Is office politics a white man’s game?

By Michelle King, David Denyer & Emma Parry

Love it or hate it, office politics is an inevitable part of organizational life.

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 have 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.

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. 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 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. For example, a key political skill is drawing attention to your accomplishments, but women are expected to be humble, communal and self-effacing.

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whether this holds true for minority groups as well as white men, as we may find that office politics is really an outdated game that no one wants to play.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.

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.

Michelle King leads UN Women’s Integrated Strategy for Innovation and Global Innovation Coalition for Change. David Denyer is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at Cranfield School of Management.


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