Not only great music, but also rivalry, jealousy, and betrayal are at the heart of “Amadeus”. At 4:59 of this clip, Mozart humiliates the powerful composer Salieri at the court of the Austrian Emperor. And as the talented Mozart gains recognition, Salieri becomes consumed with plotting Mozart’s downfall.

Stories like these feed the notion of politics as nefarious scheming: it’s not enough that I win, but you most lose. In other words, politics gets a bad rep when we fail to put something greater than ourselves first, or when we fall short of doing the right thing.

But politics, per definition is neither good nor bad. Being politically competent involves applying our skills and strengths to be more effective. It describes informal efforts to sell ideas, influence others, increase power, or achieve other objectives. Aristotle described human beings as “political animals”, noting our tendency to live in “polis” – organized social units. Mix people and power, and you get politics.

As coaches, we sometimes see careers derail because of a lack of political competence. If we ignore politics, we risk being under-political and naïve. If we fall prey to naked self-interest, we become over-political and lose the trust and support of those around us. Ironically, both situations can lead to isolation.

Not surprisingly, political skill is an important component of successful leadership and starts from the inside out. When is the last time that you have carefully assessed your own degree of political savvy? Dr. Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman assessment can help you get clarity.


Their assessment lets you confirm your preference for an either less or more political style, broken down into six individual dimensions for each style. This instrument also helps you identify areas where you may in fact be under or over political, and you can start taking measures to self-correct. As with any assessment, a feedback and review session with a trusted third party is an essential part of the process. This could be a friend or a colleague, but if you prefer an outside source, consider partnering with a coach who can ensure that you optimize rather than overcorrect.

Here, finally, are some of the lessons we have seen play out time and again among our most politically astute clients:

1/Be sincere and authentic.

Inspiring trust is the foundation of being a politically competent leader. Contrary to what many think, being straightforward and transparent around our agendas helps to de-politicize issues rather than add to them. As others know what our agenda is, we invite stakeholders into the decision-making process, clarify their needs, and can start looking for win-win solutions.

2/Think before you act.

Beware of amygdala hijacks…This is one of the highest predictors for career derailment if we don’t’ know whether, when and how to voice our thoughts. If we are in a situation that triggers us, we need to take a deep breath and center ourselves in the presence. Only then are we able to think clearly through what would happen if we acted in a certain way and can explore alternatives.

3/Scan your environment.

First, start by identifying distinct stakeholders and their degree of influence in the organization. Next, in order to influence these stakeholders, we must be able to observe and, understand what matters to them. By paying attention to what they say (and what they don’t say), their non-verbal cues and facial expressions, we can get a better idea of their concerns and hot buttons. Putting ourselves in “their shoes” and validating our perceptions with someone that we trust to compare notes with.

4/Be plugged in.

Many successful executives have stalled their careers as a result of poor networking. This includes their immediate teams, managing up effectively (how well do we keep our boss in the loop at all times?), but also people outside of the organization as well as lateral and vertical relationships in the organization. Forging alliances, tapping into the grapevine, and identifying sponsors is what we call basic career hygiene. Not only will these connections support our growth when all goes well, but they also can have our back when we experience a professional low. Unsure about the “how to”? Consider observing effective networkers and see what you can learn from them.

Or read up on how effective leaders create and use networks.

5/Tell your story (or others will do it for you).

By engaging in negative self-talk and holding ourselves back we sabotage our ability to succeed. Do you want to be universally liked or do you want to get promoted? Ask yourself: “What kind of impressions do I make on others and what kind of impressions about me do I want them to walk away with?” Being proactive, putting ourselves out there and ask for assignments allows us to be visible and take credit.

Now, if you are a normal mortal, but – like Mozart – already have made an influential enemy, here are some great ideas on how you can make your enemies your allies. The good news: political savvy can be learned and previous blunders can be overcome.

by renita kalhorn

From the time we start school around the age of five, we learn very quickly that there’s only one right answer: 2 + 2 = 4.  And it pays to know what it is. Our identity gets increasingly wrapped up in knowing the right answer and we’re conditioned by society that we’re just supposed to know, in no uncertain terms, everything from what career to choose and who to marry, to what to say to in a difficult conversation with a partner or what’s going to happen in the board meeting.

And even though we live in the most uncertain, unpredictable time in the history of mankind ever, nobody tells us that it’s okay to not know. So we all walk around pretending that we do know and hoping we won’t get busted.

As usual, Dilbert knows what I’m talking about.


(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about fact-based knowledge. When the CFO gets on an earnings call with analysts, he better know what the current financials are — but he doesn’t have to know where the economy is going to be in nine months and exactly how that will affect the company’s sales in Asia. We want our doctor to know how to treat a common condition — but she doesn’t have to know exactly the cause of a rare combination of symptoms and the surefire way to treat them.)

The thing is, being in a place where we think we should know spits us out of the present moment. To be wholly present, we have to be willing to step into the unknown, where we’re not trying to control our future based on past experiences. That’s when we plug into the big database in the sky, get access to Infinite Intelligence. That’s what happened with Einstein: after he had his flash of insight into the theory of relativity, he then had to go back and learn the math to explain what he intuitively understood.

So here are some things I know about “not knowing:”

  • Slow down and shut up. Ask the universe/God/whatever higher power you believe in for guidance — and then pay attention. The answer might come in a song, a movie, a book or an old friend that you haven’t seen for awhile.
  • Get used to the feeling of unfamiliar. Our body craves the adventure of the unknown. A photographer friend says he loves that feeling of butterflies in his stomach when he’s on a shoot that tells him: “I’m about to do something creative.”
  • Acknowledge what you do and don’t know. Even the most prickly conversation will go better if you say: “Here’s what I know based on the information I have. You have different information than I do so I’m curious to hear your point of view.”

It’s not “all or nothing.” You don’t know have to know every single step on the path before taking action. In fact, you can just get excited about finding out what the next step is.

Really, it’s okay to not know.

by carolyn mathews

(posted in 2011, our readers rated this as one of our all time favorite posts so here it is again)

Mention a 360-degree feedback process to those who have experienced it and you will likely witness the rolling of eyes, apparent cringing, or the telling of personal horror stories. This is what I witnessed almost across the board when I told people my dissertation topic. (For the record, its title is, “Enhancing the 360-Degree Feedback Process: A Strengths-based Approach.”) If you read this blog, you likely work in an upper-management/executive position within your organization. Just as likely, you have participated in a 360-degree feedback process, as both a rater for someone else or as the person being rated (the “ratee”). I have been through the process myself. So, it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) Assessment Certification Workshop.

My trepidation was borne from my skepticism regarding the process, not from the assessment products offered by CCL. Research shows in many cases, 360s are mishandled from the start in terms of stated purpose, accountability, and psychometric properties. I am happy to report that CCL addresses all of these concerns in their training of consultants, coaches, and HR professionals. Indeed, according to a colleague in the class who experienced the CCL products and process within his organization, when CCL professionals are brought in to run a 360-degree feedback process, they emphasize and explain these elements before any assessments start.

Okay, so having established some 360 ground rules, we know to declare a clear purpose to all participants (preferably developmental as opposed to administrative). We also know that accountability on the part of the raters, the ratee, and the organization is crucial for employees to view it as something from which they will benefit. Further, we recognize that a psychometrically sound instrument, one that has been validated and reflects the organization’s values, strategies and goals, is crucial for the success of this process. But what is a positive psychology coach like me supposed to do with a process that traditionally focuses on deficits rather than strengths?

The 360-degree feedback process is often used as part of an annual appraisal process, and as such, there is a tendency for organizations and managers – and the ratees themselves – to concentrate on deficits while virtually ignoring strengths. Strengths represent what is “right” or going well for the employee. Therefore, we tend to pay little attention to these non-problems. Instead, there is collective focus on what’s wrong, also known as (with a positive spin) “room for improvement,” or “opportunities.” No matter what we call this deficit target, research by the Gallup organization shows that the greatest opportunities for success come not from focusing on what’s wrong, but by emphasizing what’s right.

Does this mean as managers, HR professionals, or coaches we must ignore a person’s lack of skills or behavioral concerns? I don’t believe so. The use of positive psychology in the workplace is not meant to suggest we can ignore problems in favor of the positive. Positive psychology in the workplace provides a holistic approach; one that asserts the “biggest bang for the buck” comes from the acknowledgment and use of strengths as a way to build creativity and collaboration, solve problems, and even address areas those “opportunities” for improvement.

So how can you incorporate a strengths-based approach into a traditional 360-degree feedback process?

Ongoing management: Address problem areas immediately, instead of waiting for this annual feedback process. This is the responsibility of management, and one that often slides further down the “to-do” list. No one likes to be the “heavy.” However, if issues are addressed when current, it will appear more relevant to your direct report than a mention months later in the comments section of the 360 questionnaire.

Before the 360-degree feedback process: Assure your team that the purpose of the 360 process is for developmental purposes (not administrative) and will be considered along with other information gleaned throughout the year.

During the feedback session: Use the feedback related to strengths to discuss how your direct reports can rectify problem areas. This helps align the solution needed for the organization with the person’s personal values, which may result in longer-lasting change. In addition, ask them to imagine ways that using one or two strengths exclusively may turn it into a weakness. A balanced approach is best.

After the feedback: Collaborate with your direct reports on their development plans, based in part on the feedback they received. Ask them to suggest goals that not only relate to the organization’s overall mission, but also will incorporate their personal strengths. My research shows an integral link between elements of positive psychology, positive organizational behavior, and a successful 360-degree feedback process. Adding a strength-based component puts that personal stamp on the goal, making it meaningful.

Ultimately, the 360-degree feedback process is an efficient way to track someone’s development, how well they play with others, and to help direct their developmental goals. And, it can be used in a way that emphasizes positive opportunities for success.

by renita kalhorn

silver lining

“I think of intelligent optimism as a discipline, the rigorous discipline to stay in the state of mind of possibility.” Ben Zander, The Art of Possibility

A few weeks ago I was up in the Boston area for meetings, and visiting my dad in Concord. Today, around 5:30 pm — rush hour — we were driving toward the city to pick up my sister at the airport. There had been quite a bit of discussion beforehand about what time we should leave to take into account the traffic and as we headed in, sure enough, there were lines of cars in every direction.

“Look at all the traffic!” I kept exclaiming (because I’m from New York where, you know, we hardly have any). “There’s only one person in each car! It’s bumper to bumper! How do they do this everyday!?” And then my dad demonstrated why he’s a master of the silver lining. “Well, let’s just be glad that all these people have jobs,” he said.

If you’re someone who believes in looking at things just the way they are, you probably find perennially positive types like my dad annoying and Pollyanna-ish. Come on, be realistic, you’re thinking.

The thing is, there is no one, singular reality. There’s always an alternative view and we get to decide what it is. When you’re driving down the street, you can notice all the potholes — or, just as realistically, how much of the street is pothole-free. You can fixate on the “no thanks” you got from the potential investor/client — or, on the fact that you had a meaningful two-hour discussion.

When you’re able to home in on the brighter side (and it takes practice, for sure), you’re more likely to keep on going in the face of difficulty, to not give up. Studies show that pessimists are more often right — in fact, there is no solution to this problem! — but optimists, by virtue of their persistent nature, are ultimately more successful. (In a study of law students, Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, found that a person’s level of optimism in the first year of law school corresponded with his or her salary 10 years later. On a 5-point optimism scale, every 1-point increase in optimism translated into a $33,000 annual increase.)

So how can you get better at this “look on the bright side” thing if it doesn’t come naturally? Anytime something unwanted happens, practice finishing this sentence: “Well, at least…”

“Well, at least I didn’t spill coffee on my suit/dress.” “Well, at least I was able to meet with the CEO.” “Well, at least I had the courage to ask for the raise.” “Well, at least I finished the race.”

If you can’t find a positive slant, ask a natural optimist; they’ll find an angle. Like Henry, my four-year-old nephew, said about his classmate: “She’s kind of mean and bites…but she can count to ten.”

happy summer!


doing less

As coaches, we commit to “walk the talk.” As such, we embrace living lives that are balanced and fulfilled, both personally as well as professionally. Part of this balance means we take time to enjoy the summer holidays. While we will continue to work on a number of assignments and remain dedicated to our partnership with wonderful clients, we will take the month of August off from writing our blog. If you have some time and wish to explore some of our past blogs, simply scroll down and check out the Archive.

If you, too, are able to make this a month when you slow down the rhythm of life, take a step back and enjoy the beautiful season with family and friends – congratulations! This is another step towards building sustainable happiness and well-being. And leaning back breeds creativity – as seen in August’s The Economist:  In praise of laziness. C u in September!

by renita kalhorn

persuasion and perspective

Recently I was coaching a group of Navy SEAL officer candidates. Obviously, with all the hours of fitness training and time they’re dedicating (some of them drive four or five hours each way to the gatherings), they all want very much to be offered a SEAL contract. They also want to avoid the fate of an earlier candidate who told the board, with sincere intention and intensity, how much he wanted to be a SEAL and the extreme sacrifices he had made to get there – and who, ultimately, was declined.

He made the mistake that many people make when they are asking for something, whether it’s an introduction, an interview, a job or a raise. They state their case from the least compelling point of view possible: their own.

“Going to business school will help me transition from consulting to finance.”

“I need this raise because we’re having another baby.”

“I want to pick your brain so I can get my book published.”

No matter how sincere or earnest the reason, guess what the listener (at least subliminally) is thinking: “Yeah, so what? Why should I care?”


So that’s the paradox: to get what you want, you have to momentarily set aside your own desire and put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Because the most effective way to get someone’s attention is to position your request from their point of view. (Isn’t that what works with you?) Show someone that helping you get what you want is somehow relevant to them and they will be much more receptive to listening to what you have to say. (Savvy parents get this when they say to their children: “If you are dressed and ready to go in 10 minutes then you’ll have time to get an ice cream cone before we run errands.”)

To be able to empathize with and understand what’s important to another person even as you have your own urgent wants — now that is a useful and powerful skill.


First, put aside your attachment to what you want. (Go ahead, just put it right over there.)

Now look at the situation from their point of view: try to understand what they want, why they want it and how they feel about things. It takes ingenuity and patience to think it through (especially if you don’t know them well) but a little strategic forethought does wonders to remove obstacles.

Here’s what presenting your case from the other person’s point of view looks like:

         Want the job? Explain how hiring you will make their life easier and make them look good — not why you want to leave your current job. (In the case of the Navy recruiting board, yes, they want men who are dedicated to becoming a SEAL, but more importantly they want someone who has a balanced outlook and will be a good fit with the SEAL community.)

         Want someone to take your cold call? Acknowledge that their time is valuable: “I know you’re busy so I’ll make this brief. I’m calling to see if I might be able to help you save money on your company’s health insurance.”

         Want more time to produce a deliverable? Instead of telling the client you’re backed up until Friday (your POV), tell them it’s in their best interest that you take the time to thoroughly research the case in order to deliver the most informed advice possible and avoid issues down the line.

         Want to ask a favor via email? Start by talking about the person you’re writing to: thank them (for inspiration, insights or information – it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking to be gratifying) or comment on a recent accomplishment (check their Linkedin account, blog or Google). No-one — no matter how famous or busy — is going to stop reading about how great they are! Once you’ve established a relevant connection, they’ll be much more receptive to helping you.

Of course, this all presumes that there is overlap between what you want and what they want, that there are mutual benefits to be had. Taking some time to think strategically from the other person’s point of view will help them see the connection and smooth your path to getting what you want.

by carolyn mathews


Most of us have likely heard the suggestion to “think positive” when we are in tough or distressing situations. For some people, this may truly be more difficult than for others. Although well meaning, suggesting positive thinking may result in a rebound effect.

Researchers at Michigan State University have discovered brain markers that indicate a propensity toward positive or negative thought. In other words, we tend to be hardwired biologically. The researchers recorded brain activity while showing graphic images to study participants. Positive thinkers showed less brain activity than negative thinkers. What’s more, the request to decrease negative emotions backfired to make negative emotions worse, shown by increased brain activity.

The take-away? Suggesting to people that they think more positively in tough situations or transitions probably won’t work. If they were hardwired for this, they would probably be doing it already. (This, in part, is what concerns me about the self-help, positive thinking industry. But I digress…) What works better, according to lead researcher, Jason Moser, is to have the person “think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

As a positive psychology practitioner, one of my first strategies to help someone navigate a major life transition would be to employ relevant character strengths, such as creativity, judgment, bravery and hope. (Other character strengths may also be useful for some people in considering the problem differently, too.)

Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.

Judgment: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides.

Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain.

Hope: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.

Boosting the use of these strengths in difficult times may be just what is needed to help the person navigate the tough times without the added (and useless) pressure of also having to “think positive.” Even if they are not among your top character strengths, they can be boosted.  For brief definitions of these suggested character strengths, see below. Then, think about ways you can use them as you find yourself reacting to difficult situations. They may just help move you from negative thinking to useful thinking.


Source: VIA Institute on Character. For more complete definitions of these character strengths, or to learn more about other character strengths, go to


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