How Women Can Level-Up Their Political Savvy at Work


Every organization has unique dynamics.  There are an array of metrics for performance management, different language used, and personalities that must work together to complete projects.  One common denominator in all of this? Politics within the organization.  In order to successfully navigate all the variables to get ahead and stay ahead of office politics you must be adaptable.

Understanding and circumventing the challenges of office politics has proven to be especially difficult for women in the workplace.  But why?  Well, just ask Elizabeth, an executive in the Bio Pharma industry, about her experience as a new college graduate working in a company creating flavor and fragrance materials.  A male sales rep came in with a request, and Elizabeth jumped at the chance to make it happen.  The sales rep responded by telling her that she couldn’t do it, because “she was a woman”.

So, after working hard to graduate and land a great job, Elizabeth was left with the realization that there will always be barriers to what people think she can or can’t do, simply because she is a woman. Stories like this can be shocking, especially for those just entering the workforce.  Time and time again, women are left feeling as though their ascent to the top is extremely difficult.  The key is to never be caught off guard in this situation.  Enter – political savvy. You need to understand who in your organization will support both you and the advancement of women. So, here are a few ways you can up-level your political savvy.

Informal networks gain political savvy

Sometimes people may try to justify certain gender bias behaviors, so you need to be aware of who you can trust.  Who are you allies?  Who will support you?  Don’t play into the “boy’s club” that still exists within many organizations. Take my client Lisa, for example, who says this still exists in the banking industry.  She says many men don’t really care to include women in their inner circle and won’t let their guard down for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and then being sued for harassment.  They won’t even invite women out for drinks after work.

She gives me an example of one male co-worker who invited all the guys on a fishing trip, but no women.  Office politics plays into these “off-campus” events.  People let their guard down and talk about things in a way they may not at work.  Problems may be solved.  Ideas may be brought to the surface.  If a woman is never “allowed” to attend these events, how is she supposed to be in the know?

This is where it is imperative to get creative with your political savvy by developing those informal networks.  A 2002 study of Fortune 500 companies found that, exclusively, networks provided strategic and operational benefits by enabling members to collaborate effectively.  The study also showed that, “Despite the explosion of information that is accessible through the Internet and databases, people still rely heavily on their networks for help with their work.”

Assert Yourself

Assert yourself, and make it clear what you want.  What are your goals within the organization?  Do you want to get ahead?  Have a more flexible schedule?  Whatever it is, you need to ask for it.  However, some women have found that this can backfire on them. A client who was pregnant with her first son noticed she was being passed over for high-level corporate assignments.  She scheduled a meeting with her supervisor, another woman, to ask why.  The answer: “I didn’t know how willing you would be to travel.”  Her supervisor made an assumption without asking her, and had she not had the audacity to confront the situation, she would have missed opportunities.

People make assumptions all the time about organizations.  And why do we, as women, find it so difficult to talk about accomplishments and how they play a key role in the organization’s success?  Many women tell me they aren’t good enough and that their success is pure luck.  So, if you have no confidence in your abilities, how are you ever going to assert yourself and make known to others what you are seeking out of you career?

A 2011 article focused on researching women’s leadership programs notes that pervasive forms of gender bias still exist, and continue to hold women back.  The article calls for a “new developmental agenda for women in and aspiring to leadership roles.”  The article suggests that women need to develop two core interrelated traits – “internalizing a leader identity and developing an elevated sense of purpose.”

Asserting yourself and speaking up with regard to your career aspirations is key to ensuring these stakeholders know where you stand – a critical piece in the development of your political savvy.

Be “In the Know”

Political savvy is not only about knowing the people and understanding the culture of an organization, but it is possessing keen observation and listening skills.  You must develop a sensitivity to the cultural nuances of an organization to be able to fully utilize these skills. The Center for Creative Leadership has found that management careers can be derailed when leaders spend so much time “managing up” to achieve influence that they overlook conflict within their team.

Kathryn Mayer points out that women tend to choose relationships that are comfortable rather that ones that can help advance their career.  Not only that, but we tend to struggle with delegation and just want to get things done rather than focus on the larger strategic vision.  With this in mind, it is even more crucial that we put time and energy into creating relationships with those that will assist our career development.

Davia Temin, CEO of Temin & Company, states that what works for her is to interact more like a man than a woman. She attributes her success to being able to figure out the lay of the land by observing, listening and trusting her gut, and using assertive communication in a savvy manner. “I’m quite ambitious. I’m straightforward but also fairly humorous, and that gets you through a lot. And I’m somewhat astute and pretty good at positioning things and talking about things in the best light.”

How do you know when to turn these masculine traits on and off? How do you know the most effective way to promote yourself in the workplace to gain political capital? Davia suggests, you do this by observing and learning as much as you can about the people and modifying your behavior and style in a way that will resonate with them. Generic messages are not nearly as effective as those that are customized for your audience based on what you know about them; what they want and need.

You can authentically promote your accomplishments by first understanding your value proposition; how your work leads to positive business outcomes, and by understanding what is important to others; what they want and need. Positioning yourself as someone who can help the organization or help others meet their objectives gives you visibility and credibility. This is a win win. This is political savvy.

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