Organisational Politics – are you a Wise Owl?

By Anj Handa and Meg Munn

We all know what it’s like to fail to achieve an objective, sometimes it’s outside our control. But there are times when we haven’t read a situation correctly, or the issue was approached in the wrong way or at the wrong time. We failed at organisational politics.

Using the word ‘politics’ may create a negative reaction, bringing up thoughts of game playing, or how some people succeed at the expense of others, a thoroughly bad thing.

Not everyone agrees. Two academics from Birmingham University, Simon Baddeley and Kim James, argued that managers need good political skills in order to succeed. And that this doesn’t mean compromising personal integrity.

Innocent Sheep or Wise Owl?

In their paper ‘Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers’, they used a diagram with two axes to illustrate the point: one being the level of political awareness, and the other from behaving ethically through to working in a self-interested way.

Each quadrant has an animal to illustrate behaviour. Thus, the ethical and politically unaware is seen as naïve, or innocent – a sheep, while the owl represents the wise behaviour of the ethically and politically aware.

Effective Activism – Tips from a former MP

By Meg Munn

This tool also applies in the world of activism. I’ve seen local projects working to improve the environment start full of energy and determination.

As time goes on, activists become disillusioned when others don’t listen, seem uninterested or do not prioritise their issue. While enthusiasm, commitment and hard work are key ingredients of achievement they are rarely sufficient.

To reach a goal more is needed: a hard-headed analysis of the situation, a plan which includes an understanding of where there is support, where indifference, and who your opponents are.

If you want the local Council to do something you need to understand the different responsibilities of elected local councillors, and those working for the local authority. Do local councillors have a record of supporting similar issues?

Will the proposal cost the Council money, or save some? If you have a good understanding of how the Council operates, your proposals can be framed in a way to get a good hearing and increase the chance of success.

Influencing at the National Level

Influencing politics at the national level is more difficult, but asking similar questions remains vital. As a Member of Parliament, I was contacted every week by constituents who wanted to see change.

However, most of these were identical emails orchestrated by an online organisation. Receiving 100 emails on an issue that I and my party in Parliament were already committed to made no difference, just as receiving 100 emails on an issue that I or my party were against made no difference either.

A personal letter explaining a situation is much more effective. Or, better still, invite the MP to visit and see for themselves. The more effort an activist makes to understand the issues and personalise the approach, the better the response is likely to be.

Being very active may leave someone feeling that they have done all they could, and that the system is against them. In reality they have probably been working in the ‘innocent’ quadrant of the diagram.

Those who are serious about change should place themselves in the ‘wise’ quadrant, and their behaviour is much more likely to achieve results.

A Lobbyist’s Perspective

By Anj Handa

As an experienced lobbyist trained in media handling, I have learned over the years how to hold my own with politicians, journalists and other influencers.

For many years, I was the Director of a Government quango , with a remit to influence policy and practice in the field of employment and skills initiatives.

Like Meg, I have also witnessed campaigns and grassroots initiatives start, only to fizzle out. Often, this happens because there is no clear strategy about how to influence effectively: when, how and what to communicate and through which medium; and a failure to translate frustration into measured, coherent messages.

It can feel daunting at first, but my advice is simple. It’s this: Do your research, using credible sources. Couple it with emotion (without being emotive) by standing in your own truth. I’d like to share an example of how I put this advice into practice.

In 2014, I led a high-profile legal and media campaign for an asylum seeker named Afusat Saliu. She was seeking asylum on the grounds of the risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on her two daughters aged under five if the family were to be deported.

I brought together a top legal team from the UK, Belgium and Australia to build the case and the petition received over 126,500 signatures.

MPs worked with me behind the scenes to prevent a deportation and while this sadly did happen in the end, supporters contributed over £13,000 to an End FGM fundraising drive and FGM was pushed higher up the political agenda.

Emotional Correctness

I believe that before we can achieve political correctness, we must first establish emotional correctness, by putting aside our differences to truly listen to each other. It works! But don’t just take my word for it.

Below follows a testimonial that I received from a supporter:

I don’t know Anj Handa personally, but she’s the person who got me write to Theresa May regarding the deportation… I’m almost 5o and have never written in protest before, but someone has to say “This is wrong.”

In a digital age with ease of access to information and protest, where so many causes, so many voices and so much noise dilutes rather than engages, I have found Anj Handa to be a model of information who cares about people and their rights.

Anj Handa is a modern-day protester – she speaks from a place of positivity and the belief that she can create change. She has been a consistent force for changing attitudes towards FGM.”

She was right! I do believe that I can create change – and so can you. Your voice matters. It’s up to you to believe that it does.

Meg Munn is an international governance consultant with a focus on parliamentary processes, political party development, gender mainstreaming and women’s leadership.

She was an MP for had fourteen years, as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and previously, Minister for Women & Equality.

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues.