Ronald Heifetz: Adaptive Leadership and Political Clout

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is political clout? What role does political clout play in adaptive leadership?

According to the father of adaptive leadership Ronald Heifetz, solving adaptive challenges requires you to have what he calls “political clout.” The more political clout you have, the more power, support, and influence you have, and the less people will resist you.

Here are six techniques to increase your political clout.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Political Clout

In his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz (co-authored with Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky) suggests the following approaches for increasing your political clout:

Technique #1: Increase Your Informal Authority

The more informal authority you have, the less you have to break expectations when exerting authority, and the more likely you are to be part of many factions with overlapping interests. All of this will make adaptive leadership easier.

To increase your informal authority:

  • Use your formal authority to get access to people with more authority than you. For example, if part of your job description is to organize meetings and invite attendees, schedule a meeting with supportive attendees who have authority that they can lend you.
  • Bolster your relationships with people, especially people who are invested in the adaptive challenge (whether they support your particular change initiative or not), by listening to them. Try to determine their allegiances and interests.
  • Gain credibility by creating small, early successes. Instead of announcing your initiative all at once, run small experiments or pilot projects, or fix small parts of the problem, such as the technical aspect, to build people’s confidence in you. Then, when you tackle the harder, adaptive parts of the challenge, people will be more likely to follow you.
  • Help people achieve their unrelated goals. People have plenty of goals that are separate from the adaptive challenge—help people reach them to make them like you more. You may not get their support, but you might at least tamp down their future opposition.
  • Unpack your emotions regarding authority figures so you can handle them more easily. Most of us have had both good and bad experiences with authority by the time we enter the workforce, and the bad past experiences can taint our relationships with our present authority figures (unless we move past them). Often, we’ll respond to authority figures unhelpfully by meekly following orders, rebelling, or avoiding them. (Shortform example: If you found it hard to stand up to your parents, you might find it equally hard to stand up to your boss.)
  • See the whole picture. When you realize how complicated authority is, you’re likely to have more empathy for authority figures and a better idea of how to manage them.

Technique #2: Recruit Allies

Before you announce your change initiative, whether that’s a formal announcement or just bringing up the idea in a meeting, you should recruit allies to support you. You especially need allies when you’re dealing with a group of more than 20 people because the political relationships will be complicated and you won’t be able to manage them by yourself.

Potential allies are:

  • People who will benefit from your initiative
  • People who have the same values and perspectives as you
  • People who have different but nonconflicting interests from yours—they might be interested in teaming up with you in the future, so they might be willing to court your favor now.
  • People who owe you
  • People you have a history with, such as people you went to high school with
  • People who see you as a positive symbol. (Shortform example: You’re a morally upstanding person.)
  • People who don’t seem like they would ally with you, such as people who belong to groups you’ve had a conflict with in the past. If you can get them on your side, it will suggest to everyone that the change is objectively positive because even your enemies support it.

Keep in mind that your allies are loyal to other people and perspectives too—your allies won’t necessarily prioritize your needs over their other allies’.

  • For example, Jack and Harry, two engineers, had a good relationship and began working together on a new car design. Jack considered Harry an ally, but while Harry did agree that Jack’s design was a good change, it required a huge workflow change for his team. When Jack brought up his ideas in a meeting, Harry, conflicted, didn’t back him up.

Technique #3: Manage Senior Leaders

The third political-management technique is to manage senior leaders, who have the potential to greatly help or hinder the change initiative. 

To best manage senior leaders:

1. Determine how they individually feel about the adaptive challenge. Because adaptive change involves a human element, feelings and emotions will come into play.

2. Warn them about the chaos you’re about to unleash. Once your change initiatives start creating discomfort, people are going to want to talk to senior leaders about you. People might complain to leaders, ask leaders to step in and stop the initiative, or even ask leaders to fire you. If you give the leaders advance warning that all this will happen, they’ll be prepared for sabotage attempts.

  • For example, Scandinavian Airlines CEO Jan Carlzon wanted to give frontline staff more decision-making power so they could better serve customers (for example, they could authorize refunds themselves). He expected resistance, so before he started the initiative, he went to the board and spoke with them about the kind of pressure they’d be receiving once he put his plan into action. Then, when people did try to sabotage him, the board members didn’t question him.

3. Use their knowledge and perspective as progress indicators. Senior leaders have a high-level view of both the external and internal overall environments you work in. They can take a step back for you and tell you how the initiative is affecting the organization and how much more chaos it can stand. If they’re not chatty, you can also get this information by observing how they talk about the initiative, how they talk to you, and how they wield their political power.

Technique #4: Empathize With the Opposition

The fourth technique is to manage those who oppose your proposed solutions to the adaptive change. To do this, you need to be aware of what’s going on with them—get close to them, solicit feedback, tell them you value their input, and listen. Find out how much discomfort they’re experiencing and if they’re reaching a breaking point. 

To manage your opponents:

  • Determine who your opponents are. Consider who will suffer the greatest losses as a result of your initiative and who has very different perspectives from yours
  • Meet these people informally, in person. This will allow you to get more information by reading their body language.
  • Don’t try to convince them that their fears about the adaptive challenge are unfounded. It won’t help and it might actually make things worse because people don’t like being told how to feel.

Empathizing with the opposition comes with some potential pitfalls:

  • You might feel bad. Once you realize the full extent of what your opposition stands to lose, you’ll have more compassion for them and it will be harder to make the necessary changes because you know you’re responsible for hurting people.
  • You might start doubting yourself. Once you know how much you’re hurting people, you might start to wonder if your initiative is really worth it. This might lead you to weaken your plan and consequently lose allies.

Even though empathizing comes with consequences, you should do it because:

  • If people never interact with you, they can cast you as a monster. Once they have met you, you seem more human.
  • People may become less hostile when you show them that you understand they’re suffering loss.

For example, President Ford expected the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States to oppose his decision to grant limited amnesty to protestors of the Vietnam War. To head it off, he personally delivered the news to the group in advance of announcing it publicly.

Technique #5: Accept Responsibility for Losses

The fifth technique is to accept that your change initiative is the reason people have experienced loss. Spend time with the people who suffer losses, empathize with them, and help them endure or recover from the loss. 

This has three potential benefits:

  1. It will make those who lost something feel more positive about you since you treated them well.
  2. It will win points from your allies, who may have friends among the casualties.
  3. It will show that you’re accountable for damage you do. This is a version of leading by example and may encourage others to embrace accountability, too.

Technique #6: Listen to the Troublemakers, Naysayers, and Skeptics

In every organization, some people are perpetually contrarian—they’re negative, critical, or unrealistic, or steer the conversation in an entirely different direction than what everyone is agreeing on. The sixth technique is to listen to these people—they’re often irritating, but they’re also early-warning systems, and they’re not afraid to ask hard questions. Therefore, they provide potentially more complete and accurate information than others about the adaptive challenge.

Give troublemakers space to speak by:

  • Leading by example. If you hold formal authority and a troublemaker speaks up in front of you, others will respond the same way you respond. Therefore, you should show openness and let them speak. 
  • Listening and learning. If you don’t have authority, listen to the troublemakers and encourage others to let them speak. Get them invited to meetings. Filter the negativity to find the useful information, and challenge others to do the same. 

Encouraging naysayers may encourage others to voice their dissenting opinions too. To encourage other minority voices:

  • Whenever someone brings up something discomforting, prod the topic back to life when others try to drop it.
  • Leave space on meeting agendas for dealing with sensitive topics and brainstorming.
  • Give awards to the troublemakers who voice the most helpful pieces of information.
  • Assign new hires experienced buddies who can help them understand the organization’s politics. This will allow the new hires to learn how to safely express their views. 
  • Organize informal activities, such as brown bag lunches, because people will feel safer about speaking up when they’re in informal contexts.
  • Don’t leave meetings right away—stay for the post-meeting conversation so that if anyone brings up a dissenting view, you can support them.
  • Create a way for people to submit anonymous comments and read all the comments at staff meetings.

Reflection Questions and Exercises

  • Make a list of past bad experiences with authority. How does your past affect your present? Do you usually follow orders, rebel, or practice avoidance? Does this help or hinder your ability to lead adaptive change? The next time you encounter an authority figure, respond in a different way than you normally would.
  • Who do you currently have a lot of unofficial authority with? Who do you need more from, and what strategies could you use to develop it? For example, you could exceed people’s expectations.
  • Arrive early to meetings and stay late. Use this extra time to assess what people thought of meetings and assess their relationships with others.

The following five tables will help you get a handle on who plays which roles (ally, opponent, and so on) when it comes to adaptive challenges. Fill out each table and add as many rows as needed:

Potential ally’s nameWhy is she a potential ally?What’s her priority? (Does she support the initiative, you personally, the company, and so on?)How can she help you with your initiative?
Potential opponent’s nameWhy is she a potential opponent?What will she lose if your initiative goes through?How can you stop her from opposing you or get her to support you?
Senior leader’s nameWhy is she important to your initiative?What does she tell you, or what signs does she give off, about the organization’s reaction to your initiative?How can you get her support?
Name of the person who will experience lossWhat will be lost?What new skill could you help her develop to endure the change?How could you help her get those skills?Will she need to leave the company?How could you set her up for success at a new company?
Troublemaker’s nameWhat useful ideas has she mentioned?How can you get others to listen to these ideas?How can you protect her voice?
Ronald Heifetz: Adaptive Leadership and Political Clout

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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