Why are Queens not Winning the Chess Game of Workplace Politics?
Is the reluctance of women to play politics linked to their struggles to find their way to the top of their organizations? My answer is simple: yes.
In much of the literature on leadership, organizational politics is often oversimplified and reduced to some tactical social astuteness aimed at gauging ‘favors from the powerful’. What many non-practitioners fail to appreciate is the extent to which political thinking is directly linked to the effectiveness of current or prospective leaders in dealing with a range of stakeholders with diverse goals, values, and priorities. It is a skill and is comparable, in terms of importance, to one’s ability to speak a foreign language. And one that women cannot shy away from.
In 2015, I was appointed head of corporate affairs for a recently established strategic business division in charge of overseeing the development and future commercialization of new technology. I did not ask for the job, so I was pleasantly surprised the company would consider me. Until that moment, I had mainly attributed my career progression to a combination of hard work, availability of opportunities and good bosses. The 2015 appointment, however, felt different. Surely, I had significant experience in government and regulatory affairs, a good understanding of science and how to translate its complexity to political audiences, and had taken a keen interest in the new technology developed by the company since the outset. But there was another, more implicit requirement. The creation of a new unit inside the company entailed dealing with colleagues and processes within the unit, as well as those outside of the unit – in rest of the company. A sort of matrix organization, just not formalized, that added several layers of complexity to the job. This is typical of times when disruptive processes occur: existing organizational structures are usually inadequate to cope with the new challenges. Informal (and often intricate) power networks try to govern the new ambiguity. That position was, intrinsically, a political one. It was one of mediation and synthesis between many internal stakeholders and many points of view, with a decision-making structure that was nowhere to be found on any flowchart. I was selected also with that in mind.
Many other stories like mine show that politics is a transversal dimension in the organization and permeates most work situations. It is a competence. The higher the job responsibilities, the greater the importance of this competence becomes.
In my experience, women are naturally wired to handle the core tenets of political thinking: Relationships, Networking, Power-reading and Risk anticipation. Relationships and Networking are not the same thing. Relationships exist with those colleagues with whom we establish a solid rapport such that we can trust them virtually in any circumstance. Career 'sponsors' are usually found among Relationships. Networking is about identifying common interests with people we may not have a relationship with, and we may never develop one. Networking is about finding your allies and the help you need in order to achieve a specific goal. It applies to the management of a business project or to a specific decision that you want to influence. It applies to personal career goals as well. Power-reading is about identifying where the decision-making lies and who the influencers are to the decision-makers. It also means becoming aware of how people in the organization form natural alliances - irrespective of reporting lines - to push their goals forward. Risk anticipation is the ability to foresee any negative political consequence of an action - for example, composing a project committee that lacks representation of an important business unit.
If women are so well endowed with the core principles of politics, why does research show that most of them perceive not to be good enough at it?
Part of the answer is that women tend to dislike or even dismiss political dynamics as being the opposite of meritocratic dynamics. Interestingly, on that same ground many women used to be or still are opposed to female quotas in management and in public politics. On this subject, the final word for the time being belongs to the current European Central Bank Director Christine Lagarde when she explained why quotas are necessary. The point is: meritocracy is an important principle, but it is only as important as its ability to dynamically interact with other principles. One of which is that in any social organization, people won’t always behave rationally, and they will tend to form groups to ease their goals. The keyword here is goals. Women’s relative reluctance to engage in political thinking may be due to the fact that they believe that the goals are wrong. While they are generally right on this, it does not have to be that way. Political thinking should be put at the service of the right agenda; in public politics as much as in business. We all know how much work needs to be done in order to make our organizations more inclusive, more sustainable, more purposeful, and more oriented towards delivering positive impact for all stakeholders involved.
Women should also feel that fulfilling their career aspirations is a legitimate goal. It is legitimate from an individual perspective - every person has the right to pursue his ambitions - as much as from a collective point of view - we need more women in leadership. Political thinking starts with recognizing one’s own competencies and experiences and translating that into a certain value that each person carries with them. The so-called ‘Imposter Syndrome’, which is often associated with female behavior in negative terms (women would often feel they are not qualified enough for a given job, or, when they reach the top, they would feel that they do not deserve to hold that post) in reality is an excellent sign of women’s leadership abilities. It signifies a sense of responsibility in wanting to serve in the position to the best of their abilities. What political thinking adds to that is a ‘toolkit’ to build – through Relationships, Networking, Power-reading, and Risk anticipation – a support to the competences and to the merit that can help prevent women (or anyone else for that matter) from struggling too much to achieve their objectives, or from not achieving them at all, and from feeling very lonely in the process either way.
Political thinking is also related to building intangible assets like trust and credibility. Many people seem to believe that integrating political understanding in their way of operating means ‘wasting time’, not doing the job properly, and even ‘making a pact with the Devil’. Again, this is a misunderstanding. It would be like saying that learning how to drive a car means being bound to take a direction to a bad place. But we are the ones telling the car where to go. Some women feel that thinking politically means “behaving like men”. It doesn’t. We suffer from bad politics in the office (as in public life) because it results in waste of resources and talent, and ultimately diminishes our hopes for the future. It is not whether we use political thinking but how we use it that will determine the quality of the leaders we are.
Women are natural political thinkers. They establish strong relationships, have an inclusive and sharing attitude, see risks well before they materialize and are accustomed to read what’s behind the façade. They have strong instincts, but need to trust those instincts more and put them into action.