Politics exist in all organizations but it is interesting to consider whether politics can be a blessing or a curse. This blog post draws on scientific evidence to illustrate how politics can be effective for an organization through a) drawing on the political skills of the talent within the firm and b) implementing strategies that curtail ineffective politics.
Without political awareness and skill, we face the inevitable prospect of becoming immersed in bureaucratic infighting.John Kotter
Politics matter in organizations
The aim of organizational politics is to sell ideas, influence others and to achieve objectives; they are informal and unofficial and can sometimes occur ‘behind closed doors.’ (Brandon & Seldman, 2004). Organizational politics has a long history with Aristole commenting that the reason politics is present is due to diversity of interests, which need to be resolved. When rational thought does not work, many executives use political tactics to gain compliance. However, despite this negative perception of organizational politics, there is evidence that organizational politics are not necessarily evil but that political skill, if used effectively, can aid in gaining compromises in difficult workplace situations (Hochwarter, Witt, & Kacmar, 2000).
When politics is a curse
Even through politics is not necessarily bad, it can waste valuable time in organizations and distract employees from focusing on their job performance. Managers can waste a lot of time managing politics. It can also be self-serving in that dysfunctional politics can threaten the credibility of an organization and many managers find it distasteful to use political skills to manage chaos in the workplace. Moreover, when employees engage in excessive political behavior, they are less committed to their organization and there is a decrement in job performance (Anderson, 1994). It can be particularly damaging when employees engage in self-serving behavior that is not accepted by the organization (Harris, James, & Boonthanom, 2005). Self-serving behavior includes bypassing management to obtain special favors and lobbying senior executives to obtain a promotion. These types of political behaviors undermine the ethical climate within the organization and can be unfair, especially for those who follow proper procedures because it can lead to resentment (Parker, Dipboye, & Jackson, 1995).
The negative side of organizational politics is more likely to flare up in times of organizational change, when there are difficult decisions to be made, and a scarcity of resources that breeds competition among organizational groups. To minimize overly political behavior, company leaders can provide equal access to information, model collaborative behavior, and demonstrate that political maneuvering will not be rewarded or tolerated. However, it is also important to realize that although it can be a curse, politics is a normal part of any organization and is a process intertwined with formal authority, organizational practices, and management knowledge (Mintzberg, 1983). Consequently, it’s important for organizations and management to understand the different forms of organizational politics and how political behavior can be used for organizational effectiveness.
The power of political skill
There is an advantage to being politically-savvy. In his book on Power and Influence, John Kotter (2008) writes “Without political awareness and skill, we face the inevitable prospect of becoming immersed in bureaucratic infighting.” Power issues often arise because organizations have limited resources and they must be allocated to individuals and groups. This can lead to disagreements among people regarding whom should receive those resources. Politics arise when people ally themselves with others to gain the most resources. In order to obtain these resources, they will engage in bargaining, negotiating, and alliance building. All these behaviors are part of organizational politics and can help people be successful. However, it is important that organizations ensure that practices are put in place so that politics don’t become deleterious to the functioning of the firm.
Leveraging political skill for organizational success
There are several ways in which organizations can manage organizational politics. First, leaders should encourage management throughout the organization to provide feedback to all employees on their performance. In providing feedback, management can reduce the perception of organizational politics and this can lead to improvements in morale and job performance (Rosen, Levy & Hall, 2006). It is also important to remember that politics can be an effective way to achieve organizational goals when employees demonstrate effective political skills. Political skill is an interpersonal style that includes an ability to relate well to others, a high degree of self-monitoring and awareness, and the ability to inspire confidence and trust (Ferris et al., 2000). Organizations can recruit and promote individuals who are high on political skill because they tend to be effective in their jobs (Ferris, Fedor & King, 1994). Employee who are adept in political skills show a high internal locus of control and believe they can make a difference in organizational outcomes (Valle & Perrewe, 2000). The other favorable aspect of political skill is that employees who engage in this behavior appear to be highly invested in their organization either financially or emotionally and will do what they can to help the organization succeed (Valle & Perrewe, 2000). In addition, when employees believe that they will be successful in changing an outcome, they are more likely to engage in political behavior.
It is important for organizations to manage the political environment. When resources such as commission or promotions are scarce, employees and management are more likely to see an organization as political and it is important for organizations to reduce ambiguity. When employees feel ambiguous about their roles, this can lead to negotiation as they try to redefine their roles. Employees perceive organizations as more political when do not feel clear about their job responsibilities (Muhammad, 2007).
How organizations can overcome ineffective politics
There are several ways in which organizations can overcome ineffective politics. When members of the organization engage in self-serving practices this can result in turf wars, but there are several ways to combat this situation (Lencioni, 2006).
Create an overarching goal. This is a goal that everyone in the organization shares and can be a single, qualitative, time-bound goal such as giving the best service to clients.
Create a set of objectives. This allows everyone to help reach the overarching goal.
Create a set of ongoing operating objectives. This process can be done within each function of the organization to develop a series of high quality operating standards. These standards can be shared across organizational functions.
Create metrics and measure them. One of the most important parts of the process is measure whether the operating objectives are being met. Then everyone in the organization is aware of the standards needed to meet the overarching goal and there is no need for others to point out what is lacking the process.
In conclusion, organizational politics are a normal part of the workplace. However, it is important that organizations create an environment whereby politics don’t become destructive. This can be achieved through implementing key objectives that create standards within the organization.
Anderson, T. P. (1994). Creating measures of dysfunctional office and organizational politics: The DOOP and short-form DOOP scales psychology. Journal of Human Behavior.
Brandon, R., & Seldman, M. (2004). Survival of the savvy: High-integrity political tactics for career and company success. New York: Free Press.
Ferris, G. R., Fedor, D. B., & King, T. R. (1994). A political conceptualization of managerial behavior. Human Resource Management Review, 4, 1–34.
Ferris, G. R., Perrewé, P. L., Anthony, W. P., & Gilmore, D. C. (2000). Political skill at work. Organizational Dynamics, 28, 25–37.
Harris, K. J., James, M., & Boonthanom, R. (2005). Perceptions of organizational politics and cooperation as moderators of the relationship between job strains and intent to turnover. Journal of Managerial Issues, 17, 26–42. Hochwarter, W. A., Witt, L. A., & Kacmar, K. M. (2000). Perceptions of organizational politics as a moderator of the relationship between conscientiousness and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 472–478.
Kotter, J. (2008). Power and Influence: Beyond Formal Authority. Free Press.
Lencioni, P. M. (2006). Silos, politics and turf wars: A leadership fable about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors. New York: Jossey-Bass.
Muhammad, A. H. (2007, Fall). Antecedents of organizational politic perceptions in Kuwait business organizations. Competitiveness Review, 17(14), 234.
Parker, C. P., Dipboye, R. L., & Jackson, S. L. (1995). Perceptions of organizational politics: An investigation of antecedents and consequences. Journal of Management, 21, 891–912.
Rosen, C., Levy, P., & Hall, R. (2006, January). Placing perceptions of politics in the context of the feedback environment, employee attitudes, and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(10), 21.
Valle, M., & Perrewe, P. L. (2000). Do politics perceptions relate to political behaviors? Tests of an implicit assumption and expanded model. Human Relations, 53, 359–386.
I was born in England and now live in the United States. I have a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and have taught at several institutions. I have published in several journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, and Organizational Research Methods. I worked in the public and private sector for many years, primarily as a management trainer.