Organizational politics is a sometimes controversial and hotly debated topic. Many managers in large organizations lament the fact that they must even acknowledge its existence, much less engage in political behavior in order to get ahead. They question the ethics of behaving in ways that may feel inauthentic, manipulative, and ultimately self-serving. Some will ultimately embrace politics as a necessary evil, while others will refuse to play the game entirely, despite the likely negative impact on their careers.
Experiences at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) show the topic of office politics can be especially difficult for women. CCL’s Women’s Leadership Program contains a segment focused on organizational politics and the development of influencing skills. And through the years, we’ve heard women in the program struggle with the topic. They simply are uncomfortable with the idea that political skill may be an important component of leadership. Because of this perspective, they find it difficult to incorporate political behaviors into their repertoire.
A woman senior executive attending a CCL program sums it up this way:
“I despise office politics. It makes me feel like I am not being authentic. I see how the guys get a thrill out of getting one up over someone else. It’s like being in a locker room where power is the ultimate game. That’s not why I come to work and give it my all.”
Researchers have documented gender-based differences in attitudes about office politics as well. Some have found that women perceive organizations as more political than men do. Research by Ruderman and Ohlott (2002) shows many women managers view politics as “evil” and find engaging in political behavior to be difficult and painful. Other studies have found that men tend to be more involved in political processes and regard them as a natural and normal part of organizational life.
A key reason for the varying perspectives lies in the different ways women and men are socialized. Men tend to be part of an “insiders club” where the rules of the game are made clear earlier (by other men). Women tend to be “outsiders.” The rules women follow are more traditional and are part of a belief system that tells them if they work hard enough and have enough expertise, they will get ahead.
In her seminal study of women executives who have broken the glass ceiling, Lisa Mainiero (1994) found that many of the women she interviewed characterized themselves as apolitical and avoided playing politics. In reality, many of them were found to be politically skilled, despite the fact that they did not view their behaviors as political.
Mainiero goes on to say that political skill is vital for a woman’s career advancement. Women need political skill to gain access to inside information and achieve the social capital needed to break the glass ceiling. But as Perrewé and Nelson (2004) point out, women also face “glass walls” that limit their movement up or even across the organization. They become stuck in less visible support roles with no direct responsibility for profit and loss and little control of people, resources, information, and technology. The result is a power deficit.
Despite significant progress, women today still are apt to find themselves in situations where opportunities for promotion, access to mentors, and encouragement to take risks is absent. These unique barriers make it more critical than ever for women to embrace and develop political savvy.