Know The Politics Where You Work Before You “Lean In”

Why are women not reaching the top of their fields in the numbers expected?  According to Catalyst, “high-potential women advance more slowly than their male peers, in terms of both career progression and pay, even though they employ career management strategies similar to men.”

Only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and they fill a mere 16.6% of board seats.  Yet we’re told over and over of their value to organizations.  So why are they so underrepresented at higher levels of major corporations?

The focus often turns to effective leadership skills.  Leadership ability is a primary component of career progression, but we have been missing the boat on another crucial aspect of advancement for both women and men – one that women face more intensely later in their careers.  If you do not understand politics in organizations, and do so early and often, then your chances of success are significantly diminished.  This rule applies no matter where you work.

Let’s start with power.  It’s one important aspect of politics.  Yet, it’s one women often mistakenly think takes a back seat to competence.  In some organizations it does.  But given two candidates for promotion approximately equal in job competence, the one who understands politics, and particularly power, is more likely to be promoted.

Power is not a thing people have or they don’t.  Certainly status enters into the equation.  Power is more often gained and lost because of communication by which it is developed, exercised, maintained, diminished, and destroyed.  Power is negotiated and renegotiated.  It is defined in the course of relating to others.  Status can facilitate power but it does not provide or protect it.

If you have something others need or want, you have power.  Effectively communicating possession of the needed skill increases power.  If you feel powerless, it is likely because you’ve allowed someone else to have too much power, failed to recognize your power or underestimated its value.

Women play catch-up with regard to power.  They are socialized, in large part, to not appear powerful.  Labels are used to keep women from developing a comfort with power.  Rather than expect such labels and respond to their use effectively, too many women expend energy avoiding them.  Rather than run from labels, it’s better to use them in your favor.  “Yes, I came on strong in that meeting and for a good reason” and “If having an opinion and expressing it makes women loose canons around here, then a lot of good ideas are not going to be heard” are two examples of constructive responses to labels.  Once people realize you aren’t afraid of labels, they tend to give up using them.  If you can be easily managed by the use of labels, your power is compromised.

Early in their careers, many women don’t think they need to understand power.  When they’re young, not posing a threat, senior people mentor and guide them.  That phase passes, however, and many highly competent women come unprepared to deal with power plays happening before their eyes and behind the scenes.

A good start on developing a greater understanding of the politics of power is to honestly answer the following questions:

  1. Do you study how power is established and used where you work?
  2. Do you take steps to establish your credibility with others rather than assuming your work will do it for you?
  3. Have you established yourself as the one to go to in terms of specific types of knowledge?
  4. Are you skilled at making people feel good about working for or with you?
  5. Can you use words in ways that convey a sense of confidence and power?
  6. Do you make sure that your energy isn’t devoted to small issues?
  7. Are you strategic about whom you depend on for appreciation, reward, and so on?  These are the people to whom you have GIVEN power.  Do they deserve it?
  8. Can you tip the balance of power to your favor when it appears that you are the underdog?
  9. Do you avoid flaunting power, but not avoid communicating it when necessary?
  10. Do you choose your battles wisely and learn from each one?

There is much to learn about politics and I’m convinced by years of study and observation that women need to be engaged in grasping how politics works much earlier in their careers.  The astute observer of politics has a considerable edge.

We all need to be students of politics, and the power aspect, because they are facts of business life. If you’re going to commit yourself to a career and/or organization, “lean in,” and go for the gold ring, it’s good to know what you’re up against.  Until women do this, we will be looking at low representation at the higher levels of organizations and scratching our heads wondering why so little has changed.


Kathleen’s latest book is a narrative look at power and politics. Her debut novel,  Shadow Campus , was recently described by Dorie Clark at Forbes as a “masterful debut mystery.”  Also see the “Tutorial for Women” section here.

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