Saturday, March 28, 2009

Power and Organizational Politics

Denhardt, R.B, Denhardt, J.V. and Aristigueta M.P. (2001).
Managing Human Behaviour in Public and Nonprofit Organization

G Venkatesan – Roll No.09

1. Concepts of power and organizational politics
2. Identify sources of power
3. Recognizing power and organizational politics
4. Balancing Power
5. Power is both positive and destructive force
6. Empowerment: More than delegation
7. Managing Power and Organizational Politics
8. Power and Public Service
9. Conclusion

1. Concepts of power and organizational politics

Power and organizational politics are closely related concepts. Power means “the latent ability to influence other’s actions, thoughts, or emotions”. Politics refers to the use of power and authority to influence organizational outcomes. In simple terms, power is the potential for influence, whereas politics is the exercise or use of the power.

The societal attitude towards power has evolved over a period of time. Idea about who has a right to power and how that power should be used have shifted as we have changed out ideas about organizations, the nature of people and authority. Today power and organizational politics are viewed as more egalitarian and involve the use of shared power.

The early study of power and politics in organizations is linked with the pioneer names of Machiavelli (1469 - 1527), Max Weber (1864 – 1920) and Russell (1872 - 1970). The theories of Machiavelli expressed in his famous book titled “The Prince” (published in 1530) describe methods that an aspiring prince can use to acquire the throne, or an existing prince can use to maintain his reign. According to Machiavelli, the greatest moral good is a virtuous and stable state, and actions to protect the country are therefore justified even if they are cruel. German sociologist, Max Weber who is better known for his contribution towards the concept of bureaucracy, defined power as "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance". According to Bertrand Russell (1930) power as a means to an end can be virtuous but that power as an end (as the goal itself) is inherently undesirable. Bierstedt (1950) took a sociological stand point and defined (1) Power as a latent force (2) Force is manifest power and (3) Authority is institutionalized power.

However in the 1960s the nature of power and authority came under question and the superior’s power underwent a marked shift. Traditional concept of power had become outmoded and counterproductive. Haire argued that our conceptions about management and the nature of people must change. Haire was against the classic organizational theory ob people being lazy, shortsighted, selfish and stupid. He opined to develop optimistic view of people, make authority participative with equalized power.

On the other hand, the work of Cyert and March (1963) took a new view of organizations as political entities. The paper defines the term organisational politics as “actions by individuals that are directed toward the goal of furthering their own self-interest without regard for the well-being of others or their organization. In other words, activities in which managers engage to increase their power and to pursue goals that favour their individual and group interests is called organizational politics.

By 1970s, experts held a further egalitarian and optimistic view that power and organizational politics as political entities. Organizations are by their nature, political entities and to be successful in them one should be politically aware. Hence, one should understand the sources of power, when and how power should be exercised and gain an appreciation for the tools and strategies of politics and also understand the positive and negative effects of power and organizational politics.

Power is difficult to measure and even to recognize, yet it plays a major role in explaining authority. In organizations, power is most likely exercised in situations where “the stakes are high, resources are limited, and goals and processes are unclear”. The absence of power in organizations forces us to rely on solely hierarchical authority

2. Sources of power

French and Raven (1959 / 1989) proposed a five category classification of the sources of power: (1) Legitimate power, (2) reward power (3) Coercive power (4) Referent power and (5) Expert power.

Legitimate power arises from peoples values and beliefs that someone has the right to exert influence over them and that they have an obligation to comply. Reward Power arise from one’s ability to reward other people for behaving as expected. Coercive power is the opposite of reward power and is based on one’s ability to apply sanctions or punishments for the failure to behave as expected. Referent power is based on psychological identification between people. The use of reward power could increase referent power as per French and Raven. Expert power is based on one’s knowledge and expertise in the opinion of others.

Kotter (1977) saw formal authority as a tool that managers used to strengthen and develop four different ways to maintain power. They are:

(1) Doing favours and creating obligation,
(2) Building reputations as experts in given area,
(3) Using one’s image and reputation and finally
(4) Creating and reinforcing the perceived dependence of others.

3. Recognizing power and organizational politics

Recognizing the exercise of power and politics in an organization is important to understanding its influence on organizational behaviour and in protecting ourselves from some of its negative consequence. The below diagram gives the present trend of recognizing power:

The exercise of power can take different forms. Both power wielder and observer or “recipient” of power politics should first recognize power. Lukes (1974) brought out three different forms of power to the forefront. He termed “first face” power as direct exchange between actors in which one of the actor exerts more control over the outcome than does the other actor – which is easy to recognize. However exercise of power is complicated and sometimes power wielder struggles and loses. To avoid such scenario established power wielder should work systematically and avoid challenges. Lukes termed these exclusionary actions as “second face”. In the “third face”, the power wielder convinces others that what they want really want is what the power wielder wants. The second and third faces of power help us to accomplish organizational objectives without coercing people to cooperate.

4. Balancing Power

In the 1960s people started questioning power. Most people in the contemporary settings do not hesitate to question their superiors. The balancing of power is more analyzed from the recipient side and attempts to control power wielder. Wrong (1968) suggested that integral or “one way” power often causes people to attempt to limit or resist. Following four methods can be used to balance the power:

(1) Self assessment of one own performance without relying on professional image dependent on feedback of boss;
(2) Look of other positive feedback to multiply alternatives and decrease dependency
(3) Perform work more associated to the unit’s success and increase dependence of boss
(4) Gain domain expertise.

5. Is Power a positive force or a destructive force?

Power Corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton - 1887). Power and politics often have negative connotations because people associate them with attempts to use organizational resources for personal advantage and to achieve personal goals at the expense of other goals. On the positive sided, managers can use power (1) to control people and other resources so that they cooperate and help to achieve an organization’s goal and (2) to engage in politics and influence the decision-making process to help promote new, more appropriate organizational goals.

According to Salancik and Pfeffer (1977 / 1989) power is not only necessary for positive organizational functioning but also a vital and critical force in ensuring organisational survival. Power helps in selection of right executives and protects the interest of critical components. Wilson (1995) observes that in public sector, power is essential to successfully implement public policy.

At the same time, Vrenderburgh and Brender (1998) cautioned that hierarchical, interpersonal abuse of power is a danger in organization. Power can be used in a manner that negatively affects others sense of dignity and self-respect in both style and substance.

Politics and power are an organizational fact of life and they can have both positive and negative consequences

6. Managing Power and Organizational Politics

Power is scarce resource. The use of power involves time, energy and the depletion of the amount of power available over time. Hence, both power and organizational politics should be managed in the interest of organizational goal. Kotter (1977) therefore argues that managers should use power to influence the behaviour of others in a manner that will allow managers to get things done. Kotter further stated that effective managers recognize the role of power in the managerial process and exercise it responsibly.

Yates (1985) took a contingency approach in power politics and pointed out that managers possess a range of resources including “authority, force, persuasion, symbolic rewards, personal style, bargaining techniques, negotiating and mediating skills, coalition-building approaches and allocations of benefits. He suggested that in choosing the appropriate approach, managers consider the nature of the problem and the organization environment.

7. Empowerment: more than delegation

The process in which employees are given increasing amounts of autonomy and discretion in connection with their work is called as empowerment. Maximum focus days are given towards empowerment in organization. Conger and Kanungo (1988) suggested the process of moving from powerlessness to empowerment in five stages:

(1) Conditions leading to feelings of powerlessness
(2) Use of managerial strategies to increase personal efficacy and motivation
(3) Feedback and removal of conditions found in stage (1)
(4) Reinforcement of the empowerment experience
(5) Persistence of new behaviour

According to Block (1987 – in his book: The Empowered Manager) writes that although empowerment can be fostered by organisational conditions, it is primarily achieved through the decisions of individual to change their self images and belief systems. Empowerment is not something granted from outside but provided by the organization within themselves. Proper environment has to be created for empowerment. The diagram depicted below compares powerlessness and empowerment:

8. Power and Public Service

Exercise of power in public service involves larger set of value and purposes. We should always remember that in public service the ends are not only important but also the means to achieve those ends are equally important. Public power involves larger set of values and the authorities are accountable to a broad array of organizational rules, laws and norms. Public service demands that at each stage of functioning, the power wielder should themselves ask what they are trying to accomplish and for whose benefit. In other words, power must be legitimated through reference to external standards before its use is considered.

9. Conclusion

The author of the article lays down eight effective ways of acting while exercising power in any organisation. They are:

1. Enhance your personal power by considering all of its possible sources
2. Make yourself visible and indispensable
3. Take charge of your own empowerment
4. Use power constructively and effectively
5. Devote time and energy to clarifying goals
6. Support and foster the empowerment of others
7. Think about, plan for and maintain your awareness of political issues in management and in the implementation process
8. Whenever possible, be nice


1. Denhardt, R.B, Denhardt, J.V. & Aristigueta M.P. (2001). Managing Human Behaviour in Public and Nonprofit Organization. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.

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