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Office Politics
Women balk, but they need to know how to play the game to land leadership roles

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin  5/19/2014
 

Many women may cringe at the mere thought of office politics, but experts say businesswomen who aspire to executive posts avoid workplace dynamics at their own career peril.

In surveys and interviews from 2013 with more than 270 female managers from major corporations, women’s coaching firm Flynn Heath Holt Leadership of Charlotte, N.C., found that the managers repeatedly mentioned office politics as one aspect of business meetings that they disliked.

“In the process of coaching and training women leaders over the course of a decade, we’ve maintained a running list of common threads—and a disdain of office politics is in the top three,” Flynn Heath Holt partner Kathryn Heath wrote in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog post earlier this year. Reviews of thousands of 360-degree employee feedback surveys showed that women are seen as needing to develop workplace political savvy, she wrote.

Ignoring office politics “can be one of the biggest career killers,” said Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She conducts workshops and other programs for women aspiring to career leadership positions. In a survey of 100 emerging female professionals in the high-tech industry, she found that only 2 percent strongly felt they knew how to handle office politics in a positive and effective way. Miller, speaking with SHRM Online, also cited a 2013 LinkedIn and Citi survey (Today’s Professional Woman Report) of 954 professional women, which found office politics one of the three biggest work frustrations; 23 percent named it their top frustration.

Building managerial and technical skills isn’t enough for emerging leaders, said Miller. “In my opinion it’s well worth gaining some skills that help you navigate office politics in a professional and positive way,” she said.

She who shies away from office politics could become an unwitting victim of political power plays, be frozen out by teammates because she gets her work done quickly and makes colleagues “look bad,” or see her presentation bumped so someone favored by management can make one instead, according to Miller.

“Every corporate environment has corporate politics. As soon as you get two or more people in the room you’re going to have some dynamic there,” she said. “Women will recoil from an office politics situation out of distaste rather than dive in and play the game and give as good as they get.”

Researchers have found that many women consider office politics difficult, painful or even evil, according to Miller. There’s nothing evil or manipulative about developing political savvy, however. Doing so can help a female executive gain influence and possibly become a corporate culture “game changer,” she said.

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that politically savvy people do better in their careers, said Miller.

“[Women] can do it. It’s not that hard,” said Heath in an interview with SHRM Online. “I think they have to develop a skill set.”

It’s important that women build a support network to help guide their careers, according to Heath.

“Build yourself a board of directors. It’s not a group that ever meets. And they don’t know they’re on your board of directors,” she said. Your “board” is a group of people—family, former professors and colleagues—who can give you career advice. “You can consider them on your board and you can fire them at any time because they don’t know they’re on there. It’s almost like multiple mentors,” said Heath.

In her HBR blog post, Heath also suggested lining up “people who are willing to expend political capital on your behalf. Research indicates that men are more willing to trade favors than women are, and that may put them in a better position to line up sponsorship.” Nonetheless, she wrote, “One thing that women can do right now is to reach out and align themselves with other women who are higher up in their organization.”

Heath told SHRM Online: “Pick somebody who’s savvy and let someone help you. And you help them.” That could mean giving them a restaurant tip or helping them with their children. “It’s not a one-way relationship.”

Heath also suggests women:

• Ask for opportunities, promotions and perks.

• “Plug in” to the office grapevine and form workplace alliances. Even high-performers risk isolation if they’re rarely in the office.

• Consider how you “land” on other people—the impressions you make—and work to act “powerfully.”

• Imagine your career two or three steps from now rather than focusing only on your current position.

• Take credit for your accomplishments, even though research shows that people accept boastfulness in men but not in women.

Citing Political Skill at Work (Nicholas Brealey America, 2010), Miller named four competencies of politically savvy people: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and sincerity.

She suggests that women draw a shadow organizational map to increase social astuteness. It’s a new way of mapping out relationships, power and influence dynamics at work. Turning the organizational chart into a shadow organizational map helps a person navigate in a more positive and savvy way, she said.

Women also should understand their company’s unwritten, unspoken rules of the game, so they can avoid the missteps that can harm career or reputation, said Miller.

“It’s not possible to opt out of office politics,” Heath wrote. “If you want to have a voice, if you want to make an impact, if you want to have a career, politics is simply part of the job.”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia, Pa., previously reported for Dow Jones Newswires and The Associated Press.

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