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  • Simon Boardman

The Politics of Dancing - The PQ Factor

People Dancing

Some people have a knack for picking up the beat of company politics. They often prosper in sometime mystifying fashion. If it's not IQ or EQ, maybe it's another talent. We'll call it PQ. This ability helps them get in synch with the rhythm of the corporate political vibe. So, let's take a twirl around the dance floor of company politics and see if we still need to get down to get up?

Joe is a moderately, successful corporate leader. A Vice President of Something with Global Software Corp. Joe has risen through the ranks working at several different companies. He's seen as a good guy, people like him, like being around him and working for him. He's smart, articulate and witty. He's charming but maybe not charismatic. Frank has a similar history but has risen further and faster. Frank's AB (All Business). No one would describe Frank as a "good guy" or that smart, but they'd say he's "savvy." When asked what people think of him in a group they shuffle and look at one another awkwardly before giving neutral answers. But people are attracted to him, they want to work for him, and aren't sure why. Frank's got charisma, and while he's not the nicest guy around, he's got a certain "Je ne sais quo." On the quiet, people have a sneaking respect and admiration for Frank.

Is this story just an example of nice guy's Vs. not so nice guys, where nice guys (like Joe) don't win? Or is it more complicated? Is it down to IQ – the smarter, the better, or EQ – people (like Frank) who can read (and maybe play) people, including themselves. What about the idea of PQ; political intelligence? Can this be the secret to moves that will get you round the corporate dance floor without falling flat on your face?

We all know what IQ is. We also know it's not always the smartest people who get it done. Most of us know what EQ is. According to the Institute for Health and Human Potential "Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a term created by two researchers – Peter Salavoy and John Mayer – and popularized by Dan Goleman in his 1996 book of the same name." They define EQ "as the ability to: Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions AND recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others. In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively), and learn how to manage those emotions – both our own and others." In layman's terms, we think of people with high EQ as having street smarts, knowing how to get along with others, easy company. They have charisma; they're great communicators, confident leaders, inspiring colleagues and bosses, people who understand "people." I acknowledge that we are oversimplifying EQ or emotional intelligence here. Daniel Goleman did not. In his seminal book "Emotional Intelligence" he stated that "Emotional Self-regulation and empathy maybe more salient skills than purely cognitive abilities." In other words, EQ is more important than IQ. That's a big statement. Goleman claimed there are at least seven varieties of Intelligence and four varieties of interpersonal skills. While it seems intuitively correct to attribute some people's success to high EQ, sometimes there are glaring deficiencies within the interpersonal skills category that make us doubt this conclusion. We have all experienced leaders who have the communication skills of a firing squad and an inability to form and retain relationships as well as zero empathy. They seem to be able to overcome these.

Then there's the third element. Perhaps it's the result of a combination of IQ and EQ that deserves its own category – PQ or political intelligence. So, what does this mean? According to the Academy for Political Intelligence pi, as they refer to it "is a distinct set of skills and behaviors that are needed by people working in organizations all over the world to manage the political landscape effectively." It includes "recognizing and understanding how your organization REALLY works, appreciating how decisions are REALLY made and how you can influence this process, understanding the concept of power in an organization, following how information flows around your organization and making sure you are ‘tapped' into the key points on its journey, and having absolutely first-class communication skills." They imply that all these skills can be learned and I'm sure the Academy will be keen to teach these at very reasonable rates.

Ellen Vrana, a British based writer who covers a variety of human-based subjects (very well, by the way), maintains "Political strategy, the way you mean it, is essentially the game of "playing people." She goes on to say; "Political intelligence is made up of five things, in this order: Integrity, Self-awareness, Emotional intelligence about others, Strategy, and Execution. I choose to believe that political intelligence is not the art of war. It is the art of advancing the best outcome and aligning your own goals with that best outcome." Really? I like the idealism, but it all sounds a bit "pie in the sky" to me. My biggest problem with Ellen's argument revolves around integrity. She implies that retaining your integrity while being politically intelligent (and successful) is a choice. The problem here is the human conflict between greed and integrity. There are few if any self-imposed restraints on greed. We're hard-wired to be greedy. Gordon Gekko (in the 1986 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street) famously said, "…greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind." Vrana uses the examples of Frank Underwood in House of Cards – "brilliant political intelligence, no integrity. It will hurt him if it hasn't already corroded his soul; just wait for his career to go down in flames." (based on recent news, we may never know); and Bill Clinton "(brilliant politician), has integrity on some things, not on others – and it almost destroyed his Presidency." These examples are ultimately unconvincing. By any measure, both these characters triumphed at the highest levels, and then foundered. Maybe, as some maintain, the price of success is selling your soul. The issue for Vrana here would be that souls and integrity usually come as a package deal, you can't sell one without the other.

So, if we've shed some light on IQ, EQ and more on PQ and assuming one can detect the political vibe of an organization, what are some of the best dance moves to help negotiate the changes in pace and overcome the obstacles of the changing beat? What are some of the "moves" we've witnessed or even practiced ourselves?

  • There's the Conga line. The Conga Line is where people line up behind someone leading that line, hitching themselves to the success of that leader. Knowing their fortunes will rise and fall with the leader of that line. The PQ here is being able to assess the relative standing and likelihood of success of your Conga leader and remaining in their favor. They'll be competition for places and some approval needed from the leader of that line. If the beat changes, will you be able to jump to another line, or can you play the dangerous came of being in two lines simultaneously? If you can pull that one off, you'll get an A+ for PQ.

  • Then, of course, there's the Mime Artist. No. Not the one trying to escape the invisible box or walk up the hill into a prevailing wind. The one where you can't detect the beat their dancing to, or what group in which they're dancing. These folks keep their options as open as possible, without a distinct alignment. They might be overly reliant on IQ to pull this one off. If you're not as smart as you think you are, maybe that one's not for you. Of course, without a healthy dose of EQ how would you know how clever you are?

  • Or what about the girl that seems to be dancing offbeat to a rhythm you cannot detect? Easy to dismiss her as being entirely out of touch, or maybe she knows something that you don't?

I met a guy that illustrates the thoughts that people have on their roles in corporate politics and how they play them. We'll call him Nigel (he was a Brit, as only Brits are called Nigel, or Simon), but I've changed the name to protect the guilty. It was at some company mixer and we got talking about the whole subject of EQ, PQ and company politics. Nigel made the same statement that 80% of the people who I talk to on this topic make; "I don't play corporate politics." He then went on to tell me that his (very successful as he reminded me several times) approach was to ensure people felt positively toward him. He gave me a thumbs up and said, "I wanted them to be Nigel people." I immediately concluded that trying to point out the obvious, highly political nature of this would be an exercise in futility, so I went to the bar...and I never went back (as Bruce Springsteen said). But perhaps Nigel had it nailed. He was highly political, had a philosophy on how he would navigate the organizational politics (through popularity) and could keep soul, conscience, and integrity intact by convincing himself of his purity. He achieved this by arguing (with himself) that promoting popularity was not a political stance. We all lie. To ourselves more than anyone. We all have our stories and fictions that help us make sense of the world and explain our ourselves. So, don't be too harsh on Nigel. You will need to recognize politics masquerading as something else among the fog and strobe lights of the political dance floor.

A nagging thought before we wrap up; can we succeed without leaving our soul, humanity, and integrity with our scarf and hat at the coat check as we enter Club Politique? And more importantly, if we do leave them there, can we reclaim them on our way out?

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