How to be authentic and politically savvy

 Article by Mary Gregory

diverse group of people working in an office, diversity, BAME workersAs a woman leader, when you think about office politics, what’s your reaction?

  • I don’t have time for that kind of thing
  • I’m not going to engage in the game playing
  • It goes against my values and strive to be an authentic leader
  • I engage as a means to influence and get the job done
  • Or use your own words here:…………………………..

If you selected one of the above four points or hold a view that mirrors these, you are amongst the majority of women. Yet we ignore or risk politics to our peril. The fact is, in any organisation, politics represent the currency of how we get things done around here. Who has the most influence and power? How can you ensure those people are engaged and will give you their backing? How do people self advocate and ensure they build their reputation and make their achievements visible?

Men and women treat politics differently, and this goes back to research that points to the different ways men and women compete. Inge Woudstra, in her book Gender Smart, talks about men competing on who is the biggest and the best. They, therefore, have no qualms with joining in the political games and see them as something to be won. Men tend to be more comfortable in letting people know about their achievements and capabilities and ensuring the people that can advance their careers know about this too. In contrast, women tend to compete on being polite and pleasing others. Politically this means they hold back from sharing their achievements and look more to how they can influence the agenda as opposed to proactively furthering their careers. The impact of this can be seen in many organisations, where, despite the evidence of talent, a woman can find herself repeatedly overlooked when it comes to promotion.

So how as a woman can we engage more authentically in the politics of the organisations in which we work?

Here are four ways that could help:

  • Be politically strategic through developing your objective witness. I’ve coached many women leaders who have been triggered by the way things get done in an organisation and take it personally. They get caught up in the drama and the upset. An entirely human response, they lament the unfairness of the situation. Whilst their experience is valid, taking it personally does not empower anyone to do anything about it. Allow the emotions to subside and with a cooler head and heart consider the political dynamics that you face. Learn what works in terms of getting things done and look to the bigger picture of what you are endeavouring to achieve. Accept that you will win some battles and lose others. Keep your focus on your bigger goal to help transcend the challenges you experience along the way.
  • Map out your network – draw a map with all the stakeholders you have in your network. Position those you have a high trust relationship close to you and those with lower trust place further away. Now consider which stakeholders have power and influence over your career and review the quality of relationship you have with them. Where might you need to strengthen individual relationships? How can you go about this?
  • Learn the political currency of your organisation. What contributes to people having power and influence and getting things done. In one organisation I worked with, meeting space was in short supply, which meant the director of the division that had the most meeting rooms held an excessive amount of power. While in another there was zero chance of promotion without the sponsorship of a C suite leader.
  • Engage in mutual support – people like to help each other so consider who is there to support you, but also who can you support too? Seeking a mentor, someone who has been there and got the T-shirt is hugely helpful in navigating the political terrain, but also consider could this person also become your sponsor and ensure you are put forward for opportunities. Peer to peer support is also invaluable here. Women can struggle with promoting themselves. One successful woman I worked with was highly regarded by many, so she engaged her peers in putting her name forward or mentioning the work she was doing in meetings. Their advocacy meant she didn’t need to do this for herself. As part of a supportive network, by contributing to her success, they were also putting themselves in a positive light, meaning everybody benefited. She achieved her career goals and continued to contribute to the success of others through becoming a mentor to up and coming leaders too.

Finally, keep an open mind as to what is possible for you in your organisation. Rather than dismissing or criticising the politics, embrace the process of navigating them as a learning experience that adds to your career acumen and ultimately your wisdom as a leader.

About the author

Mary Gregory is a leadership coach and author of the Amazon bestselling book ‘Ego – get over yourself and lead!’. She has led change for organisations including First Choice Holidays, O2, Ralph Lauren and Tesco. A trusted coach to senior executives, she also designs and delivers large scale leadership programmes.

Having learned through both her work and life how our ego can hold us back, Mary is committed to empowering leaders to create workplaces where people thrive. Here she discusses the many challenges facing the modern business leader and how things may need to adapt in the post pandemic world.


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