Playing politics in the workplace is not about gossip, backstabbing, or opportunism. Instead, savvy women in business know how to network and with whom. They also understand how decisions are made in their organizations, and they have learned to use these political factors to their advantage.

Political savvy is critical for career success and the good news is that you don’t need to lose your integrity in the process. Political savvy involves developing relationships and a sensitivity to the culture of the organization. This can be accomplished over time with the use of keen observation and listening skills.

In her research on this topic, Lisa Mainiero interviewed 55 high profile executive women in the 1980s to determine the role corporate politics played in their career histories. Her article, “On Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The Political Seasoning of Powerful Women Executives,” is the result of her interviews about their involvement in workplace politics. Most of the women interviewed felt that “politics” was a dirty word and did not admit to engaging in the politics.

Mainiero stated, “A careful analysis of the career histories of these women, however, showed that they developed a sensitivity to corporate politics that belied their comments. As they recounted key developmental events in their careers, it became clear that not only were these women astute observers of their corporate cultures, but they had an ability to build alliances and partnerships that were unequaled among their peers.” In essence, they became politically savvy over time despite their lack of intention to do so.

(Want to know how savvy you are about office politics? Take this QUIZ.)

What is involved in learning to be politically savvy?

Using Mainiero’s work as a guide, I have identified four stages for development of political savvy. In each of these stages, I have indicated specific characteristics and milestones that will help you figure out where you are in this process and where you need to go to further your savvy skills.

Stage 1: Naiveté

In Stage 1, you are completely focused on your work. In fact, you spend most of your time in your cubicle or office. You most likely work long hours and are not tuned into or even aware of the politics around you.

You are in Stage 1 if you:

  • Are unaware of unwritten “Rules of the Game
  • Are 100 percent work focused
  • Learn about workplace politics through a negative or positive experience.

You can be in Stage 1 at the very beginning of your career or when you transition to a new role or company and need to learn the rules of the game all over again. Then something occurs that catches you off guard and opens your eyes to the culture and decision-making process. Maybe you were passed over for a promotion or see others less qualified than you being promoted. At this point, you begin to move toward Stage 2.

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