What is Political Skill in I-O Psychology?

What is Political Skill in I-O Psychology?If you’re majoring in industrial-organizational psychology, chances are that you have heard the term “political skill” at one point or another.

But just what does this term mean, and what is political skill comprised of?

A short definition of political skill might be a person’s unique ability to motivate others in an organization to act in a way that helps meet the organization’s various goals.

Of course, there is much more to political skill than that, but it gives you a broad overview of what politically skilled people should be able to do.

Let’s get into more detail about this concept so you can fully understand:

  • what it is
  • how it’s used
  • why it’s important

Political Skill Defined

Political Skill DefinedSo, political skill is essentially one’s ability to motivate others. But how does that actually look in practice?

“Politics” in a business or organizational setting might conjure up the dreaded notion of “office politics” and the drama that comes with it. But that’s not exactly what we’re talking about when discussing political skill.

Office politics tends to revolve around:

  • self-promotion
  • sucking up
  • throwing coworkers under the bus, and so forth

These are all examples of bad political skills. When you use your position to advance your own interests at the expense of others, it is going to cause problems with the people you work with because it comes across as being manipulative.

Now, there is nothing wrong with trying to get ahead. But that’s where good political skill is needed. With bad political skill, it’s obvious what you’re doing. Good political skill, on the other hand, is more subtle. But why?

Good political skill often goes unnoticed because it comes across as very genuine. You’re doing what you’re doing:

  • because it’s for the greater good
  • because it’s the right thing to do
  • because it’s the most effective way to get something done

In other words, your work is authentic, sincere, and generates positive results.

Possessing good political skills isn’t just something that can be used to advance your own self-interests, either. Instead, using good political skills can result in positive changes that are beneficial for many people or even the organization as a whole.

One of the hallmarks of political skill is having the ability to change one’s behavior to fit the context. Each work situation is different. Being flexible in how you interact with others can help you maximize the positive returns you get.

For example, let’s say that you’ve been hired as a productivity consultant with a large manufacturing firm. Most of the employees have been with the company for a long time and show a resistance to change.  But it also shows a desire for their ideas to be heard.

A politically skilled consultant will be able to read the situation and help the company move forward. He or she does this by soliciting feedback from the employees themselves regarding what changes might need to be made. So, by inviting the people that will be affected by changes to participate in the process, you give the employees ownership over the proposed changes. Instead of changes being made to them, the employees might feel as though the changes are a result of them taking the initiative to share their thoughts.

Now, in other situations, this approach might not work. But that’s the point of political skill – adapt your approach to the situation, and you’ll find that you have much more success in helping people or businesses reach their potential.

Being flexible is just one trait of politically skilled people. There are several other traits that persons with political skill possess. Some of the more important traits are described below.

Effective Communication Abilities

Effective Communication AbilitiesOne of the most important aspects of political skill is effective communication.

Politically skilled persons know both when to talk and how to talk to meet their goals. They also know when not to talk and to simply listen to others.

Politically skilled people spend time considering the situation before communicating ideas. They consider whether it is the most appropriate time to speak up and share their thoughts, or if it’s more appropriate to listen now and speak later. Maybe they don’t need to speak at all.

They are also in control of their emotions and are able to communicate with others in a calm and rational way regardless of the situation. There are many reasons why stress might be high in a business or organization. And when stress is high, the likelihood of a negative interaction with someone is increased.

But, politically skilled people understand that maintaining calm and keeping the lines of communication open is a much more effective strategy for bringing about change than yelling and arguing with others.

Politically skilled people are able to talk to others in all levels in the organization as well. With good political skills, you can talk to anyone whether they’re in the mailroom or the board room. (More on this later).

Being an effective communicator also means understanding how to be:

  • respectful
  • open
  • honest,
  • engaging

You must also know how to maintain strong interpersonal relationships with people at all levels in an organization. This doesn’t mean that you’re friends with everyone in the office. Rather, it means that you have allies in the office who you can rely on to help bring about the types of changes that are needed.

Related Resource: What are Psychomotor Skills?

Keen Powers of Perception

Another essential aspect of political skill is having keen powers of perception.

Politically skilled I-O psychologists understand social interactions and can spot problems before they become large issues. They are able to interpret behavior and determine the proper action to take to correct nonproductive behavior.

Likewise, having excellent interpersonal and intrapersonal skills helps politically skilled people to forge the relationships they need throughout the organization. It helps them:

  • build bridges
  • build consensus
  • get everyone moving in the same direction toward the same goals

This perception component also means that politically skilled people are highly self-aware. As discussed earlier, having a sense of self-awareness and the ability to change one’s behavior to suit the situation is key in using political skill in the workplace.

Additionally, politically skilled people understand when they’ve reached their limits – when they need to:

  • take a breath
  • step back from the situation
  • ask for someone’s help

If you can harness your abilities of perception to keep yourself in check and to help motivate others, you will have a bright future as a politically-skilled psychologist!

Networking Ability

Networking AbilityPeople with political skill also possess above-average networking abilities.  “Networking” might make you think of people on a job search. In this instance, networking refers to the ability to develop business relationships.

By forging relationships in a business or organization and with people in other businesses or organizations, politically skilled people are able to develop a cadre of professionals on whom they can rely – and who can rely on them in turn.

These business relationships are often mutually beneficial – one person might ask a favor, and then in due time, that person might return the favor. Likewise, having an extensive network enables politically skilled people to build consensus. For example, if a marketing director has relationships with people at all levels of the company, they can reach out to those people. They might get them on board to support a new marketing scheme that they’ve devised, and push the project forward with much greater ease than if they didn’t have a network to rely on.

But politically skilled people use their networks in other ways. Having a large network of peers enables them to have better negotiating power. Additionally, with a network of professionals behind them, politically skilled workers can help manage conflict. They can get team members on the same page in terms of how to best move forward.

Of course, this is a valuable skill to have on an interpersonal level, too. On the one hand, you might find that you forge valuable business relationships between:

  • organizational peers
  • upper-level management
  • vendors
  • managers of similar companies
  • stakeholders
  • other important individuals that can help the company succeed

But on the other hand, developing personal bonds with people both inside and outside of the organization gives you those meaningful relationships that are so important in your personal life. You need people that you can trust, that you can unwind with after a long and stressful week of work. You need people and with whom you can forge a deeper bond than simply being colleagues at work.

While these personal bonds can certainly be beneficial in business, the benefits you can derive from them in your private life can bring about greater happiness and feelings of inclusion. They can provide you with a real support system that can help you through good times and bad.

High Levels of Integrity

Politically skilled industrial-organizational psychologists also have high levels of integrity. Even in extremely stressful situations, they conduct themselves well and behave professionally.

Trust is a large part of this. To be politically skilled, one must be trustworthy and possess the ability to complete all tasks required of them. The politically skilled are honest, but know how to react when faced with situations in which total honesty may not be the best choice. Their words can be taken at face value due to their high levels of sincerity.

Being viewed as authentic, sincere, and forthright is a must if you want to become a politically skilled worker. People won’t have confidence in you if they feel like you’re fake, using them to get yourself ahead, or don’t value them as people or important members of the team.

This isn’t for show, either. As noted earlier, politically skilled people are genuinely honest and value that trait in the people with whom they work and form relationships. This kind of authenticity is what helps politically skilled people gain the trust of others.

Manage Up (and Down)

To be considered politically skilled, you must be the type of leader who can communicate effectively with people above you and below you in the ranks. This can be more difficult than it seems, though.

If you spend too much time focused on working with people higher up than you, you run the risk of neglecting the people that you lead. On the other hand, if you spend too much time focused on the needs of the people that follow you, you won’t have enough time to devote to forging bonds with people higher up the chain.

So, the most skilled workers manage to walk this tightrope and develop relationships both above and below their pay grade. This goes back to the importance of networking – having people from many different levels of the company  behind you to support what you’re doing is crucial.

Concern for All

A concern for everyone in the company is a trait that politically skilled persons possess. When making decisions pertaining to the company, politically skilled persons choose solutions that will benefit everyone rather than themselves or a select few.

Because of this, coworkers typically feel comfortable going to these types of people with job-related concerns and issues. Likewise, because of a genuine concern for others, politically skilled people are able to tick the other boxes that we’ve discussed. They can:

  • build trust
  • communicate effectively
  • act with integrity, and so forth

Showing concern is just one part of the puzzle.

A component of this is also the ability to build coalitions and foster cooperation among various groups. In the business world and life we can sometimes fixate on what’s best for us personally. But politically skilled people look beyond that. In their concern for others, they are able to create situations in which people work together for a common good. Usually, the result of this kind of action is that each stakeholder is better off than they were before.

People who are able to influence others and motivate them to act are said to be politically skilled. There are many traits common to industrial-organizational psychologists who possess political skill, but the traits described above are among the most common.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated October 2021

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