Is Political Savvy Gender Neutral?

I’ve coached corporate leaders across industries and cultures, and one thing I can definitely say is that Political Savvy is critical for everyone to master. I have not yet found the quantitative data for differences between men and women on Political Savvy, but recently read three articles that point out a double standard for women who’ve demonstrated political prowess.

“The plight of women in organizations and the reasons for this plight.” — Perrewe and Nelson

“Women who display political behavior may be evaluated differently than men, or may be viewed negatively by men because of it.” — Bodla and Danish

Perrewe and Nelson found that a “political skill deficiency” could easily diminish corporate success and organizational effectiveness. They saw that any exclusion from informal networks was a formidable barrier for a woman’s career advancement. The informal network, rather than a formal organizational talent discussion, wields more influence on career trajectory. Visibility and connectivity within these informal networks are pivotal — not only for careers — but for idea generation and driving change.

In McKinsey’s “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women,” the word “politics” appeared most frequently in open-ended survey responses on poor retention and promotion of women. Most senior women in finance viewed “political savvy” as a more important component of success than did their male peers! Having coached women in leadership — senior managers, technical experts and emerging leaders — I hear “too much politics”, or “I spend most of my day ’politicking’ rather than working.” There was also research that showed “on average, women are promoted at a lower rate than men.” Thus, if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the C level would more than double.

“58% have left jobs, or are considering leaving, because of negative office politics.” — Randstad USA (2018)

Leadership strengths are, of course, both positive and negative. But be aware that any overused strength creates vulnerabilities.

For example, being “Action Oriented.” Positive: work hard and be ready for challenges. Negative: over-worked, over-managing, and potential burn out.

Or “Managerial Courage.” Positive: direct and actionable feedback, saying what needs to be said. Negative: may be overly critical, too direct, or heavy-handed when addressing issues.

It’s important to always bear in mind that there is, unfailingly, a positive side to politics.

Political Savvy is a mix of skills, with empathy at its foundation. Daniel Goleman recognized empathy as a core competency of good leadership. Under emotional intelligence, Goleman describes political awareness as “accurately reading power relationships and understanding the forces that shape views and actions of clients, customers or competitors.” Roman Krznaric defined empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.” Proficiency in savvy skills requires intuition and sensitivity to the needs of others, and to the diverse communities most leaders serve. Political Savvy skills should always place the good of those led over a leader’s self-interest.

If leadership rests on moral principles — inclusive, servant, purpose-driven — then political savvy is a visible force for good.

If leadership excludes the concerns of others, using savvy skills for self-interest, the negative side of savvy is easily seen.

Even more, those who can navigate complex political situations can also lead whole-scale change, create buy-in for innovative ideas, drive performance, and build careers. The first building block for such a skill is to see both sides of Political Savvy. I’ve interviewed many women in leadership roles — both in the private and public sector. Many felt it was critical to work with an executive coach to reframe perspectives, along with having an internal mentor to help navigate and connect with the informal, sometimes invisible, network of connections.

It is possible to be both Politically Savvy and do the right thing. To sweep it under the carpet with the worry that it’s divisive is a gross error, both for management and employee.

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