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Career advice: 5 Ways To Boost Your Political Savvy and Social Intelligence

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Being politically savvy and socially intelligent is paramount for leadership, however it's one of the most mysterious traits that is not defined in your company's employee handbook. These traits not only advance you in your career but also help you to gain the respect and cooperation you need to get things done across the organization. But how do you become politically savvy and socially intelligent -- that is, how do you get to these important destinations, especially when the road to the top in business is always under construction?

Janet was on her way when she hit a bump in the road. She and her fellow leadership team had spent months doing extensive research on a new and innovative product line for her business unit. She was responsible for setting the agenda and presenting their proposal at an important executive meeting, but before Janet had a chance to present, she was barraged with questions. Then the group, which had its own agenda, took the meeting in another direction, using an idea that had been thrown on the table. To make matters worse, instead of maintaining control, Janet shifted from leader to participant as she personalized the situation, becoming quiet and showing her frustration. Sound familiar?

Now, let's take a look at what went wrong. Why had Janet veered off course?

  • Janet fell short in having the right presence. She should have taken back control of the agenda. Her proposal was the basis for the majority of the meeting.
  • Janet had not looked around the table and read the faces of the key players, not considered what direction they wanted to go, hence ideas clashed and crashed. Okay, accidents happen, but stuck in this meeting mutiny, Janet should have stopped the conversations, asked these stakeholders what they saw as viable in her agenda, and moved on from there.
  • Janet was an authority in her department and had a network of mostly women colleagues but wasn't a part of the informal networks of the key stakeholders. Hence, she didn't have the social intelligence in terms of the organization as a whole. Consequently she was not tuned in and prepared for an important meeting with key stakeholders. She later learned that some of the key players had been talking for weeks regarding different products, customer opportunities, and so on and by doing so had informally set the meeting agenda.
  • Janet's frustration let everyone know she had lost control, which might have been a contributing factor of why they steered clear of her.

Leadership is all about getting people to cooperate with you, socializing your ideas and building bridges to meet others halfway.

There are five key facets for building your social awareness and becoming politically savvy. Here's a winning roadmap:

  1. Situational Awareness: Read people's emotional states, willingness to interact, and possible intentions and goals. Know who has influence and pull, that is, who do people respect, who has credibility and clout, who has visibility, who is valued, and, finally, who's in a position of strength to help sell your ideas. Know the views of these key players and how you might be able to help resolve their problems with whatever it is you're trying to sell. Develop a social aptitude: Network with key stakeholders. Find out about their needs, concerns, and goals. Pre-contract with them -- women tend to feel this is manipulative; it's not. Rather, it's inclusive.
  2. Presence: Having presence is a way of carrying yourself -- sending signals that you are an authority. Women have a tendency to be helpful and polite to the point of not stating their opinions or defending themselves as an authority. Rather, to have presence, know and state your opinions firmly, backing them with strong rationale. Don't personalize: See business as business. Feelings don't count. Organizational goals do.
  3. Authenticity: Being authentic is being honest, open, trustworthy, and with good intentions. It is here that women tend to get derailed by playing their cards too soon, thinking everyone is authentic. Rather, you can be authentic, but you'll also be in a position of strength if you hear others out first and then, based on their concerns, advocate your views. Step back, read the environment, ask people questions, see where they sit on the issue, and then build your case, advocate your views, or state your recommendations.
  4. Empathy/connectedness: Being attentive to others and adapting your language to your audience, seeing others' points of view, making your point by asking insightful questions, giving the big picture, avoiding irrelevant details, listening attentively, and giving others credit strengthens your position.
  5. Clarity: Having clarity is being decisive in the way you say things and getting to your point rather than letting others direct you. It's the ability to explain your views in a way that makes others want to join your proposed course of action. You can do this by owning your message and using active voice followed by a strong rationale in a confident statement ("I think we should do this for the following reasons..."). Rather, women tend to talk about how they feel or get bogged down in a checklist of details.

The road to success is paved with political savvy and social intelligence. Following this map will lead you up the corporate ladder.

Rebecca Shambaugh is an author, international speaker and President and CEO of Shambaugh Leadership, a leadership and organizational development consulting firm headquartered in McLean, Virginia. Ms. Shambaugh also founded the WILL program, one of the first programs in the nation focused on the advancement of woman leaders. For more information, visit www.shambaughleadership.com

To receive helpful coaching and advise on this topic or any of the Sticky Floors, contact Rebecca Shambaugh at rshambaugh@shambaughleadership.com