Social influence research focuses on how individuals interact with others, which makes it critical to our understanding of success in organizations. For the past two decades, much of the social influence research has focused on the concept of political skill, which is defined as “the ability to understand others at work, and to use that knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal or organizational objectives.” This is possible because of the four underlying facets associated with political skills:
- Networking ability represents individuals’ savvy at identifying and developing relationships with a diverse and powerful collection of individuals that can provide valuable resources to facilitate success.
- Social astuteness captures individuals’ ability to observe and understand social situations, including the ability to deal well with others.
- Interpersonal influence references individuals’ subtle and convincing style, as well as their ability to carefully calibrate behavior to best fit the situation.
- Apparent sincerity enables politically skilled individuals to appear genuine and sincere when they attempt to influence others, as it helps them hide any ulterior motives.
In combination, these facets enable employees to read people and situations effectively, and to adjust their behavior in ways that are likely to be most effective. A number of studies have documented the relationship between political skill and important work outcomes, such as job performance, citizenship/helping behavior, supervisor/subordinate relationship quality, and managerial effectiveness. Additionally, political skill has been shown to have positive effects on others’ reactions to influence. For example, one study found that politically skilled subordinates were able to engage in ingratiation without their supervisors considering the behavior as intentionally manipulative. This effect is driven by politically skilled individuals’ ability to execute these behaviors in a sincere and genuine manner.
Interestingly, despite decades of work lauding political skill as critical to effective influence in organizations, almost no research has examined how this process works. Additionally, the majority of research on political skill has examined it as a singular concept, without considering the independent effects of its facets. Recently, my colleagues and I have undertaken a program of research to explore these areas. More specifically, we have sought to articulate how the individual facets of political skill enable people to be successful influencers at work. We have argued that successful influence is the result of a three-stage process in which employees (1) recognize, (2) evaluate, and (3) capitalize on opportunities to influence others.
In the opportunity recognition process, the networking ability and social astuteness facets of political skill enable individuals to interpret the social context such that they can embed themselves within the social structure at work. These central positions allow employees to generate options to influence others in ways that further their goals. In the opportunity evaluation process, employees decide whether to act on the available influence opportunity by assessing how the opportunity fits with their goals, their power base within the organization, and the level of risk they would assume by attempting to influence. Finally, in the opportunity capitalization process, employees who choose to act on the available opportunity select and execute a behavior designed to influence others. The interpersonal influence and apparent sincerity facets of political skill affect the success of these attempts, in that higher levels of both increase the likelihood of a desired outcome.
It is important to note that influence behaviors can take many different forms. In addition to tactics like trading favors, ingratiation, and rational persuasion, employees may choose to influence others by helping colleagues, volunteering constructive suggestions, or behaving proactively. Each of these is associated with important outcomes like enhanced reputation and more favorable performance evaluations. In early empirical tests of these ideas, we found that socially astute employees were more likely to recognize work environments conducive to exhibiting personal initiative. Perhaps more importantly, these studies also showed that interpersonal influence ability was critical to translating this initiative into personal benefit. That is, employees who were high in interpersonal influence were able to translate high personal initiative into better performance evaluations than their low initiative counterparts. However, those with low interpersonal influence who exhibited personal initiative actually received lower performance ratings than those who didn’t exhibit initiative.
In summary, organizations are socially complex places that require the effective use of influence for success. The different facets of political skill (i.e., social astuteness, networking ability, interpersonal influence, and apparent sincerity) can help employees effectively recognize, evaluate, and capitalize on opportunities for influence. We’re still in the early stages of what we hope is a long stream of research on this topic. However, to date, we have presented these ideas at the Southern Management Association and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology annual conferences. Additionally, we recently have published academic articles on the overall conceptual model and personal initiative studies, both in Journal of Management, as well as a practitioner-focused article in Business Horizons. For more information on my research on social influence, leadership, and organizational politics, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.