How Managers Can and Should Use Organizational Politics to Their Advantage
Two of my colleagues held positions with similar responsibilities. One would listen extensively to the grapevine and hold short discussions with senior management. He would then quickly institute new programs on the basis of wispy information. These programs would often die quickly because of a lack of interest, poor attendance, and insufficient research, leaving the carapaces of dead programs strewn about the company. Another colleague was in frequent contact with a large group of “trusted sources.” On the basis of these conversations, he would develop a concept. He would then meet with a long list of opinion makers and leaders and get their input. He would next make modifications and go back to his sources, repeating this process endlessly and never getting anything done. These two examples illustrate oversensitivity to or incorrect assessment of the politics of an organization.
“The successful practice of organizational politics is perceived to lead to a higher level of power, and once a higher level of power is attained, there is more opportunity to engage in political behavior.” (Farrell and Peterson, 1982)
There are five major issues related to politics that are important to managers:
• Politics exists in organizations.
• Politics can be understood.
• Politics can be “worked.”
• Denial won’t make politics go away.
• You can become a better organizational politician.
Let’s begin with the assertion that all organizations have a political flavor or undercurrent. What do we mean by politics? Power or influence that results from contacts, relationships, trades, or other factors not clear or obvious from the formal organization chart. Politics is a means of recognizing and, ultimately, reconciling competing interests.
The political face of the organization
There are several “faces” that an organization presents to the world. There is the annual report, the advertising and public relations face, and the organizational chart; the political face, however, is never exposed, so managers must draw that portrait for themselves.
The political face involves:
• A world of trades, exchanges of favors, relationships, reprisals, obstructionism, and coalition building.
This sometimes goes beyond the normal processes of getting the job done and having everyday interchanges with peers and colleagues, as well as participating in the common trades of information, equipment, and expertise. This world exists to gain a specific advantage or to create a debt that will be collected later—to paraphrase the Godfather’s line: I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. These trades are intended to create a dependency, and they are not trades in the normal course of doing business. Similarly, relationships can be pursued for many reasons—for support, for friendship, for building coalitions, and for access to information. The skillful, devious organizational politician builds relationships primarily for personal use in furthering his or her career.
• Understanding what you have that is of value.
To be effective in the political world, you need to be very objective in assessing what you have that is of value to someone else and in assessing for whom these things have value. This requires a very different way of thinking or mind-set. Think of information, knowledge, or facts you have that will not violate confidences, that other people do not have access to, and that other people will find useful. Then decide how to get this information to someone who can use it and not make it look as if the intent were for personal gain. Be cautious about turning the process into a gossip hunt; if it is too easy and too much fun, you are probably headed in the wrong direction. Become part of a coalition, join a working group or committee, and publicly state or support someone’s case or position.
• Recognizing what the other person has that is of value. Repeat the instructions in the paragraph above!
• Following the money.
To really understand organizational politics, you have to start thinking about who is going to gain from a particular event or change. Anytime a steadystate system is perturbed, someone is going to benefit and someone is going to lose. Almost all situations in organizations are “zero-sum games.” Practice applying analytical skills to the inner workings of the organization.
• Recognizing that self-interest is the key to understanding motivation.
Altruism does exist, we keep assuring ourselves, and occasionally we find examples. However, if you assume that behavior in the workplace is motivated by self-interest, you will seldom be surprised or disappointed.
• Realizing that it takes time.
About this process: Analysis, planning, and building relationships are demanding, and those skills do not come easily to many managers, especially those who have come up from the ranks and are scientifically oriented.
Here’s a summary of the research findings on politics in organizations:
• The higher the level of management activity, the greater the amount of perceived political activity.
• Staff positions are more political than are line positions.
• Most managers believe that engaging in politics helps their career advancement.
• Organizational politics probably distracts from organizational goals.
• Organizational change elicits political activity.
The bases of political power
Since political power is such a pervasive and potent force, it must come from somewhere. Most managers have little experience with politics and don’t understand the sources. How do people acquire political power? Here are some of the most important bases. (Adapted from Office Politics, Marilyn Moats Kennedy)
- Access—This is the amount of contact that the person has with top managers and opinion leaders. It comes through necessary interaction as part of a job or special projects, and it could include personal pursuits, such as golf.
- Independence—The degree of freedom of action and the level of decision-making authority are closely related to political power. The level of trust is a strong indication of the power that a person has.
- Contribution—The amount of revenue the department puts toward the bottom line is another source of power. As certain types of labs become major profit centers, their influence within the organization and their manager’s ability to participate in the politics will rise.
- History—The manager’s personal background and the success of his or her department are important factors in influencing political power. It is difficult to wield political clout as the leader of a poor-performing unit.
- Management Style—A manager who is seen by peers as being autocratic, despotic, or demeaning will likely be avoided and shunned. Incidentally, reputation among peers is one of the factors that makes 360 assessments so accurate and valuable. It is harder to fool your colleagues than it is to fool your bosses.
- Department Size and Type—The more people you manage, and the more closely they contribute to the line function (the reason for the organization’s existence), the more potential for political power you will have.
- Associates—With whom a manager has relationships during and outside working hours can be a major determinant of his or her influence. This is where social activities can have a significant impact.
- Political Sense—Some people seem to have a feeling for politics that comes naturally. However, it probably comes from holding office in school, belonging to clubs and associations, and other life experiences. We believe it is a learned skill that managers can acquire through observation, analysis, and contemplation.
Politics in your department
How political is your own department? If people are vying for visibility, if there is an attitude of competition that is counterproductive, if some people complain about unfairness in the treatment of staff, and if your organization chart is wildly different from the way things really are, you may have a more politically charged environment than you want. Spend some time evaluating the way things get done by asking your trusted staff members how much political maneuvering is going on, whether the amount has increased, and who the informal leaders are. If you are instituting changes in structure, equipment, or responsibilities, be especially watchful for increases in the politics.
How political is the rest of the organization? If the rest of the organization is highly political, there is a good likelihood that the climate rubs off on your department to some extent. If your assessment is that the politics are increasing, take special notice of changes in your department.
As your importance and influence grow, your concern with large-scale politics should increase. If your department has increased in its importance and contribution to the organization, there is a good possibility that politics will begin creeping in.
While you are reviewing the political environment of your organization, take some time to think about your own department and how “political” the environment is. Consider how the bases of political power described above apply to your department.
Application on the job
In part two of this article I will describe ways to:
• Gain and retain political power
• Exercise that power in a wise, ethical, and principled way.
• Keep your department or organization as free of politics as possible.
Suggestions for further reading:
Furnham, A. The Psychology of Behaviour at Work: The Individual in the Organization. Psychology Press, 2005. Kennedy, M. Office Politics: Seizing Power, Wielding Clout. Warner Books, New York, 1980. Yukl, G. and J. Bruce Tracey. 1992 “Consequences of influence tactics used with subordinates,peers, and the boss.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 77:525-535.