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Leading with political astuteness

20 April 2021



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There is increasing recognition that managers who exercise political astuteness are more effective. For public managers, formal and informal politics is an integral part of their environment. A research study in the International Public Management Journal discusses how these skills are developed and acquired. ANZSOG supported the research.

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Politics and political astuteness

Politics is prevalent in and around organisations. Effectiveness at work requires being political savvy as politics is about both:

  • formal political actors, institutions and processes of government
  • informal or ‘small p’ politics, i.e. organisational politics.

Leading with political astuteness is having the leadership skills necessary to work effectively:

  • with stakeholders within and across organisations
  • across diverse and competing interests.

A crucial skill for public managers

Political astuteness is a crucial skill in all sectors, but it is particularly crucial for public leaders and managers. Public sector organisations are subject to the authority or control of governments which by definition are political. This imposes a double complexity on public servants.

It means they are more likely than private sector managers to be:

  • involved with formal and informal politics
  • interacting with political overseers
  • enmeshed in processes involving value-judgments, stakeholders and political manoeuvring.

At the same time, public servants are not supposed to become too closely involved in formal politics. They are expected to exercise ‘neutral competence’. They serve elected representatives and their institutions in the execution of policies and the provision of advice, without exhibiting any bias to any political party or interest group.

Political astuteness is a necessary skill for negotiating the tensions between these two expectations of the role. In addition, public managers have to work not only with elected politicians but also a range of actors and groups such as government organisations, civil society and lobby groups.

They may therefore be working with stakeholders where their legitimacy rests less on the exercise of their formal authority and more on persuasion and influence. This requires political and not just technical skills.

Political astuteness capabilities

The paper presents a framework of political astuteness capabilities comprising:

  • strategic direction and scanning
  • building alignment and alliances
  • reading people and situations
  • interpersonal skills

Strategic direction and scanning

  • Thinking long-term and having a road map of the journey. Not diverted by short-term pressures.
  • Scanning: thinking about longer-term issues in the environment which may potentially have an impact on the organisation
  • Analysing and managing uncertainty. Keeping options open rather than reaching for a decision prematurely.

Building alignment and alliances

  • Working with difference and conflicts of interest, not just finding consensus and commonality.
  • Actively seeking out alliances and partnerships rather than relying on those already in existence.
  • Being able to bring difficult issues into the open and deal with differences between stakeholders.

Reading people and situations

  • Using knowledge of institutions, processes and social systems to understand what is or what might happen.
  • Recognising when you may be seen as a threat to others.
  • Understanding power relations.

Interpersonal skills

  • Getting buy-in when there is no direct authority.
  • Able to stand up to pressures from other people.
  • Able to handle conflict to achieve constructive outcomes

About the research

Research was undertaken into how political astuteness skills have been acquired and developed by public sector managers. The research involved:

  • a survey focused on both formal and informal politics in the respondents’ workplaces.
  • In-depth interviews.

Research participants came from Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

What the research found

The survey data showed that public managers largely understood politics in their work in constructive terms. Alliance-building for organisational purposes, dealing with formal politics, reconciling different interests, and environmental scanning were the most frequently endorsed. Turf-protection and personal gain were much less prominent.

Developing political astuteness was more experiential and haphazard. Learning arose incidentally in the course of public managers’ jobs, while more structured and planned interventions were less frequently experienced.

The more common learning approaches tended to be those the managers did on their own (experience in the job, learning from their own mistakes). Activities that involved learning-directed interaction with others (professional coaching, mentoring) were much less common influences on political skills.

What this means

The findings suggest a hands-off approach by organisations in developing their middle and senior leaders to handle the complex political conditions of public sector organisations.

Mistakes and crises can be valuable learning experiences which pay future dividends according to the senior and middle managers in this study. But should these experiences be so haphazard or are there ways to build in reflective learning of political astuteness skills?

The research has implications for designing development opportunities for public managers to help them learn about, practice and understand political astuteness:

  1. Different events and experiences work for different people in developing political astuteness. This means training providers may need to think eclectically about ways to provide development opportunities.
  2. Senior public leaders and managers rate experiential methods above other development tools. The importance placed on experiential methods is consistent with what is known about leadership development, however experience without reflection can be problematic. Leadership development which fosters reflective practice is recommended.
  3. Conceptual frameworks can help leaders by providing an explicit knowledge base on which tacit skills and capabilities can be built.
  4. Varied career experiences are seen by public leaders as formative of their political astuteness skills. This has implications not only for leadership development but also for creating a pipeline of future leaders.
  5. Political astuteness skills are fostered over time and adopting a longitudinal mindset when planning development opportunities needs to be considered.

Want to read more?

Learning to lead with political astuteness – Sophie Yates and Jean Hartley, International Public Management Journal, March 2021

The original article is available via individual subscription to the journal or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 20 April 2021