Gender Equality

What about workplace politics?

Breaking the glass ceiling” was one of the sessions at She Means Business 2022 during IMEX in Frankfurt, an international conference about diversity, gender equality and female empowerment. Photo: IMEX Group

Breaking the glass ceiling” as one session at She Means Business 2022 in during IMEX in Frankfurt, an international conference about diversity, gender equality and female empowerment. Foto: IMEX Group

Does workplace politics help or hinder the career progression of women? In her guest article, Carole McKellar undertakes an investigation into equality in the workplace. Is workplace politics the missing element in achieving gender equality?

In many countries, the working environment has experienced over 30 years of ‘positive action’ with a range of initiatives to assist women to break through the ‘glass ceiling’. In many sectors, women are still underrepresented in the most senior levels of management. We have experienced a variety of development and awareness-raising initiatives to promote gender equality, such as positive action programmes, delivery of training initiatives such as the award-winning Springboard Development Programme in the UK, right through to the implementation of family-friendly policies, legislation, and employment law. Inequality is once again under the microscope due to government drives for gender equality at work. In spite of all these changes and the continuing active promotion of equal opportunities, the situation has changed little in the past decade.

Why has so little changed?

What is absent from almost all the available programmes promoting gender equality at work is the recognition that an individual’s ability to progress in their career – be they male or female – is often due to their aptitude for successfully navigating the maze of workplace politics within their organisation. By this, we mean their capacity to negotiate the more informal channels through which an organisation, its departments and individuals achieve their objectives. Examples include finding out from colleagues the agenda for a newly recruited Senior Manager and then ensuring your conversations with that person relate to that agenda or developing relationships with key people within an organisation who can provide you with timely information on direction or policy changes. Although workplace politics is seen as a somewhat taboo subject among many, the fact remains that it is often the most influential yet the least acknowledged factor in the effective functioning of an organisation. This contributes to the view of workplace politics, with over 80% of individuals viewing it as generally a negative aspect of their workplace.

Navigating the maze of workplace politics

Listen to this short video by David Bancroft-Turner who is a leading expert on the topic and has worked with thousands of men and women, helping them to develop their political skills.

Is workplace politics the missing element?

There is, however, a growing body of evidence that highlights the importance of political competence as a factor in managing an organisation successfully. Research on leadership development by Daniel Goleman and his Emotional Intelligence approach highlights the need for all leaders to develop their ‘Organisational awareness’ behaviours. Recent research undertaken by the Warwick Business School and Roffey Park both highlighted the need for leaders to become more ‘politically capable’ in the way in which they manage and navigate the political landscape of their workplace. Many organisations already openly acknowledge that workplace politics is a major factor that can significantly and negatively affect individual and collective performance if managed improperly. Some organisations, such as the UK’s NHS, are even more transparent and include a ‘political awareness’ dimension in their leadership competency framework.

Carole McKellar facilitating the panel discussion Breaking the glass ceiling at She Means Business 2022 in Frankfurt. Foto: IMEX Group

Save the Date: She Means Business 2022 at IMEX America 10 October 2022 at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

The conference “She Means Business – A conversation for all” will bring together industry leaders, influencers, and thought leaders to not only discuss the role of women in business, but to envision how women and men can continually work to elevate the presence of women at work. This year, She Means Business is focusing on how we can continue to put women in the driver’s seat when working to impact the global economic crisis. She Means Business is a joint event by IMEX and tw magazine, supported by MPI.

Save the Date: Navigating workplace politics at IMEX America 13 October 2022 at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

Description: Challenging the politics encountered in an organization takes a toolkit of observations and skills to navigate, dodging the many minefields that exist. Hear unique perspectives on how to recognize and move beyond these minefields and build your own best careers.

  • Recognize the signs of workplace politics
  • Explore mechanisms for creating your own best place in any organization
  • Hear varied perspectives on workplace politics

Does workplace politics help or hinder?

To discover whether the political dimension of organisational life can have a helpful or hindering effect on the career progression of women, the Positive workplace politics Academy (PwpA) has investigated to what extent do ‘workplace politics’ contribute to the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles. There are various data points: First, the feedback from thousands of women who have attended workplace politics training on how they may have subconsciously ‘opted out’ of workplace politics due to the association with negative and self-serving behaviour (and linked to competitive male behaviour!). Second, the minimal consideration of workplace politics as a factor affecting performance in any investigation into ‘glass ceiling’ research and third, the belief, held by many people of both genders, that men are more ‘political’ than women.

The Research: Roffey Park, Management Agenda 2005 to 2009 and 2010 to 2020 and Warwick Business School, Leading with political awareness

We have access to a questionnaire completed by 422 managers from the public, private and third sectors, 94% of whom were women. The findings provide an insight into the beliefs and behaviour of women managers on the subject of the workplace, which in summary is as follows:

  1. 64% state that in the organisations where they have worked men are more political than women, with 28% the same?
  2. 42% believe that the political environment can hinder the career progression of women with 35% being neutral
  3. 80% of respondents believe that using political skills can help women to progress in their careers
  4. In order to progress in their careers, 79% believe that women need to be more political
  5. 55% do not believe that workplace politics can be a positive force for good
  6. 74% believe the political behaviour of men and women is different

The conclusions suggest:

  • The ability of women to use organisational politics is perceived to be similar to men but they are less inclined to actually use these skills;
  • Political behaviour observed from men and women is different (although when asked to provide examples many people struggle to be specific); and
  • That a large proportion of the working population continues to perceive political behaviour as a ‘bad thing’

The Positive workplace politics Academy has also ascertained that: 80% of people generally position ‘politics’ as a negative and/or self-serving activity that needs to be avoided or constrained and that politics (or political behaviour) is a perception of other people’s intention as opposed to the behaviour actually observed which leads many people to interpret politics as a ‘negative’ activity. These findings are significant because for the first time we have identified what appears to be a genuine difference between the way in which men and women view and use political behaviours. The critical aspect seems to be a lack of willingness by many women to leverage ‘positive politics’ as part of their influencing practices and this could be a significant contributory factor that can hamper their career progression. The research revealed that this lack of political adeptness has nothing to do with women being any less politically skilful than men in practice, but rather a question of their motivation to use political behaviours, driven by a belief that politics is negative. The PwpA response has been to create a self-assessment (in final testing phase), coaching support and various training programmes specifically tailored to the needs of women; and to encourage women to use a range of positive political behaviours to navigate the maze that will be good for their colleagues, good for their businesses and ultimately good for their careers.

Examples of the comments made by women:

"I know it’s important, but I don’t know where to start"

"Although I have said that women are less 'skilled' at politics than men, I believe it is not so much a question of skill as aptitude and interest. We could do it if we wanted to!"

"This is a subject which is fascinating. I am extremely political within my organisation and read situations and current trends well. I have the luxury of a proven track record for performance and the two provide a heady combination. Men are either slow to use or manipulate situations effectively and I feel with the skills I possess I am formidable and extremely successful."

"In our organisation, the men are all working in the top positions but my boss who is a woman has attained a high post by behaving politically and I see how she has done this on a daily basis. Another member of staff, a woman, has done the same rising from a low position to a high position in a very short period of time by being more political. I too am now doing this. I don't think women realise that they can use workplace politics to progress."

Many women have stated over the years that if they knew how to behave politically in a positive way so that everyone would benefit, then they would engage with the activity more frequently than they actually did. By ignoring the least openly acknowledged, yet most utilised aspect of organisational life to get things done, is it possible that women have been inadvertently placing themselves at a disadvantage over the years? When women are asked if they would like more power, most will say no; but when asked if they would like to be more influential, many will say yes – the ability to navigate the political landscape is a wider and deeper range of influencing skills that can be learnt.

What next?

To conclude, with the words of a friend of the Positive workplace politics Academy: ‘In my experience of working with women it is unfortunate that many opt out of politics. To get what they want in other environments they use a wide range of positive behaviours to achieve their outcomes so it’s always amazing to me that they don’t do the same in their workplace. We now know that it is not a case of cannot but rather will not. Showing women how to use politics in a positive way will I am sure make a huge difference in their lives and in their careers. What also is clear is that if they opt out, they will continue to be at the mercy of the political environment and that can’t be good for either them or the business – unless of course that is a conscious decision to opt-out and that has to be respected.’ Join the conversation at IMEX America and explore your beliefs around workplace politics – are they helping or hindering your career? Carole McKellar

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