Call on HR Competencies to Navigate Office Politics

Some tips in time for Women’s History Month

By Mariam Ganiyu Mar 9, 2017

​From CEOs to army generals to heads of state, women all over the world are breaking through glass ceilings and ascending into positions of power. Although the representation of women in the C-suite does not yet proportionally mirror their representation in the rest of the workforce, the gender equality gap is getting smaller by the day.

According to research from the Peterson Institute on International Economics on the profitability of gender diversity, a positive relationship exists between the number of women in leadership positions in an organization and that organization's performance levels. Other studies from the Pershing and McKinsey & Co. consultancies have shown that employees prefer female leaders over male leaders. Yet women are still struggling to gain parity with men in leadership positions. Could becoming adept at negotiating office politics move them forward?

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Organizational Leaders]

Differing gender-based attitudes can affect women's willingness to participate in political gamesmanship, according to a white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership. Generally, women view office politics as inauthentic and are uncomfortable taking part in it, but men view it as part of influencing skills—just a natural part of organizational life. In surveys and interviews of over 270 female managers in Fortune 500 companies, workplace politics was consistently cited as a recurring pain point; further, in 360-degree performance reviews, both the respondents and their own managers identified political savvy as an area in need of improvement.

Attempting to avoid office politics completely might do more than stop a woman from becoming an exemplary leader—it could stop her from moving into a leadership role at all, as a SHRM Online article on the subject explains:

She who shies away from office politics could become an unwitting victim of political power plays, be frozen out by teammates because she gets her work done quickly and makes colleagues "look bad," or see her presentation bumped so someone favored by management can make one instead[.]

A Skill, Not a Trait

As detestable as office politics may be to some, it often can't be avoided if one wants to be a leader. Luckily, the ability to navigate office politics is a skill that can be developed and honed. Mastering this skill touches on several SHRM-identified behavioral competencies. Political savvy is vital to building relationships with stakeholders (Relationship Management), influencing others within the organization (Leadership & Navigation), understanding the organization's culture and its impact on organizational success (Business Acumen), and advancing your career.

Behaviors that demonstrate proficiency in Leadership & Navigation include directing and contributing to initiatives and processes within the organization, fostering collaboration, understanding the most effective ways to accomplish tasks within given parameters, and promoting consensus among organizational stakeholders. Each of these behaviors are needed to excel when navigating office politics.

Office politics can't be avoided—by women or men—when success is on the agenda. To reach new heights, begin to fine-tune your competency in Leadership & Navigation. Here are some pointers:

  • Find a mentor. Connect with a more senior colleague in your organization who can teach you necessary skills, show you the political ropes and be your advocate when you need it most.
  • Build a network. When you are presented with opportunities to network, take them. Build relationships with others in your organization. Don't be afraid to ask those colleagues for support to help advance your career.
  • Join the board of a professional organization. Practicing leadership and navigation skills outside your workplace can give you the experience and confidence you need to do so effectively within your organization. Take advantage of the additional opportunity to network with and learn from others.
  • Get a coach. Getting professional guidance and feedback is a great way to develop and hone the skills you need for effective leadership and career advancement.

Mariam Ganiyu, M.A., is an HR competencies intern at SHRM.

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