Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Whole New World? Navigating Workplace Politics

Calista Chong, Vice-President at OxWIB, spoke to three working women about workplace dilemmas and improving their social and political savvy.

This piece also featured in Oxford Women in Business’ termly magazine Insight in a collaboration celebrating the launch of Cherwell’s Business & Finance section.

If you have managed to secure an internship or job upon graduation – great! But if you feel intimidated about navigating the unfamiliar, working-adult world, read on to allay some of that (understandable) worry. Calista Chong, Vice-President at OxWIB, compiled a list of disconcerting dilemmas one could face in the workplace and spoke to three wonderful working women for some tips on improving one’s social and political savvy.

Peggy Klaus is a bestselling author, communication and leadership coach, and political consultant. Peggy has spent more than two decades helping thousands of professionals from Fortune 500s, mid-size and start-ups succeed in their jobs. She has also dedicated much of her career to empowering women of all ages. And, once again, she brings her passion and expertise into the spotlight with the launch of “Unstoppable!” — her new, cutting-edge program designed to address the key issues critical for women’s success: confidence, fearlessness, and purpose, among others. Peggy is the author of two best-selling books, BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It and The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner. 

Shirly Piperno is now a trainee at emerging technologies at a financial institution after graduating in 2020 with her Master’s, where she focused on digital ethics around the UK census. Her previous experience lies in fashion and real estate, also focusing on the digital aspect of these industries. 

Stephanie Onukwugha is a Pharmaceutical Scientist and Business Development expert whose skills and experiences have been utilized by major healthcare, petroleum parastatals, telecom infrastructure, tech, and luxury clothing brands both in the USA and in Nigeria. Stephanie left the corporate world to focus on her passion, Entrepreneurship, and is now the proud founder of Premier Capacity Development Network (Nigeria’s premier Training Network) and UnveiledSkin (an Organic Skincare Brand) and the proud co-Founder of Iruka Holistics (offering Inventive Wellness Products).

Dilemma #1: I feel that I am not taken seriously in male-dominated spaces and I don’t know how to deal with being spoken over or interrupted in meetings. 

To Stephanie and Peggy, this dilemma needs to be overcome by a single, powerful word: mindset. In Peggy’s words: “Women have to decide that they want to make their voices heard. It is a commitment to courage and confidence.”  

“A lot of times, women focus on the obvious disparity in the ratio of male and female coworkers. Ignoring this disparity alleviates any subconscious pressure or insecurity you may feel to make yourself be seen or taken seriously. Ignore the noise, live with confidence and charisma and focus on being the best at what you do to create an undeniable impact for your team and organisation,” Stephanie shared. 

Peggy has advised her clients – many of them women in leadership – to write three behavioural prompts and repeat these to themselves: Speak first; speak often; I will be doing a disservice to my team, the company and myself if I don’t speak up. “The more they see these prompts, the more it reinforces better behaviour. Come prepared with things that you want to say – observations, facts, statistics – so you can contribute to the discussion confidently.” 

What about dealing with being abruptly cut off in team meetings? After overcoming the initial shock and flash of hurt, how do we react to this ‘snub’? While it is natural to assume ill intentions on the interrupter, Peggy recommended that we should first assume good intentions – an oversight or overexcitement on the individual’s part. “Start by giving a friendly, non-threatening comeback – identify the person, give a reason for calling them out, and tell them what it is that you are going to do.” 

This could look something like: John, I know you don’t mean to interrupt me. I really wasn’t finished yet – I’m going to continue what I was saying, because it is really important. 

“We really do have difficulty with boundaries, we worry about hurting people’s feelings, being disrespectful, being seen as difficult or aggressive,” Peggy said. Shirly, who works in a department with a ratio of 5 girls to 300 guys, advised to practice speaking up for others when it is difficult to assert yourself – whether it is because of power dynamics, or your relatively junior position. “Create a support system around the problem…include even guys who are a bit more junior. Make sure that someone has your back, and that you have the back of others.” 

Dilemma #2: People tend to claim credit for the results of my hard work – how should I claim credit where it is due, while still showing that I’m a team player? 

First, there is nothing wrong with claiming due credit. Peggy, who published the book Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Horn Without Blowing It said, “Braggarts are obnoxious because they talk incessantly; they steal credit; they exaggerate and condescend, among others. If you’ve done it, it ain’t bragging. Don’t feel bad about asserting your worth, where necessary. Just do it the good way!” 

But Stephanie has a word of caution. “A lot of bosses will do this, as you are there to help them accomplish tasks, it’s part of the job description. When it comes to supervisors – tread lightly. You don’t need to address the issue constantly. People know when you are a valuable member of the team. When you build up rapport with your supervisors and bosses, you can then mention that you would love to be recognized for your work. When it comes to your co-workers, however, calmly and confidently interject and correct their statements. If it is a recurring affair, pull the person aside and discuss it with them,” Stephanie said. When facing this potentially difficult conversation, Peggy asked for us to start, again, with curiosity. “State how you feel and list your contributions. End with something like: In the future, I’d like you to make sure that my work is acknowledged.” 

To Shirly, it is best if we can be “preemptive” about the problem. “Make sure that your managers are aware that you are in charge of the project in the first place. When there is a weekly call for updates, make sure that you are mentioning the steps you are taking to accomplish it to prevent people from taking credit for it later on.” 

Dilemma #3: I’m feeling very stifled as my boss is a micromanager. How do I convince them to trust me? 

It’s annoying, I know. 

But to our three ladies, it is an inevitable occurrence. According to Peggy, “At the beginning of a working relationship with anyone, it is “normal” for a manager to micromanage. Don’t take it personally. What I would suggest, is when your manager gives you a specific assignment, make sure you get specifics on how the manager would like it to be completed – ask them a lot of questions. Then ask them if they are open to you bringing new ideas to discuss. At your performance review, you can talk about your satisfactory performance and mention that you would like more freedom. And be specific about what that freedom looks like to you.” Stephanie concurred, saying that micromanagers micromanage because “they don’t feel like they would get the outcomes they desire, without interference.” 

From what I’m hearing, the best thing to do is not to feel frustrated and just go with the flow – fingers crossed that the rein will loosen over time. 

Dilemma #4: I have no idea how to approach networking, particularly with seniors or people outside my team. How do I create organic opportunities to meet new people? 

In Stephanie’s opinion, the two secret ingredients to networking well are preparation and charisma. “Be open, flexible and very alert to situations – and the last one is key – that when taken advantage of, will steer you closer to achieving your goals.” She advised us to identify the people in your company that can help you achieve your long-term goals and treat every interaction as the first and last. What we want to do is make sure that we are presenting the best version of ourselves to the people we meet, so that they will feel comfortable vouching for us when the need arises. Charisma goes a long way in making these goal-driven interactions natural.   

Shirly tries to email a different person once a month about something that she is interested in. For example, having been involved with Effective Altruism at Oxford, she spoke to someone at the Philanthropy unit of her company, hoping to find out more about different approaches to philanthropy work. She also spoke to a lady about their shared interest in fashion. “You don’t get to discuss these niche topics of interest at work, a lot of people miss these spontaneous conversations. I’d say the best way to approach networking is to have good conversations and follow your passions.” This was so refreshing to hear – who knew that your bachelor’s thesis could signal the start of a budding friendship? 

Dilemma #5: I’m struggling to stand out in the workplace. What could I do? 

Now, let’s get back to basics. “You have to have a great attitude. You have to be delighted to be there – be friendly, introduce yourself, offer to help. The emotional temperature that you bring into the organisation will permeate everything that you do, and punctuality and preparation are foundational attributes for anyone looking to be successful.” Peggy also recommended following up with colleagues or managers with pertinent information after meetings. These little gestures speak volumes about your work ethic and attitude.

Shirly adds, “Everyone is pretty good at their job. You’re not going to stand out by just doing your job well. If you can find a way to enrich your team and working space, go for it.” “Performance currency” – defined by an article in the Harvard Business Review as credibility that one builds through their work – is no longer enough to be recognised in the workplace. One has to prepare to commit to “extra-curriculars” to be indispensable and a valuable contribution to the team. Shirly walked the talk by starting a women’s support network in her workplace, scheduling monthly calls with them although they are working on different projects.

Lastly, we want to make sure that we are standing out…for the right reasons. Stephanie advised to steer clear of office gossip, especially when you are only an intern or in the early stages of your career. “Personality eventually goes a longer way than your output.” 

Dilemma #6: I’m at a stage where I’ve shown results and I’m ready to take on new responsibilities. How do I pitch myself for a promotion effectively, without coming across as pushy? 

First off, it is amazing that you are confident to take the next step forward in your career! Prior to pitching yourself, make sure that you have actually positioned yourself as a great candidate for the role. According to Stephanie, your pitch should contain the following elements – “How much you have excelled in your current role; your desire for something more challenging; and how your abilities align with the new role.” Rehearse and perfect your pitch, before requesting for a meeting with your supervisor. 

Peggy introduced interesting terminology for thinking about putting ourselves forward. One effective way to speak about your successes at meetings or in conversations is in the form of a “Braggalogue”, a short, pithy and entertaining story with facts and figures to support your claims. At key junctures, we should have a “Brag Bag” ready – a compilation of successes, accomplishments, testimonials by colleagues and employees from which you can pull out “Brag Nuggets” to support your pitch for a promotion at performance reviews. When it comes to salary negotiation for your new position, Shirly suggests to “do your research and see what other companies are paying employees” to get a benchmark. 

Dilemma #7: I’m passionate about creating an inclusive and supportive organisational culture. How do I deal with inclusivity in the workplace? 

Fostering a healthy and inclusive organisational culture takes a lot of work. Those at the top can do far more, and more quickly, than you can when you are at the beginning of your career. However, as Shirly said, “Try to act like we are a bit more senior than we actually are. Even if you may hold a junior position, take note of who is speaking less and try to include him or her in the discussion.” Stephanie advised the same – being sincere, having high emotional intelligence and being mindful of the language that we use, will go a very long way. 

On a more systemic level, though, Peggy reiterated that diversity and inclusion programmes should be “strategic, sustained and evidence-based”. Many of these programmes fail because far too many organisations do not have a real interest in fixing the lack of representation. Gender quotas, for one, are effective because they increase the competency in the workplace. “While quotas are a good way of increasing numbers, it is not an immediate fix as it overlooks [important indicators like] retention rates and the types of roles into which minorities are recruited.” 

Which dilemma did you resonate with? This new chapter in our lives brings not only excitement but also new challenges and uncertainty. I hope these bits of wisdom from Shirly, Stephanie and Peggy, all at different stages of their careers, have given you greater insight into navigating the world of the workplace. It’s less scary than it seems, we promise.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles