When I was in corporate life years ago, one thing I despised and dreaded more than anything else was office politics. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in honesty, authenticity, and transparency, I felt that office politics were "theatre" -- where people pretended to be something they were not, said things they didn't believe, and supported powerful players whom they didn't respect, simply to get ahead. I never felt good at the politics (shocker!), and I resented the people I saw who were great at it (most often men).
Now, after 10 years of running my own business and building mutually-beneficial relationships with folks at much higher levels in my industry and field, I understand why I struggled with it, and how it hurt me to view politics in this negative way. I now coach my clients on the many ways we can view office "politics" more positively, and conduct ourselves in empowered, enlivening ways yet still achieve the success and advancement we deserve in our career.
To understand more about how women can learn to empower themselves in office politics, and reach their highest potential, I caught up with Bonnie Marcus, the author of the new book The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. Award winning entrepreneur, Forbes and Business Insider contributor, Bonnie is the president of Women's Success Coaching, and assists professional women to successfully navigate the workplace and position and promote themselves to advance their careers.
Kathy Caprino: Bonnie, why do women resist office politics so much?
Bonnie Marcus: I've found that women avoid office politics for several key reasons:
They consider it "dirty."
First of all, most women consider politics to be dirty, manipulative, and underhanded. I've found that women often have an aversion to people they consider "political animals," people who work the system to get ahead. Their deeply held belief in meritocracy results in a justification to focus solely on work performance.
"My work speaks for itself."
Women often believe that because they work hard, they'll be recognized and rewarded based on their talent and hard work. This assumption may have worked in school, but it's not reality in the workplace. It takes more than hard work and talent to get ahead. Because women tend to feel office politics is unjust, they avoid the politics and in doing so, believe we are taking the higher road.
"It's a waste of time."
Many women I've talked with about office politics also feel it's a waste of time to get involved. Again, being productive and generating great results is their focus and where they feel most comfortable. Women who avoid office politics don't understand that politics is about relationships, and that it can be constructive if approached with a positive mindset and with the skills to navigate successfully.
Caprino: So, how does avoiding politics hurt women's opportunities for advancement?
Marcus: Savvy men and women acknowledge that you can't build a successful career in a vacuum. When women focus solely on their performance, they are neglecting the reality that politics can make or break their career. They isolate themselves and therefore lack the necessary information to navigate the workplace effectively. This lack of information about workplace dynamics sets them up to be blindsided by the politics. Politics is everywhere. And in order to be successful, you need to know both the rules and the unwritten rules and who has the power and influence.
In order to survive and thrive in highly competitive work environments, it's critical to know the way decisions are made, especially decisions that impact your career advancement. When women avoid the politics, they don't know what it really takes to get ahead. They make assumptions that can lead them astray and set them up for potential landmines. They have no influence to impact decisions and are left in a position where they can only react once decisions are made.
Caprino: In your book, you talk about needing a "political toolkit." Tell us more.
Marcus: Sure. Women and men need the following to advance and thrive in their roles:
- The skill to promote oneself with savvy and authenticity.
- An understanding of the workplace dynamics
- A strategic network to support your career advancement
- A sponsor
- An executive coach or mentor
Here are some essential items in your toolbox:
The mirror -- for savvy self-promotion
The mirror in your political toolkit helps you to do the inner work necessary for authentic self-promotion. It's important to take the time to reflect and understand your value proposition; the unique way you deliver the work for successful business outcomes. We, as women, tend to spend too much time and energy focusing externally on what everyone else is doing and not enough time discovering our unique contribution to the business. Your value proposition gives you confidence to communicate your achievements. It enables you to see the direct relationship between your work and specific business outcomes. Once you understand this, you can position yourself across the organization as someone who can help others achieve their goals for the overall benefit of the business. In doing so, you gain more visibility and credibility for yourself and your team, and self promotion becomes a leadership skill.
The magnifying glass -- to help you focus on the workplace dynamics
Who has power and influence? How are decisions made? Who are the decision makers? Who influences those decisions? It takes focus and intention to understand the key stakeholders and influencers. It takes a commitment to observe the constant shifts in power. Keeping abreast of these dynamics helps you align yourself with the people who have power and influence. This information protects you from being blindsided by the politics.
The "pass go and collect $200" card -- your reminder to network strategically
In Monopoly, the Pass Go card helps you advance faster around the board and collect more money. Research supports the fact that these same benefits are associated with strategic networking. Networking strategically leads to higher income and bonuses, and faster promotions.
Start with your career goal. Who do you know and who do you need to know inside and outside the organization to help you reach that goal? Step outside your comfort zone to build connections and relationships with the right people; people who will speak for you and recommend you for promotions and high profile assignments.
Women tend not to network strategically and often limit their networking to people they know and like. Recent studies have shown that diverse networks are more beneficial for building a successful career.
The "Get Out of Jail Free" Card -- reflects needed sponsorship for career growth
As you build a network of allies and champions, identify potential sponsors. Sponsors take action on your behalf and open the door to new opportunities for you. They promote you and protect you from the politics at play. In fact, when it comes to winning high profile assignments, promotions, and pay raises, the intervention of sponsors tends to improve outcomes by 30 percent. Sponsors have the power to clear the way for you to assume a leadership position.
Unfortunately, according to research men are 46 percent more likely to be tapped for a sponsor than women. Women need to understand the benefits of sponsorship and identify and build relationships with people who have the power and influence to impact their career acceleration. These mutually relationships take time to nurture and develop. Once trust and respect is established, women need to step up and ask for a sponsor.
The GPS -- represents coaching or mentor support
Working with a coach or mentor helps you effectively overcome your internal and external barriers to success. A good coach can make a huge impact on your career by providing a clear road map to reach your goals. They will assist you in developing leadership skills, executive presence, and political savvy. Women especially benefit from a focus on political savvy.
Ask your supervisor to support you in receiving executive coaching sponsored by your employer. If it's not available to you, and it's out of your personal budget to hire a coach, look for a female role model or mentor in the company who can give you objective advice about how to best navigate the workplace. Ideally, find a female mentor who has reached a senior management position and knows what it takes to get ahead in your organization.
Caprino: Bonnie, so here's the million-dollar question -- how can women remain authentic, honest, transparent in their work and their interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and STILL be politically savvy?
Marcus: The first step in becoming politically savvy is to address and change any negative beliefs you might have about office politics. If you continue to view politics through a negative lens, any attempt on your part to engage will feel dirty and self-serving.
Politics equals relationships. Building mutually beneficial relationships not only helps your visibility and career, but it also helps the organization achieve its goals. If you approach politics in a positive manner, you'll begin to see the possibilities of establishing strategic relationships that help the company, and in doing so, help your career. You can accomplish this with authenticity and integrity.