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Political Science, Part II

Part one of this article ended with a discussion of politics in your department. We hope you have considered the questions and the implications of the answers.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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  • Do people vie for visibility?
  • Is there an attitude of competition that goes beyond healthy and is counterproductive?
  • Do some people complain about unfairness or inequitable treatment by the senior staff?
  • Is the organizational chart wildly different from the way things really work?
  • Have major changes been instituted recently, or are changes imminent?

These same factors can lead to a better understanding of the overall organization. The previous article described the way that politics emerges in an organization and the bases of political power. Part two will describe how to get political power, how to retain it, and how to use it—ethically and wisely.

Why do politicized environments arise? They are usually caused by:

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  • Ambiguous goals—Lack of clarity and agreement about the reasons for existence of the organization
  • Subjective assessments—Reliance on appraisals that are not based on data
  • Scarce resources—Insufficient staff, funding, or time
  • Organizational change—Variation from the established routine, new equipment, reorganization, leadership changes, and certain external changes that have a major impact on the organization

When these conditions and situations exist—and it seems they are always in evidence—wise managers pay special attention to the level of political activity in their organization and take action to improve the communication, involve the staff, and spend additional time working with the staff.

Keys to gaining and keeping political power

1. Overcome your personal resistance.

The first step in becoming more politically savvy is accepting the inevitability of politics. Managers who deny that politics exists or who try to behave as though the organization operates the way it is drawn out on the org charts are doomed to experience frequent disappointment, frustration, limited success, and restricted progress.

2. It IS ethical! (Or can be.)

A number of years ago I was involved in a major change effort in a large bureaucratic organization. As a member of a working group tasked with designing a new staff development and training program, I spent a lot of time initially in informal conversations with the opinion leaders and opinion detractors—the people who were going to object to anything that was proposed [because] it would impact the status quo that was their ‘rice bowl.’ I built a coalition that included people from both groups, and together we forged a new program design. We made sure that we used an organizational change model that had been successful recently, we kept the power allocation and resources as unchanged as possible, and we appealed to a higher purpose where there was common agreement when conflicts began to emerge. All in all it was a highly successful project that was easy to implement because of the support from a variety of sources and the consistency with the norms and values of the organization.

This story sounds like manipulation, and to a certain extent it is. However, the “ethical” use of political power is always for the good of the organization, not for self-aggrandizement.

Here is a description of the differences in two applications of power—personal power and socialized power— as described by David McClelland.

Personal power—Power that is gained and used to further one’s own goals and agendas.

Socialized power—Managers and leaders who use socialized power tend to:

  • Be hesitant about expressing power in a direct interpersonal way
  • Exercise power for the benefit of others
  • Make others feel strong and competent
  • Realize that most victories must be carefully planned
  • Develop group goals
  • Demonstrate concern about reaching group goals
  • Have as a personal motto “I want to have impact for the group.”

This divergent categorization of a person’s attitude about power is especially important for the exercise of political power. The more that one’s power base is employed as socialized power, the more likely it is to be used. In fact, it may be unethical to avoid political power, because you will not be as effective in getting things done.

3. Self-assessment and monitoring.

Most human beings are unable to examine and assess their impact on others. The way we are seen by others, our image, and our impression are always hidden from direct view—even our reflection in a mirror is reversed. That’s why we are surprised and intrigued by our image on a VCR or our voice on an audiotape. Developing the ability to pick up the subtle clues about our impact is an important part of becoming effective in organizational politics.

Here are some hints for self-assessment:

  • Be objective in interpreting your performance appraisals—what are they really telling you?
  • Review all the surprises you have had lately, including surprises about the impact you have on others. Why were you surprised?
  • Talk to your mentor or trusted friends. Ask for straight comments.
  • Take a course that will provide specific, instrumental feedback.

Sources of political power

In the previous article I described the sources of political power as:

  • Access
  • Independence
  • Contribution
  • History—personal and departmental
  • Management style
  • Department size and type
  • Associates
  • Political sense
  • Self-promotion
  • Self-assessment

This list provides you with tickets to becoming increasingly politically effective.

Political tactics

To make effective use of the sources of power from the above list, you will need to learn and apply some specific tactics. Review the following list and select some of the tactics that you are comfortable using and that fit the norms in your organization:

  1. Use posturing; make a good impression, but not at someone else’s expense.
  2. Get actively involved in networking and public relations.
  3. Recruit a good mentor.
  4. Make your supervisor look good.
  5. Collect and use social IOUs.
  6. Maintain self-control.
  7. Avoid making enemies—unless there is a very good reason.*
  8. Use character assassination or sabotage as a last resort.*

Here are some influence strategies that will increase your access to sources of power:

  • Rational persuasion—logical arguments and factual evidence • Inspirational appeal—arousal of enthusiasm by appealing to values
  • Consultation—seeking participation in planning
  • Ingratiation—getting someone in your debt
  • Exchange—offering an exchange of favors
  • Personal appeal—appeals to feelings of loyalty or friendship
  • Coalition—seeking the aid of others
  • Legitimating—pointing to organizational policies, rules, practices, or traditions
  • Pressure—demands, threats, persistent reminders, nagging —Yukl and Tracey (1992)

Keeping your department politics-free (relatively!)

At the end of the previous article, I suggested a review of your department to assess the level of political activity that exists. Here are some ideas for reducing the impact of politics and keeping politics out of your department.

  • Keep communication open.
  • Listen! Listen for meaning beyond the words.
  • Get the most objective performance appraisal system you can, or keep yours as objective as possible.
  • Be sensitive and thoughtful in instituting change. Think about who is going to lose and who is going to gain.
  • Share the wealth/spotlight. Push your staff members into more visible situations.
  • Empower your staff.

An organizational politics competency model

Note: While this example is for a very different group—architects— you may find the following description and the website that describes a competency model for politics to be of interest.

What you know: Organizational webs of influence

  • Understand the networks of influence in the organization.
  • Identify what various stakeholders’ concerns and values are.
  • Think about these in relation to effectively achieving the desired outcomes of the laboratory system.

What you do: Influence without authority

  • Influence others to achieve outcomes, getting things done in the organization even though you do not have direct authority over the people who contribute most to the success or failure of the system.

What you are: Politically astute

  • A very positive, passionate attitude
  • Flexibility and openness to ideas and organizational forces
  • Integrity of purpose and sound ethics
  • Good interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences, to persuade and influence, align and motivate

Quick keys to political success

Four keys to becoming a successful organizational politician:

  1. Be right—Successful organizational politicians are usually right in their recommendations and counsel. They and their advice are respected because they work hard to understand the issues, they do their homework, and they express their opinions with clarity and forcefulness.
  2. Choose your battles—Before you leap into the fray with all guns blazing, make sure that this is a battle you should be in. Make sure that this is a fight you need to be a part of and that it is one you can either win or make points with your participation. Your increasing power will make you want to use it often. If a particular battle does not fit these criteria, stand on the sidelines and watch what happens and learn.
  3. Monitor your words—Be careful that your joking response to a question doesn’t come back to you as a factual statement. Be judicial in your comments and asides. As your influence and visibility grow, your words become more important and will be noticed by both friends and foes.
  4. Assess your motives—To become politically effective and maintain a political base, it is essential to objectively assess your motives. Because we humans are experts at self-deception and delusion, this is one of themost difficult challenges for managers. Why are you doing something, really? What are your motives, and are they for the good of your group or for personal aggrandizement? Remember that power is seductive and as you become more politically astute and involved, it is easy to forget that it is your influence— not your wonderful self—that people are courting!


Politics is a fact of life in industry, academia, the military, religious institutions, and even in health care.

Remember these seven major ideas:

  1. Politics exists in organizations.
  2. Politics can be understood.
  3. Politics can be managed.
  4. Denial won’t make politics go away.
  5. You can become a better organizational politician.
  6. Learn to use this reality for the benefit of your department (socialized power).
  7. Monitor your personal reaction.

*These two tactics frequently elicit an emotional response when I discuss this topic with a group of managers. I’m tempted to take them off the list, but there are certain extreme situations I have been in where there was no choice but to take decisive and strong action to overcome the unethical use of political power by another member of the organization. Don’t use these techniques except in extreme circumstances, but realize they are available if needed.


Kennedy, Marilyn Moats. Office Politics: Seizing Power, Wielding Clout, Warner Books, New York, NY. 1980.

Pickett, R. “Understanding and Using Organizational Politics.” CLMR, Mar-Apr, May-Jun, 2004.