Topic 3: Organisational politics

What are power and politics?
Organisations as political systems
Dimensions of power: resources, process, meanings and systems
Power and people management

Defining what 'power' and 'politics' mean in relation to people management is not a straightforward task. They are complex concepts and their precise meanings are the subject of debate (Clegg, 1989; Giddens, 1979; Pfeffer, 1992; Mintzberg, 1983). Hardy (1994: 220) defines power as 'a force that influences outcomes. It encompasses terms such as coercion, manipulation, authority, persuasion and influence as these are, in fact, various forms of power'. French and Raven (1959) identify five bases of power: reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power and expert power. Later writers added information power and connection power to these. Any of these, or a combination of several, can be used to influence outcomes.

* Reward power includes control of pay or promotion.
* Coercive power includes the power of dismissal.
* Legitimate power derives from a formal position or responsibility.
* Referent power occurs when one person admires another and wishes to behave like them.
* Expert power is possessed by people who are respected for having special knowledge or ability.
* Information power comes from controlling the flow of information.
* Connection power is held by people who have access to others of importance.

The word 'politics' is used in two different ways. One is a neutral definition, covering any form of interaction between people with different goals, competing to influence decisions and events. Hardy (1994: 220) defines politics as 'the use of power'. The other use of the word is a negative one: 'playing office politics' generally means being 'covert, manipulative or Machiavellian'. Another negative definition is, 'those actions not officially approved by an organisation taken to influence others to meet one's personal goals' (Greenberg & Baron, 1997).

Politics as 'the use of power', however, is a normal and inevitable part of any organisation, and any manager needs to be able to use politics to achieve his/her ends. On the other hand, politics as underhand manoeuvring for personal advantage is very common in organisations, but should be avoided and discouraged by competent, ethical managers.

It is a common assumption that politics within organisations is unnecessary and undesirable. This view is associated with a particular understanding of organisations and how they work, often referred to as a 'unitarist' perspective. The unitarist perspective sees organisations as composed of individuals who, in general, have shared interests and goals (Deery et al., 1997; Morgan, 1997). In particular, the unitarist view of organisations sees the interests and goals of all members of organisations as being primarily aimed at making the organisation efficient and profitable.

How is the acquisition and use of power relevant to the management of people? There are three main areas. Firstly, a manager of people must be able to acquire resources and influence decisions in order to provide his/her staff members with the environment they need to work well and with satisfactory rewards. Secondly, the manager has to use power in order to control his/her own staff. This will mainly be through 'legitimate' power, as the manager has the right to direct the activities of staff. Thirdly, the manager needs to transfer power to his/her own staff. An effective group usually needs a degree of delegation from the manager; the staff needs to have authority to make decisions, to use resources, to communicate across boundaries.

Empowerment involves much more than merely transferring authority and the power to make decisions to a subordinate. In order to make good decisions the subordinate must have the relevant information, the necessary skills and the motivation to make the best decision (rather than the safest one). There must also be a culture where the decision is respected and where making honest errors is not punished.

A major obstacle to empowerment is when managers do not trust their staff sufficiently (Hulm, 2004). Empowerment is nullified if the manager is constantly checking up on what is done, or regularly modifies decisions made by subordinates. The manager must know the values and skills of his/her staff members sufficiently well to have faith in their motivation and in their ability.

Lamperes (2004) proposes ten strategies for successful empowerment of staff:

* share information
* share decision making
* practice consensus decision making
* develop consensus on budget
* create a common vision
* develop shared beliefs
* allow staff to direct their professional growth
* empower clients
* understand client needs
* develop symbols of empowerment.

A study of 75 successful companies in the UK identified the principal empowerment practices as:
* participation in decision making
* having the responsibility and authority to break rules to enable excellent service and total customer satisfaction
* staff setting and monitoring their production goals (Jarrar & Zairi, 2002)

It is worth remembering that not all staff want to be empowered. Many people come to work to earn money and have a familiar routine without too much responsibility. If you try to 'empower' such people, they will resist it and the effort will fail.

Do you want power?
Benzinger suggested that "If ... you want to climb a career ladder or influence your organization significantly, you must not only understand power, you must seek it actively and skillfully.... To protect yourself from frustration and burnout, you must therefore decide consciously whether you want power and are willing to do what it takes to acquire it."34 She suggests two guidelines that are related to our previous discussion.

* Earning power requires a very substantial time commitment. If you are not willing to invest the time, perhaps gaining power is not right for you.
* Gaining power in organizations requires confrontation. If you are not willing to play "King of the Mountain" to get on top and stay on top then you may not wish to seek power.35

Once you have decided to acquire power, you may wish to consider Benzinger's 12-step

* Learn and use your organization/s language and symbols.
* Learn and use your organization/s priorities.
* Learn the power lines.
* Determine who has power and get to know those people.
* Develop your professional knowledge.
* Develop your power skills.
* Be proactive.
* Assume authority.
* Take risks.
* Beat your own drum.
* Meet [your supervisor's] needs.
* Take care of yourself.36