Introduction to Organizational Politics

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This piece consists heavily of quotations from and adaptations of material from several sources (see references at the end). There still may be some unreferenced quotations because I have lost track of their genesis over many years of moving content through various notes. I don’t claim originality, other than the choice and organizing of material - Rex Mitchell. Pfeffer (1992, p.30) defined politics as “the processes, the actions, the behaviors through which potential power is utilized and realized”. Another author (Dubrin, 2001, p.192) defined organizational politics as “informal approaches to gaining power through means other than merit or luck”. It could be argued that politics are used primarily to achieve power, either directly or indirectly, e.g., by being promoted, receiving a larger budget or other resources, or gaining desirable assignments. Many people regard organizational politics as something negative (e.g., pursuing selfinterests at the expense of others) and something to be minimized. Consequently, although most people know that organizational politics are common, they avoid saying so when it concerns one=s own behavior. It is more common to talk about politics when complaining about a loss to a friend than it is in the context of one's own political maneuvering. When we win on an issue, we call it leadership; when we lose, we call it politics. In many organizations, politics is a taboo subject, which makes it difficult for individuals to deal with this crucially important aspect of organizational reality. I believe a leader must skillfully use organizational politics to acquire and retain power and to accomplish major goals. Therefore, it would be a mistake to pretend that politics does not exist or to fantasize that a leader can be effective without appropriate (and ethical, I would add) use of politics. As Pericles wrote over 2500 years ago, "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." I regard organizational politics as neither good nor bad, per se, although it is important for us to distinguish between ethical and unethical political behavior. FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO POLITICAL BEHAVIOR IN ORGANIZATIONS (Morgan, 1986, p.142) It is useful to remember that in its original meaning, the idea of politics stems from the view that, where interests are divergent, society should provide a means of allowing individuals to reconcile their differences through consultation and negotiation. In ancient Greece, Aristotle advocated politics as a means of reconciling the need for unity in the Greek polis (city-state) with the fact that the polis was an "aggregate of many members." Politics, for him, provided a means of creating order out of diversity while avoiding forms of totalitarian rule. Political science and many systems of government have built on this basic idea, advocating politics, and the recognition and interplay of competing interests that politics implies, as a means of creating a non-coercive form of social order. (Source?) Organizational politics are a natural result of the fact that people think differently and want to act differently. This diversity creates a tension that must be resolved through political means. There are many ways in which this can be done, for example: autocratically ("We'll do it this way"); bureaucratically ("We're supposed to do it this way"); technocratically ("It's best to do it this way"); or democratically ("How shall we do it?"). In


each case the choice between alternative paths of action usually hinges on the power relations between the actors involved. (Morgan, p.148) An organization's politics is most clearly manifested in the conflicts and power plays that sometimes occupy center stage, and in the countless interpersonal intrigues that provide diversions in the flow of organizational activity. Politics occurs on an ongoing basis, often in a way that is invisible...
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