Instinctual Teams »
« Becoming a Skillful Navigator (Part 2)

Becoming a Skillful Navigator (Part 1)

“What good is it to have a true north if you get lost in the swamp on your way there?” (From the movie “Lincoln”)

compass in handRob is a brilliant, charismatic engineering sales and marketing leader for a mid-sized manufacturing company. He is in his mid-forties and already been successful in a number of smaller companies, and his new company was excited to bring him onto the team two years ago.

During the interview process, Rob wowed the leadership team with his ideas on how he could take the organization in a whole new direction with their digital sales support systems. However, before long his ideas got bogged down in the efforts to implement them. Key stakeholders in the business verticals started to complain that Rob’s ideas were not practical for their kind of products or market. They said that when they tried to explain the “realities” to him it was difficult to get him to listen, and his follow-up actions after those meetings did not take their feedback into account.

However, no one directly brought the complaints to Rob’s attention and he thought everything was fine. As I spoke to others in the company it was clear that this was becoming Rob’s reputation—big-but-impractical ideas out of touch with the realities of this particular company, and an unwillingness or inability to listen. Others, including his boss, expected him to read between the lines and figure out the problem, but he was missing all the signals and he was losing credibility without knowing it.


Rob’s story is not uncommon. Recently, I’ve had a number of clients who have been very successful over the course of their careers but have recently gotten side-tracked due to one issue—having blind spots about their inability to read the shifting political culture in their organizations and react to them accordingly.

This article is about how to fix that and how to become more attuned to the subtlety of social and political dynamics in organizations (or any group). I want to frame it through the lens of the three instinctual domains—Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting.

While I’ve written about these three instinctual domains and our tendency to non-consciously focus on, or be biased toward, one of them in other articles. Here is a very brief description of each:

The Preserving domain is a group of instinctual impulses that relates to nesting and nurturing needs. They are inclinations to ensure we have the resources we need to survive, to ensure that we are safe and secure, to ensure shelter and comfort. In addition to these fundamental “self”-preservation needs, however, this domain also includes preservation of artifacts, traditions, our offspring, and those people we hold dear. It is an innate desire to ensure not only that we survive, but that those who carry our genes survive and prosper, and that we have the resources necessary to ensure that survival.

The instinctual drives in the Navigating domain help us navigate or orient to the group. They help us understand group dynamics, social status, and cultural mores and they equip us with skills that enable us to know who we can trust and develop reciprocal relationships with. As social creatures we need to understand how the group works and how to be accepted into it. We have to gather information about others but only reveal enough about ourselves to maintain a favorable reputation. We need to know who is in “the tribe” and who is not, and how we can ensure we remain a part of the social security network. The navigating behaviors help us do that.

The Transmitting domain of instinctual drives increases the likelihood that we will attract the attention of others and it equips us to demonstrate the value of our ideas, values, creations, or genes. This domain is about attention and intensity; it is about display and enticement. Commonly thought of as being focused on one-to-one relationships, it is more accurate to say that this group of instinctual behaviors enhances our ability to make sure some part of ourselves passes on to the next generation.

Rob’s instinctual bias is toward the Transmitting domain, and despite all of their many talents, people with this bias often lack the ability to skillfully Navigate their social environment. They are charming and apparently extroverted, they can entrance people with a good story and are often surrounded by attentive people, but this ability to engage an audience is not the same thing as being able to read the subtle cues coming back from others or the implicit currents that often shape a group.

Those with a transmitter instinctual bias may seem very social in a given environment, but they are usually not effective Navigators.

Of course, all of us, no matter what our instinctual bias, could become more skillful in our navigating, and how to do that is what we will focus on here.

To become a good Navigator, we need to start with understanding a couple of basic realities:

  • All humans are have evolved mental adaptations that help them both compete and cooperate with others, and we are often both competing and cooperating with the same people at the same time. (An example is coworkers on a project team who need to collaborate to get the project done but are also competing for the next promotion that becomes available.)
  • Many of these mechanisms help us track who we can reciprocate with and who we can trust. They do this through attunement to subtle behaviors among people, and they involve watching, listening, and evaluating. They involve sharing information as well, but in a controlled and managed way.
  • Further, it is the Navigating skills that allow us to, well, navigate through the complex realities of being part of a social species. Everyone we meet is seeking to satisfy their own needs, to be happy, to be successful. In any group, it is likely that the needs of some will conflict with the needs of others. Being able to effectively manage competing needs is dependent on the navigating domain of instinctual behaviors.

There are ways to Navigate that are “good” and ways that are “bad.” In fact, we can put those behaviors into three categories:

  • Harmful Navigating is when we use navigating behaviors to advance our interests at the expense of others or over-emphasize navigating behaviors to our own detriment because we fail to attend to other instinctual needs.
  • Non-transactional Navigating is the instinctual behaviors that those with a navigating instinctual bias generally do well and without thinking. They are the seemingly innocuous interactions we have with people during which the Navigator shares information but more so seeks information that may not have an immediate benefit but could be useful someday.
  • Skillful Navigating is when we use our political skills to effectively further our agenda or interests in a way that, at best, also furthers the agendas of others or, at worst, does no harm to others.

The path to becoming an effective Navigator is to minimize harmful navigating, increase the amount and deliberateness of the non-transactional navigating you do, and become more effective at skillful navigating.

Skillful Navigating is very similar to “political savvy,” though it is a much-less loaded term and, I believe, has broader implications. For some, the idea of becoming a more skillful navigator brings up fears of showing a lack of integrity similar to what they have perceived in people who they consider to be overly “political.” This is a valid concern, but it is important to remember that it is not a binary choice—you can be both a skillful navigator and have high integrity. There is a great scene in the movie “Lincoln” when one of Lincoln’s advisors is frustrated at his willingness to compromise, cajole, and collaborate with unlikeable people. Lincoln’s response is “What good is it to have a true north if you get lost in the swamp on your way there?” This is probably a fictional conversation, but it illustrates that Lincoln knew that both integrity and political skill were needed to truly make things happen.

That said, there are some behaviors in this domain that fall into the “Harmful Navigating” category that we really should avoid, including:

  • Don’t spread negative or hurtful gossip about others. This will always come back to haunt you.
  • Don’t start misleading gossip or share sensitive information. Information is the coin of the realm in the Navigating domain; treat it appropriately and respectfully.
  • Don’t focus only on your agenda. Navigating is done best when we think “win-win” and help others accomplish their agenda while we accomplish ours.
  • Don’t do all the talking. Navigating involves sharing some information about yourself to build rapport, but is done best when you focus on inquiry, listening, and paying attention to the other person.
  • Don’t be too clever. Group dynamics are extremely complex and that complexity is easy to underestimate. Some, when attempting to be politically savvy, try to be too clever. They think they can keep track of all the needs and goals of others, know all of the interrelationships of the people involved, and pull the right strings to get what they want. This is rarely the case—if we try to be too clever and too manipulative we will usually miss something important and our efforts will backfire. Candor and honesty combined with humility and sensitivity to relevant interests is most effective.

There can also be some downsides when people Navigate in ways that are not necessarily harmful but are not necessarily skillful. For example:

  • They can be too consensus-oriented, overly fearful of offending others.
  • They may be vague and non-committal, never fully revealing their point of view.
  • They can resist making decisions until they feel that they have considered all the variables, and there are often a lot of variables.
  • They can seem “two-faced,” telling this person one thing and that person something else. This is often an issue of nuance and variance in what the navigator focuses on in each conversation rather than outright deception.

(Read Part 2 of this article on how to become more skillful at navigating.)