IntroductionChange is a term which can be perceived in many ways (Barbaroux, 2011).
To some, organisational change is a visionary bringing about a new method of the same task; to others, it is a necessary upgrade to how business is conducted or how an organisation functions. Some people expect and look forward to regular intervals of change whereas some people may consider it as an unnecessary development (Burke, 2011). Nonetheless, change has always been an integral part of any organisation (Cameron, 2008).
This concept must be for one, fully appreciated to understand the intricacies of change management; especially in cohesion with the power and politics of it. The question statement above resonates perfectly with how organisations function in today’s world. Because there is such a high rate of supply and demand, in partnership with constant innovation and new techniques, change is inevitable (Van de Ven & Sun, 2011). In addition to this, there is growing competition and thus, in order to stand out, one must use all means necessary to achieve the desired target (Lawrence, 2015), even if it means using politics to have the competitive advantage.
This particular essay explores the role of using politics and power to manage change as well as its benefits. Understanding Power and its SourcesInspiring and managing change is usually a top-level task; one of the key roles a leader or manager plays. Generally, such an influential person uses the most facilitating tool; power. Power is the capacity or potential to influence (Northouse, 2013). People have power when they have the ability to affect others’ beliefs, attitudes and courses of action. It is an extremely useful resource to effect change on the people or the environment.
In an organisation, there are two major kinds of power: position power and personal power. According to Northouse (2013), position power refers to the power derived from status in a formal organisational system, and it is the influence a leader derives from having higher status that their followers. On the other hand, personal power is the influence a leader derives from being seen by their followers as likable and knowledgeable. These two types of power have further subsets they can rise in. Originally coined by French & Raven (1959), these are known as bases or sources of power; there are five essential types.
Referent power is when the followers can identify and like change maker or leader. Expert power is built on how competent the leader is perceived to be. Legitimate power is linked with having status or authority. Reward power is a result of rewarding or bribing followers. Finally, coercive power is based on having the authority to penalise or punish others (French & Raven, 1959; French & Raven, 2008; Northouse, 2013). There are many approaches to how power is used in an organisation.
Whilst not most address power directly, the Power-Coercive approach assumes that power is used in some forms and change is the result when either the perceived need for change is low or there is an urgent need for change. It is essential to understand these concepts because power plays a major role in how change is managed. From aforementioned definitions, it can be inferred that every source of power is likely to cause a difference in behaviour from the employees, even if no change takes place. Applying this notion to change management, it could be suggested that having power might not always lead to change.
Some forms of power might cause a resistance to change or opposing the views of a change maker (i.e. leader; Vaara & Tiernari, 2011). On the other hand, challenging the previous notion, research in the past decade has suggested that there is a strong relationship between a particular source of power from a leader or manager and employee motivation and performance, coupled alongside job satisfaction (Bradshaw, 1998).
In addition to this, covert forms of power may cease to be unrecognisable due to the subtlety in which they are embedded in the manner employees view themselves in the roles they play within the organisation. Thus, over a period of time, power obedience might become unquestionable and a natural part of the organisational culture (Foucault, 1977). This notion is further supported by other studies exploring the area of disciplinary power, which have provided insight into organisational principles that may be blindly followed as a part of social and economic behaviour (Hardy & Clegg, 1999). To elaborate on this further, this concept can be compared to a relationship that a parent and child share. Since the parent holds power over the child and subjects him/her to covert forms of power by establishing do’s and don’ts, and a clear set of behavioural guidelines that have, if violated, disciplinary consequences. Therefore, much like the social and economic behaviour followed by employees in organisations, the child too learns to follow rules without questioning, perhaps because, it is set by the parent, who is undoubtedly, in a superior position of authority. The “Side Effects” of Organisational Politics Organisational politics on the other hand, is a somewhat more fluid to concept to grasp. According to Gotsis and Kortezi (2011), organisational politics is a search of self-interest of individuals in the organisation without consideration to their effect on the efforts of the organisation to achieve its objectives.
Over the decades, the need to stand out and have the biggest competitive advantage has also surged an increase in organisational politics. On the contrary, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to justify reasons behind such politics, but it can be done. It can be suggested that not all politics have a personal motive behind it; perhaps it is not always about personal gain (Vigoda-Gadot & Talmud, 2010).
Since power essentially refers to the constant shift of control to various people, groups, or organisations (Lawrence, 2015), that cannot be removed, politics is often referred to power in action, which uses a range of techniques and tactics (Buchanan & Badham, 2008). In such situations, people or groups tend to exercise this power in both covert and overt ways, which might be difficult to comprehend, and may also be disliked by colleagues and the rest of the organisation. The politics that arise from this “game” of control and power can be considered to be extremely complex and negatively viewed, perhaps because of the lack of knowledge about the need for politics (Miller et al, 2008). Although researchers have suggested that organisational politics are responsible for a variety of harmful work consequences, including higher stress and lower worker satisfaction (Kacmar & Baron, 1999), recent research has also provided insight that this is not always the case, and many times, politics is used as a means for an overall organisational benefit.
Arguably, one of the biggest contributors for the lack of research, is the absence of a generic understanding of organisational politics. Popular but biased perceptions, could have reduced one’s general understanding of politics, often being viewed negatively and considered to be one of the drawbacks of a structured organisation. However, organisational politics can be viewed as a double-edged sword.
There are both pros and cons; ultimately it renders down to how an individual or group of employees use it to their benefit, without jeopardising the organisation’s overall financial and cultural well-being. This concept is an essential social influence process that can be either be functional or dysfunctional to employees and the organisations (Allen et al, 1972). It can be argued that much of the perceptions formed about organisational politics is due to preconceived notions. For instance, some research suggests that politics as a general concept or activity is primarily based around the individual (Vredenburgh & Shea Van-Fossen, 2010). However, Vigoda-Gadot & Drory (2006), argue that organisational politics can also be viewed as a group phenomenon where they are formed as a creation of agendas or goals shared by like-minded individuals. The same research study also mentions the impact group politics vs individual politics can have on any change waiting to happen. Interestingly, this conceptual contribution could suggest a difference in magnitude or longevity of the approaching change.
Research has further suggested that a great extent of politicking is an innate part of human nature, and in accordance to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, politicking can be considered as an inherent behavioural tendency which distinguishes individuals that are better adapted to the organisational environment and culture, in comparison to those who are not (Vredenburgh & Shea Van-Fossen, 2010). Moreover, studies suggest that this predisposition to politics can be more visible in organisations where: the overall objective is unclear, the resources to growth and development are limited, and the leaders’ change management skills are poor and are not able to keep up to the speed of the adapting environment and consumer demands (Gotsis & Kortsezi, 2010). Whilst this approach provides insight into the makings of politics, the question remains unanswered: if politics is viewed so negatively, why is it still an integral part of an organisation?As mentioned previously, organisational politics can be viewed negatively which can involve behaviour that is convenient to the personal agenda of the person(s) involved, or positively, as a social function that is essential for organisations to function and survive in the competitive economic market (Othman, 2008).
Positive politics is a result of a well-crafted amalgamation of shared goals and stimulating collaboration (Drory & Vigoda-Gadot, 2010). It is essential to understand that organisational politics does not always have to be about the manipulation of power and trust, and hidden agendas. Meticulously described in a study conducted by Rosen et al (in Vigoda-Gadot & Drory, 2006), and as supported by Vrendenburgh & Shea Van-Fossen (2010), the person-based interactionist approach suggests that much of politicking is based on personality, some personalities or personality types, may view organisational politics more positively or beneficial to the workplace than others. To combine this approach with the concept of change management, it could be assumed that a positive perception of politics may be an important factor to facilitate effective change. Arguably, the effect of enforcing positive influence behaviours can directly be on the workplace environment (Drory & Vigoda-Gadot, 2010; Gotsis & Kortsezi, 2010), which could perhaps, lead to employees having more faith in their co-workers and leaders alike, ultimately allowing more room for improved change and development. Power and Politics in ActionAs Paul Lawrence (2015) mentioned in his book, Power and Politics, these concepts are at the very crux of any change agenda. Traditional approaches to change are based on an assumption that organisational change is mainly driven by positional power. However, one of the possible limitations to such approaches is that it does not take into account the politics required to attain the power to implement and execute effective change.
Change management, thus, can be understood as pursuing power via political means (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995). To do this, people use various strategies and tactics to achieve what they want. Some of these tactics include: persuasion, linking agendas, joint problem solving, and, sometimes, even to the extent of pressurising colleagues or exploiting external influence (Buchanan, 2007). In conjunction with these political strategies, some power tactics include image building, networking, and rule manipulation (Buchanan & Badham, 1999). It is interesting to note the overlap between the two types of tactics, which further supports the aforementioned research on the relationship between politics and power.
In transforming societies, managerial power and politics are grounded in and emergent from simultaneously existing historical and contemporary contextual circumstances (Soulsby & Clark, 2013). To elaborate, much of organisational politics and power, despite being viewed positively or negatively, is deeply rooted in almost every organisational culture, and thus, due to a long established hierarchical system and expected obedience, these concepts, much like the concept of power obedience, are no longer overtly questioned (Focault, 1977), because they have been accepted as part of the organisational culture; one of the added “features of the package”. From aforementioned research, it can be assumed that politics, good or bad, plays a major role in change and how it is managed. However, in order for change to happen, sometimes, the change agent may need to use politics to make the task easier, more beneficial or make the transition smoother (Soulsby & Clark, 2013), and for this to take place, a certain leverage of status or authority is usually necessary. Thus, it is likely that power and politics play vital roles to any change process and management.
Perhaps, one of the better lenses through which to appreciate the importance of these concepts, is through Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, written around 1513. His work paved a critical path for understanding power and modern politics (Cunha et al, 2013), and indeed today, a Machiavellian perspective of organisational culture is widely known and valued, because it follows practical strategies that effectively allow change makers and leaders to maintain the workplace environment. Machiavelli’s work is vital in addressing the pertinent question: are politics and power needed to manage change? In his work, Machiavelli discussed how governments actually work, rather than presenting an ideal framework of how they should work. This is important, because he suggested harsh realities about failed leadership and the misuse of power (Machiavelli, 1961; Cunha et al, 2013).
To put this into perspective in relevance to the modern world, much of the change implemented by modern leaders can either be ineffective, or dismissed by negative politics. Thus, change management becomes dirty and complex (Cunha et al, 2013). From this approach, it can be suggested that the use of power and politics is necessary to bring about new change or manage an existing execution of change, regardless of whether it is considered good and effective, or not.
As a further response to the aforementioned question, without a person in authority (power), using tactics and strategies to establish a goal or agenda (politics), change is difficult. However, the limitation to this approach is that whilst many of Machiavelli’s ideas are still relevant to the modern world, his work is centred around 15th century Italy, where the economic and environmental state of the country was extremely poor, and it could be assumed that some of his solutions were extreme, albeit appropriate, to the circumstances. Thus, his work can merely be a rough guide to enable leaders and change makers, but it cannot be completely relied upon.
Pfeffer (2010) argued that power can be and is often essential to do both good and bad things, but especially good, because a higher status or level of authority is usually required to bring about change that can be used to attain shared goals (Cunha et al, 2013). However, it is also argued that having a positive agenda and being in a position of power may sometimes not be enough to manage change; it is also important to be realistic and acknowledge the existence of both sides of politics, along with the people who may misuse their power for their personal benefits. Machiavelli observed that change strategizing is done within the context of existing power relations and thus, being oblivious to the power dynamics may negatively impact the change agenda, or the management of change (Cunha et al, 2013; Machiavelli, 1961). Research also suggests that this obliviousness may reduce the motivation of the drivers/enablers of organisational change, which might ultimately lower the overall commitment of the employees (McGuire & Hutchings, 2006). However, a limitation to both concepts, is the negative implications of Machiavelli’s ideas; not only have organisations in the past taken and abused the ideas put forward, but the concepts themselves emphasise certain viewpoints that may be perceived as too extreme and can be harmful to the workplace environment.
ConclusionThrough the aforementioned research, one might conclude that politics and power play major roles in creating and managing change, and rarely do organisations fully function without the effect of them in the organisational culture. However, it is important to acknowledge that the implications of the two concepts may not always have a positive or beneficial outcome. Research has previously suggested that there is a relatively high probability of negative politics and the misuse of power and control (Cacciattolo, 2015). This can lead to lack of trust between employees and their seniors, which as a result, could impact the group dynamics. Additionally, it could suggest to lower levels of job satisfaction and organisational commitment, and increased levels of stress (Bedi & Schat, 2013); especially for those who either choose not to, or do not have the skills to “play the game”. There are several other drawbacks to using politics and power to manage change, and they have been articulately observed in both theory and real-life scenarios. Furthermore, due to popular pre-conceived notions, power play and organisational politics have been regarded with a bad name. It is, nonetheless, essential to re-iterate that, whilst these concepts play major roles in change management, change is not limited to them.
It is dependent on various factors, including the leadership, the overall motivation and commitment of the employees and team, etc. Power and politics, much like change itself, are inevitable. In an ideal sense, it can be assumed that organisations would run smoother, and change management would be easier if there were no politics involved and one’s authority in the organisation would be used simply to improve their work, and boost the motivation of their colleagues. In reality, however, this may not always be the case. Ward (1994) argues that generally, one should avoid being political because it could potentially sacrifice professional integrity, but comparatively, Mangham (1979) argued that every individual would have a certain perspective of their role in the organisation and it should be considered reasonable for them to fight for what they believe in, and ultimately both political and power tactics can be used to endorse individual as well as organisational interests (Buchanan, 1999).
It is important to note that power and politics may not always be pleasant and liked by all, but they are still very much existent and a part of daily organisational culture, and they are necessary to create and manage change.