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By Dr Ines Wichert

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 behaviours 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. 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’ interest 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. 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.

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 access through officially endorsed routes[i]. The skilled use of political behaviours is key to success as poorly executed political moves will be perceived as being manipulative. Furthermore, in addition to being a skilled political operator, 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, women tend to adopt the behaviour much more readily[ii]. But what exactly is this political skill that women may benefit from learning about? It is usually broken down into four different elements[iii]:

  • Social astuteness – being good at interpreting social interactions, as well as one’s own and others’ behaviour
  • Apparent sincerity – all about integrity and authenticity
  • Interpersonal influence –  being able to adapt one’s behaviour to the target audience and being able to influence others
  • Networking ability – identifying and building relationships with people who hold valuable assets for one’s personal and organisational advantage

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

Mentoring, networking and organizational politics are often treated as separate concepts but they are in fact highly interrelated as a number of different studies have shown. For example, receiving mentoring does not in and of itself increase career success. Instead, it increases a protégée’s networking behaviour which in turn increases his or her career success[iv]. Interestingly, this positive domino effect does not always seem to work for women[v].

It has been suggested that the missing link for women is a limited understanding of politics. As women may not be sponsored by those in the know and in power, their political understanding may not increase sufficiently enough to make them more effective at networking. This is where women, and ultimately organisations, will benefit from more formal mentoring processes. Informal approaches are likely to encourage powerful mentors to look for protégée’s who are like themselves – in most cases white and male- rather than widening their circle of sponsorship and support to include women and other excluded groups such as black and minority ethnic employees.

It is generally accepted that effective, well-embedded processes help women advance in organisations, and co-incidentally also make politicking less prevalent as it become more difficult to use informal, unsanctioned routes to get to desired outcomes.

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

1. Share personal success stories

Sharing personal success stories 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Think about sharing successes and building winning relationships rather than self-promotion and ingratiation. Organizational politics become more palatable when you change the terminology.

About the author

Ines Wichert is a Senior Psychologist at the KHPI with a special interest in talent management and female leadership development. Her book, “Where Are All the Senior Women? Nine Critical Job Assignments for Women Business Leaders,” was published in October 2011.

Dr. Wichert has appeared on BBC News commenting on quotas for women, and has written and been interviewed for various broadsheets, including the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and other leading HR publications in the UK and abroad.

[i] D. C. Treadway, W. A. Hochwarter, C. J. Kacmar and G. R. Ferris (2005): Political will, political skill and political behaviour. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Vol. 26, pp. 229 – 245.

[ii] L. Babcock, S. Laschever, M. Gelfand and D. Small (2003): Nice Girls Don’t Ask. Women negotiate less than men – and everyone pays the price. Harvard Business Review, October 2003.

[iii] G. R. Ferris, D. C. Treadway, P. L. Perrewé, R. L. Brouer, C. Douglas and S. Lux (2007): Political Skill in Organizations. Journal of Management, Vol. 33, pp. 290-320.

[iv] G. Blickle, A. H. Witzki and P. B. Schneider (2009): Mentoring support adn power: A three year predictive field study on protégé networking and career success. Journal of Vocational Behavior. Vol. 74, pp. 181-189.

[v] F. R. Blass, R. L. Brouer, P.L. Perrewé and G. R. Ferris (2007): Politics Understanding  and Networking Ability as a Function of Mentoring. The Roles of Gender and Race. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. Vol. 14, pp. 93 – 105.

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