Monday, 27 August 2012

‘Squeaky Clean But Outmanoeuvred’?

Most of us would wince if we heard ourselves described as ‘Machiavellian’, but sometimes we secretly envy colleagues who seem to have well-developed political antennae.  This blog post looks at: 
  • What we mean by ‘organisational politics’
  • Whether you can be political without compromising your integrity
  • A smart approach to politics.

What do we mean by ‘organisational politics’?
One definition is:

“The ways in which personal and departmental interests are played out”

At its worst, this means sucking up to top management in order to climb the greasy pole of career advancement.  However it can also mean looking for ways to gain support for a service development idea that you are committed to.

Can I be political without compromising my integrity?
In their paper 'Owl, Fox, Mule or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers', Simon Baddeley and Kim James identify four distinct approaches to organisational politics.

If you feel distaste for the kind of manoeuvring for personal advancement that sometimes goes on in organisations, you may have been watching Foxes.  Foxes are crafty and prefer to go about their business unobserved.  They can be seen as game players.  If you don’t want to be a Fox, there are three alternatives:

You could be a Sheep and adopt a blindly trusting approach to achieving your objectives.  Sheep believe that life is fair, that top management reward effort, and that organisations function like efficient machines.  They tend to let others dictate the agenda. 

Alternatively, you may become a Mule.  This means sticking rigidly to your goals and going about them in the most straightforward way.  Mules are single-minded - when they encounter resistance, they just keep pushing.

Finally, you might choose to adopt the approach of an Owl.  Owls are wise - they understand that organisations are complex, and contain many competing interests - often driven by emotions and personal agendas.  Owls keep a sense of perspective - they want to do what is right for the organisation, and right for themselves.

How Do Owls Operate?
Owls keep a sense of perspective.  This means:

  • Thinking ahead.  Owls habitually look 6-12 months ahead, which gives them time to build an influencing strategy.
  • Building networks.  Foxes work alone, and this is one of their weaknesses.  Owls cultivate their networks so they have the benefit of others’ insights and perspectives.  Their extensive networks enable Owls to indirectly access people who aren’t in their immediate circle.
  • Forming coalitions.  Mules stamp their feet, and dig their heels in.  Owls recognise that sometimes an indirect approach is needed - they work with others to find a way round obstacles.
  • Keeping the bigger picture in mind. Owls don't get bogged down in lengthy arguments about relatively trivial matters.  They are happy to concede small points gracefully in order to achieve an important goal - something that Mules refuse to do.

    Reference: Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: political skills for managers, Baddeley S and James K, Management Education and Development, Vol.18, part 1, 1987

Friday, 27 July 2012

Making The Best of Rejection

BBC Radio 4 programme Woman’s Hour recently broadcast an interesting piece on graduate job-hunting which exhorted unsuccessful candidates to seek feedback from the employer.

Getting useful feedback can make the difference between success and failure at your next interview.   Unfortunately, too many organisations offer feedback such as:

“You did very well and were appointable, but unfortunately there was a better candidate.”

“You didn’t have any weak areas, but your scores weren’t as good as those of other candidates.”

If you are the unsuccessful candidate, this kind of feedback might help you feel a little better about the rejection, but it doesn’t enable you to identify what you have to do to be successful in your next interview.

I’ve managed assessment centres and interview processes for more than 15 years, and during that time I’ve trained thousands of assessors.  Here are my top tips for candidates on how to elicit useful feedback:

1. Contact the organisation as soon as possible.  You’re more likely to get some helpful insights if the assessors remember who you are.  Ideally, you want to talk to one of the people who actually interviewed you, rather than an HR person who is reading someone else’s notes.

2. Be tenacious.  Giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates is probably not top of the assessor’s ‘to-do’ list for that day, so you may have to gently but persistently chase them.  If you’ve left a message but they haven’t contacted you within a couple of days, try again.

3. Be nice.  Assessors are much more likely to open up a bit if you are pleasant and grateful.  Use phrases such as “thank you very much for taking the time to call me - I’d really value any comments you have which might enable me to be successful in my next interview”.  Express appreciation during the conversation - it will make the assessor more inclined to give specific feedback.

4. Don’t argue.  You might feel that the interviewers made the wrong decision and you may disagree with their assessment of your capabilities.  But they are not going to change their minds.  You are far less likely to get helpful specific feedback if the assessor gets the impression that you want to challenge their decision.

5. Do probe (gently).  Although you don’t want the interviewer to feel that you are cross-examining them, it is important that you get specific feedback so that you can change your behaviour at the next interview.  So, if the assessor says things like:

“We just felt you weren’t committed to a career in this sector.”


“We didn’t see enough evidence of your team working skills.”

Ask them questions such as:

“Could you say a little more about what it was that gave you that impression during the interview?”


“What aspects of my team working experience should I have emphasised?”

6. Send a 'Thank You' email.  This is common courtesy and I know of one candidate who was offered a job 6 months later by the organisation because they remembered how professional she had been in the way she had handled the post-interview feedback (she had sent a pleasant email saying that she was disappointed by the verdict but would love to be considered for future positions).

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