If you overheard someone at work refer to you as “a real political operator”, would you feel complimented, or alarmed? The latter turns out to be a sensible reaction, as new research suggests that supervisors and colleagues have less faith in the performance of the highly politically skilled.
Study authors Ingo Zettler and Jonas Lang noted a conundrum in their field: researchers treat political skill as a uniform good, the more the better, yet a meta-analysis of relevant research (pdf) found a spotty relationship between more political skill and improved outcomes like job performance. Zettler and Lang identified two reasons why political skill might not produce steadily rising benefits. Firstly, deft politicking, however well-intentioned, can create suspicions in co-workers: if you handle the suppliers, and the system, mightn’t you be handling me as well? Once others lose trust in a politically-focused performer, their ability to get things done is stymied. Secondly, politicking isn’t always well-intentioned, and if you have a political skill hammer, everything may start looking like a nail. Habitually working the angles may lead highly skilled individuals to make like Machiavelli and potentially do harm. Zettler and Lang predicted that thanks to these reasons, those who live and breathe political approaches would actually do worse at their jobs compared to those merely competent in political skill.
This prediction was confirmed in two studies. The first, involving 178 on-the-job apprentices, found that the relationship between self-ratings of political skill and supervisors’ ratings of their job performance was positively correlated, but only up to a point. Beyond a political skill score of 3.5 on a five-point scale, supervisor ratings flatlined and then began dropping. The second study found the same overall pattern in 115 employees with longer work experience, each rated by a supervisor and also a colleague. This study also found that this “curvilinear relationship” between political skill and job performance (whereby intermediates in political skill outperformed low- and high-skilled participants) – was most pronounced when the rater was not personally close to the participant. Savviness and bluntness alike can be forgiven by close colleagues – “that’s just how Chris gets things done” – but others are less trusting.
These are cross-sectional studies, which means we can’t confirm that the differences in perceived performance are being caused by differences in political skill; we can only infer this from patterns shown in previous studies on politicking. I would also like to have seen the study account for motivators or personality traits that might cluster with high political skill – is skill itself really the problem, or a mindset that accompanies it? We should also take into account that political skill is judged quite differently in people in other parts of an organisation that weren’t studied here, such as in leadership circles. But this research is a preliminary validation of a new idea gaining currency in organisational research – that you can have “too much of a good thing” – that even traits considered universally positive can in excess have negative consequences.
Zettler, I., & Lang, J. (2015). Employees’ Political Skill and Job Performance: An Inverted U-Shaped Relation? Applied Psychology, 64 (3), 541-577 DOI: 10.1111/apps.12018
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