Political Capital in the Workplace: What’s in your wallet?

By Noel Calhoun | LinkedIn

As my adventures in managing millennial and gen z technologists (what I call the luckiest generation) continues, I am compelled to share the wisdom that comes from being a pointy haired boss in a Dilbert cartoon. My latest insight comes from watching very talented engineers do something they are not particularly talented at; interacting with other humans. You may think what I’m about to say is nothing more than common sense, but that is where you would be wrong. Think back to the days when you started out in tech. Did you know everything you know now? Of course not. You had to learn how to tell if people were insecure about their role, were over-inflating their accomplishments or significance, struggled with integrity, or were overly ambitious possibly at your expense. These things weren’t always obvious at the time but looking back, you can see things as they truly were.

To help accelerate the learning process, I want to cover a key element of office life — Political Capital. Normally that concept is associated with politicians (see Wikipedia’s definition) but it can be applied to any part of your life. In fact, if you are a game theorist, you might notice that Political Capital is simply another way of describing a repeated game. When you interact with someone once and only once, like a used car salesman selling you something off their lot, they may take one (probably greedy) approach. However, if you were in a position to buy a car everyday, it would dramatically alter the salesman’s approach. Repeated games tend to resolve themselves to socially optimal solutions because they introduce the secondary concept of punishment and reward based on what happened in the past. In a nutshell, this is political capital, and in many ways it’s what makes civil society even possible.

Why am I highlighting this concept in the context of managing young technologists? It is because, at some point, your employees need to understand that every day is a repeated game and it’s up to you as their manager to teach them this. Except for your first day, there is no clean slate. Your past actions are cumulative and will strongly affect how people interact with you in the future. You have a metaphorical ledger that hovers just above and to the right of your head and on day one, your ledger is either zero or slightly positive. Your new colleagues are likely to assume with no dis-confirming evidence that you are a good person and a potentially good colleague. Before you open your mouth for the very first time, your coworkers are projecting onto you their best generic form of a good person. Obviously things will change quickly after that but the good news is that you don’t normally start off in a hole.

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