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Political behavior is a phenomenon that has been present across interpersonal, group, and organizational settings for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In fact, Aristotle argued centuries ago that man is an inherently political animal, and few have challenged that notion since. This phenomenon has become an increasingly important issue for business practitioners to understand and manage due to the changing organizational dynamics affecting today’s workforce.
As managers become increasingly aware of the highly elastic nature of their organization’s investment in human capital, they realize how many important intangibles come into play and must bring newfound attention to these factors. Organizational politics is a significant factor that has a profound impact on the effectiveness of the workforce. Managers will need to know what factors are primary drivers in creating a consistently effective environment and minimizing negative political behaviors, thus predisposing their organizational members to achieve their maximum potential.
This research-paper will discuss views on how politics and political behavior are defined, the life cycle of their complex dynamics in and across the organization, and how they can best be understood and managed in the workplace of the 21st century. Politics will be explored across macro and micro levels of analysis and will reflect the different primary streams of research. The topic will be investigated from different fields of research such as social psychology and sociology as well as from different points of view within and across disciplines. This perspective will illustrate the evolution of this field that has come from a diverse background to a multidisciplinary approach that is gaining momentum. Although politics will be explored from these different points of view, the driving focus will be how practitioners can identify, understand, and manage organizational politics and thus use it as a source of sustained competitive advantage. This advantage comes via mitigating negative politics in such a way that it enhances organizational effectiveness and reduces wasteful practices. The levels of political activity within the organization that will be addressed include macroanalysis for organization wide dynamics and microanalysis for interpersonal and intra-group dynamics. Causes, effects, and managing strategies of political behaviors will be discussed on micro and macro perspectives so that the phenomenon can be understood in whole and in manageable parts.
History Of Organizational Politics Research
An important first step is to identify what is considered political behavior and what are considered the different categories of political behavior. Although it has been commonly known to exist for centuries, the scientific study of organizational politics has only really begun to take shape in the last thirty years. Block (1988) offered a reason for the lack of study by likening research of organizational politics to the issues of sex in the 1950s: Everyone knew it was going on, but no one wanted to talk about it. It is ever present in our lives, but getting reliable information about it is next to impossible.
Groundwork for the study of politics has primarily occurred in the areas of sociology, social psychology, organizational behavior, and political science. The research from these areas often seemed to ignore the efforts of its counterparts in other fields leading to independent streams of research that often contradicted each other. More recent work has proven to be far more effective and compelling due to the use of a multidisciplinary approach. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first landmark works began to emerge that would set the stage for the modern study of organizational politics. A few of the most significant contributions to this field were offered by Mayes and Allen (1977), Bacharach and Lawler (1980), Mintzberg (1983, 1985), and Pfeffer (1981, 1992). These researchers helped to define what politics is and is not and to define the different types of political behavior. More recently, works by Ferris, Witt, Kacmar, Drory, and Vigoda-Gadot have made important contributions to the advancement of the study of organizational politics.
Bronston Mayes and Robert Allen (1977) made a distinction between political uses of power and influence tactics versus uses that were not deemed political. They offered a broad definition of politics: “Organizational politics is the management of influence to obtain ends not sanctioned by the organization or to obtain sanctioned ends though non-sanctioned influence means” (p. 675). This basic definition helps to define the first major division in the typology of political behavior in those actions. These include behaviors using organizationally approved (OA) tactics to achieve a non-OA objective and using non-OA tactics to achieve OA objectives. The distinction is whether the means or the ends are incongruent with those of the organization in determining the presence and type of political behavior. They propose that political behavior occurs when power or influence tactics are used that include the use of means or ends that are not organizationally approved, leaving other uses of power and influence apolitical in nature.
Samuel Bacharach and Edward Lawler (1980) offered a more in-depth look at the state of the discipline and the history behind it in their book, Power and Politics in Organizations. They reviewed the research that has occurred in the related fields of sociology, social psychology, and political science, and discussed how these different streams of research developed independently of one another, often ignoring or dismissing the offerings of the others. The use of power and influence through political means in the workplace is also discussed in depth. Their book offers the first compilation of related research used for the examination of the phenomenon in management settings and, thus, helped to create a foundation for a more singular stream of research. Many separate streams still exist today, but they are less disjunctive from each other as had previously been the case prior to this work.
The work of Henry Mintzberg (1983,1985) in the early 1980s brought about the most robust typology of the time, and many consider it one of the best even to this day. He shared an overall viewpoint of organizations as political arenas in which varying levels of conflict and political behavior exist. Political behavior is presented as having a life cycle including an impetus or catalyst, development stage, resolution stage, and often a resurgence of conflict stage. Mintzberg defined and explained the multiple forms of strategies and behaviors classified as political in nature. This will be discussed in depth in the tactics and strategies section later in this research-paper.
Gerald Ferris has offered many contributions to the field as one of the few scholars that has made the study of organizational politics research a primary stream of research across his distinguished career. One of the most important themes that Ferris, along with Micki Kacmar (1992), introduced was the importance of perceptions to the study and understanding of politics. They have investigated linking perceptions of politics to work outcomes, which has become another important contribution discussed in the next section.
Eran Vigoda-Gadot (2003) has offered some of the most recent compilation volumes that have helped to establish a solid foundation from which to direct future inquiry and are highly suggested resources for those new to or wishing to explore deeper into the field of organizational politics research.
Perceptions of Politics
As researchers seek a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of political behaviors, a new variable has emerged as an important factor in both causes and effects. This new variable is the study of organizational members’ perception of politics within the organization. This is unique from previous efforts as it investigates employees’ subjective perceptions, behaviors, and environments as political in nature. Multiple studies investigating this aspect of political research have shown that certain factors can create a significant variance between individuals’ perceptions of politics. Such factors proven to have a strong correlation to an individual’s perception of organizational politics include organizational influences, job/work environment influences, and personal influences (Ferris & Kacmar, 1992). Organizational influences are structural characteristics such as centralization of authority, formalization of rules and procedures, the hierarchical level within the organization, and the span of control of managers. Perceptions of politics increase when leadership of an organization is more centralized, span of control is larger, and when formalization of rules and is low. Different studies have shown conflicting effects regarding level of hierarchy within the organization. At higher levels within an organization, job and work environmental influences such as job autonomy, job variety, and feedback are all shown to reduce perceptions of politics. When ambiguity and uncertainty are high and sense of control over situational factors is low, perceptions of politics are much higher. The last category, personal influences, is a combination of demographic and individual characteristics such as personality and disposition. Certain demographics such as women and older workers perceive higher levels of political behaviors (Ferris, Russ, & Fandt, 1989). Certain personality types such as Machiavellian and self-monitoring types are more likely to perceive high levels of politics as well.
These different levels of influence and the factors within each combine to shape individuals’ perceptions of the political nature of their work environment. Work outcomes directly associated with perceptions of organizational politics include job performance, job satisfaction, work anxiety, and organizational withdrawal.
Positive Versus Negative View of Politics
To varying degrees, the literature to date supports both positive and negative views of organizational politics. The preponderance of research, to date, has had a decidedly negative slant toward organizational politics; however, it is important to address the positive aspects, as politics cannot only harm your organization, but can also enhance it. Positive organizational politics can assist in helping individuals work through laborious bureaucratic processes that hinder efficiency. The use of politics can assist individuals who are in positions to offer positive contributions to the organization, but are not able to do so through established means. May (1972) argued that the use of organizational politics can assist the organization in resolving conflict and enhance its ability to adapt to a changing environment. He went on to say that political conflict creates a balance between those who have power and those who lack it. This balance, in turn, improves the organization’s flexibility, reduces group-think, often prevents stagnation, and may even promote growth and rejuvenation within the organization. Political avenues also allow an additional mechanism for members of the organization to promote a variety of organizational objectives that would otherwise be unattainable.
Negative politics, also called corrosive politics, refers to political behaviors that are self-serving in nature, but result in a negative net outcome for other organizational members or the organization itself. The negative outcome can come about as a direct result of a specific political behavior, as an indirect result of many political behaviors in aggregate, or as the eventual latent outcomes of either. Corrosive politics is often described as deceptive, ingratiating, manipulative, subversive, and irrational and often represents the achievement of goals with means that are considered immoral or unethical. Individuals may create or otherwise allow a negative event such as a crisis to occur in order to eventually solve the problem and appear as having “saved the day.” Organizational effects that are known to be caused by corrosive politics include increased stress and pressure at work; perceived unfairness in the evaluation of employee performance; perceived unfairness in practices for rewarding performance and advancement opportunities; and reduced organizational commitment and negative attitudes toward coworkers, supervisors, and the organization as a whole.
Corrosive politics often creates an attitude and resulting behavior of zero-sum thinking between and across groups. Zero-sum thinking is the idea that there must be a winner and a loser with corresponding absolute victory or absolute defeat. The common expression “kill or be killed” is an accurate description of this type of mentality. When zero-sum thinking is adopted as a framework for decision making and behavior, group and organizational cohesiveness and cooperation deteriorate. This, in turn, causes ineffective communication, decreases efficiency, creates incongruity between individual and organizational objectives, and often results in the mismanagement of resources and information. When compared to their peers, organizations consumed with negative political behaviors are known to consume massive amounts of energy and resources because of the disruptive influence of corrosive political behaviors. This research-paper will more closely examine corrosive politics, as the applications for management are more pertinent for creating strategies that mitigate and effectively manage the disruptive nature of corrosive politics.
Political Tactics And Strategies
Although the impetus for political behavior within an organization can stem from multiple catalysts, the tactics of political action have been classified into identifiable categories. Henry Mintzberg (1985), as well as David Kipnis and Ian Schmidt (1980), laid down the foundations for these major categories in the early 1980s. Mintzberg laid out his tactics as a group of “games” to be played across what he called the political arena. His categories would define the political game, the main players of the game, the reasons why the tactics were used, and how the tactic related to other systems of power and influence throughout the organization.
The following is a summary of his 13 tactics:
- Insurgency—This tactic is typically used by individuals in lower levels of the organization to resist formal authority and legitimate power, either individually or in small groups.
- Counterinsurgency—Managers and senior managers will use their legitimate or formal authority to counteract lower level attempts at insurgency.
- Sponsorship—This tactic is used by individuals of lower rank within the organization who seek to align themselves with higher ranking individuals by offering their loyalty in return for the status of an alliance with this higher ranking individual. In doing so, the higher power individual gets a loyal follower and the lower ranking individual gains an ally with more legitimate power than he or she could acquire on his or her own.
- Alliance building—Individuals will attempt to form a quid pro quo relationship with their peers. A participant will offer his or her support to the participant’s agendas in exchange for support of his or her own agendas in return.
- Empire building—Middle and higher ranking managers and players within an organization will seek the support and loyalty of key, lower ranking contributors in exchange for the status of an alliance with a high-ranking position. This is very similar to the sponsorship game simply viewed from the reverse perspective.
- Budgeting game—Rival players compete for financial resources in order to advance their particular agendas. Efforts to acquire the financial resources often indirectly relate to their stated objectives and are sought more for power and discretionary use.
- Expertise game—This tactic involves either the use or withholding of information for personal gain. An individual can create an advantage for himself or herself by exploiting technical skills and knowledge or by withholding critical knowledge, skills, or information in such a way that it puts competitors at a disadvantage.
- Lording game—This tactic involves the brandishing of formal and legitimate power of different types over those who have less of it. In this way, the individual can create a larger perceived power distance in the relationship and, thus, create the perception among others that his or her legitimate power is greater than it actually is.
- Line versus staff game—This game is similar to the lording game, pitting technical experts from the staff ranks, who try to leverage their expertise as a form of power, against the line managers, who attempt to leverage their legitimate power over the staffers.
- Rival camps—This is, perhaps, the most divisive and corrosive among the political tactics, as it creates a zero-sum game between rival coalitions. When two coalitions created through alliance or empire building find that their agendas are in competition with one another, they will use divisive and illegitimate tactics to undermine the efforts of the other coalition while ensuring the success of their own. This reflects the classic “kill or be killed” scenario that is played and will escalate until a victor emerges.
- Strategic candidates—Managers at mid- and high levels of the organization use their ability to hire, promote, or appoint individuals into strategic positions that will ultimately return the favor by using their new positions to help the mangers achieve their own objectives.
- Whistle-blowing—This event occurs somewhat rarely, as the actor can typically only use the strategy once. An individual will have privileged information, especially as to disclose immoral or illegal behaviors by the organization, which they will leverage to reach a specific objective in exchange for silence.
- Young Turks—This is a high-stakes strategy that involves questioning the legitimate power of the organization or that of individuals in the highest levels of leadership. Younger and ambitious power players within the organization will question whether the “old guard” still has the correct strategy and ability to effectively govern the organization.
Kipnis, Schmidt, and Wilkinson (1980) investigated 370 influence tactics that they had broken down into 14 categories. After multiple empirical studies, they elected to narrow the list to eight dimensions of influence that the data suggested provided the most impact. They asserted that these categorizations cover the most predominant and most effective political tactics and form the basis for their typology. Their eight dimensions of influence include assertive-ness, ingratiation, rationality, sanctions, exchange, upward appeals, blocking, and coalitions. Most of these factors are similar to or can be seen in the Mintzberg items and thus will not be discussed in depth in this research-paper.
Additional researchers have focused on other factors with which to categorize political actions, such as the direction of influence (vertical or lateral), the legitimacy of the tactic, whether the behavior is viewed as strategic or tactical, and if the behavior is defensive or offensive in nature. Overlap and differences in opinion can be seen through these different perspectives, and a resolution in the form of a universally agreed upon typology has not yet been reached even in current research.
Macro Causes Of Political Behavior
Macro politics is defined as taking place at the organizational level and interorganizational level. This is distinct from micro politics which takes place at the interpersonal and group levels of the organization. Three characteristics that are commonly discussed when seeking to understand the nature of politics at a macro level include intensity, pervasiveness, and duration (or stability). Intensity refers to the magnitude of the political actions being undertaken. Pervasiveness refers to how widespread the political behaviors are throughout the organization. Duration or stability refers to how long the political actions have been taking place or will take place, how lasting the effects will be, and to what degree the political behaviors destabilize the organization.
Mintzberg (1985) offers a few characteristics regarding the nature of politics within an organization and offers four major forms of organizations consumed by political behavior that he refers to as political arenas. The following discussion explores how the characteristics discussed above interrelate with each other to determine the dynamics of political action within an organization. The conflict that eventually gives rise to widespread political behavior initially tends to be confined. From an organizational perspective, two primary groups seek to influence each other: the internal coalition and the external coalition. Both of these groups are stakeholders, but they are divided by their ability to influence the outcome. The internal coalition is the group that has the most direct control of outcomes, including those with legitimate power or the means to exercise some form of control over the outcome of events. The external coalition includes stakeholders who wish to have influence over the outcome but lack the legitimate or formal means to do so and, thus, seek to influence the internal coalition in order to accomplish their aims. The resulting dynamic brought about by the interaction of these two coalitions triggers an escalation that results in Mintzberg’s second premise that political conflict tends to eventually pervade the entire power system of an organization. As the external coalition seeks to use influence tactics to impose its conflicting demands on the insiders, the exchanges become increasingly political across and within both groups. This will tend to an increasingly politicized internal organization as the conflicting interests and tactics of the external coalition continue to escalate in intensity, pervasiveness, and duration. That said, another important premise says that few organizations can sustain a state of intense political conflict. This is because intense conflict consumes so much energy and so many resources from the organization that intense political conflict will eventually threaten all but the most protected of organizations. This point brings into focus the fact that if two or more of the characteristics such as intensity and duration are high, the organization and its members are at greater risk. As long as two of the three characteristics occur in moderation, the organization can frequently endure the political behavior. For example, in order for duration of political conflict to sustain itself in an environment, it must be moderated in its intensity and pervasiveness. In fact, moderate levels of political conflict can endure within an organization as long as the three characteristics are moderated against each other and, thus, the conflict is somewhat contained.
Micro Causes Of Political Behavior
Micro politics is defined as taking place at the interpersonal and group levels. This is distinct from macro politics, which occurs at the organizational and interorganizational levels. The causes of corrosive micropolitical behavior are divided into two major categories: political behaviors that are intentional, deliberate, and often premeditated, and political behaviors that are initially unintentional and brought on by basic self-preservation needs. Many factors can motivate individuals to maliciously use corrosive political behaviors as means to achieve their aims. Dispositional characteristics such as perceptions of morality can predispose individuals to evaluate alternative mechanisms to achieve their goals, such as corrosive politics. When individuals perceive that the environment in which they are operating is already highly political or that the organization condones political behavior, they will also strongly consider the use of political behaviors. Other factors that have a strong influence on political behaviors include job autonomy, input into decision making, job satisfaction, occupational status and prestige, employee relations, perceived control of one’s own circumstances, and understanding of what and why events take place in an environment (Ferris & Kacmar, 1992). Several commonalities emerge across these factors, including increases in ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of perceived personal control in an organizational environment, all of which are known to increase the prevalence of political behaviors. These factors, along with how to best manage them, will be discussed in depth later in the research-paper in the mitigation of political behavior section.
Individuals unable to obtain their goals through traditional means will tend to look for alternative methods to achieve their intended goals. This will oftentimes include the use of behaviors and tactics that are political in nature. The behaviors tend to perpetuate themselves as others within the organizational environment become aware of this political behavior and, in turn, become more likely to use such tactics to achieve their own means; thus, the pattern plays itself forward.
The logic of why people act politically in organizations seems fairly straightforward when such political actions are used to promote self interests or accomplish an organizational strategy without negatively effecting others. Why people of good moral conscience would act in a seemingly unethical way that is out of alignment with the best interest of the group and the organization is a more difficult question to resolve. Certainly many people actively seek out opportunities to leverage political behaviors to advance their personal agendas and careers. But what would cause someone to act politically or use political tactics without premeditation and even without conscious intent? The answer lies in understanding how people assess their environment and how they feel they must respond in order to thrive, or even survive, in that environment. Current research on this issue would seem to point to the idea that motivations for malicious political behavior, whether premeditated or not, seem to stem from how people define who is working toward their common interests versus who is working against these interests. A major component of how people make such a determination includes a pair of important streams of research in social psychology called social identity theory and self-categorization theory.
Social Identity and Self-Categorization Theories
Established and more frequently utilized by social psychologists outside the United States, social identity theory refers to how individuals make sense of themselves and how their cognitive functions change as a function of social or environmental context and perceived group memberships (Tajfel & Turner, 1985). A person’s self-image and behavioral choices change when different group memberships are salient to her or him, also called one’s “social identity.” Positive bias will be shown to other members of the group to which the individual perceives he or she belongs, also called one’s “in-group.” An unfavorable bias will be shown to individuals that are perceived as not being part of the group, also called the “out-group.” This phenomenon is called “in-group bias” and helps to explain why malicious political behavior is less likely between members of the same in-group while out-group members are far more likely to be the target of political behaviors.
Self-categorization theory discusses the process of how individuals establish the boundaries of their in-groups. Everyone has many different potential social identities that can become salient to them as a result of contextual factors such as environmental, social, cultural, and threat assessment. People will typically categorize themselves into the social identity that they believe will bring them the most value in a given situation. This process can occur due to conscious factors such as perceived commonalities with others, mutual goals, and perceived mutual threat. In the case of threat assessment, the higher the level of threat the individual perceives, the smaller the individual’s in-group will typically become to the point that she or he is an in-group of one. In addition to a shrinking in-group size, self-categorization also occurs in the form of levels of satisfied needs, from basic needs such as survival to more advanced needs like friendship and achievement. If more basic needs are not met, such as factors influencing survival, individuals will be motivated to meet those needs before they seek to fulfill more advanced needs. In this way, the size of the in-group and level of satisfied needs will motivate individuals to act for the benefit of the group or for the benefit of themselves. The next section discusses the concept of self-categorization based on threat assessment in more depth, including how it influences political behaviors.
Threat Assessment as Catalyst for political Behavior
Our understanding of instinctive threat assessment brought about by perceptions of environmental factors has foundations in the work of researchers in the social sciences including Maslow, Alderfer, McClelland, McGregor, and Herzberg. Collectively, these researchers have helped to create a framework for understanding the relationship between levels of self-categorization based upon perception of environmental factors. As previously discussed, self-categorization is the way in which we define ourselves as a function of our environmental context. Self-categorization helps us to understand the boundaries of what group we perceive as most salient in a given context and serves to establish what group size will satisfy our needs at the required level. When a specific level is most salient, its corresponding needs will motivate an individual’s behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs is, perhaps, the most commonly known framework for discussing what level of self-categorization is most salient as it applies to our response to environmental factors, especially as it applies to self-preservation. Maslow discusses five levels of categorization that motivate our personal behavior based upon what levels of needs are being met. More basic needs such as survival must be satisfied before an individual will seek to satisfy higher level needs. For example, basic human needs such as food, water, and shelter are the most primary needs that must be met before any others are considered. Once these basic survival needs are met, other factors such as personal safety, relationships, and self-esteem can be pursued in order of most basic need to higher level need. That is to say, we pursue the things that we must have before we can pursue the things we want to have.
In the case of organizational politics, the level of threat an individual feels from others or from the organization itself will dictate the level of self-categorization that will motivate the behaviors. As the organizations and its members become increasingly political, perceptions of fair play and job security significantly decline. As a result, an individual’s threat assessment will be high, therefore reducing one’s unsatisfied needs to the most basic levels. As these needs revert to the lowest levels, an individual’s perceptions of in-group also reduce from organizational to a group of only oneself.
In modern times, the basic needs of food, water, and shelter are primarily made available through the financial currencies gained from employment. When the security of that flow of income is threatened due to fear of losing employment, it reduces individuals’ unfulfilled needs to the most basic levels. They will use whatever means necessary, including corrosive political tactics, in order to achieve the satisfaction of their most basic needs such as job or financial security, which enable them to provide the most basic needs for themselves and their family.
If management is able to create an environment where job security is not constantly in jeopardy, more basic needs will be satisfied, allowing employees to act out of motivations that are based on more advanced needs such as affiliation and self-actualization. Managing the work environment to mitigate politics will be discussed in more detail later in the research-paper.
Mitigation Of Corrosive Political Behavior
In recent years, management teams have struggled with the increasingly important challenge of finding a strategy to maximize the effectiveness of their human capital while minimizing overhead. The dynamic nature of human interaction in both micro and macro settings presents a formidable challenge for both researchers and practitioners. The element of political behavior that can seem most ambiguous in this complex environment is also one of the most impactful to the success of people, teams, and even the organization as a whole. Having established the negative implications of corrosive politics within organizations, the focus will shift to a discussion of proactive management strategies that can be utilized to mitigate the negative influence of politics.
There are many emerging theories on ways to mitigate corrosive organizational politics. The primary themes involve the use of various types of perception management techniques with the end goal of reducing the environmental factors known to increase political activity. These techniques create the following perceptions for the employees: (a) alignment of goals between employees and organization, (b) reducing uncertainty and ambiguity, (c) increasing perceptions of fairness, (d) reduced threat assessment and increased job security, and (e) alignment of rewards structure so as not to condone political behaviors.
Alignment of Goals
Laurence Witt (1998) has recently explored a method for mitigating the use of corrosive political behavior. In his study, he assesses the relationship between perceptions of politics, organizational commitment, and job performance as a function of employee and supervisor goal congruence. The results show that there is indeed a negative job performance and organizational commitment impact when perceptions of politics are increased. The study also shows that employee understanding of organizational factors that influence employees’ sense of control over a situation reduces the impact of politics on job performance. When employees sense that their goals are congruent with those of their supervisor and of the organization, a sense of in-group is formed. This in-group is created because its members have a common objective and a shared understanding of that common objective. Their individual efforts will seek to advance the common agenda and, thus, the members will not attempt to undermine each other through political or other means.
Goal alignment has proven to be an effective mitigating factor of political activity when such political activity is conscious to the individual, for example, political behavior that is intentional and premeditated. Goal alignment will assist in the creation of a safer environment but, ultimately, only the employees’ perception of their own safety within the environment will reduce the probability that they will utilize political behaviors to achieve the satisfaction of their most basic needs.
Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Uncertainty and ambiguity are both factors known to increase political activity within organizations. Uncertainty refers to lack of information or unclear information regarding what individuals perceive to be factors directly related to their success or failure. Lack of information is commonly known to be a cause of fear within many people, especially as it applies to their livelihoods. As this becomes increasingly worrisome, it will increase their likelihood of using political behaviors as a way to offset their lack of information in striving for successful outcomes in their jobs. In the absence of information, people typically try to fill these voids with educated guesses that are negatively biased, as people tend to fear the worst. Increased uncertainty will frequently have the same effect on employees as increased fear.
Ambiguity is very similar to uncertainty but rather than simply the absence of information, it is more specific about what information is unclear in the organizational environment. Whereas uncertainty is a general lack of information regarding circumstances of the overall environment, ambiguity is the lack of specific information about organizational characteristics such as chain of command, specific operating procedures, policies, and overall knowledge of means and ends that the organization sanctions. In organizational environments where sanctioned means and ends are not highly formalized and strictly enforced, employees will often fill this information vacuum with their own interpretation of means and ends to be pursued that will obviously be biased in a self-serving way.
The solution to these exacerbating factors is increasing the flow of accurate and pertinent information to the employees, reducing both uncertainty and ambiguity. This flow of information will help in two important ways: It will reduce their fears brought on by what they do not know and allow them to use correct information to hone their efforts on what is most appropriate. Sharing pertinent information with employees in a timely manner allows them to focus on what is actually happening rather than expend energy focusing their concerns on what they fear might be happening. This will also enable the organization to realize a more sustainable goal alignment with their employees, who will better understand the organization’s challenges and opportunities. Organizationally sanctioned means and ends should be highly formalized and rigorously and consistently enforced. Having explicitly stated policies, rules, and procedures that are consistently enforced helps to enhance employee perceptions of fairness, which is another important factor in managing political behavior.
Perceptions of Fairness
Perceptions of fairness within the organization also strongly correlate to political behavior. Classical social psychology discusses expectancy theory and equity theory as methods in which people will measure their responses to stimuli depending on their perceptions of fairness in a given situation or environment. Expectancy theory, as pioneered by Kurt Lewin (1936), is based on the idea that individuals will respond to their perceptions of reality rather than reality per se. Individuals’ expectations of an outcome may bias their perceptions of what actually does occur, thus changing how they view the event and its outcome and how they choose to respond to it. If individuals perceive that political behaviors are an accepted practice and even receive rewards in their environment, it will influence how they evaluate the use of politics themselves. This will often greatly increase the chances that individuals who would not normally consider political actions will use them due to their perception that they are a normal and rewarded practice.
Equity theory occurs when individuals perceive that an event or its outcome has occurred unfairly and, as a result, they will be more likely to act in a way that would give them an unfair advantage, thus “leveling the playing field.” They will then feel that the outcome was fair, as the net outcome of both unfair actions resulted in equal fairness for both parties involved. This will quickly lead to a tit-for-tat battle that can spread from an interpersonal exchange to a “pass it forward” organizational epidemic. Eventually, such illegitimate, and even immoral, behaviors will be perceived as acceptable practices to the organizational culture and cause it to become consumed by political strife. As discussed earlier in this research-paper, this is something that is toxic, and even lethal, to an organization. The solution to this particular catalyst of political behavior is nearly the same as that for uncertainty and ambiguity. An appropriate flow of pertinent and timely information along with formalized organizational structure, procedures, and policies that are rigorously, consistently, and fairly enforced will create an environment with far less uncertainty that is far more likely to be perceived as fair, thus reducing the motivation for corrosive political choices.
Expanding In-Group size
As discussed in the sections on social identity theory, self-categorization theory, and threat assessment, motivations for malicious political behavior, whether premeditated or not, seem to stem from how employees define who is working toward their common interests versus who is working against these same interests. This translates into how individuals define who belongs to their in-group. In the context of business, this group will often be based upon who has aligned goals and who can best help advance each other’s agenda. Factors such as reducing uncertainty and ambiguity, increasing perceptions of fairness, and improving job security all contribute to a larger in-group as perceived by an individual. If managed correctly, the organization can create an environment where these factors lead to increased loyalty, affiliation, and perception of safety for the employees. When this occurs, individuals’ basic needs are met and, thus, they are more likely to increase the size of their in-group to include their peers and even the organization as a whole. In-group status will significantly reduce the likelihood that individuals will utilize corrosive political behaviors against each other. Using the methods discussed here that leverage basic human psychology can reduce political behaviors that are both conscious and unconscious in nature.
Performance And Rewards Alignment
A final method for managing the prevalence of corrosive organization politics is through the correct application of performance and rewards alignment practices. When outcomes are rewarded without any consideration to how they were obtained, methods that are not organizationally sanctioned are more likely to occur. Establishing rewards for performance on the basis of organizationally sanctioned objectives using organizational sanctioned methods will discourage the use of political behaviors within the organization.
Management Of Politics As A Competitive Advantage
The three primary themes of human capital, social capital, and organizational capital will be used to discuss how the effective management of politics within the organizational environment can be a source of competitive advantage. Human capital refers to the value that an organization derives from the knowledge, experience, skills, abilities, and talents possessed and utilized by an organization’s members. Social capital refers to the value that organizations derive from the ways in which their people interact, communicate, function in teams, help each other, share information, and relate to one another. Organizational capital includes the value an organization derives from its policies, procedures, structure, and processes.
As managers seek to better understand how these intangible constructs factor into their day-to-day management decisions, they must analyze the different ways to construct a strategy using these different forms of capital. The key in understanding how organizational politics positively or negatively impacts the business comes from understanding the mechanism in which it affects these different parts of the organization. In breaking down the cause-and-effect relationships, it is important to note that the factor most strongly influenced by political behavior is that of social capital. Although social capital is where the effects of organizational politics can be identified most directly, the downstream impact of negatively affected social capital has a profound disruptive influence on employees’ ability to perform, thus reducing value that can be gained from human capital. Employees depend on a healthy work environment, including effective teamwork and communication, in order to maximize their contribution to the organization.
Organizational capital is one of the primary mechanisms used to mold and manage organizational politics. Appropriate processes, procedures, and culture can create an environment which will mitigate existing political behaviors and resist future political phenomena. That is to say, changes in organizational capital that mitigate corrosive political behaviors will reduce the disruptive influence of politics on social capital. The way an organization’s policies, procedures, and environment dissuade the use of political behaviors will empower a much more effective employee interaction and create a healthier working environment. This will enable employees to have a high level of satisfaction and superior performance concurrently.
Using appropriate management strategies, as discussed in the management of politics section, will often reduce the potential use of corrosive political tactics. Mitigating corrosive political activity creates tremendous advantages for organizations in a way that is difficult to imitate. Few, if any, components of an organization escape the direct impact of corrosive political behavior. As a result, enacting proactive policies to effectively manage corrosive organizational politics throughout the organization can translate into solid financial returns with minimal associated risks or expenditures.
Although the existence of politics within organizations is nothing new, the search for a better understanding of how it impacts the workforce is certainly emerging as an important challenge for managers in the 21st century. This research-paper has offered a guided journey though the dynamic and evolving field of organizational politics within management settings. The reader should leave with an understanding of how the knowledge of organizational politics has come to its current form; tactics and strategies used in the course of political behavior; causes for political behaviors including causes for nonmalicious behaviors; and finally, strategies for mitigating politics through effectively managing environmental factors that trigger political behaviors. Although creating an organization that is free of corrosive political behaviors is likely an unattainable goal, it is within management’s reach to mitigate the conditions that allow such activity to thrive. Managers will need to know what factors are primary drivers in creating a consistently effective environment that mitigates negative political behaviors. Using this information to create and execute proactive strategies will allow an organization to create a healthier working environment, increase employee satisfaction, and achieve higher levels of performance from its workforce.
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