Thinking Patterns that Hold Women Leaders Back (and How to Replace Them) 

By Jill Flynn and Kathryn Heath, Ph.D. 

  

As women, we face many challenges throughout our careers. We can’t fix all of them but there are many we can. In this six-part series, we examine the Old Rules, or limiting beliefs and assumptions, that prevent many women leaders from achieving the level of success they’re destined to reach. We then outline the New Rules, alternative thinking patterns, and behaviors to adopt instead. 

If you haven’t already, check out parts one, two, and three of this series,  

Break Your Own Rules, Part 1: Take Center Stage 

Break Your Own Rules, Part 2: Proceed Until Apprehended 

Break Your Own Rules, Part 3: Project Personal Power

Out with the old, in with the new

Change is uncomfortable; there’s no doubt about it. But what’s even more uncomfortable is allowing limiting beliefs to block your path to power and the career of your dreams.  

We focus on limiting beliefs and thought patterns because the thinking that motivates behavior is the fuel that sustains the behavior. We must address the underlying assumptions and stories we tell ourselves to overcome them.  

And while there are many conditions that are important to advancement, some are within your control, and some are not. This article series and the book on which it’s based, Break Your Own Rules, focuses on the areas you can change and control. But know that there is no magic bullet for this work. Changing old thought patterns requires time and effort, but the outcome could be life changing. 

The Old Rule: Work Harder

Many women we work with disregard the need to be politically astute in their work life. They think office politics is dirty and manipulative, and that it undermines the value of good, hard work.  

But, as ace political consultant Mary Matalin wisely told us,  

“This business about politics at work being sleazy drives me crazy. Virtue can be the essence of politics. The reality is that politics can be just as virtuous or as sleazy as you are. You decide.” 

Additionally, simply pretending that office politics is not a factor in business is like trying to win the game by sitting on the sidelines. We are not saying be political; we are saying be politically savvy.  

According to John Eldred, a consultant and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management, “Politics is simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis.” 

Thus, our dislike for the perceived grittiness of politics may be causing us to miss some important opportunities for advancement. And our desire to move into the highest levels of leadership means that we need to leave our disdain for politics behind.  

We’ve compiled the common myths and false assumptions that make women leaders avoid office politics. Let’s examine each one to understand why developing a new lens for thinking about political skills can offer each of us a few new tools for success.  

Playing politics is sleazy

Women are victims of our values, which some people say emphasize relationships over rules, and nurturing over competition. We often believe that office politics is about winning at all costs—it’s not fair and it’s not right.  

But the reality is that changing our perspective on the good and bad of office politics requires us to use a different lens as we look out at the world of work—but it doesn’t require us to throw away our moral code.  

After all, politics is all about nurturing relationships.  

When we see a woman who’s mastered the art of politics, we see someone who has forged a positive line of communication with the decision makers and other influencers in her organization. Politics is about creating a network for yourself and achieving buy-in for your ideas. 

I’ve never been good at office politics

We have worked with many women who share this sentiment and we couldn’t disagree more. 

Women are not politically astute? Are you sure? 

Remember the time when you were able to talk that vendor into putting your order at the top of the list and thereby solving your timeline dilemma? 

Or the time you talked to a couple of family members about an idea to get their buy-in before presenting it to a larger group? 

This is politics.  

In the real world, women are experts at the mechanics of politics—it’s just that we don’t always realize it. Just imagine how much you can achieve if you put your naturally acquired political expertise and experience to work in the office! 

It’s possible to opt out of the political game at work

It’s innocent enough to think you’ll leave the office politics to everyone else and simply go about your day. After all, politics can be exhausting. When would you have time for your day job? 

The reality, however, is that, to some extent, politics is our day job. To do our job well, we need our colleagues—above and below—to make resources available in support of our efforts. We need people to be aware of our skills and accomplishments. We need a network of allies to back us up when the work environment becomes challenging.  

Opting out of the dynamics of politics—managing relationships, advocating for our ideas, accepting and asking for favors—seems easier in the very short term. But for us to succeed, or even to get anything accomplished, we need to be politically savvy.  

Hard work is enough to get me noticed and promoted

Many of the women we coach think that hard work alone will get them noticed and appreciated. So they are producers—and sometimes they work much harder than everyone else around them.  

What that insane work ethic gets them is an appreciative pat on the back and then more hard work. They’ve built their reputations on slogging through the tough assignments and delivering results.  

But their herculean efforts don’t showcase their strong networks, strategic thinking, or teamwork. And it allows little time for the occasional dose of self-promotion and taking credit for their labor. Hard work, then, is not always smart work when your career is at stake.  

Business should be a meritocracy

If individual merit is based on how successful each of us performs in our day-to-day role, then we need to exhibit a competence in political skills. As long as our definition of politics is one that takes into account its positive aspects—as a means of relating to others, achieving alignment, and building a coalition of people to support ideas—then there is a place in a meritocracy for utilizing political savvy.  

That said, business is not fair, and we as women need to be politically astute to give ourselves an edge—an edge for succeeding in our everyday roles and an edge for making it to the next level in our careers.  

As we rise higher in our organizations, there are fewer positions and choice assignments. Political sophistication can be a primary differentiator when a hiring committee is making the choice between two qualified candidates.   

The New Rule: Be Politically Savvy

If maneuvering through the political aspects of your career doesn’t come easily to you, don’t despair. We’d be willing to bet that even the savviest women executives had to work at mastering their technique.  

Here are some action items to get you started: 

Recognize that women excel at politics

Women have proved to be adept at maneuvering in purely political situations, everywhere from philanthropy and small business to family management and local politics. Women, after all, are natural consensus builders who must navigate tricky terrain.  

See for yourself: reflect on the nonbusiness parts of your life. Managing a family. Being a single mom. Making major purchases. Interacting with doctors and care providers. Making elder care decisions. And so on.  

Create a list that represents the relationships you manage, the decisions you make on behalf of yourself and others, and all the everyday negotiations that you accomplish without a second thought.  

This list should be all you need to remind yourself that you are naturally effective in political situations. Thinking about how savvy you’ve been in other contexts can give you the confidence you need to demonstrate political prowess at work.  

Our point is this: you are a natural. 

Be in the know

Do you know how business is done in your company? Being “in the know” makes office politics much easier to navigate. It may even allow you to have more influence. Here are a few practical tips to help you see which information sources to tap into and what people to count on when you’re facing a challenge. 

  • Lose the org chart. Every company is different, but most settings have informal social networks that are just as important as the established corporate hierarchy—if not more so. It’s worth your while, therefore, to actually chart the peer groups who have influence. Who are these people, and where are their spheres of influence? Being aware of informal teams and alliances and knowing what each is concerned with will help when you are trying to achieve buy-in or influence a decision. 
  • Connect the dots. Once you’ve charted the key social networks, map your needs against that structure. You’ll be able to use the chart whenever you are trying to build consensus around an idea or need. If you require technical support—who are the best people to influence a technology purchasing decision? If you are waiting to receive approval for a new hire—who has a direct line to human resources? When something big is going down—whom within a key network can you trust? 
  • Understand the numbers. Data on the company balance sheet says it all. Which departments are making their numbers this year, and which are in jeopardy? Which initiatives are being funded most heavily? The sooner you feel comfortable eyeballing spread sheets, the sooner you can start to read between the line items to determine what’s relevant to you. 
  • Get connected. Because things are moving so quickly these days, it’s difficult to stop and listen. Often, we don’t really hear what the people around us are saying unless it has a direct impact on our immediate work. Practice being fully present in meetings and in conversation—you might learn something that can help you.  

Run for office at the office

We coach women to realize that at a certain point, they need to campaign for their career. It is naïve to believe that you will be selected for high-level jobs without making your career aspirations clear and building support for yourself.  

Kathryn once worked with a former city councilwoman on a city-chartered task force to build low-income housing in their community. They assembled a team, went through a planning process, and produced a final report. Prior to presenting the report to the council, the councilwoman suggested they meet with each councilmember ahead of time to hear their concerns and factor those concerns into the final report. When they finally presented the report to the city council, it sailed through.  

Kathryn employed this same tactic during a committee presentation at work a few months later. It worked beautifully. “I am convinced that if I had not counted my votes, I would have had to do it over again, and it would have taken longer.” She learned there’s value in spending the time to garner support instead of hoping your work is going to simply stand on its own. You need to count your votes. 

Here are some of the components of our framework for being politically savvy without selling your soul:  

  • Build a platform. When you have something important to accomplish, you need a point of view. Building a platform at work means prioritizing your goals and creating a formal pitch and message to bring them to life. Be able to articulate your ideas and how they map with the larger company goals. Be specific and stay on message. Every time you talk with colleagues or participate on a team, it’s an opportunity to bring people on board and bolster your credibility. 
  • Build coalitions. First, identify like-minded people who have goals that are similar to yours, and create a bridge that further links your interests. Second, identify the people who are likely to stand in your way because their interests diverge, and determine if there are ways to create alignment. Think about what sorts of people are missing from your coalition—top executives, technical experts, support staff—and decide whom you’ll bring on board to fill the gaps. Finally, identify the people who will never be in a position to support your interests, and consider how to appease them or mitigate the concerns they may raise.  
  • Line up sponsors. According to Cathy Bessant, vice chair, global strategy at Bank of America, “Without sponsorship, you don’t get opportunities. To take center stage, you have to have opportunities. Only sponsorship early on delivers that.” We take sponsorship advice a step further and advocate that women put together their own “board of directors,” a group of five or six sponsors. This team of advocates offers you active and strategic support to help you proceed to the next level. 

Become a political activist

In case the message hasn’t come through clearly, we’ll say it again: you can’t opt out of office politics. If you’re not sure how to crack your company code, identify someone who seems especially comfortable building coalitions and who is well networked within your company, and interview that person to find out how he or she approaches it.   

Step into Your Political Savvy

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, author of The Secret Handshake, calls politics “a great equalizer” in terms of gender. She states,  

“While politics is usually seen as a negative aspect of human relations and a low-down dirty means of getting ahead, the politically adept often advance both their company and division goals while doing the same for their own careers… Those who are good at it, whether female or male, have an edge.”  

Working harder to become politically savvy will pay dividends in your career, and you don’t need to sacrifice integrity or morals to do so. Politics, when done properly, is about managing relationships, building consensus, establishing positive lines of communication with influencers, and advocating for your ideas and needs. All things that women are often naturally good at, and it’s just a matter of shifting the old thought patterns that block your path to power. 

In part five of this series, we’ll look at Rule #5: Play to Win. In this article, we will examine perceptions of risk and the tendency for women to avoid putting themselves in high-stakes situations. We’ll demonstrate how to stop letting others take the lead and to think differently in order to become more comfortable living with risk.  

To be the first to read part five, follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter via the widget to the right.  

An Important Note: Employers Must Break Rules Too

While the focus of this series is on the limiting beliefs and thought patterns women must address in their own career journeys, it cannot be overstated that the bulk of responsibility for change falls on the organizations that employ them. For every Old Rule a woman can change for herself, there are dozens of Old Rules that organizations must change. From outdated policies and work/life imbalance to inherent bias and lack of development opportunities for women, there are many ways employers can—and must—break their own rules.  

 

For a more in-depth analysis of these Old Rules and our recommended New Rules to replace them with, check out our book Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power.  

About Jill Flynn

Jill Flynn is Managing Director in the Leadership Acceleration practice at Bravanti. She is a co-author of Break Your Own Rules, How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power and The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders. Jill is a founding partner of Flynn Heath Leadership, which was acquired by Bravanti in 2020. She specializes in partnering with corporate clients to design and implement tailored strategies that result in higher retention and promotion rates for their women leaders. Read more > 

About Kathryn Heath

Kathryn Heath, Ph.D., is a managing director of the Leadership Acceleration practice at Bravanti. She was a founding partner of Flynn Heath Leadership, which was acquired by Bravanti in 2020, and co-author of Break Your Own Rules, How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power and The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders. Kathryn serves as a coach, a researcher, and a developer of leadership programs. One of the hallmarks of Kathryn’s work is addressing organizations’ specific business targets through customized programs that move leaders forward faster. Read more > 

About Bravanti’s Leadership Acceleration Solutions

Bravanti’s Leadership Acceleration practice offers customized skill development sessions combined with individual coaching, cohort support, and targeted feedback, equipping your leaders with the necessary skills to realize their potential. Our programs include customized approaches for women leaders, underrepresented groups, and high potentials. For more information on our Leadership Acceleration services, contact Brenda Wensil, Managing Director & Practice Leader, Leadership Acceleration, at bwensil@bravanti.com.  

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