If you ever watch a good sous-chef operate in a kitchen, you’ll see that they regularly take orders from their boss:  “Yes, chef!”  But just as importantly, they anticipate.  They understand their boss’ preferences, their style, their little idiosyncrasies.  They know what their chef will ask for before the words are even spoken.  The best sous-chefs are always a step ahead, taking action at their own level of authority and at their own level of ability.  They know which procedures can be hastily adapted and which ones need to be preserved.  They know which rules to bend and which ones to follow — all because they understand the needs of the chef.

Great employees have that same knack.

In work led by Steve Granger (at Asper), with Nick Turner (at Haskayne) and myself, we’re looking at what factors allow employees to confidently take action that goes beyond their usual job.  In our studies, we’ve been looking at “change oriented citizenship” — those little acts of deviance or defiance that employees engage in to make work better.  They try new methods in their jobs, suggest improvements to others, resist unproductive rules, and improvise new ways of working.

Many employees might be pretty leery of doing these things, because these little rebellions could be taken poorly.  What if the rule you break lands you in trouble?  What if your helpful suggestion gets taken as criticism?

So, Steve, Nick and I are looking at what helps people to feel confident about jumping in and doing these things.  To explain what gives people this confidence, we’ve started to look at something we call political knowledge.

Political knowledge is what great sous-chefs have.  They know what their boss’ job is like–not only their formal job description, but also the unwritten expectations they have to meet.  They know what things their chef is good at, and where they need the most help.  They understand what elements of the job energize the chef, and which ones put them in a sour mood.  And they know exactly who the chef likes, trusts, hates, and wants to avoid.  The more they know about the chef’s world, the better placed they are to always be doing the right thing at the right time.

In our first couple of studies, we’ve started to identify some important things about how people get political knowledge, and how they use it.  Here’s what you need to know:

  1. It isn’t just a matter of personality.  Just being on the job a long time doesn’t build political knowledge.  Being curious and open-minded couldn’t hurt, but it doesn’t seem to make you more politically knowledgeable.  We thought that having a deeply thoughtful and reflective personality might help, but it doesn’t appear to.
  2. What matters is your relationship.  If managers want brilliant followers who understand their world, they should spend time and cultivate deeper relationships.  Frequent interaction, unsurprisingly, built followers’ political knowledge.  But more importantly, followers had greater political knowledge when their boss invested in a strong relationship.  Followers who felt their boss defended them, recognized their potential, and helped them solve problems tended to develop more political knowledge.*
  3. Having it makes it safer to speak up and act up.  When employees had more political knowledge, their managers spoke more favourably about the suggestions and ideas the employees raised.  They saw their employees’ ideas as more feasible, practical, and appropriate to the organization.  In other words, having political knowledge allows employees the ability to raise the right suggestion at just the right moment.*

See the asterisks?  These findings are from studies where we ask employees and their managers questions at the same time.  We don’t really know which comes first.  Do great manager-employee relationships build political knowledge?  Or do the politically knowledgeable build better relationships?  We’re just starting down this research path, and we’re greatly appreciative of the participants (including you!) that make this work possible.  Stay tuned as we learn more about the causes and effects of political knowledge at work.