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BW Businessworld

Women And Political Savvy

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Do office politics makes you feel like you’re compromising your values in order to get things done? Studies show the answer you give to that question may depend on your gender.

Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) have found that many women managers view office politics as “evil.” They see it as achieving advantages at the expense of others and contrary to the interests of the broader organisation. For women who have this negative view of office politics, it can be difficult – even painful — to engage in political behaviour.

Studies show that men, on the other hand, tend to be more involved in political processes and regard them as a natural and normal part of organisational life.

Through our work with organisations around the globe, we’ve come to believe that the guys have it right. Politics is a natural part of life in virtually any organisation. Being politically savvy doesn’t have to mean you want someone else to lose in order for you to win, and it isn’t about being false and inauthentic. Instead, it involves the sincere use of your skills, behaviours and qualities in order to be more effective, and to serve your organisation.

How women view and respond to office politics have a bearing on how they feel about their organisation and coworkers, and how well they do their job. If they learn to accept that organisational politics is a neutral, natural part of the workplace, they can build their capacity to lead and can influence and persuade others in a sincere, authentic way.

But how do women (or those men who find politics distasteful) learn to play the game in a way that feels authentic? In some organisations it may be difficult to discuss workplace politics, much less ask for help in developing political savvy. So you may be left on your own when it comes to developing the skills and behaviours you need. But there are four simple approaches we recommend for becoming more effective in any political environment.

The most effective networking is strategic. It helps you build and enhance a diverse support group that can impact both your success and that of your team. By connecting with individuals who are themselves influential, you’ll have a voice where you might not have been heard otherwise. More importantly, you will gain access to information held by key insiders.

Matters of power and influence often take place in informal settings and involve peers and others over whom you have no direct authority. You will need to learn to influence these individuals in order to lead effectively and accomplish your organisation’s work. Identify people in your organisation who are particularly effective at influencing and getting things done. Notice how they behave and carry themselves and which individuals belong to their network. Observation and modeling can help you become more influential.

Take things a step further and look for mentors who can introduce you to the political ways of the organisation and to their own networks. Also, be proactive in telling your boss what is going on. Ask for feedback and coaching that can support the changes you want to make.

A word of caution: As you develop your networking skills, don’t get sidetracked. Remember that you need to develop and manage your direct reports. CCL’s research shows careers can be derailed when leaders spend so much time “managing up” to achieve influence that they overlook conflict within their own team. Being able to manage and motivate subordinates and head off conflict in a team is a necessary competency for any politically savvy leader.

Scan Your Environment
Observation and information gathering can help you build your political skills and use them more effectively. Be in the moment. Pay special attention to posture and other non-verbal clues about what’s going on beneath the surface. Politically savvy managers are perceptive observers who can adapt their behavior to reflect changing conditions.

As you observe, carefully reflect. Think about how others must be feeling in a situation, what is happening and what circumstances are bringing you together. Pay attention to your own feelings and reactions as well. Look for ways to validate your perceptions. Try asking others you trust about their own perceptions and compare what you hear to your own observations.

While listening and observing are important, remember that too much of a good thing can lead to inaction. So strike the right balance. Take in the information and then use it appropriately.

Think Before You Act
Many a career has been damaged by telling an inappropriate joke, sharing information that should have been kept private, treating others cavalierly, or exploding when mistakes are made. To succeed at organisational politics, you must control your impulses and think before you act. It’s the only way you can build your network and put people at ease.

When somebody or some situation triggers a reaction in you, take a deep breath and step back. Take the time to think through what will happen if you behave a certain way. Explore alternatives and think through the responses each is likely to evoke.

Also explore why you do what you do. You might even consider taking a personality assessment. It may help you understand how your personality preferences influence your behaviour in various situations and around certain people. You can identify skills and behaviors that contribute to your political savvy and see what you are doing that prevents or undermines your effectiveness.

If you have unproductive behaviours that are deeply ingrained, consider working with a coach. You’ll benefit from someone who can help you identify your hot buttons and practice more effective ways to respond.

Don’t overcorrect by avoiding all conflict or constantly trying to smooth things over, though.There are competing interests, goals and emotions in every situation. Politically savvy leaders work for a win-win outcome.

Inspire Trust
What kind of impression do you make on others? Do they consider you trustworthy? This is essential. Politically astute managers have learnt that power comes with inspiring trust and confidence. Rather than trying to manipulate people to achieve an outcome, they choose to behave genuinely and exhibit honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness.

Align your actions, gestures and words. Pay special attention to your non-verbal behaviours and body language. If you fail to make eye contact or stare out the window when you are supposed to be listening, you may be sending signals that you don’t intend. Ask for feedback as well. Even if you think you are being sincere, a trusted friend or colleague can help you determine whether your style of interaction appears sincere. Perceptions matter.

Above all, follow through and do what you say you will do. CCL’s research shows failure to do so can derail a career. Others may see your failure to keep your commitments as a betrayal of trust.

Adopting an Authentic Approach to Politics
As you consider office politics and the approach you will take to building your skills, remember what politics is – and what it isn’t. Politics is not a zero-sum game; politically savvy individuals can use their influence in an effective, authentic manner so all parties involved get something positive out of a situation.

Once you accept that office politics is a natural part of everyday life, you can develop the capacity to lead more effectivelyand to persuade others in a sincere way, remaining true to your core values.

(Jean Brittain Leslie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership. Ranked among the world’s Top 10 providers of executive education by Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the Financial Times and headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, the CCL-India office is in Gurgaon)