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How Smart Women Win at Office Politics

by Jo Miller

Do you enjoy dealing with office politics?

Becoming politically savvy is not always viewed as a wholesome, worthy goal. The mere mention of the word "politics" triggers negative connotations.

A Senior Finance Manager had said "I refuse to schmooze and manipulate to get ahead". Yet she was frustrated after she was passed over for promotion twice. The two male colleagues who were promoted ahead of her were less qualified, but excelled at politicking.

In her article titled Seven Career Killers, author Erin Burt warns "avoiding politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can -- and should -- work it ethically to your best advantage." By becoming politically adept you can learn to:

  • Rise above power plays and interpersonal conflicts
  • Build a reputation as a go-to person, expert, or leader
  • Gain access to resources, information and opportunities
  • Influence outcomes and get buy-in for ideas and initiatives.

As you acquire the ability to navigate office politics effectively, I encourage you to let go of negative assumptions about office politics, and consider these alternate perspectives:

New Perspective #1: Replace the word "Politics" with the term "Organizational Awareness". Doesn't that sound better already?

New Perspective #2: Workplace politics is all about understanding communication and relationships, which women can excel at.

New Perspective #3: Make a personal commitment to use your organizational awareness in a way that is ethical and authentic.

Now that you are armed with a positive perspective, consider taking the following steps to use office politics to your strategic advantage.

Step 1: Map the Shadow Organization
In parallel to a company's traditional hierarchical organizational chart there exists what is known as a shadow organization. The shadow organization is an unofficial, informal network of relationships and coalitions. Understand your shadow organization and you will understand how power and influence play out.

Investigate your shadow organization by playing the role of observer, as though you are a corporate anthropologist. Notice who has influence, who gets along with whom. Discover who is respected and who champions others. Who are the hubs of social interaction and corporate intelligence? Find out who really gets things done.

Create a visual map showing all key players. Classify every interrelationship, noting whether it is built on friendliness, advocacy, respect, or coercion. Note the strength of each connection, and the direction in which influence flows.

For example, when a Project Manager mapped her shadow organization, she discovered she had strong bonds with peers, but not with higher-ups.

Step 2: Build Relationships
Identify people with whom to build relationships. Take at least one month to build your network without imposing an agenda on any of the relationships.

A Manager of Human Resources went out of her way to build strong ties with her company's marketing department after she noticed they were always first to hear about new products and trends. Having access to this information allowed her to gain greater credibility in her own department, where she is now has a reputation as having a finger on the pulse of the business.

Step 3: Leverage Your Network
After relationships mature, your network can help you accomplish valuable goals and influence. For example, you can use your network to build visibility, improve difficult relationships, gain access to information, and attract opportunities.

Employing these perspectives and steps worked well for the Senior Manager of Finance who was passed over for promotion. She knew that her boss and her team did not recognize her value to the company. By mapping out relationships and spheres of influence she realized how to gain recognition and influence. Her most recent research topic was a hot-button issue for her VP, so she mentioned her findings to him in passing. At an all-hands meeting, he singled her out for praise, and recommended that their entire organization could learn from her focus on their business objectives. She continues to build her relationship with the VP by continuing to update him on her progress.

By changing your perspective on politics, and using your network, you can dramatically improve your opportunities for recognition and advancement.

Jo Miller is the Women's Leadership Coach. Visit to find out more about Jo's leadership coaching programs. Ask about a complimentary leadership coaching session!

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