Game of Firms: Why Organisational Political Skills May Be a Good Thing

Game of firms

Appraisals  are coming. And employee behavior at this time can resemble the chess-like, strategic politicking of that in Westeros (my last Game of Thrones reference, I promise). The fact is Organisational politics do exist. Further, it’s an area of Organisational Psychology that has seen a huge increase in interest and popularity over the last 30 years. However further investigation into what ‘Political Skills’ consist of and how they manifest, have led researchers to suggest that they are actually beneficial for organisational life in a myriad of ways.

The researchers who have made this arena their own are Gerald Ferris and Darren Treadway, and they define political skills as “the ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational objectives” (Ferris, Treadway, et al., 2005: 127).

The terms ‘to use’, ‘to influence’ and ‘to enhance one’s personal objectives’ all do have a somewhat sinister undertone to them. And it is understandable that this kind of activity leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many people. But is it fair to say that organisational politics are as much a part of the organisational fabric as team meetings. The leading Business psychologist Oliver James, author of the book ‘Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks’ would argue that one cannot escape such politics. And therefore becoming savvy to political activity, can at least help to protect one’s career, if not advance it. See resources below for a great podcast1 with Oliver James who speaks at length about this area.

In this podcast, James also refers to the Political Skills Inventory (PSI; Ferris et al, 2005), and as this is the Psychometrics Forum, it is only right that there is discussion about the psychometric which is used to measure this highly complex phenomena. The PSI measures four dimensions, as discussed below:

1)        Social Astuteness – the ability to understand social interactions and interpret your own and others’ behavior well. Such high self-awareness allows identification with others in order to obtain desired outcomes.

2)        Interpersonal Influence – this dimension can be seen as flexibility i.e. the ability to adapt your behavior to influence a desired response from different people in diverse situations.

3)        Networking Ability – the ability to develop diverse contacts, networks and friendships which have a mutually beneficial nature. People in these networks tend to hold assets/influence, hence politically skilled individuals find themselves well positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

4)        Apparent Sincerity – individuals high on this dimension are described by others as having integrity and being authentic. This is a critical element of political skills, as attempts to influence will fall on deaf ears when individuals are perceived as having ulterior motives.

2 See resources below for an article link to the development and validation of this scale. Construct validity research has shown political skills to be a separate construct to Emotional Intelligence, GMA and Political Savvy (Ferris et al, 2007). This demonstrates the unique contribution of this construct to Organisational Psychology.

For all of the research hours and funding poured into the development of this research area, and now with an inventory to measure this phenomena, the question still remains; what value do Political Skills have in organisational life?

There seem to be three areas of impact that are delineated here; impact on self, others and organisations. Research shows that people who have strong political skills evaluate themselves more favorably, because of their perceived control and mastery over others (Ferris, Davidson & Perrewe, 2005). There is also an interesting relationship with job satisfaction, in that only up to a certain point (an optimum, lets say) do political skills lead to an increment in job satisfaction. After this point job satisfaction takes a dip, hence an inverted U-shaped relationship (Kolodinsky, Hochwarter & Ferris, 2004).

Moving on, there are a number of impacts of possessing political skills on others. These include higher ratings of leader effectiveness (Douglas & Ammeter, 2004), contextual performance, managerial performance (Ferris, Treadway, et al, 2005) as well as personal reputation (Ferris, Blass, Douglas, Kolodinsky & Treadway, 2003). Finally at a broader level, possessing political skill is crucial for leaders in creating a uniting vision which employees buy in to and carry out. In order to effectively do this, leaders must rely on their reputation, networking and positioning skills for support. It is now the case that in order to be a ‘competent manager’ in today’s workplace, leaders must be seen as charismatic. This is according to research by Khurana (2002) who conducted one  of the largest studies of CEO selection for fortune 500 companies.

Bearing this in mind, it may be helpful to identify some of the behaviors used to gain influence (and to watch out for) in a politically active environment. Not to create paranoia or suspicion over intentions, but this research based taxonomy of tactics (Ferris et al, 2007) can help us defend or enhance our careers, depending on the stance you take.

•          Ingratiation – simple flattery or strategic praise to get on the good side of others. In other words, praise with a purpose.

•          Self-promotion – a tricky skill to have in that too much is interpreted as arrogance, while too little and one appears underconfident. Therefore those high in political skills will self promote yet still be seen as genuine, sincere and authentic.

•          Assertiveness – involves demanding, ordering, setting deadlines and checking up on others to influence proceedings. Yet, the style in which this assertiveness comes across is dependent on networking and how well positioned one is to assert.

•          Networking/positioning – developing and maintaining diverse networks of people who have influence over valuable assets. A subtle style of developing friendships and bonds allows strong alliances to be built.

•          Coalition building – stemming from the above, this ability involves the development of mutually beneficial, ‘strength in numbers’ relationships to influence upwards.

To quote the incorrectly3 paraphrased Darwin statement – ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change’. There would seem to be no better description of how political skills can allow one to survive and indeed, thrive in the world of organisational politics today. Whether this is perceived to be a good or bad thing, political skills could be one of the key elements involved in coming out of that appraisal, one step closer to achieving your personal and organisational goals.

Written by Raj Chopra, Committee Member of The Psychometrics Forum. Follow me on Twitter – @Raj_Chopra24.


Douglas, C., & Ammeter,A. P. 2004. An examination of leader political skill and its effect on ratings of leader effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly, 15: 537-550.

Ferris, G. R., Blass, R., Douglas, C., Kolodinsky, R. W., & Treadway, D. C. 2003. Personal reputation in organizations. In J. Greenberg (Ed.), Organizational behavior: The state of the science (2nd ed.): 211-246. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ferris, G. R., Davidson, S. L., & Perrewé, P. L. 2005. Political skill at work: Impact on work effectiveness. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.

Ferris, G. R. Treadway, D. C., Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwarter, W. A., Kacmar, C. J., Douglas, C., & Frink, D. D. (2005). Development and validation of the political skill inventory. Journal of Management, 31: 126-152.

Ferris. G. R., Treadway, D. C., Perrewe, P. L., Brouer, R. L., Douglas, C. & Lux, S. (2007). Political Skill in Organizations. Journal of Management, 33 No. 3, 290-320.

Khurana, R. 2002. Searching for a corporate savior: The irrational quest for charismatic CEOs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwarter,W. A., & Ferris, G. R. 2004. Nonlinearity in the relationship between political skill and work outcomes: Convergent evidence from three studies. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65: 294-308.



2 The Development and Validation of The Political Skills Inventory (Ferris et al, 2005):

3 The Darwin Correspondence Project, led by researchers at The University of Cambridge have comfirmed that this famous quote was indeed an incorrect paraphrase of Darwin from Leon C Meggison (1963), Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiani State University;