Relationships are a fundamental aspect of work, and few relationships are more important than those between leaders and their followers. Decades ago, the prevailing thought was that leaders operated with a consistent style and treated all followers similarly. We now recognize that leaders tend to develop relationships of differing quality with individual followers within their workgroup. Additionally, we now understand that employees often perceive that leaders treat members of the workgroup differently, regardless of the leader’s intent.

When leaders develop relationships of differing quality (perceived or actual) with their followers, it triggers a social comparison process that can affect employee attitudes and behaviors. On the surface, this would seem to have negative effects, as this unequal treatment could leave employees stressed or even dejected and might lead to lower job performance and satisfaction. However, ambitious employees might see these differentiated contexts as opportunities to get ahead. This thinking has led to speculation that certain personal characteristics might dictate whether employees experience positive or negative effects when leaders form differential relationships within the workgroup. Recently, some colleagues and I published the results of two studies designed to investigate whether political skill, a social effectiveness characteristic, determines which employees flourish or flail in differentiated leader-follower relationship contexts.

Political skill is defined as the ability to understand others at work and to use that knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal or organizational objectives. It has been conceptualized as a set of competencies – social astuteness, networking ability, interpersonal influence, and apparent sincerity – that enable employees to navigate organizational settings in a manner that enhances their performance and well-being. This is possible because, in concert, the political skill competencies provide individuals with the ability to read people and situations effectively and to adjust their behavior accordingly. As a result, we thought politically-skilled employees would benefit in environments where leaders were prone to form relationships of differing quality, because they could use their social prowess to forge better relationships with the leader.

Across two studies we found results consistent with these expectations. First, politically-skilled individuals developed higher quality relationships with their leaders, both absolutely and in relation to their peers. Further, these effects were amplified in contexts – both actual and perceived – where leaders developed differentiated relationships with members of the workgroup. Finally, we found that the effects of these improved relationships with leaders translated into higher job performance and satisfaction.

In sum, politically-skilled individuals are equipped to capitalize on leaders’ tendencies to treat followers differently, because they have the social savvy to develop better relationships that can positively affect their performance and satisfaction at work. Want to know how politically skilled you are? Feel free to contact me at p.ellen@northeastern.edu.

Parker Ellen

Assistant Professor, Management and Organizational Development