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Develop Your Workforce’s Political Skill to Help Them Thrive

Dr. John Boudreau describes a recent study that revealed how the workforce’s “Political Skill” is key to understanding how “network centrality” affects people very differently.

Rob Cross and I have suggested how organization social networks can be sources of strategic success, including encouraging newcomers to create “pull” toward themselves, rather than excessively “pushing” themselves on others.

However, Rob, and his colleagues, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, also warn of “collaborative overload” a particular risk for well-connected or “central” networkers.

Their approachability can lead to an overwhelming burden of emails, meeting requests, etc. Research suggests that up to 20% of collaborative time can be regained by sculpting and clarifying the role, shaping the narrative of patterns and rules, and altering behaviors.

This begs the question of whether there are skills that predict who will thrive better at the center of social networks, and how to use those skills.

For HR leaders, that means measuring, analyzing and understanding network centrality, collaboration, and overload, as well as what causes them, and how the best networkers cope.

Research provides good examples. Here, I’ll describe an interesting recent study, that revealed how “Political Skill” is key to understanding how “network centrality” affects people very differently.

Political Skill and Social Perceptiveness

In his forthcoming book, “Superminds,” Thomas Malone suggests that a significant predictor of team performance was “social perceptiveness,” measured by a test of how well people can read the emotions and mental state of others just by looking at a person’s eyes. Social perceptiveness is one element of Political Skill, measured in a survey with six items:

  • I find it easy to envision myself in the position of others;
  • I am able to make most people feel comfortable and at ease around me;
  • It is easy for me to develop good rapport with most people;
  • I understand people well;
  • I am good at getting others to respond positively to me;
  • I usually try to find common ground with others.

Those high in Political Skill generally thrive better. However, Political Skill also helps explain why and how to thrive more in network-central positions.

Thriving, Political Skill, Ambiguity and Overload

In a 2015 article, Kristin Cullen, Alexandra Gerbasi and Donna Chrobot-Mason surveyed 156 members of the global HR division of a large multinational corporation. They identified “network-central” workers who were often communicated with by others. The researchers measured workers’ role overload (“my workload is too heavy”), role ambiguity (“I do not have clearly planned goals and objectives”), and workplace thriving (“I find myself learning often; and I feel alive and vital”).

Overall, those who felt more overload and ambiguity thrived less, and those with more Political Skill thrived more.

Those with more Political Skill reported less role ambiguity and overload. Could this reveal how people thrive at the center of social networks?

How Workforce’s Political Skill Increases Thriving at the Center of the Network

Those with higher Political Skill were network-central more often, but being more network-central didn’t systematically increase or decrease workplace thriving. Something deeper was going on.

The interesting pattern emerged by comparing those with high Political Skill to those with low political skill. For those low in Political Skill, being more network-central increased their overload and ambiguity, and that reduced thriving.

In contrast, for those high in Political Skill, being more network-central increased role overload by only half as much, and it didn’t increase role ambiguity. So, those high in political skill thrived more at the center of the network.

Those who thrive and those who don’t are equally affected by role overload and ambiguity. It reduces thriving for everyone. However, those with high Political Skill were better at eliminating the role ambiguity and reducing the role overload that can come with being more network-central. Those with higher Political Skill are not more immune to role overload and ambiguity, but they are better at reducing them.

Increasing Network Resilience With Skills and Training

Network-central resilience and thriving doesn’t happen by chance, and leaders can enhance it by using evidence-based research. Savvy leaders may reduce collaborative overload by selecting to increase Political Skill and training workers to use those skills to reduce role overload and ambiguity. In fact, research measuring Political Skill has advanced since this research was done. There is now an 18-question survey that measures four dimensions:

  • Networking ability (“At work, I know a lot of important people and am well connected”)
  • Interpersonal influence (“It is easy for me to develop good rapport with most people”)
  • Social astuteness (“I have good intuition about how to present myself to others”)
  • Apparent sincerity (“I try to be genuine in what I say and do”)

Social networks are increasingly vital to HR, organization design and change.

Having more network-central workers can enhance vital connections, communication, and agility. For individuals, being more network-central can increase engagement and reduce turnover. However, it  can also increase overload and reduce thriving. HR leaders can create more network-central resilience and thriving by better understanding how network-central workers thrive.

About the author: John Boudreau

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and Boudreau is the author of two forthcoming books, “Human Resource Excellence” with Edward E. Lawler III and “Reinventing Jobs” with Ravin Jesuthasan.

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