3 Ways to Improve Your Political Acumen

Publish Date: October 23, 2019


New perioperative nurse leaders may have the naïve perspective that politics don’t matter for their role. Not so, says David Wyatt, PhD, RN, NE-BC, CNOR, vice president of Perioperative Enterprise at Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital in Nashville, Tenn.

“Any nurse leader can do an excellent job from a technical standpoint, but if they don’t know how to navigate the politics in their work setting, they will have a difficult time finding success and may burn bridges that are hard to rebuild,” he cautions.

Wyatt gives this example of a leader falling into this type of “land mine” scenario:

A healthcare organization wants to enhance their spine program and the perioperative nurse director is tasked with planning the project. She speaks with one of the spine surgeons in the program who is the chair of neurosurgery to develop plans for new equipment, instruments and other plans needed for the project. When she presents her plan to all leadership team members involved in the spine program, it blows up in her face because she failed to involve orthopedic surgeons in the planning. Frustrated by not being involved, the chair of orthopedic surgery invalidates the nurse leader’s plans.

A more politically savvy approach would have been for the nurse leader to reach out to the chairs of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery to learn who to connect with in planning the enhanced program and ensure that all of the key decisionmakers are involved in the project, Wyatt suggests.

Skills to Hone Your Political Acumen

New nurse leaders may try to take the fastest approach, instead of really putting some time and effort into understanding who the key stakeholders and decision makers are.

Wyatt suggests these three ways both new and experienced nurse leaders can take time to develop their political acumen:

  1. Watch and Learn

    To understand the politics of an organization, you have to recognize that they exist, he suggests. “Survey the landscape to understand the power brokers (both official and unofficial) influencing decisions. Assess relationships to see who reports to whom from an official standpoint, as well as the strong relationships you witness beyond titles and professional hierarchy.”


  2. Ask About Political Dynamics

    Be open to talking to the person you report to about any particular social dynamics you need to be aware of that could influence your work.

    “Political acumen is almost 100% awareness and paying attention to the relationship and dynamics between individuals—you watch how people act around other individuals,” he advises. For example, when the CEO comes into a meeting, observe how the people in the room behave.


  3. Don’t Get Lazy
  4. Seasoned nurse leaders have to remember that this is not something you have achieved and then you are done with because every time a new person enters the organization or there is a strategic change in the organization, it can shift the political dynamic—"you have to stay on your toes about this all the time,” Wyatt stresses. For example, if a new surgical specialty is chosen to take a more significant focus, this would change the powerbase for everything.

To all nurse leaders, Wyatt shares these closing words to maintain their political savvy: “stay aware, watch dynamics, ensure you are including all stakeholders, and don’t try to rush into decisions.”

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Related Reading

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