Gender and Politics
Do Women and Organizational Politics Mix?
By Kathryn Mayer with
Contributing Writer Sandra Carey
Women and organizational politics often mix like oil and water. One of
my clients, a senior officer in a Fortune 500 company, told me “It
feels like sucking up. I resent having to deal with politics.” I
hear this response from many people, especially from women; and, just
like this client, most of them change their minds once coached on the
key principles of Political Savvy.
In my experience as an executive coach who has trained over 1,000 people
in political savvy skills, one-third of them women, I believe that once
women understand that being politically savvy helps them connect and communicate
strategically—not suck up—they become more effective influencers.
Why do many women perceive engaging in organizational politics as manipulative,
self-serving, and demeaning? In this article, I will examine this perception
and reveal the positive impact of being politically savvy can have in
You can be yourself, maintain your integrity, and leverage your
relationship skills to garner support and recognition of your ideas and
advance in your career. That’s what Political Savvy is all about.
Letting Nature Take Hold
Today, the senior officer I mentioned above - the one who doesn't like
sucking up - has integrated the Political Savvy techniques into her business
practice and found more meaningful ways to communicate with and influence
her boss, by identifying agendas that drive issues and projects and acting
It took time, however, to shift her thinking and approach and to change
habits and behaviors including a tendency to focus on the tasks, to take
on an inordinate share of the responsibilities, and to strive to please.
Before the training, my client believed she had nothing in common with
her boss and furthermore, she did not respect how her boss conducted herself.
My client's boss's business persona, which appeared bottom-line oriented
and impersonal, was actually business focused and supportive of my client's
goals. My client neglected to acknowledge nuances in approach or to understand
agendas and strategy which defined her boss' actions, shed light on intent
and goals, and opened up ways to collaborate.
Once liberated of counterproductive behavior and thinking, she was able
to deal more directly with her boss without compromising herself.
With plenty of research to back me up, I believe that women are innately
politically savvy. They don’t run from conflict and challenge.
They seek solution and use diplomacy and efficiency as guiding principles.
However, there are barriers that inhibit their natural affinity
to influence and work toward solutions and in turn; these barriers
dilute their leadership potential.
- Focusing on task or results— According to the
Management Research Group (MRG), which conducted the largest study on
leadership and gender, women focus on getting things done rather than
the larger strategic vision. Women also have difficulty delegating,
shouldering unnecessary and often counterproductive responsibilities
- Building relationships that are comfortable and supportive over
those that support their careers — The MRG study revealed
that women place greater value on building relationships with others
that they share something comfortable with that are mutually supportive
(people they like or share something in common) over those that will
promote their careers (strategic alliances around business issues).
- Working in isolation as they advance—Girls are
socialized to seek intimacy— to be good girls. Subtle shifts in
alliances are threatening. Competition is a risky venture undertaken
as a solo pursuit. Men experience competition as a team effort. Boys
are socialized to thrive in competition and are encouraged to “play
the game” at a young age.
- Having a perfectionist approach to competitive and challenging
situations— Research shows that women tend toward perfectionism
more than men do. They want or expect everything to follow a correct,
planned out ahead, or official path to get work done rather than the
informal, blinding them to others’ agendas.
I've seen these mindsets manifested in countless clients. One client,
a CFO of a billion dollar global financial institution, wanted to convince
her boss to hire the candidate she preferred, not his first choice. Rather
than gaining insight into what he wanted and why, she relied on their
amenable relationship. She assumed he would value her view.
Herein lies the flaw in her strategy. My client didn't consider her boss'
agenda and motivation. If she understood his thinking and long-term outlook,
she would have been more persuasively informed to appeal to his logic,
positioning her choice as it serves his agenda, her own, and the firm's
Working with and leading seminars for women, I have discovered that this
fatal flaw shows up about 90% of the time. Women do not understand that
working the informal channels -the network in which women tend to use
for support -can also be used for strategic purposes such as understanding
that multiple agendas coexist and can be combined to produce desired results.
I have coached women who not only ignore informal channels to promote
their projects and to discover where alliances can be made but also exaggerate
the process by dealing directing with the CEO or person in power to push
their project, circumventing all others involved. This single-minded attack
may yield the desired result but at a very high cost. The perpetrator
becomes more and more isolated as the “I can do it” syndrome
defines her style, ignoring the importance of working as a team.
Often this approach leads some women to sublimate their identities and
act “like a man.” They believe that their efficacy is linked
to their ambition and blaze ahead wearing blinders to carnage they cause.
They develop a reputation for being unapproachable, unsupportive of others,
and unable to be a team player.
It is possible to succeed in business without sublimating one’s
identity or being overly aggressive to counter stereotypes about women.
Interestingly, a recent Stanford University Graduate School of Business
study revealed that women who identify themselves with male traits in
their business demeanor earned the lowest salaries over time compared
with those who maintained their feminine persona.
The pursuit of perfection is riddled with a minefield of possible missteps.
Clients have discovered how effortless it is to side-step trouble spots
and ease into their natural stride.
Playing Your Best Game
How can women change their focus to the bigger picture? As a Political
Savvy coach for over seven years, I have learned that the shift happens
when women begin to see the working world as a game they can play to win
on their terms.
At the same time, they realize that the game can be fun and gratifying.
It doesn't have to be reduced to the notion of "sucking up" but instead
enlarged to a wider perspective that enables them to gain acceptance for
their ideas and earn recognition for their talents and accomplishments.
Additionally, the game can be played best with others rather than in
isolation, struggling to carry the load alone. In my coaching practice,
I suggest that they enhance their political savvy skills by adopting my
model of Collaborative Competition.T See every opportunity or challenge
as a chance to learn something new, take smart risks, and improve results.
We're all looking for a higher ROI.
Currently, I am writing a book about women and competition based on my
model of Collaborative Competition™ which has its roots in my amateur
tennis career. The model is relevant to everyone, men and women alike.
Competition in its truest sense is about a rivalry or match.
The goal is to equal or excel your competitor rather than undermine them.
The common trap many professionals fall into is to view competition as
threatening and cutthroat; they focus on avoiding mistakes or threats
to their identity. In contrast, my view states that anyone can compete
successfully and have a good time doing it.
It is a matter of finding your competitive sensibilities and calibrating
your activities and strategies accordingly. My model of competition has
valuable synergies with Political Savvy’s goal to communicate and
influence more effectively. Collaborative Competition™ is like a
good tennis game or the way the Olympics were set up – to bring
out the best in each other – you are helping yourself and the organization.
Athletes are at their best when they are challenged. For example, I used
to play tennis with a Chinese man who was a former ping-pong champion
in his country. He played a methodical baseline game that had me running
all over the court, working much too hard, and consistently losing. Rather
than letting the frustration get the better of me, I began to study his
style and to adopt new strategy, strategy that I never would have considered
if I hadn’t let my competitiveness turn a losing situation into
an advantage. My opponent became a partner in my change and growth.
Catalyst, a leading business research organization, found that 55% of
women compared to 57% of men aspire to CEO-ship. Women have the drive
and talent. They simply need to refocus their views on what it means to
be politically savvy and to compete effectively in the business world.
Women’s secret to success is to incorporate their collaborative
approach into a broader view that not only increases engagement and support
for others but also gives them greater freedom (and desire) to compete,
challenge and have fun. In this scenario, everyone is performing better
and enjoying themselves in the process more than ever before.
We all remember Sally Field’s famous Oscar acceptance speech, “You
like me. You really, really like me.” Twenty years later people
still make jokes about that speech. Why? Because she reduced her achievement
to the notion of being liked.
Many women base their business strategy on that concept. Factor in some
perfectionism, focusing on the tasks rather than the big picture, and
competing in isolation, and you’ve got an exhausting and limiting
strategy that seldom produces the desired results—promotion, pay
raises, recognition and reputation.
Being politically savvy reveals agendas and possibilities and widens
and deepens networks, all leading to more opportunities to influence and
excel. And, as most of my clients have experienced, being politically
and competitively savvy isn’t hard—it takes a little patience
and acknowledgement that the skills already reside within you. You’ll
learn to be your own best self. Success and leadership opportunities are
certain to follow. And yes, you can be politically savvy and maintain
Kathryn Mayer is President & Founder of KC Mayer Company, a leadership
development consultant firm. Ms. Mayer has been a leadership professional
for over eighteen years and she currently leads leadership development
workshops and does executive coaching work, with a special focus
on women in competitive businesses. Her perspective on leadership
is shaped by her experience as a woman in competitive sports.