How to play office politics without being a jerk

Not everyone can take the boss golfing.
Not everyone can take the boss golfing.
Image: Phil Mccarten/Invision for Television Academy/AP Images
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Although not all office politics involves underhanded maneuvers, water cooler gossip, and backstabbing co-workers, the phrase can still leave a bad taste in our mouths.

About 80% of men and 70% of women say they dislike the idea of politics at work because of its negative connotations, according to research by coaching and training firm Flynn Heath Holt (FHH). At the same time, both men and women in the study agreed that men are more politically skillful. That’s important, because it’s a big part of why women’s careers so often lag behind their male counterparts’.

The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders, by FHH founding partner Kathryn Heath (and three co-authors, Jill Flynn, Mary Davis Holt, and Diana Faison, who are also partners in the firm), aims to close that power gap—starting with a close look at why political savvy isn’t all bad.

For one thing, it creates influence, or “the strategies and tactics that people use to gain advantage, sell their agendas, and earn support from colleagues,” the authors write.

“Decisions are made in the spaces between the boxes on the organization chart,” Heath explains. “Companies want leaders who can create change—and influence is how you become that leader.”

I recently spoke with Heath about how you can get ahead by becoming more influential at work.

Q: Your research shows women often struggle to achieve the behind-the-scenes influence that could advance their careers. Why?

Heath: A big factor is that there are still so few women in senior leadership positions, which makes it much more difficult for women to find the kind of informal sponsorship that’s more readily available to men.  Without those relationships, women don’t get the casual coaching, advice, and feedback that men give each other. It’s crucial to form relationships with higher-ups that extend beyond work. For instance, I’ve seen studies saying that 80% of executives say they have made important business decisions on the golf course.

Does that mean women who want to get ahead should take up golf?

Not unless they genuinely want to play! But women do need to stop making excuses—like “I wasn’t invited”, or “I don’t have time for networking”—and find ways to get to know peers and higher-ups.

This isn’t one-size-fits-all. You can be creative, and do it your way! For instance, some of our coaching clients are oenophiles (wine connoisseurs), so they hold wine tastings and invite colleagues. Another example: We know women in New York City who are theater buffs and have started a networking group of women and men who go to Broadway shows together.

The point is, to increase your influence, you have to put the effort into making informal connections happen—and, the higher up you go in an organization, the more essential it is.

One influence-building strategy you describe in the book is “the meeting before the meeting.” What is that?

It’s a way of cultivating support for something you want to accomplish. First, well in advance of a formal meeting, make a list of the people you may need to win over to your point of view. Call them or go see them, and get their thoughts. Then, make any changes you might need to make, and go back to those people. Make sure they’re going to back you up.

The truth is, getting something done is almost never about how you present your idea in a meeting. Everything important gets decided beforehand. By the time the meeting starts, it’s already too late.

When considering a new job, what do you recommend asking a potential employer?

The most important question you can ask a prospective boss, especially if you’re female, is: How much feedback will I get? You should also ask to meet your prospective coworkers, and ask the women how often they receive performance feedback, and how detailed it is.

Our research, in addition to studies done by others, all show that women get a lot less feedback at work than men do. Many male managers hesitate to be honest with women about how we’re doing. So, too often, we’re flying blind, assuming everything is fine when it isn’t. That’s another reason why friendly relationships with higher-ups are so crucial. Advancing a career means having sponsors who’ll be comfortable enough with us to tell us the truth.

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