The 3 dirty words in business: Power, Politics and Feminism

My Reflections from Managing People and Organisations (MPO)
By Jenni Taylor, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Jenni TaylorThe concept of ‘dirty words’ was first introduced to me on 24th September, our 3rd MPO lecture. According to R M Kanter*, it is in some cases easier to talk about sex than power. This got me thinking, why is power a subject that is not often discussed? We talk about influence as a source of power, but this word somehow conjures up feelings of having had something ‘done to us’ as opposed to being ’affected by’, with words such as influence.

My thoughts progressed… what other topics are not often discussed in the workplace. I didn’t have to think for long because 10 slides later we were discussing politics. Yes, that was definitely another subject that was associated with foul play at work. But why?

The third dirty word I’d like to include is feminism. I personally had never connected with or assimilated this ideal before. My very naïve and immediate reaction to even the thought had been to assure those around me that I had not been a victim nor (jokingly) ever “burned my bra”.

My observation is that today power is discussed in the context of having a desired impact and the ability to get something done through others. This word may also be used interchangeably with influence. However, reflecting on the learnings from the MBA unit, Leadership Practise and Development (LP&D), to be influential you also need to be influence-able, a less digestible concept when you substitute in the word power. Perhaps power is associated with older management practises where dictatorial or authoritarian power were more commonly used?

Current teachings and practises talk more of motivation, engagement and empowerment. It is now less about giving a directive and more about asking the right question.

That being said, we did learn that there may be a time and place for hard and soft management practices, or tactics. I learnt that influence tactics should be carefully selected. The criteria being level of success and activity required. I realised my go-to affiliative and empowering management style might not always be the most effective use of time or resources. This approach was considered particularly ineffective for tasks such as compliance, or when resistance needed to be quickly removed.

Influence is needed, however, I now know power also has its time and place.

We often talk about the need for relationships, networks and professionalism, so what changes when we roll this up under the word politics? Perhaps this is when these actions seem less sincere? I have always thought being political is simply being business smart, so it has often bewildered me as to why others have considered it so taboo.

We were introduced to a political framework (by Baddeley, S. and James, K. (1987)) that mapped integrity and political awareness on two intersecting axes. The upper right quadrant, being highly politically aware and acting with integrity, otherwise referred to as the ‘wise operator’, detailed an individual that understands power, conducts themselves in accordance with their values and considers others’ viewpoints. This is a great help in explaining to peers why being political does not have to make you feel inauthentic or a “need to play the game”.

You can be business smart and still be true to your values. I want to always remain genuine and act with integrity, but that does not mean I should say the first thing that comes into my mind or be so short-sighted that I do not spend time investing in other stakeholders in the business. If there are people in the business that know how to get things done, what is the price for asking for their help in achieving a company goal? I believe the wise operator mindset makes for a high achieving and productive culture, therefore, definitely one I will endeavour to foster.

I did not know I was a feminist until I watched Emma Watson at the UN Summit (Sept 2014) give her ‘HeForShe’ speech. I found her message captivating and relatable. I realised that I too was a feminist if to be feminist meant I want equal rights for women. I, like Emma, had associated this word with complaining, aggressive or disgruntled women. I had not felt any explicit discrimination myself, so ignorantly felt no need to get involved in such a movement. I now know that gender discrimination means so many different things by country, religion and intent. I know that women may be discriminated by men or women by cultural norms and biases that we may not even be conscious of as its happening. I now have a passion and conscious mindset to get more talented women in the workforce and help remove the barriers that I better understand exist for women.

Throughout this course I have researched, witnessed and experienced self-efficacy being just one of the barriers women face. I am now conscious of this in myself and can take proactive measures to help others. Through just having this awareness I have been able to vicariously experience successes through my team members, helping to improve my own self-efficacy immediately.

I’ve learnt being a women is going to be advantageous in my career – companies are putting out women only mandates with greater focus on team dynamics and diversity. This is perhaps controversial, but it’s the reality and I want to better myself and my experiences so that I’m worthy of such a position in the near future. I have learnt about my intent versus impact through psychometric testing (LSI: Life Style Inventory), creating a greater self-awareness. The way we see the world and others is grounded in thousands of unique experiences and others’ perception is their reality. There are unconscious biases at play, which means women need to be aware of their impact and how they fit with the social stereotypes that precede them.

So there, I have aired my dirty laundry.

*Rossabeth Moss Kanter “Powerful Failure in Management Circuits” HBR (referenced in MPO, Sydney Uni lecture notes)
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