When Huiying (not her real name) was hired as a rookie manager at an SME with only two years of working experience, she felt inadequate and was eager to quickly establish her authority over her department, which included staff with more years of working experience.
She says: “I inadvertently stepped on a few toes and hurt feelings with my brash, rigid style. I ticked anyone off for not meeting standards without understanding the challenges they were facing. Soon, I found myself being isolated at lunch, and faced increasing resistance to improve efficiency. On top of that, I had to navigate my way around the nebulous standards of accountability in upper management.
“At first, I went head on and told them off (which, in hindsight, was very hot-headed and clueless of me). Along the way, I learnt how to be more empathetic, and became wiser. I got to know my team better both professionally and personally, enquired about their family, and often asked those with more experience for their advice, which made them feel appreciated, and reiterated that I wasn’t trying to one-up them. With upper management, I made sure I copied the relevant people on e-mails so they could see how I value-added to a project.”
Huiying might not have understood it then – but her learning curve demonstrated the value of “playing politics” in the workplace. Many of us would have experienced politics in the workplace. More often than not, it would be a negative experience of a colleague’s actions to advance his or her career, seemingly at the expense of others.
Politics is not necessarily bad
The notion of politics, however, is a neutral one. As long as you have more than one person on the team, conflicts will arise: There will be differences in opinions, culture, working styles and power plays.
Global CEO coach and executive coach Catherine Li-Yunxia explains why the tenacious pursuit of one’s career goals can sometimes be perceived as a threat among fellow colleagues: “Politics is naturally generated in any group setting, as different departments share the same resources, such as the same top management team, budget and human resources. When your colleagues want the same thing you want at the same time, you’d perceive them as playing politics, even though they’re naturally working towards their own goal.”
Political savviness requires multiple abilities such as social astuteness, interpersonal influence, the ability to network, and thinking before speaking. Not everyone is equally effective at being politically savvy, but these skills can be learnt.Catherine Li-Yunxia, Global CEO coach and executive coach
According to life and career coach Daniel Lim, who is behind the popular LITO business and lifestyle podcast, politics only becomes a problem when we interpret it as a tug of war between egos and emotions.
“We all want smart people to lead us and make informed decisions. When we bring capable, smart people with different backgrounds together, there will inevitably be conflict, but it’s not necessarily bad because that’s when we come up with more possibilities, and explore areas that may have been blind spots for us individually,” he says.
Dealing with gender discrimination
Unfortunately, women sometimes face larger hurdles in tackling organisational politics, not least because of gender stereotypes.
In particular, women with caregiving responsibilities often experience a biased assessment of their performances by their employers and peers. The Association of Women for Action and Research’s Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory – which saw 48 cases related to maternity discrimination in 2020, revealed in its report An Omnibus on Gender Equality 2020-2021 – had clients whose pay were reduced after they became mothers, and those who were demoted without prior constructive conversation with their employers.
Founder of Mums@Work Sher-Li Torrey, whose social enterprise helps mothers re-enter the workforce and find work-family balance, has noted stories from beneficiaries who have been passed over for promotion by their employers if they are perceived as being more dedicated to their family than to their careers. They have also encountered younger colleagues or those with no family commitments angling themselves as better candidates for promotion.
We all want smart people to lead us and make informed decisions. When we bring capable, smart people with different backgrounds together, there will inevitably be conflict, but it’s not necessarily bad because that’s when we come up with more possibilities, and explore areas that may have been blind spots for us individually.Daniel Lim, Career and life coach
Women have also told her that they have to “behave like a man” in order to succeed. She says: “When we see successful females, there are often negative connotations of her being cold, unfeeling and ‘like a man’. A bank vice-president once shared that after her promotion, she overheard colleagues casting doubts about how she obtained the position. It’s part of the political game where people assert their right over something they believe should be theirs.”
Politicking can be positive
Regardless of gender, being politically savvy is less about playing dirty tricks and more about understanding an organisation’s dynamics, and having the ability to leverage relationships in order to achieve organisational, team and individual goals.
The most astute are able to rally support not only from work peers, but also from upper management, and are perceived as genuine and authentic, instead of manipulative or self-serving.
“It is about understanding how to use your skills, behaviours and qualities to be effective, and sincerity is vital,” explains Catherine.
“Political savviness requires multiple abilities such as social astuteness, interpersonal influence, the ability to network, and thinking before speaking. Not everyone is equally effective at being politically savvy, but these skills can be learnt.”
All workplaces have social norms that determine how people choose to act. These norms are usually not explicit, and require managing office connections to gauge the appropriate way to behave or to better fit into the office culture, says Sher-Li.
“Politics is a way of navigating around a social group. In a negative sense, people use it to manipulate a situation, but if we look at it objectively, the purpose of ‘politicking’ is to ‘feel’ your way around and get a better sense of whom you can connect with or not. When we see politics in a neutral light, we are less quick to judge it as bad – people can choose how they want to use it, including making a conscious decision not to tear down another person.”
Making differences meaningful
Sher-Li’s advice: Be purposeful and involved in your office culture and activities; building favourable relationships does not happen by chance.
Sher-Li notes that well-liked leaders attend corporate events where their bosses are around and their presence is noticed. They take effort to mingle, and it is all a part of building a personal brand, being strategic and finding who can be allies in achieving one’s corporate goals.
If we are working in a corporation, it’s only logical that some of us want to climb and get ahead. Not everyone is happy to stay at the same rank. We work because it pays the bills and if we want more, we work and strategise our career path accordingly.Sher-Li Torrey, Founder of Mums@Work
She adds: “I find it funny when people say, ‘She has an ulterior motive in trying to climb the corporate ladder’. If we are working in a corporation, it’s only logical that some of us want to climb and get ahead. Not everyone is happy to stay at the same rank. We work because it pays the bills and if we want more, we work and strategise our career path accordingly.”
Daniel teaches his clients a trust building and emotional processing tool that helps them to perceive disagreements and conflict as a self-development process, rather than a personal attack. “We have to pre-decide that a melting pot of ideas – and rigorous debates at work – is not a bad thing. When somebody doesn’t agree with us, it’s about the topic and not the person,” he shares.
When differences in the human construct can be viewed as strengths to bring the best solutions to the table, it can generate compassion and empathy, rather than suspicion and cynicism. Says Daniel: “If we can build our skill sets and gain mastery over the common negative view of politicking, we can get a kick out of rigorous exchanges of ideas, elevate our self-development, and strengthen our emotional processing muscle.”
What political type are you?
Researchers Simon Baddeley and Kim Jamesbfrom the Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham University, created a model where varying degrees of political sensitivity and individual integrity are classified into four key behaviours: innocent, inept, clever and wise.
Career coach Catherine Li-Yunxia explains how this can be applied to effective management education: “Understanding which category you or your team members fall under will give an idea of how each person approaches projects, and the kind of role that each will play in the assignments. It can be particularly helpful when implementing change and thinking about the kind of people you can rely on to lead it successfully.”
WORTHY WENDY (INNOCENT)
Politically naive (and suspicious of politics), but act towards a group’s interest. Worthy Wendys hold the best interest of the organisation and the people as priority, and think everyone should do the same. They are loyal and hardworking, but need to be led.
NO IDEA NELLIE (INEPT)
Politically naive like Worthy Wendy, but act out of self-interest as they are determined to get what they want. No Idea Nellies may upset or embarrass others because they may ignore or challenge established political systems, which often isolates them and leaves them bereft of team support.
SUE THE SNAKE (CLEVER)
Politically aware, but act out of self-interest. Sue The Snakes put themselves before
others and the organisation. They are useful in making things happen only if it’s for their interest and the opportunities they may want to seize for themselves.
SAGE SARAH (WISE)
Politically aware of the situation and the environment, and hold group goals and the people around them as a priority, while not neglecting their own development. Their ethics cause them to use this political awareness for the benefit of themselves and the organisation. Sage Sarahs are loyal to the organisation and like to create win-win scenarios. They possess integrity and are respected by the people in the organisation. They are also not afraid of showing vulnerability and authenticity, and sharing their emotions.
Take the quiz here: