The use of politics and power is endemic to organizations. People come to work situations with many goals, not just one unified goal. These goals invoke conflict and competition among workers for the expenditure of scarce resources. This competition, in turn, effects the use of power and politics.
Although several researchers recognize the presence of politics and the use of power in organizations, the approaches used to study this topic vary considerably. Crozier (1964), for example, was among the first to identify subunit power. He observed how the ability of plant maintenance engineers to control uncertainty (by being the only group that could repair broken-down machinery) was a source of power for them.
Thompson (1967) also stressed “uncertainty coping” as a source of power. Salancik and Pfeffer (1977), and Tushman and Romanelli (1983) argued that those who are able to cope with uncertainty will adjust their social standing and increase power in the organization. Woodward (1965), on the other hand, emphasized one’s critical function in an organization as a source of power, while Hickson, Hining, Lee, Schneck and Pennings (1971), Salancik and Pfeffer (1977), Astley and Sachdeva (1984) identified several important variables including, resource control, hierarchical authority, non-substitutability, uncertainty coping, and centrality as sources of power and as connecting links to organizational politics.
In the book “The Concepts of Power and Organizational Politics” by John Gardner writes: “Of course leaders are preoccupied with power! The significant questions are: What means do they use to gain it? How much do they exercise it?” To what ends do they exercise it? He further states, “Power is the basic energy needed to initiate and sustain action or, to put it another way, the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.” In a similar vein, Richard Nixon wrote, “The great leader needs . . . the capacity to achieve. . . . power is the opportunity to build, to create, to nudge history in a different direction.”
Dahl writing about the pervasiveness of the concept of power states, “The concept of power is as ancient and ubiquitous as any that social theory can boast.” He defined power “as a relation among social actors in which one actor A, can get another social actor B, to do something that B would not otherwise have done.” Hence, power is recognized as “the ability of those who possess power to bring about the outcomes they desire” (Salancik and Pfeffer 1977).
The concept of organizational politics can be linked to Harold Lasswell’s (1936) definition of politics as; who gets what, when and how. If power involves the employment of stored influence by which events, actions and behaviors are affected, and then politics involves the exercise of power to get something done, as well as to enhance and protect the vested interests of individuals or groups.
Thus, the use of organizational politics suggests that political activity is used to overcome resistance and implies a conscious effort to organize activity to challenge opposition in a priority decision situation. This indicates that the concepts of power and organizational politics are related, and organizational politics is the use of power, with power viewed as a source of potential energy to manage relationships.
Power is attractive because it confers the ability to influence decisions, about who gets what resources, what goals are pursued, what philosophy the organization adopts, what actions are taken, who succeeds and who fails. Power also gives a sense of control over outcomes, and may in fact convey such enhanced control. Particularly as decision issues become more complex and outcomes become more uncertain, power becomes more attractive as a tool for reducing uncertainty.
Power and the ability to use it are essential to effective leadership. Strategic leaders who are uncomfortable with either the presence of great power in others or its use by themselves are probably going to fail their organizations at some point. The critical issue is why the leader seeks power and how it is used. Some see power as a tool to enhance their ability to facilitate the work of their organizations and groups.
Others value power for its own sake, and exercise power for the personal satisfaction it brings. There can be good and bad in both cases. However, the leader who uses power in the service of his/her organization is using power in the most constructive sense. The leader who seeks power for its own sake and for personal satisfaction is at a level of personal maturity that will compromise his/her ethical position, risk his/her organization’s effectiveness, and perhaps even jeopardize the long-term viability of the organization (Jacobs 1996).
Organizations also play a political game. Organizations seek influence. Influence increases autonomy (freedom to control own assets); organizational morale (the ability to maintain cohesion and effectiveness); essence (sanctity of essential tasks and functions); roles and missions (exclusion of options that would challenge these); and budgets (increased roles and missions will always favor larger budgets) (Jefferies).
To increase their own influence, agencies in government and other organizations will provide information, recommend options, and execute directives in ways that enhance their own self interest. Jefferies illustrates with the decision to send a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft to over-fly the Cuban missile sites. The decision to send the U-2 was actually made 10 days before the flight occurred, but the implementation was delayed by the CIA-USAF struggle for the mission.
The CIA defined the mission as intelligence gathering and advanced the argument that it had a better U-2 than did the USAF. The USAF was concerned that the pilot be in uniform to avoid repetition of the Gary Powers crisis if the aircraft was shot down. (The total mission delay came from five days to make the decision and five days to train an Air Force pilot to fly CIA U-2s.)
A number of authors writing in Strivastva’s Executive Power (1992) argue that power at the strategic organization level is manifested and executed through three fundamental elements: consensus, cooperation, and culture. “An organization is high in consensus potential when it has the capacity to synthesize the commitment of multiple constituencies and stakeholders in response to specific challenges and aspirations.”
In this area, strategic leader power is derived from the management of ideas, the management of agreement, and the management of group and team decision making processes. “Cooperative potential refers to an organization’s capacity to catalyze cooperative interaction among individuals and groups.”
Power is employed by a strategic leader in the management of organization structures, task designs, resource allocation, and reward systems that support and encourage this behavior. “Cultural/spiritual potential refers to a sense of timeless destiny about the organization, its role in its own area of endeavor as well as its larger role in its service to society.”
Strategic leaders use power in this area to manage and institutionalize organizational symbols, beliefs, myths, ideals and values. Their strategic aim is to create a strong culture that connects the destiny of the organization to the personal goals and aspirations of its members.
Although the road to power is open to those who wish to travel it, not all will distinguish themselves as master practitioners. What skills and attributes distinguish those strategic leaders who use power effectively from those who do not? Pfeffer’s (1992) research and observations emphasize the following characteristics as being especially important for acquiring and maintaining strategic power bases: “High energy and physical endurance is the ability and motivation to work long and often time grueling hours.
Absent this attribute other skills and characteristics may not be of much value. Directing energy is the ability and skill to focus on a clear objective and to subordinate other interests to that objective. Attention to small details embedded in the objective is critical for getting things done.
Successfully reading the behavior of others is the ability and skill to understand who are the key players, their positions and what strategy to follow in communicating with and influencing them. Adaptability and flexibility is the ability and skill to modify one’s behavior. This skill requires the capacity to re-direct energy, abandon a course of action that is not working, and manage emotional or ego concerns in the situation”.
“Motivation to engage and confront conflict is the ability and skill to deal with conflict in order to get done what you want accomplished. The willingness to take on the tough issues and challenges and execute a successful strategic decision is a source of power in any organization. Subordinating one’s ego is the ability and skill to submerge one’s ego for the collective good of the team or organization.
Possessing this attribute is related to the characteristics of adaptability and flexibility. Depending on the situation and players, by exercising discipline and restraint an opportunity may be present to generate greater power and resources in a future scenario. The skills and attributes relevant not only to the work of strategic leaders but may contribute to their overall capacity to acquire and use power effectively”.
“Professional Competence is one of the many ways leaders “add value” by grasping the essential nature of work to be done and providing the organizing guidance so it can be done quickly, efficiently, and well. ‘Conceptual Flexibility’ is the capacity to see problems from multiple perspectives. It includes rapid grasp of complex and difficult situations as they unfold, and the ability to understand complex and perhaps unstructured problems quickly.
It also includes tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. ‘Future Vision’ reflects strategic vision, appreciation of long-range planning, and a good sense of the broad span of time over which strategic cause and effect play out. ‘Conceptual Competence’ relates to conceptual flexibility in that both are essential for strategic vision.
It has to do with the scope of a person’s vision and the power of a person’s logic in thinking through complex situations. ‘Political Sensitivity’ is being skilled in assessing political issues and interests beyond narrow organizational interests. It means possessing the ability to compete in an arena immersed in the political frame to ensure that your organization is adequately resourced to support your stated organization interests”.
“Interpersonal Competence is essential for effectiveness in influencing others outside your chain of command, or negotiating across agency lines. It suggests high confidence in the worth of other people, which is reflected in openness and trust in others: Empowering Subordinates, Team Performance Facilitation, Objectivity, and Initiative/Commitment.
Understanding the character of strategic leader power and the requisite personal attributes and skills sets the stage for employing power effectively. We need to know more than the conceptual elements that constitute power in organizations at the strategic level. But, we need to know the strategies of how to use power effectively and to get things done”.
In contrast, power can be lost when organizations change and leaders don’t. “Organizational dynamics create complex conditions and different decision situations that require innovative and creative approaches, new skill sets and new dependent and interdependent relationships. Leaders who have learned to do things a specific way become committed to predictable choices and decision actions.
They remain bonded and loyal to highly developed social networks and friendships, failing to recognize the need for change, let alone allocating the political will to accomplish it. Ultimately, power may be lost because of negative personal attributes that diminish a leader’s capacity to lead with power effectively. A number of negative attributes that when linked to certain organizational dynamics will generate potential loss of power: Technically Incompetent, Self-Serving/Unethical, Micromanagement, Arrogant, Explosive, and Inaccessible”.
Pfeffer has described learning about power most succinctly: “it is one thing to understand power–how to diagnose it, what are its sources, what are the strategies and tactics for its use, and how it is lost. It is quite another thing to use that knowledge in the world at large…
In corporations, public agencies, universities, and government, the problem is how to get things done, how to move forward, how to solve the many problems facing organizations of all sizes and types. Developing and exercising power require having both will and skill. It is the ‘will’ that often seems to be missing.