The four partners at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership propose a different approach to maneuvering through office politics.
We’ve been chipping away at a particularly difficult dilemma for years, and now we think we have the answer!
Since the 2011 publication of our first book, Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power, we’ve spoken to scores of women and men at conferences, led workshops and seminars, and coached thousands of women who are on the path to becoming senior-level leaders. In that time, we’ve maintained a running list of the challenges that women face repeatedly.
The top barrier women mention to us in our everyday work? Maneuvering through office politics. Office politics presents a very big problem for women, and we’ve decided to do something about it—beginning with our new book: The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders.
As the basis of the book, we conducted original research to help us understand why women were so turned off by office politics and how we could help. We surveyed 134 senior executives in leading organizations, and the results revealed that women and men fundamentally disagree on the overall objective of politics. Women said they use the tools of politics to “manage relationships,” whereas men use them to “win.” Women were far more likely to mention “creating impact and ideas,” while men were more than twice as likely to describe “carving a one-time advantage.”
Neither approach is right or wrong, but the female paradigm may work against us unless we funnel it in the right direction. Political savvy is a skill we all need to use to break down barriers. Yet, we propose a different approach altogether to make that happen.
Our research findings:
1. Women and men define politics differently
Our survey results showed that 76.6% of men and 68.23% of women are united in their overall dislike of office politics. However, follow-up interview questions revealed that they disagree on the overall objective of politics. Women were three times more likely than men to mention developing relationships and ideas, and men were more than twice as likely to describe immediate self-interest and carving a one-time advantage. This nuance suggests several things about how each looks at politics and the effort they dedicate. For example, Men said that they are direct and systematic in how they maneuver in political situations. They go for the quick win and move on. Whereas, women say they think of politics as long-term and big picture. This difference in targeted execution means that women spend more time and effort on politics. Although it may payoff in the end, the greater effort expended over a longer period of time indicates the degree of overall difficulty is higher for women.
2. Women are judged more harshly in political situations
Surprisingly, the majority of men (65%) and women (81%) in our survey said that women were judged differently, and more harshly, than men when they use the tools of politics. Respondents made it plain that they believe that gender stereotypes are still ingrained in both women and men that they drive unconscious behaviors, which in turn perpetuate work environments that undermine women. Because stereotypes and perception are working against their success, women expend energy trying to be perfect at politics and, again, the overall degree of difficulty in achieving success is much higher for them.
3. Structural support and systemic barriers put women at a disadvantage
Women in our survey were 16.31% more likely than men to identify office politics as important, whereas males were 25.31% more likely than females to identify them as unimportant. Our overall findings suggest that women, more so than men, believe being politically savvy is necessary to the advancement in their careers. It is therefore reasonable to believe that they put more time and effort in. According to the follow-up interviews, this seems to be due to the fact that women believe politics are more essential to their success because they are still fighting for their place at the table. With more men running organizations, better pay for men, and men outnumbering women 4:1 on most boards, advancement is an uphill battle. In addition, men use their free time after work to socialize informally, bonding with each other in situations where women feel less welcome and less able to engage. Women we interviewed talked freely about being locked out of the club.
4. Differing mental models around competition and collaboration favor men
Survey results indicate that although women place greater importance than men on office politics, they nonetheless see their gender as inferior in political maneuvering. For example, women were nearly 50% more likely to rate their political skills as worse than their male colleagues, compared to how men rated women. In addition, over 70% of men and women in follow-up interviews said that men and women have differing approaches when it comes to office politics. More women mentioned empathy and collaboration, whereas more men mentioned being competitive and taking risks. Neither understanding is right or wrong, but the female paradigm may work against them. For instance, new evidence suggests that the underrepresentation of women in academia reflects a systemic bias against them when they collaborate with men. Given the emphasis women in our survey placed on collaboration, this may further increases their degree of difficulty. They are leaning in, but the uneven playing field requires more effort in order to succeed.
The premise of The Influence Effect is that we, as women, get much more from our everyday efforts when we focus on achieving influence as opposed to playing political games. We propose this new approach for several important reasons:
- Influence Suits Our Leadership Style. Women don’t need to act like men in order to succeed as leaders. Cultivating influence allows us to win at work while remaining true to our chosen leadership style and code of conduct.
- Influence Can Be Actively Cultivated. Focusing on achieving influence puts the power to act back into our own hands. It keeps us actively engaged and advancing toward our goals. Even better, influence can be learned, practiced, and perfected using the “Big Five” strategies we present in The Influence Effect: The Power of the Informal, Relationship Maps, Scenario Thinking, Influence Loops, and Momentum.
- Influence is a Tool for the Times. In an age when collaboration wins over individual interest, influence suits our needs far better than political maneuvering. Influence creates deeper connections and better access points, and enables us to advance in our careers in new and better ways.
- Influence Creates a New Way to Work. Perhaps the most important reason we are making the case for influence as a tool for women is because it is a path to change and progress. In every industry, from private equity investing to network television, we (as women) are underrepresented at the top and paid less throughout our careers for the same work. We can cry foul about the data, and yet it is far more difficult to find a solution to this enduring gender divide.
That’s why we’ve written The Influence Effect.
This book moves women past the politics problem and offers a new path to power. It’s more than a path—it’s a runway because it frees women to takeoff in their careers on their own terms. The Influence Effect will work for women, not because gender barriers will no longer exist, but because they will no longer hold us back.
We are redefining the rules here and we hope you will join us!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kathryn Heath, Ph. D., is a founding partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. She serves as a coach, developer of women's leadership programs, and training designer.
Jill Flynn, M. Ed., is a founding partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. She specializes in creating and implementing company-specific pipelines for high-potential women.
Mary Davis Holt, MBA, is a partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. She is an executive coach and keynote speaker on business, women, and leadership.
Diana Faison, M. Ed., is a partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, with expertise in leadership training, executive coaching, and performance consulting.