Imagine you are a newly hired employee in an organization going about your normal day at work. You ask what you believe is a simple question to the wrong person, which turns out to be a political faux pas.
In a matter of seconds, you may have inadvertently left a negative impression with your colleagues. Plus, you’re now forced to spend your time and energy mentally mulling over those previous events in an effort to figure out what you actually did, to whom and how it can be fixed — often without knowing where to even begin.
You are now stuck in what many human resources professionals refer to as a political pitfall, based on actions and decisions you unknowingly made that run counter to social norms in the office. Often stumbled upon by accident, these pitfalls frequently revolve around the hidden and informal social rules that exist within organizations. And even when they don’t occur on purpose, they can potentially tarnish an employee’s reputation and career — depending on the situation, they may even block opportunities for ascension into leadership roles.
No matter the seriousness of a political pitfall — relatively minor or egregiously major — they’re the kind of issue no one wants to have to deal with. As McKinsey & Company reported in their 2019 Women in the Workplace study, many employees believe that being liked, obeying internal office politics or maintaining a predetermined social order is more important in some cases than their actual work or contributions.
Women of color, who live at the intersection of two marginalized identities, are uniquely disadvantaged in this way. Women of color in particular face myriad challenges as they are held to different “professional” standards; their behavior is more heavily scrutinized as they are compared against negative stereotypes, they may lack support or advocacy from colleagues and managers and, likewise, often lack the mentors or sponsors necessary to advance. Diverse women leaders may find they are one of few, and ostensibly asked to represent their entire race and gender.
In addition to more subtle consequences, navigating office politics can be the difference between a promotion and termination. This is particularly important for those with marginalized identities, especially as many companies are calling for more diversity due to the current racial climate.
Yet, they have not removed potential barriers to success that many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), low-socioeconomic status and/or first-generation employees experience that would make offices more inclusive, nor have they changed the office culture or politics that is often shaped by predominantly white-cisgender leadership. Women of color find that their mistakes with navigating office politics may not be forgiven as easily.
Navigating office politics involves passing a socially constructed test that is supposed to be fair, however only some employees already know the rules. Based on their experiences prior to entering the organization some employees lack the cultural capital or knowledge needed to successfully navigate organizations — from appropriate language to the rules of engagement. They may also lack the social capital, or networks, to possess a mentor or sponsor who can not only tell you how to avoid these landmines, but also advocate for you to have certain advancement opportunities.
So, what happens when you make the wrong choice and are labeled as a troublemaker or simply do not “fit?” There are often subtle and not so subtle consequences for falling into these pitfalls.
Examples of political consequences could be:
- Social Isolation: You may somehow be excluded on important or relevant emails, or not invited to meetings pertaining to your role. You may also be avoided altogether by your colleagues and managers, and notice people going around you to get information, even if you are the appropriate person to talk to.
- Career Stagnation: You may not get the promotion or even a lateral position that you are interested in and qualify for. You could be told you were not the right “fit” with no clear explanation.
To eliminate the types of scenarios that most often lead to political pitfalls, there needs to be a culture change within and across many organizations. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, has studied the importance of fostering “psychologically safe” and trusting environments, where employees and managers alike have the space to disagree, take risks and provide professional feedback without judgement or retaliation. She’s also discussed how such an environment can be mutually beneficial to both an organization and its employees. In a 2019 interview with Harvard Business Review, Edmondson said: “You know the term implies to people a sense of coziness … that we’re all going to be nice to each other and that’s not what it’s really about. What it’s about is candor; what it’s about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, ‘I screwed that up.’ Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.”
According to Edmondson, these types of environments are built on trust and respect and allow for more transparent communication. A “psychologically safe culture,” as with most significant or structural changes, must be set by leadership. Edmondson said if done properly, it could make office politics less of an issue.
Since eliminating office politics will take a substantial amount of time, how do we make this political knowledge of office norms more available and accessible to a wider audience within organizations to make things more equitable in the meantime? Leaders should consider the following:
- Create and promote formal mentoring and sponsorship programs. Share information about these programs during a thorough onboarding process.
- Encourage a culture of open communication and transparency.
- Create objective standards for evaluation and a well-designed and regularly conducted performance evaluation process that mitigates bias.
- Hire and train managers to invest in an equitable office culture that reduces the number of barriers causing people to fail. This may take self-work, reflection, an openness to having difficult conversations, as well as anti-bias and change management-related training.
In order to uplift women of color, there should be more resources provided to equip them with strategies for successfully navigating office politics. Additionally, when someone lands into a political pitfall, everyone in the workplace, especially managers, should ask themselves several questions: Would someone know this beforehand without guidance? What are their true intentions?
Organizations should also have open and honest conversations in the workplace so that the accused can tell their side of the story before we make assumptions. There should be a positive mindset, a benefit of the doubt that your colleagues — particularly your colleagues from underrepresented groups — have the best of intentions.
About the author
Dr. Brittany Robertson joined DIversityInc as a Research Analyst in December 2020. She is a project lead for DiversityInc’s annual Women of Color and Allies event and assists with various research projects. Dr. Robertson received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also has an extensive career as a higher education professional, working in the areas of advising, admissions, enrollment and recruitment. Dr. Robertson’s research focus is on women of color and their experiences in the workplace.