The image that springs to mind when someone is described as ‘political’ is not always a positive one. Visions of manipulative, power hungry individuals who will do whatever it takes to get to the top and raise their own profile are summoned up. But is this really what it means to be political – and is it always a bad thing?
Many of us will have negative ideas regarding employees who are adept at playing the political game at work; we think of those who ‘suck up’ to the senior managers who will help them to progress, and seek to make an impression on them over and above doing their job well; or those who make themselves look good by taking credit for work which they were only partly responsible for. Whilst these elements of ‘being political’ are undeniably counterproductive in the workplace, there are aspects of heightened political awareness which are essential in graduate employees, and which should be actively selected for.
It is not enough for graduates to just have the right skills and abilities to perform the specific tasks in their role, for example, excellent numerical or verbal skills. They also need an awareness of the organisation’s ‘politics’. For example, they need to understand how different people and departments fit together, the organisation’s culture and values, expected standards of behaviour and the opinions and perspectives of those they need to influence.
Take the example of communicating with others in the workplace. Whether negotiating with a colleague, deciding whether to push an idea forward or to take a more diplomatic approach, or simply presenting an argument in a way that will make its acceptance more likely, those who have a greater awareness of the ‘politics’ are more likely to be successful. Unlike the ‘political manipulator’ who is seeking personal success at the expense of others, this politically aware employee delivers the type of success which every recruiter hopes to gain from those they employ. They use their political ‘nouse’ to perform more effectively, thereby benefiting the organi
zation as a whole.
Every organisation has its own political system and recent graduates may ultimately find themselves working across a vast array of environments, from a central government department to a major retailer or a professional services organisation. The exact behaviours that will bring about success in these different working environments will differ greatly and there is no ‘one size fits all’ technique for success. However, those individuals who can quickly get to grips with ‘the way things are done’ and behave accordingly are more likely to be successful.
Sally Morton, Head of the Civil Service Selection Board, which is responsible for managing the fast stream recruitment programme on behalf of the Civil Service says “Our candidates can be placed in a range of government departments where they will be working on projects that require stakeholder and customer buy-in. Understanding when they need to consult with others and how to get their buy-in is critical to their success in the role”.
This ability to recognise the way things need to be done in order to ensure success is just as important whether liaising with close colleagues, those from other departments, clients or other external contacts.
Ruth Stokes, the Director of Recruitment and Resourcing at KPMG, says “We’re looking for graduates who can quickly make a positive impact and contribution to the organisation, but they also need to know how to do this without alienating others or causing conflict through their actions”.
This doesn’t mean that employers want graduates who won’t challenge the way things are done or seek to make improvements. Ruth adds “The competent and politically aware employee will recognise when and how to raise an issue in order to have the maximum impact and likelihood of being listened to, rather than taking a ‘bull in a china shop’ approach or failing to speak out at all”.
This example highlights the fact that political awareness will interact with competencies which are regularly assessed by graduate recruiters. For example, influencing skills are frequently required of graduates; but a candidate with a combination of strong influencing skills and an understanding of how to use those skills effectively in a given situation or organisation will be far more effective in influencing others in practice than a candidate lacking one or the other.
So, how do graduate recruiters identify the ‘politically aware’ candidate? Firstly, as ever, recruiters need to be clear about the skills and abilities that they are looking for in their graduates. The politically aware candidate will be able to demonstrate their ability to adapt to new situations, show consideration for the perspectives of others and ensure their activities are aligned with organisation objectives, among other behaviours. These skills can be incorporated into the definitions and behavioural indicators of a number of different competencies which may already be in use in your recruitment process; team work, interpersonal sensitivity, organisational awareness, influencing and communication all spring to mind. If you already have clearly defined competencies it could be worthwhile revisiting them to check how clearly the positive and negative indicators and definitions used identify both desirable and undesirable political behaviours to ensure that they are working as well as possible for you.
There are then a range of assessment tools that employers can use to test these skills. Exercises that allow direct observation of the candidate’s behaviour in relation to work based scenarios which are highly reflective of the job role can be particularly effective; for example, a group discussion or role play exercise that requires the candidate to consider the context within which they are operating and who they are communicating with. An effective candidate will be able to judge the requirements of the situation and bring about a successful outcome.
Sally Morton, Head of the Civil Service Selection Board comments “we find that the use of simulation based exercises provide us with a real insight into how candidates will respond to the demands of the role, including how they will respond to others and whether they can build arguments to successfully win round stakeholder groups with different perspectives on issues”.
Helping candidates to understand the kind of organisation that they would be joining can also help to ensure recruiters get the right graduates into their organisations. Tools used early on in the selection process, such as job preview information and self-selection questionnaires can serve to highlight the way the organisation operates and what will be expected from the individual if they are successful. This can both help to deselect candidates who are uncomfortable with the way of working described, but also allows more politically aware candidates to understand how they will need to work in order to succeed.
In short, politics should not be seen as a dirty word. What is important when aiming to recruit the best possible graduates for your organisation is to identify those who are able to understand the importance of organisational politics and use this to everyone’s benefit – not just their own.