Executive Summary

The link between political skill and career success is firmly established, but there is a problem: Office politics doesn’t work for everyone in the same way. Women and minorities face a narrower range of acceptable political behaviors, and are also more likely to see politics itself as an informal system that keeps power with those who have it while excluding those who don’t. As a result, they’re less likely to engage in office politics. And even when they do, politics doesn’t help their careers the same way that it often helps white men’s. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that playing politics benefits only some white men. Perhaps it’s time to stop encouraging employees to play politics, and instead recognize that office politics is really an outdated game that no one wants to play.

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Love it or hate it, office politics is an inevitable part of organizational life. Many people associate political behavior with backstabbing and manipulation — but there is a constructive side to being politically savvy. Being able to negotiate, influence, engage, convince, and persuade others is how things get done in organizations — and how organizations decide what’s worth doing at all. Developing political skill reduces stress and enhances performance, reputation, promotability, and career progression at work. A 2008 survey of 250 managers in the UK revealed that 90% of them believed that political skill is required to succeed and to improve one’s career prospects. This has been further supported by numerous research studies that make the case for engaging in office politics. While the link between political skill and career success is firmly established, there is a problem: Office politics doesn’t work for everyone in the same way.

Although current research investigating gender or ethnic differences in political skill is limited, researchers Pamela Perrewé and Debra Nelson argue that women often overlook the importance of office politics and rely on task accomplishment as the primary means of advancing their careers. Many women are reluctant to engage with it, or even see it as distasteful. Some people have called women and racial minorities “politically naïve” for avoiding politics, and argued that training and mentoring initiatives are necessary to help women see the value in office politics and learn to play the game.

This argument, however, is built on the assumption that women and minorities lack the political skills needed to navigate organizational life. Recent research does not support this idea. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Leadership Studies finds that men and women see themselves as equal in relation to their political abilities. A 2015 study published in the Academy of Entrepreneurship Journal discovered that female students perceive themselves to be more politically skilled than male students. If the issue isn’t a lack of skill, then why are women and racial minorities less engaged in office politics? Unpacking this issue is critical given the established link between political skill and career advancement.

Same Game, Different Benefits

Dominant groups in organizations generally set the standards for behavior within their workplaces, and as Caucasian men hold most leadership positions today, it can be argued that they set the norms for political behavior at work. In one study, the researchers go as far as describing office politics as a “white man’s game.” Based on a review of the existing literature, this study finds that mentoring and networking are indeed critical to developing political understanding. Women and racial minorities did not differ from white men on their self-reported levels of networking and mentoring; however, only white men benefited from these activities. It seems even if women and racial minorities engage in political behaviors, they may not benefit from them in the same way that white men do.

The reason for this is that political behaviors are considered a more stereotypical image for white men, and therefore the benefits will be selectively applied to white men who choose to engage in them. In the research undertaken by Kate Davey in 2008, women described office politics as an informal system that keeps power with those who have it, while excluding those who don’t. In this study, women’s descriptions of career barriers were in fact descriptions of political barriers. Subsequent research has borne this out: Even though women and racial minorities understand the political environment, they may not gain the advantages white men do by engaging in it.

The Political Double Bind

A key reason for this is that for women and minorities, engaging in political behaviors means engaging in behaviors that are not their own. Davey’s research, for example, found that women associate political behaviors with traditionally masculine attributes — like being aggressive and competitive. Engaging in this behavior is like walking a tightrope for women or racial minorities. On the one hand, they need to engage in traditionally white male political behaviors to advance their careers, but on the other, engaging in these behaviors challenges ingrained gender and racial stereotypes. As a result, the person engaging in the behavior experiences backlash. Supporting this argument is Perrewé and Nelson’s research, which suggests that the range of acceptable political behavior both is very narrow for women and often includes inherent contradictions. For example, a key political skill is drawing attention to your accomplishments, but women are expected to be humble, communal, and self-effacing.

Playing the Game Comes at a Cost

The political double bind also influences individual motivation and stress. Specifically, research published in the British Journal of Management in 2013 finds that women view organizational politics as an expression of masculine culture. Responses to it range from reluctance to resistance and finally acceptance. This acceptance is based on the awareness that these are the rules of the game. To obtain functional benefits, like access to lucrative relationships and coalitions, women and ethnic minorities should engage in political tactics — even if there is no guarantee of success.

Political behaviors are the standard for how things get done in organizations, leaving individuals with little choice but to engage. This comes at a cost. Research has found women who engage in office politics often consider it emotionally draining, and anecdotal evidence suggests that women may even reject leadership roles because of their dislike of office politics. Future research needs to investigate whether this holds true for minority groups as well as white men, as we may find that office politics is really an outdated game that no one wants to play.

Given the challenges that organizational politics creates for women and racial minorities, perhaps we should stop implementing programs aimed at improving political skill — since it doesn’t seem the problem is a lack of skill — and instead focus on creating environments that support individuals engaging in a diverse range of behaviors.

What would this environment look like? One place to start is collaboration. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology argues that women prefer work environments that foster cooperation, teamwork, and support. Creating cooperative rather than competitive environments will allow more women to thrive. This was further supported by research undertaken by Accenture, which found 14 factors that contribute to creating cultures of equality, and these fell into three key areas: making diversity a top leadership priority, including men in diversity initiatives, and ensuring employees feel comfortable creating, innovating, and being themselves at work. In these environments women are four times more likely, and men are twice as likely, to rise to senior management positions. It seems that creating work environments that are less competitive and more cooperative serves to benefit us all. Office politics may be a white man’s game, but it is a game that benefits only some white men.

One barrier to creating a more equitable system for everyone may be the leaders in charge today. These leaders not only set the political norms but also help create and maintain the political environment that favors them at the disadvantage of everyone else. Creating cooperative work environments is one way to fix this, but that can only be achieved if today’s existing leaders are willing to give up the game.


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