How Women Can Master Office Politics

Do you believe you can get ahead by focusing only on your expertise? If so, this might be limiting your success. “When you move up in an organization different skills are needed, it becomes about negotiating, influencing and knowing who is in your corner and who is not. It is about managing stakeholders and building coalitions, and all of that is underpinned by being politically savvy,” says Dr. Jane Horan, reflecting on her 20 years of experience developing women’s political skills.

Horan is the founder of the global consultancy, Horan Group, that develops leaders and inclusive work cultures and the author of I Wish I’d Known That Earlier in My Career: The Power of Positive Workplace Politics. Horan is passionate about advancing women in organizations.

“In my research with women their drive is unbelievable and focus to become the best of the best of the best,” Horan said. “But this focus is only on technical expertise and hard work rather than understanding the subtle nuances of an organization.”

The higher up the career ladder, the more political the climate becomes and the savvier you need to be to succeed. Horan stresses that developing political skills will ensure women can succeed because being able to create alliances, develop relationships and comprehend power dynamics form the essence of leadership.

Developing political skill is critical for advancing women in organizations and Horan has several practical ways women can develop their ability to navigate office politics.

Reframe Your Thinking

Political awareness often develops on the job, through exposure to more senior assignments and informal mentoring. Without this experience, women often fail to recognize the importance of office politics because they are not familiar with it. Women are frequently surprised to learn this is a key requirement of a leadership role and may actually reject management roles because of their distaste for political behavior.

According to Horan, women need to change this mindset and view managing workplace politics as a core part of their job. “This will help reframe it in a positive light.” Admittedly when she first embarked on her career Horan hated politics. Overtime she reframed her thinking to see the positive side by focusing on how it can be used to achieve success. “Political skill levels the plane field for everyone, because if someone is acting on the negative side it gives you an awareness to notice it and ability to navigate through it,” she said.

Seek Informal Support

Women need to get comfortable talking about political skill and exchanging ideas on how to practice it. “People don’t want to say I am savvy or I am not savvy because it is a mark against their record,” says Horan.

While training can help increase awareness of workplace politics ongoing coaching and informal sponsorship fine tune the skill set. Throughout their careers, men often seek help from other men through a series of informal interactions, whereas women don’t. Horan emphasizes that all the research on leadership, indicates sponsorship is an informal process and men have had this for a long time. Women should similarly seek informal advice and support from trusted colleagues because “once you formalize it you almost take away the magic,” Horan says.

Learn From Male Advocates But Don’t Copy Them

Men can play an active role in supporting women. Horan cites an example, from one of her political skill development workshops, where men and women paired up to learn together. “The men in the course said ‘you guys don’t know this stuff’.”

Women engaging with men on the topic opens up a powerful dialogue and highlights critical insights into the political process. According to Horan this is the important part men can play because they can pass on what they learnt from their informal mentors. Horan stresses that women don’t need to mirror their male counterparts, because being savvy is also about appreciating the gender and cultural differences in terms of how this is delivered.

Continuously Build An Internal Network

Women need to spend time developing their internal networks. “You really need to look at your networks in terms of how they are going to help you with your career,” Horan said.

Women need to build a strong internal network that can provide support to sustain career success. In her book, Horan outlines that this is achieved by intentionally connecting with contacts inside an organization, across levels and departments. As people move in and out of an organization this is an ongoing process that provides political insights and opportunities.

Political skill has several key benefits for women and will help sell an idea, drive change and provided the leadership skills needed to succeed. Organizations also benefit since they “get the diversity of the talent, and in this way political skill levels the playing field,” Horan said.