Why women need to embrace office politics

by Jul 21, 2020

Embrace office politics as a leadership skill

Office politics and political savviness are becoming viewed as a skilled art form around relationship building, diplomacy, negotiation and navigating ambiguity.

In an ever changing world, any future leader needs to be skilled at managing a range of relationships with individuals at all levels of seniority. This will include people with differing and sometimes conflicting goals, values and priorities. We all know that sometimes the most helpful person isn’t the most senior. Political astuteness, also known as political savviness, is the subtle skill of being able to anticipate and understand very often the unwritten sub-text, of any given situation and responding accordingly. Frequently coming under the negative banner of office politics, it is very often cited as a reason for women leaving a company.

Gaining influence

Understanding that we need to be able and willing to use a situation to advantage is a vital component. That willingness is an important tool in influencing and engaging key players in any business. It helps leaders to understand others and to apply that knowledge to achieve positive organisational outcomes. Ferris and Perrewé in the Empowered Manager, Political Skills at Work, identify social astuteness interpersonal influence, apparent sincerity (note it doesn’t have to be real) as well as networking ability as key pillars to career success.

Office politics

Office politics has a bad reputation and women in particular are not comfortable dealing with situations they feel are underhanded, transactional and devious. They associate this with Machiavellian back stabling in the corridors of power, frequently portrayed in sinister movies and television mini-series. Or simplified into undignified gossiping. However, this notion is changing as our attitudes to collaboration shift and we become more transparent.

Office politics and political savviness is becoming viewed as a skilled art form around relationship building, diplomacy, negotiation and navigating ambiguity. It is now perceived to be a vital skill needed to achieve both organisational and personal goals. Networking is defined by Merriam Webster as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” Note the word productive. Office politics is a sophisticated extension of the networking process, as well as a much needed leadership skill, which is why women need to perfect those skills.

office politics

Behaviour behind office politics and political astuteness

1. Investment in relationships

There is no doubt that strong interpersonal skills are the foundation of being able to navigate office politics. This means having a level of self awareness which allows you to focus on others and your surroundings to build solid relationships. It requires excellent powers of social observation and deep listening skills, so that information can be processed neutrally rather than filtered through a “me” bias. This allows you to interpret and anticipate outcomes of information and behaviour more easily.

Skilled influencers are not more obviously political, the process just comes to them more naturally.

2. Pro-activity

Being pro-active and assertive is a great advantage. Someone who is skilled in office politics will know intuitively when and where to assert that power or influence and how much to use. They don’t wait to be recognised or to be invited to a situation or a table, which can be a typical gender trap. They are usually curious and open. They show those around them they are valued, so that  the people who are drawn to them will feel comfortable being authentic.

3. Empathy – can read the room

Being able to see others’ perspectives and understand what is going on for them is also important. It helps to be intuitive and empathetic and to understand what drives the people around them, their values motivators and goals. Empathy fosters flexibility and allows you to change your approach to meet individual situations and needs. This is closely associated with that top skill, deep listening.

3. Being strategic

Political astuteness requires an understanding of organisational goals and power structures and where the centres of influence lie, because it’s not immediately obvious. Sometimes the person you need isn’t always the senior one on the organisation chart. It’s about carrying out ongoing S.W.O.T. analyses to foresee any difficulties either personally or to the business, so you can be prepared to manage any difficulty or challenge. Being successful at office politics requires building strategic alliances and creating alignment, whether by direct negotiation or subtle diplomatic back-channelling. That means knowing who to include in your inner circle  and who to keep on the back burner and when to collaborate or compete.

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4. Managing conflict

An ability to successfully manage conflict is a benefit of having a strong network. It’s about an ability to build beneficial relationships by developing ongoing support. Someone with a strong network gives before they receive and is always ready and willing to call in a favour or make the “big ask “

5. Sincerity

Although many insincere people are in prominent leadership roles, we are seeing that politically skilled individuals do actually display high levels of integrity and authenticity. This has become associated with a stereotypical female style of leadership. They seem to be transparent, caring and inspire trust and confidence. So although an office tends to be a place of compromise, it’s still important to be as genuine and authentic as you can.

6. Select the right role models

There don’t seem to be many training courses on office politics and most people say they learn by watching other people or from their own mistakes. Make sure you have good role models who manifest all the behaviours listed above, whether as a formal mentor or someone you observe informally from the side lines.

And finally, don’t be taken in by a leader with a flashy style and no substance. It’s easily done as we are seeing today.


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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