Organizational Politics Ethical Leadership for Corporate Performance Teamwork and Career Success

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 business.

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 strategically.

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 and tasks.
  • 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 long-term goals.

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 your integrity.


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.



Steps to Savviness

  • Build on your strengths and natural abilities-politically savvy is an extension of what you already do.
  • Acknowledge that being savvy is a muscle to develop-a new habit to form.
  • See things as they are-don't take things personally.
  • Consider adversaries as Collaborative CompetitorsT who can improve your strategy and make you smarter.
  • Spend five minutes a day expanding your network at work.
  • Seek feedback from trusted friends and advisors.
  • Read Joel DeLuca's book and take the course!

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Gain the proven benefits from the Savvy Advantage using various forms of Political Savvy research, books, seminars and coaching.

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Contact us if you have interests in the above issues or with dilemmas you are currently facing concerning organizational politics.

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