4 Tips to Gain Influence in Your Organization
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Careers Organizations Strategy Leadership Aug 2, 2016

4 Tips to Gain Influ­ence in Your Organization

You have more pow­er than you think — here’s how to har­ness it.

Political capital is not constrained by an org chart.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

William Ocasio

Let’s face it: few of us rel­ish nav­i­gat­ing pol­i­tics in the work­place. Even the phrase cor­po­rate pol­i­tics” evokes pow­er-hun­gry man­agers plot­ting their rise to the top. So it may be no sur­prise that many of us pre­fer to avoid the fray, trust­ing that our per­for­mance alone will lead to suc­cess down the road.

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But accord­ing to William Oca­sio, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School, there is more to orga­ni­za­tion­al pol­i­tics than Machi­avel­lian schemes. In today’s knowl­edge econ­o­my, which has wit­nessed the steady break­down of tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chies and func­tion­al silos, pow­er has less to do with con­trol and more to do with influ­ence. We gain that influ­ence by devel­op­ing polit­i­cal capital.

This is a dif­fer­ent way of under­stand­ing how pow­er works in orga­ni­za­tions,” Oca­sio says. It’s not about coerc­ing peo­ple — it’s about mobi­liz­ing polit­i­cal sup­port. Lead­ers can’t accom­plish their goals with­out a broad sup­port base, which is why polit­i­cal cap­i­tal is impor­tant for leaders.”

So what should you know about invest­ing in — and uti­liz­ing — polit­i­cal cap­i­tal? Oca­sio offers four tips.

1. Don’t under­es­ti­mate how much cap­i­tal you have — or could have. In the past twen­ty years we have come to bet­ter under­stand the impor­tance of find­ing sources of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal beyond the tra­di­tion­al cor­po­rate hier­ar­chy,” Oca­sio says.

Most man­agers rec­og­nize the val­ue of social net­works. But not all of them make a spe­cial effort to diver­si­fy. Some peo­ple focus too nar­row­ly,” he says, or they under­es­ti­mate the resources that are avail­able to them.”

Build­ing on his research and expe­ri­ence teach­ing busi­ness stu­dents and exec­u­tives, Oca­sio iden­ti­fies sev­en dis­tinct forms of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal: human, social, rep­u­ta­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, sym­bol­ic, orga­ni­za­tion­al, and cul­tur­al. And these forms can work togeth­er sym­bi­ot­i­cal­ly. By com­bin­ing, say, the social cap­i­tal of your net­work con­nec­tions with the sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal of your job title and the rep­u­ta­tion­al cap­i­tal of how your val­ue is per­ceived with­in the orga­ni­za­tion, you allow each of these sources to feed off of each other.

To max­i­mize your polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, you need to look beyond the usu­al places — and some­times even beyond your orga­ni­za­tion. In order to do our jobs well, we are usu­al­ly depen­dent on all kinds of peo­ple, whether we know it or not,” Oca­sio says. You need to find the crit­i­cal actors that you will be depen­dent on — even peers who fall out­side one’s indus­try or mar­ket. It’s sub­tle, but it’s still a valu­able source of polit­i­cal capital.”

Diver­si­fy­ing is also use­ful because cer­tain forms of cap­i­tal may be more or less help­ful to your job as it evolves. When mov­ing into a new role, most peo­ple use the sources of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal they’ve used in the past,” Oca­sio says. But that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to help you suc­ceed at the next lev­el. You can’t rely exclu­sive­ly on past expe­ri­ence for how to approach your new position.”

The polit­i­cal cap­i­tal one needs to be an effec­tive Prod­uct Man­ag­er is dif­fer­ent from the kind one needs to be a senior mar­ket­ing direc­tor or a CMO. When lead­ers fal­ter after pro­mo­tion, it is often because they con­tin­ue to rely on forms of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal that helped them get where they are and fail to devel­op and employ new ones.

2. Build rep­u­ta­tion­al cap­i­tal ear­ly. In the knowl­edge econ­o­my, few sources of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal are as valu­able as rep­u­ta­tion. A good rep­u­ta­tion gen­er­ates buzz, which can have the effect of feed­ing on itself. But the oppo­site can also be true.

You either set off the vir­tu­ous cycle or the vicious cycle,” Oca­sio says. Have a pos­i­tive rep­u­ta­tion? You are more like­ly to receive endorse­ments and greater sup­port, which leads to more oppor­tu­ni­ties, which can boost con­fi­dence, improv­ing your well-being and enhanc­ing your performance.

Rep­u­ta­tion­al cap­i­tal also cre­ates con­fir­ma­tion bias­es. Once your pos­i­tive reputation’s in place, peo­ple tend to give you cred­it when things go well and not to blame you even if things go wrong or you make mistakes.”

So what should you do to set your­self up for the vir­tu­ous, and not the vicious, cycle? Oca­sio rec­om­mends nego­ti­at­ing first assign­ments that are like­ly to yield suc­cess, com­mu­ni­cat­ing your con­tri­bu­tions, and build­ing rela­tion­ships with for­mal and infor­mal rep­u­ta­tion brokers.

You need to under­stand which sources of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal are tru­ly val­ued in your organization.”

3. Invest in polit­i­cal cap­i­tal before you need it. Every orga­ni­za­tion encoun­ters uncer­tain­ty, crises, and unex­pect­ed events,” Oca­sio says. The high­er you rise, the more you will have to deal with non­rou­tine situations.”

It may be dif­fi­cult to know in advance which type of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal you may need to tap in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, but devel­op­ing polit­i­cal cap­i­tal ear­ly in your career puts you in a bet­ter posi­tion to deal with chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions down the road.

Paul Rus­esabag­i­na, an assis­tant hotel man­ag­er, relied on his knowl­edge, rep­u­ta­tion, and social cap­i­tal to pro­tect refugees dur­ing the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide — a sto­ry made famous by the movie Hotel Rwan­da. This was a case of a mid­dle man­ag­er who had devel­oped polit­i­cal cap­i­tal well before he was pre­sent­ed with a ter­ri­ble life-or-death cri­sis,” Oca­sio says. Lever­ag­ing his cap­i­tal with key allies, includ­ing his rela­tion­ship with a key gen­er­al, helped him save hun­dreds of lives.

4. Read your organization’s cul­ture. It’s extreme­ly impor­tant to under­stand what’s val­ued at a giv­en orga­ni­za­tion,” Oca­sio says. On the one hand, you want to diver­si­fy — this will be good for you in the long run — but in the short and medi­um term you need to under­stand which sources of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal are tru­ly val­ued in your organization.”

Con­sid­er the ques­tion of when to lever­age cer­tain kinds of sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal, such as titles or advanced degrees. There are advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages to draw­ing upon these source of cap­i­tal; some­times adver­tis­ing a par­tic­u­lar sta­tus or affil­i­a­tion might work against you.

Jack Welch doesn’t tell peo­ple he has a Ph.D. because, in the busi­ness world, aca­d­e­mics are some­times con­sid­ered pie-in-the-sky,” Oca­sio says. But if you’re a med­ical doc­tor, you will always sign your name with that title.” The sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal of M.D.” is, at least in the health care sec­tor, unam­bigu­ous­ly positive.

While build­ing polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, it is also worth keep­ing in mind that notions of pow­er are chang­ing in many work­place cul­tures. The tra­di­tion­al view — that pow­er means hav­ing con­trol over a group of peo­ple — is giv­ing way to a new under­stand­ing: that pow­er means hav­ing oth­er peo­ple iden­ti­fy with you. Study after study has shown the effects of homophi­ly: peo­ple like to asso­ciate — and are like­ly to respect — those who are sim­i­lar to them. So empha­siz­ing points of com­mon ground can help you build capital.

But lead­ers should also keep in mind that it pays to build polit­i­cal cap­i­tal with some peo­ple more than oth­ers. Ulti­mate­ly, you want to be able to mobi­lize polit­i­cal sup­port,” says Oca­sio. To do this effec­tive­ly, you always have to tar­get the key play­ers. Pow­er, after all, is not just a tal­ent for get­ting peo­ple to like you; instead, it is the capac­i­ty to con­vince those around you to act in ways that sup­port your goals.”

Featured Faculty

William Ocasio

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.

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