank of goodwill and “chits” that enable you to access crucial information, secure professional favors, and expedite processes—is the intersection of three crucial assets. First, there’s social capital, which includes close relationships with key people, and looser (but still positive) connections to a wide range of acquaintances. In essence, social capital refers to who you know.
Next, there’s intellectual capital: your degrees, experiences, credentials, and the skills that you bring to your job, as well as those that probably got you the job. Intellectual capital comprises what you know.
Finally, there’s psychological capital, which encompasses how you relate to others, including traits such as curiosity, empathy, emotional intelligence, learning ability, integrity, and coachability. These are often described as “soft skills,” though since they are highly sought-after qualities, we prefer to call them “power skills.“
As one would predict, a great deal of scientific research shows that aligning your existing psychological capital with the right job—and working to develop it strategically—increases both satisfaction and performance at work. So, for instance, building on your emotional intelligence helps you be a more effective leader, your extraversion improves your sales performance, and curiosity helps you be a better researcher or entrepreneur, etc.
Your overall political capital, then, rests on your reputation for displaying each of the three forms of human capital described above: social, intellectual, and psychological. It is the harnessing of your external brand, which gives you more or less cachet with others, and ultimately defines whether you get promoted—or, conversely, stagnate in your career or even get fired. Your political capital is the main driver of your long-term employability and career success.
Until recently, the only way to cultivate your brand and boost your political capital was to be present at work, build in-person connections with others, and ensure that you were in the right place at the right time, saying the right things. But now, with 82% of companies planning to allow at least some remote work moving forward, there’s the opportunity to reconfigure how you build political capital.
Given that many leaders are feeling concerned about the transition to remote work and may not fully trust their employees to deliver, this presents a significant opportunity for employees at any level to gain disproportionate political traction. It begins with identifying your boss’s concerns about the transition to virtual work, and then overdelivering in targeted ways, so that you’re not working 24/7 but are being strategic in allaying their concerns. Here are three ways to build serious political capital in these liminal times:
It’s natural for leaders to worry: If I can’t monitor my employees every day, how will I know they’re not wasting time? The antidote is for you to allay their concerns by overcommunicating. Before they even have a chance to wonder how that report is progressing, send them an update. Make use of the golden phase “as promised,” which reminds them that you’re keeping your word about what you said you would do. When it comes to relationships with both your manager and your fellow employees, rock-solid reliability is the key to establishing a stellar office reputation.
Set up systems
Just as every romantic partner has a “love language” they prefer, every boss has a “work language” that feels most comfortable and natural to them. You may feel like you’re keeping the team updated because you’re commenting on the Slack channel, but if your manager prefers email (and perhaps doesn’t even check Slack that often), your efforts are going to waste. Make sure you fully understand how, and how often, they like to receive information—and clarify procedures for how they can reach you in an emergency situation.
These are fast-moving times, and it’s comforting for leaders to feel certain they can get in touch with key employees when necessary. When a leader feels like you’re fully accessible when needed, it spawns confidence and trust.
Overindex on relationship-building
Leaders often fear that their team will be less creative, cohesive, or effective when remote, because relationships will atrophy. To combat this concern, make a point of connecting frequently not just with your manager, but also with colleagues, and let your manager know, in subtle ways, that you’ve done so. This isn’t about “performativity,” but instead letting them know that you’re staying in touch with your team members and are aware of projects they’re working on beyond the immediate zone in which you’re collaborating.
For instance, you can take five minutes at the beginning or the end of regular work calls to check in with colleagues about what’s going on, and thereby learn about opportunities to assist. Then, when your colleague Jenna comes up in conversation with your boss, you can mention, “Yes, I just talked with her on Wednesday. I shared the report we did last year, because I thought it might help the research she’s working on now.”
That shows that you’re making an effort to be a team player, even though you may not be working in the same office anymore. This is especially crucial as workplaces begin to reopen and some employees head back to the office, creating the possibility that a “two-tiered” system may emerge, in which in-office staff may get special attention from leaders who value face time, while others stay at a (less-favored) remove. You can counteract this situation by ensuring you’re proactively building positive relationships, regardless of distance.
The shift to an “officeless age” presents an opportunity to rethink traditional concepts of political capital. By following the three strategies above, you can harness this moment of disruption to emerge with an even stronger professional reputation.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His latest book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It), was published in March 2019, and you can find him on Twitter @drtcp or drtomas.com.