Politics & Org Change

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Human Relations, Vol. 52, No. 5, 1999

Politics and Organizational Change: The Lived Experience
David Buchanan 1,3 and Richard Badham 2
This paper explores the “ lived experience” of organizational politics from the standpoint of the change agent. While political behavior appears inevitably to accompany organizational change, the literature of change manage ment seems to adopt an ambivalent approach to this area. The literature of organizational politics, on the other hand, identifies power bases, and offers prescriptive lists of “ power tactics” without explaining how these are deployed in the context of driving, shaping, influencing, or implementing change. How do change agents become engage d in political activity, what forms does this take, and can these actions withstand public scrutiny? This paper is based on qualitative, idiographic accounts drawn from five interviews from a pilot study designed to develop a research methodology for advancing understanding of the shaping role of political behavior in organizational change. The case illustrations presented sugge st that political behavior is an accepted rather than an objectionable dimension of the change agency role; that change agents are drawn into political behavior by a combination of organizational and interpersonal factors; that political behavior can serve organizational goals (such as protection of a change agenda) as well as personal career objectives; and that while specific actions may appear unacceptable when considered in isolation, political behavior is potentially defensible in context. The definition of “political” here is the one used by respondents. This constructivist perspective reveals interpre tations inconsiste nt with negative definitions, e mphasizing the illegitimate and self-serving character of political behavior, which tend to dominate the literature. KEY WORDS: change age nts; organization development; organization politics; managing change.

1 2

De Montfort University, School of Business, Leicester LE1 9BH, England. The University of Wollongong, Department of Management Studies, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. (e-mail: Richard_Badham@uow.edu.au) 3 Requests for reprints should be addressed to David Buchanan, De Montfort University, School of Business, Bosworth House, Leicester LE1 9BH, England. (e-mail: d.buchanan@dmu.ac.uk) 609 0018-7267/99/0500-0609$16.00/1 Ó 1999 The Tavistock Institute


Buchanan and Budham

INTRODUCTION Interviewer: But many manage rs argue that organizational politics are a distraction, it’s not what they’re paid for, not part of the job? Manager : I would say bollocks to that. I would say that people who get to those jobs only get to that level because , first, they are reasonably good at playing these games, and second, actually enjoy playing them. The people who fail at that level are, by-and-large, people who aren’t particularly good at playing and don’t understand. Conflict and resistance are pervasive feature s of organizational life. Markus (1983) identifies the trigge rs of what she describes as “the political variant ” in disputes over goals, value s, and appropriate solutions to organizational problems, and in the competition for scarce resources and valued power base s. However, it may be assume d that, in most organizations, the prevale nce of political behavior is the norm rathe r than a variant. Organizational politics is often equated with the devious, the unde rhand, the cunning, and the manipulative. Political activity has thus been viewed by some as a field of “dirty tricks,” to be avoided and eradicate d, and not as an aspect of organizational behavior to be incorporate d systematically into theoretical perspectives. Where politics is recognized as critical, commentators typically restrict their remarks to generalized theoretical overviews, and to lists of “ power tactics.” The focus of this paper lies with the political dimension of change age ncy. The change agent is...
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