4 Ways to Improve Your Political Skill on the Path to Power (2023)

Rules are helpful to have as general guidelines, but they can sometimes leave us wondering how to apply them in our own real-life situations. This goes for my own seven rules for cultivating political power as well. I believe that most people would benefit enormously from getting familiar with these rules, especially since most average people in the workplace have never been taught them. As I’ve mentioned before, that works quite nicely for people who do know the rules, and want to abuse them for self-gain, if most of their colleagues remain ignorant. But as I hope is obvious by now, I do not share that feeling. I believe that everyone should be taught these rules, good people especially, so that they can protect themselves from those who would abuse the rules at the expense of others.

The key to applying the seven rules of political power are the four dimensions of political skill, which I’ll discuss in this post. But first things first. If you don’t know or can’t remember what the seven rules for political power in the workplace are, I’d recommend you read about them or do a quick review before coming back here to learn the four dimensions of political skill. On the other hand, if the rules are still fresh in your mind, you’re ready to advance.

The Four Dimensions of Political Skill

The dimensions of political skill are important because whichever rule you’re observing, be it Rule #2 (“pick your battles”) or Rule #5 (“be gracious in defeat”), you’re going to be working with people. And to work with people in an optimal way, you’ll need to hone these four dimensions. The dimensions were first identified by Gerald Ferris and his colleagues in their book, Political Skill at Work, and I describe them here in my own words. You could say that each of these is a skill in itself, but it’s helpful to call them “dimensions” since they all form part of the broader, overarching concept of political skill. After describing them, I’ll talk about the secret key to getting better at them.

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  1. Social astuteness: Politically skillful people have the ability to observe people’s behavior and social interactions in an insightful way, including their own. This means being able to understand the feelings and motivations that lie beneath outward behavior, even if they’re contradictory to what someone’s saying on the surface. A sub-dimension of social astuteness is the ability to do this in diverse social settings, not just the ones that people are most used to.

  2. Interpersonal influence: Politically skillful people also know how to influence people, often by employing the seven principles of persuasion (as I often remind people, there is a lot of overlap between these concepts). In the same way, however, that they are socially astute in a variety of social situations—not just the ones they’re most used to. Politically skillful people can adapt their interpersonal influencing behavior depending on the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.
  3. Networking ability: Power. Influence. Political skill. These are all social concepts so it should be no surprise that one of the dimensions of political skill is the ability to build a robust body of contacts. As we know, network power is one of the 10 sources of power, but to access this power you need to get good at this third dimension of political skill. Because politically skillful people are often flexible, they know how to use a range of networking approaches, including more subtle approaches when needed.
  4. Apparent sincerity: This dimension gets frequently misunderstood as meaning that you should fake sincerity. Not at all. What it really means is that if you’re sincere, it needs to come through in your words, voice, and behavior because it doesn’t matter how sincere you are if it doesn’t seem that way to others. Meanwhile, there are indeed those who, unfortunately, are not sincere but are good at faking it. Apparent sincerity, therefore, is neutral. It can be used by both sincere and insincere people. Since there are insincere people out there who are good at apparent sincerity, if you are one of the genuinely sincere people, then the sooner you understand the importance of apparent sincerity, the better.

Now that you know what the dimensions of political skill are, you may want to take a short quiz to see how you score in each of these dimensions. There are numerous websites where you can do this—here’s one.

Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Did you take the political skill quiz? How did you score? If you scored well, don’t congratulate yourself just yet. Due to something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which just about everyone is susceptible to at one point or another, people often overestimate how good they are at certain things. If, on the other hand, you scored poorly, don’t worry; that’s what this post is for. If you didn’t take the quiz and you’re shrugging because you think politics is reprehensible, you clearly haven’t read my post about why political skill is so important and why you can’t afford to ignore workplace politics.

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Whether you score highly or poorly, the good news is that you can, and should, strive to keep getting better, and the best way to approach this is realistically (readers of this blog probably know by now that I am a fan of realism). In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains that the secret to getting better at something in a way that’s sustainable, whether you’re a novice or a veteran, is to aim for getting just one percent better each day. This isn’t as glamorous or dramatic as self-help programs and books that promise to transform you overnight, but it is far more feasible and therefore far more effective.

Applying the 1% Concept to Improve Your Political Skill

I opened this post by acknowledging that rules sometimes leave people wondering how, specifically, to apply those rules in real situations. So here are some specific examples of ways to get better at each of the four dimensions of political skill by just one percent. (And, no, I don’t mean a literally precise one percent, but rather small, incremental approaches, when undertaken consistently, yield a large return over time.)

1% more social astuteness: Socially astute people are by definition observant, and the best way to get better at observing is to do more of it—not passively, the way most people do in everyday situations, but actively and consciously. Try observing people’s behavior in a social situation where you’re not expected to respond immediately, such as a group interaction, since if you’re busy thinking about what to say this can distract your powers of observation. People who are very socially astute can closely observe others at the same time they’re conversing with them, but don’t start out too ambitiously. Remember, we’re trying to get better by just one percent.

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If you consider yourself already socially astute (and you’re not a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect), then a way to get even better would be to try observing people’s behavior in a social or cultural situation that you’re not used to. Traveling obviously provides many opportunities for this, but usually you don’t have to look any farther than just beyond your own immediate social circle.

1% more interpersonal influence: Studying Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of influence is a good way to brainstorm some 1% ways to practice interpersonal influence. The principle of “liking,” just by itself, has five sub-components (attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact/cooperation, and conditioning/association) that can each lead to ideas.

Here’s an example to get you started. Just once a day, when you talk to someone, see if you can find something in common with them. It can be anything—a physical trait such as something they’re wearing (but keep it appropriate), a personality trait, or something they’re interested in which you can often discover just by examining the visual artifacts they display in their workspace. So, for example, let’s say they display Star Wars action figures on their desk. You could say, “I love your Star Wars action figures!” That’s obviously a compliment, one of the sub-components of the principle of “liking.” If you want to take it another 1% further you could say, “I love your Star Wars action figures! I collect them too!” which taps into similarity, another sub-component of “liking.” Obviously, stick to what’s true and don’t make things up just for the sake of having things in common. And be natural. Don’t ask too many questions all at once, which can be creepy. Natural conversations, over time, will inevitably reveal things you have in common.

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1% more networking ability: First of all, if you’re an introvert who gets turned off by the very notion of “networking,” don’t even think of it as networking. Think of it as just getting to know people on a human level. In fact, that’s actually the best way to approach networking whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. People who approach it thinking, “What can this person do for me?” have the wrong idea. Instead, think, “What can I do for this person?” or, “How can I brighten this person’s day a little?” Simply tweaking your perspective in this way could be a 1% percent improvement.

Another example would be to find someone in your organization whom you’ve never interacted with before. At big companies, this is very common. Simply approach this person during lunch or a break sometime, greet them warmly, and engage in some small talk. That’s it. You’ve just improved your networking ability by another 1%.

1% more apparent sincerity: A big part of apparent sincerity is not coming across as manipulative or having ulterior motives. Psychopaths, unfortunately, are often very good at this even if they are, in fact, being manipulative. Since most of us don’t want to emulate psychopaths, the best way to appear sincere is to actually be sincere and then express that with the right outward behavior. Try extending a small kindness to someone at work without expecting anything in return: bring them a cup of coffee, offer to help them with a task, or just cheer them on and compliment them. If you’re feeling ambitious and want to go for a 2% improvement, you can combine apparent sincerity with networking ability by doing this with a coworker you’ve never interacted with before.

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There are only so many examples I can provide in just one post, but hopefully this can at least get you started on improving your political skill, in all four dimensions, by just 1 percent per day … or per week … or even per month. (Just imagine the potential impact an additional 12 thoughtful, productive gestures might have over the course of a year—that’d make some people legends in their organizations.) If you feel that such a small increment is too little, you’d do well to remember Aesop’s fable, “The Hare and the Tortoise.” Consistency is more important than volume or speed. Slow and steady wins the race—or, in this case, takes you far along the path to power.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.

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