It came as a surprise to discover in this research that those skills which relate to developing greater understanding were deemed to be less critical than the actual act of influencing. Our construct of political skill defined seven dimensions, three of which related to developing understanding. These three were ranked lowest.
The reason for our surprise was that, based on our experience and the literature review, much emphasis is placed on developing a keen insight into what is going on, understanding what makes people do the things they do, being able to understand how others interact, etc. This surprise was shared by all of our interviewees, with one quipping, “how can you influence with any degree of confidence if you don’t first understand?”
From the academic world, Gerald Ferris found that social astuteness was the most important determinant of success. He elaborated this point by saying that “people high in social astuteness have an accurate understanding of social situations as well as the interpersonal interactions that take place in these settings”. Mumford et al also strongly asserted the need to understand, to diagnose and then to influence.
What emerged during the qualitative stage of our research has shed some light on this area. It would seem that there are barriers to gaining understanding. In some cases, greater value is placed on doing rather than thinking by senior management. Also, “we don’t have time to develop understanding” was a sentiment expressed by several. In an extreme example, one person stated that “if you don’t get results and fast, you’re out”.
Others raised the possibility that the skills of developing understanding are so well developed that they have slipped into unconscious competence and therefore are not as instantly recognised for the value that they bring. This may well be the case; however, we believe that it would be very worthwhile to bring these skills into focus and reassess our competence.
If we are to exercise political skill with proficiency, we must first understand the nature of the issue, the positions of the actors on the issue, and with this knowledge and understanding, or rather judgment, only then can we decide on the most effective action to take. It would appear that currently, practising managers are not placing sufficient emphasis on the criticality of this dimension, either through ignorance or pressure from above.