You can’t avoid office politics. It’s a fact of life. You may have negative feelings about it. You may think you’re taking the high road by ignoring it. However, your lack of attention to what’s happening in the workplace can be extremely dangerous, especially if you are an ambitious woman working in a competitive male-dominated company.
I interviewed hundreds of women on the topic of office politics for my book. They described office politics as dirty, manipulative, and evil. They expressed their anger, frustration, and betrayal when ‘political animals’, people who spent more time schmoozing than working, would rise through the ranks faster than they did. Yet, they viewed office politics as a major waste of time, and they were hesitant to engage in any way. This can be a serious mistake. Politics can make or break your career.
I learned my lesson about the importance of office politics in the beginning of my career. I received two promotions very quickly and thought the secret to getting ahead was doing great work. But after eight years with a company and a rapid rise to an AVP role, I discovered that what I thought was the right formula for getting ahead was wrong. I was passed over for the promotion to VP despite my outstanding performance. What happened? I didn’t pay attention to what was going on in my company. I avoided office politics and was therefore totally ignorant about how the decision for that VP job would be made. And what’s worse, I stayed out in the field and failed to nurture important relationships with the people in corporate who had power and influence over my career.
It was a difficult lesson to learn, but a critical one for anyone with ambition. Avoiding office politics can sabotage your career. I know this is not good news for women who may believe that their work alone will get them ahead. But the reality is that it takes both great performance and political savvy to get ahead, especially in a complex competitive workplace.
So what do you need to do to get ahead? What does an ambitious women need to do to successfully navigate a male-dominated organization that has landmines everywhere?
The answer is that you need to be politically savvy. And the good news is that political savvy is a skill, not a trait. You can learn it and you don’t need to compromise your integrity.
What does it take to be politically savvy? First and foremost, it requires you to pay attention. Understand that your work alone will not get you promoted. You must be aware of what’s going on in your company.
You need to pay attention to three things.
Power and Influence.
Who has power and influence over your career? Who makes the key decisions about your future? Who influences those decisions? Is it your boss? If so, who is in their circle of influence? Who do they turn to for advice?
Power and influence are constantly shifting so make sure you stay tuned into the dynamics in the office. Create visibility with the influencers. Build a strategic network of allies and champions who advocate for you and support your initiatives and advancement.
What are the rules, and most importantly, what are the unwritten rules?
An example of an unwritten rule is the employee handbook states that it’s a 40 hour work week. First day on the job, you arrive at 9 am only to find that everyone else in your department has been there working since 7:30 am. What happened? There’s an unwritten rule that you need to be there 90 minutes before the boss arrives and stay an hour after he/she leaves. It’s not official policy, but what happens if you don’t comply? Will you get promoted?
What rules are sacred? What does it take to get ahead in your company, in your department? What type of behavior is rewarded? What behavior is not rewarded, especially for an ambitious woman? Is it acceptable to be assertive and speak your opinion in meetings? Pay attention. This information is invaluable for you to position yourself successfully for a promotion.
What is the culture at your company? Is it female friendly? Be on the lookout for potential gender bias. Are there gendered roles and stereotypes? Are working mothers marginalized and put on the mommy track?
Do women get the same support and sponsorship as men? Are they paid equally for equal work?
Is the culture conservative, innovative, hierarchical?
Is the company aligned with your values? And most importantly, will you have the opportunity to showcase your talent in this environment? Do you have the potential to thrive at this company or are the cards stacked against you?
It’s critical to pay attention to all of this. Don’t assume that your work alone will get you promoted. Do the best job you can. Build relationships with key stakeholders, and look out for potential landmines. That’s political savvy!
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