How women can succeed at office politics

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Many women avoid political behaviour in the workplace because they see it as manipulative. Ines Wichert of Kenexa explains how influencing strategies can help you get what you want.

Organisational politics brings with it connotations of intrigue, manoeuvring and favouritism. It is rarely associated with positive attributes and it is often avoided by women. Nevertheless, many reluctantly recognise that those who use political behaviour in a skilled manner seem to advance faster in organisations – they always seem to be aligned to the right people, have important insider knowledge and are in favour with those in power.

Political behaviour has been defined in a number of different ways but there is general agreement that it is essentially about influencing others in order to obtain valued outcomes, such as a promotion or a good relationship with one’s supervisor. 

"The skilled use of political behaviour is key to success, as poorly executed political moves will be perceived as being manipulative."

This in itself is probably a fairly acceptable set of behaviours and goals, however the fact that political behaviour is deemed to be employed exclusively for a person’s self-interest, and often at the expense of others’ interests, makes it much less acceptable to many women. When we use words such as self-promotion and ingratiation women tend to switch off.

One way to help women overcome their reluctance for politicking in the workplace is to use different terminology. Phrases such as sharing success and building effective relationships can convey a different impression, but retain the same end result.

But it’s not just about terminology, women may also embrace political behaviours less readily as they feel less skilled at them and therefore their efforts may require more emotional labour. It has been suggested that those who possess political skill find it less emotionally demanding to use influencing strategies to obtain organisational assets that cannot easily be accessed through officially endorsed routes .

The skilled use of political behaviour is key to success, as poorly executed political moves will be perceived as being manipulative. Furthermore, in addition to being skilled political operators, women need the will to be politically active in an organisational context. This is where training and education may have a role to play. As we know from other areas, such as negotiation, once women are shown that a behaviour is acceptable and important, and once they have learned how to master it, they tend to adopt the behaviour much more readily .

But what exactly is this political skill that women may benefit from learning about? It is usually broken down into four different elements:

  1. Social astuteness - being good at interpreting social interactions, as well as one’s own and others’ behaviour.
  2. Apparent sincerity - showing integrity and authenticity.
  3. Interpersonal influence - being able to adapt one’s behaviour to the target audience and being able to influence others.
  4. Networking ability - identifying and building relationships with people who hold valuable assets for one’s personal and organisational gain.

Women should naturally excel at least at two of these behaviours: social astuteness, which is related to emotional intelligence, and apparent sincerity. Arguably, women’s flexibility and awareness of their target audience should also make them good at interpersonal influence. However, in male-dominated environments, women’s views are sometimes seen as less credible than those of men.

The area that women are most likely to struggle with is networking as they tend to find themselves excluded from powerful networks that can provide access to influential individuals as well as valued organisational knowledge and assets.

Political skills training may help women to understand that being political is not a negative trait, but instead it is an integral part of career management. It can also help women to find an authentic way of influencing through positive and socially acceptable forms of self-promotion.

Furthermore, training can help women to find effective ways of accessing powerful networks more easily. However, while training is a great starting point to help women understand the importance of organisational politics, women still need powerful mentors who can give them access to unwritten rules and valued organisational assets which are in a constant state of flux and less easy to cover in training.

To become a skilled operator in an organisation’s political arena, try the following:

  • Share personal success stories. This is an integral part of career success. It’s not about bragging, it’s about helping your very busy boss understand what you have delivered. Without you sharing, he or she won’t always know.
  • Find yourself a mentor, an effective mentor. Psychosocial support is a great thing to have but we know that the really effective mentors share information about unwritten organisational rules and provide access to powerful networks. Be selective in your choice of mentor and ask for the information you are currently not getting.
  • Network, network, network. Networking really is as important as everyone always makes it out to be. Find ways of building one-to-one relationships with people who are important to your career and keep them up-to-date on your progress.
  • If you find networking with men difficult, go prepared. What is the latest business deal or major sporting event that has taken place? Remember that men like to comment on things such as sports and business rather than sharing personal information early on in a conversation.
  • Change the terminology. Think about sharing successes and building winning relationships rather than self-promotion and ingratiation. Organisational politics become more palatable when you think of it in these terms.

Dr Ines Wichert is a senior psychologist at the Kenexa High Performance Institute, a division of Kenexa. She can be contacted at ines.wichert@kenexa.com.

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