3 Simple Ways for Women to Rethink Office Politics and Wield More Influence at Work

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Kathryn Heath for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.


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Men and women don’t look at office politics and power dynamics the same way. That’s what my consulting partners and I recently found when we surveyed 134 senior executives in large organizations and conducted follow-up interviews with 44 of them. There’s no right or wrong here, but the discrepancies help explain why women assert themselves differently.

We found that men tend to talk about “competition” when they describe office politics, using language like “the tools people use to win at work,” whereas women are more likely to cast it as “a natural part of influencing” and emphasize the ability to shape “ideas and agendas.” Similarly, women and men report having differing objectives in the political situations they face at work. Men use words like “achieving results,” and women — again and again — talk about “influencing others.”

Such differences are likely partly fueled by lingering double binds and gender biases in the workplace. In our study, 81% of women and 66% of men said that women are judged more harshly than men when they are seen as “engaging in corporate politics.” So women don’t want to be viewed as political—it undermines them. That may explain why 68% of women said they dislike office politics, even though they want to assert themselves at work—and why the majority of women in our interviews said they were more interested in “influence” than in pure power.

Like everything else, authentic influence takes practice: You train so you can transform. Here are a few strategies we’ve seen work for the women we’ve coached.

Create relationship maps. Step one is knowing which people to influence. Who has decision-making power in your organization? Who are the informal influencers? Who is most likely to resist your agenda because of competing objectives?

Creating a relationship map can help you sort all this out. People in sales close deals by identifying deal advocates and blockers, often using complex software and customer databases to generate the relationship maps they need. For our purposes, the only prop required is a legal pad, a whiteboard, or a laptop. Your relationship map can look like an annotated org chart or a more complicated networking diagram. The key is to identify the stakeholders and influencers who can help you achieve your job and career goals. This visual exercise allows you to cultivate a deeper understanding of your network so you can build meaningful connections and secure allies to amplify your influence. Women are generally good at relationships (research shows this—it’s not just a stereotype), and they can use this strength to study their maps and build bridges to decision makers.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kathryn Heath is a principal of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. She is a coauthor of The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power For Women. Join the conversation on Twitter: @FlynnHeathHolt.


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