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.
Politics is prevalent in and around organisations. Effectiveness at work requires being political savvy as politics is about both:
Leading with political astuteness is having the leadership skills necessary to work effectively:
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:
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.
The paper presents a framework of political astuteness capabilities comprising:
Research was undertaken into how political astuteness skills have been acquired and developed by public sector managers. The research involved:
Research participants came from Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
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.
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:
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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