Politics: Power in Action
When people get together in groups, power will be exerted. People want to carve out
a niche from which to exert influence, earn rewards, and advance their careers.
When employees in organizations convert their power into action, we describe them
as being engaged in politics. Those with good political skills have the ability to use
their bases of power effectively.49
Source: D. Crampton, “Is How Americans Feel about Their Jobs Changing?”
(September 28, 2012), http://corevalues.com/employee-motivation/is-how-americansfeel-about-their-jobs-changing.
Definition of Organizational Politics
There is no shortage of definitions of organizational politics. Essentially, this type of
politics focuses on the use of power to affect decision making in an organization, or
on self-serving and organizationally unsanctioned behaviors.50 For our purposes,
political behavior in organizations consists of activities that are not required as part of
an individual’s formal role but that influence, or attempt to influence, the distribution
of advantages and disadvantages within the organization.51
Activities that are not required as part of a person’s formal role in the organization
but that influence, or attempt to influence, the distribution of advantages and
disadvantages within the organization.
This definition encompasses what most people mean when they talk about
organizational politics. Political behavior is outside specified job requirements. It
requires some attempt to use power bases. It includes efforts to influence the goals,
criteria, or processes used for decision making. Our definition is broad enough to
include varied political behaviors such as withholding key information from decision
makers, joining a coalition, whistleblowing, spreading rumors, leaking confidential
information to the media, exchanging favors with others in the organization for
mutual benefit, and lobbying on behalf of or against a particular individual or
The Reality of Politics
Interviews with experienced managers show that most believe political behavior is a
major part of organizational life.52 Many managers report some use of political
behavior is both ethical and necessary, as long as it doesn’t directly harm anyone else.
They describe politics as a necessary evil and believe someone who never uses
political behavior will have a hard time getting things done. Most also indicate they
had never been trained to use political behavior effectively. But why, you may
wonder, must politics exist? Isn’t it possible for an organization to be politics free? It’s
Photo 13-4 Whistleblower Michael Woodford was fired from his position as CEO of
Japan’s camera-maker Olympus after informing company officials about accounting
irregularities. Although not part of his role as CEO, Woodford engaged in the political
behavior of whistleblowing that uncovered a 13-year accounting fraud by some
Source: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.
Organizations are made up of individuals and groups with different values, goals, and
interests.53 This sets up the potential for conflict over the allocation of limited
resources, such as departmental budgets, space, project responsibilities, and salary
adjustments.54 If resources were abundant, then all constituencies within the
organization could satisfy their goals. But because they are limited, not everyone’s
interests can be satisfied. Furthermore, gains by one individual or group are often
perceived as coming at the expense of others within the organization (whether they
are or not). These forces create real competition among members for the
organization’s limited resources.
Maybe the most important factor leading to politics within organizations is the
realization that most of the “facts” used to allocate the limited resources are open to
interpretation. What, for instance, is good performance? What’s an adequate
improvement? What constitutes an unsatisfactory job? One person’s “selfless effort to
benefit the organization” is seen by another as a “blatant attempt to further one’s
interest.” 55 The manager of any major league baseball team knows a .400 hitter is a
high performer and a .125 hitter is a poor performer. You don’t need to be a baseball
genius to know you should play your .400 hitter and send the .125 hitter back to the
minors. But what if you have to choose between players who hit .280 and .290? Then
less objective factors come into play: fielding expertise, attitude, potential, ability to
perform in a clutch, loyalty to the team, and so on. More managerial decisions
resemble the choice between a .280 and a .290 hitter than between a .125 hitter and a
.400 hitter. It is in this large and ambiguous middle ground of organizational life—
where the facts don’t speak for themselves—that politics flourish (see Exhibit 13-2).
A behavior one person labels as “organizational politics” is very likely to seem like
“effective management” to another. The fact is not that effective management is
necessarily political, although in some cases it might be. Rather, a person’s reference
point determines what he or she classifies as organizational politics. For example, one
experimental study showed that power-oriented behavior performed by a permanent,
tenured employee is seen as more legitimate and less harsh than the same behavior
performed by a temporary employee. Take a look at the following labels used to
describe the same phenomenon. These suggest that politics, like beauty, is in the eye
of the beholder.
“Effective Management” Label
1. Blaming others
2. “Kissing up”
Developing working relationships
3. Apple polishing
4. Passing the buck
5. Covering your rear
6. Creating conflict
Encouraging change and innovation
7. Forming coalitions
Competent and capable
Attentive to detail
Exhibit 13-2 Politics Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Identify the causes and consequences of political behavior.
Not all groups or organizations are equally political. In some organizations, for
instance, politicking is overt and rampant, while in others politics plays a small role in
influencing outcomes. Why this variation? Recent research and observation have
identified a number of factors that appear to encourage political behavior. Some are
individual characteristics, derived from the unique qualities of the people the
organization employs; others are a result of the organization’s culture or internal
environment. Exhibit 13-3 illustrates how both individual and organizational factors
can increase political behavior and provide favorable outcomes (increased rewards
and averted punishments) for both individuals and groups in the organization.
At the individual level, researchers have identified certain personality traits, needs,
and other factors likely to be related to political behavior. In terms of traits, we find
that employees who are high self-monitors, possess an internal locus of control, and
have a high need for power are more likely to engage in political behavior.56 The high
self-monitor is more sensitive to social cues, exhibits higher levels of social
conformity, and is more likely to be skilled in political behavior than the low selfmonitor. Because they believe they can control their environment, individuals with
an internal locus of control are more prone to take a proactive stance and attempt to
manipulate situations in their favor. Not surprisingly, the Machiavellian personality—
characterized by the will to manipulate and the desire for power—is comfortable
using politics as a means to further his or her self-interest.
In addition, an individual’s investment in the organization, perceived alternatives,
and expectations of success influence the degree to which he or she will pursue
illegitimate means of political action.57 The more a person expects increased future
benefits from the organization, the more that person has to lose if forced out and the
less likely he or she is to use illegitimate means. The more alternative job
opportunities an individual has—due to a favorable job market or the possession of
scarce skills or knowledge, a prominent reputation, or influential contacts outside the
organization—the more likely that individual is to risk illegitimate political actions.
Finally, an individual with low expectations of success from illegitimate means is
unlikely to use them. High expectations from such measures are most likely to be the
province of both experienced and powerful individuals with polished political skills
and inexperienced and naïve employees who misjudge their chances.
Although we acknowledge the role individual differences can play, the evidence more
strongly suggests that certain situations and cultures promote politics. Specifically,
when an organization’s resources are declining, when the existing pattern of
resources is changing, and when there is opportunity for promotions, politicking is
more likely to surface.58 When organizations downsize to improve efficiency,
resources must be reduced, and people may engage in political actions to safeguard
what they have. But any changes, especially those that imply significant reallocation
of resources within the organization, are likely to stimulate conflict and increase
politicking. The opportunity for promotions or advancement has consistently been
found to encourage competition for a limited resource as people try to positively
influence the decision outcome.
Source: REUTERS/Robert Pratta.
Cultures characterized by low trust, role ambiguity, unclear performance evaluation
systems, zero-sum reward allocation practices, democratic decision making, high
pressures for performance, and self-serving senior managers will also create breeding
grounds for politicking.59 The less trust within the organization, the higher the level
of political behavior and the more likely it will be of the illegitimate kind. So, high
trust should suppress political behavior in general and inhibit illegitimate actions in
Role ambiguity means the prescribed employee behaviors are not clear. There are,
therefore, fewer limits to the scope and functions of the employee’s political actions.
Because political activities are defined as those not required as part of the employee’s
formal role, the greater the role ambiguity, the more employees can engage in
unnoticed political activity.
Performance evaluation is far from a perfect science. The more organizations use
subjective criteria in the appraisal, emphasize a single outcome measure, or allow
significant time to pass between the time of an action and its appraisal, the greater the
likelihood that an employee can get away with politicking. Subjective performance
criteria create ambiguity. The use of a single outcome measure encourages individuals
to do whatever is necessary to “look good” on that measure, but that often occurs at
the cost of good performance on other important parts of the job that are not being
appraised. The longer the time between an action and its appraisal, the more unlikely
it is that the employee will be held accountable for political behaviors.
Myth or Science? “Powerful Leaders Keep Their (Fr)Enemies Close”
This statement appears to be true.
We all have heard the term “frenemies” to describe friends who are also rivals or
people who act like friends but secretly dislike each other. Some observers have
argued that frenemies are increasing at work due to the “abundance of very close,
intertwined relationships that bridge people’s professional and personal lives.”
Keeping enemies close may be one reason Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton
secretary of state after their bitter battle for the presidency. Or, in the business world,
why one entrepreneur decided not to sue a former college classmate who, after
working for her startup as a consultant, took that knowledge and started his own,
competing company with the first company.
Is it really wise to keep your enemies close? And, if so, why?
New research suggests answers to these questions. This research conducted three
experimental studies where individuals chose to work in the same room with the
rival, even when instructed that they would probably perform better apart; to sit
closer to rivals when working together; and to express an explicit preference to be
closer to the rival. The researchers further found that the primary reason for the
“being closer” effect was the desire to monitor the behavior and performance of the
The researchers also found that the “keeping enemies closer” effect was strong under
certain conditions—when the individual was socially dominant, when the individual
felt more competition from the team member, and when rewards and ability to serve
as leader were dependent on their performance.
These results suggest that the concept of frenemies is very real and that we choose to
keep our rivals close so we can keep an eye on the competition they provide.
Sources: M. Thompson, “How to Work with Your Startup Frenemies,” VentureBeat
(December 22, 2012), downloaded May 9, 2013, from http://venturebeat.com/; andN.
L. Mead and J. K. Maner, “On Keeping Your Enemies Close: Powerful Leaders Seek
Proximity to Ingroup Power Threats,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
102 (2012), pp. 576–591.
The more an organization’s culture emphasizes the zero-sum or win–lose approach to
reward allocations, the more employees will be motivated to engage in politicking.
The zero-sum approach treats the reward “pie” as fixed, so any gain one person or
group achieves has to come at the expense of another person or group. If $15,000 in
annual raises is to be distributed among five employees, any employee who gets more
than $3,000 takes money away from one or more of the others. Such a practice
encourages making others look bad and increasing the visibility of what you do.
Finally, when employees see the people on top engaging in political behavior,
especially doing so successfully and being rewarded for it, a climate is created that
supports politicking. Politicking by top management in a sense gives those lower in
the organization permission to play politics by implying that such behavior is
How Do People Respond to Organizational Politics?
Trish loves her job as a writer on a weekly television comedy series but hates the
internal politics. “A couple of the writers here spend more time kissing up to the
executive producer than doing any work. And our head writer clearly has his
favorites. While they pay me a lot and I get to really use my creativity, I’m sick of
having to be on alert for backstabbers and constantly having to self-promote my
contributions. I’m tired of doing most of the work and getting little of the credit.” Are
Trish’s comments typical of people who work in highly politicized workplaces? We
all know friends or relatives who regularly complain about the politics at their job.
But how do people in general react to organizational politics? Let’s look at the
In our earlier discussion in this chapter of factors that contribute to political behavior,
we focused on the favorable outcomes. But for most people—who have modest
political skills or are unwilling to play the politics game—outcomes tend to be
predominantly negative. Exhibit 13-4 summarizes the extensive research (mostly
conducted in the United States) on the relationship between organizational politics
and individual outcomes.60 Very strong evidence indicates, for instance, that
perceptions of organizational politics are negatively related to job satisfaction.61 The
perception of politics also tends to increase job anxiety and stress, possibly because
people believe they may be losing ground to others who are active politickers or,
conversely, because they feel additional pressures from entering into and competing
in the political arena.62 Politics may lead to self-reported declines in employee
performance, perhaps because employees perceive political environments to be
unfair, which demotivates them.63 Not surprisingly, when politicking becomes too
much to handle, it can lead employees to quit.64
When employees of two agencies in a study in Nigeria viewed their work
environments as political, they reported higher levels of job distress and were less
likely to help their co-workers. Thus, although developing countries such as Nigeria
are perhaps more ambiguous and more political environments in which to work, the
negative consequences of politics appear to be the same as in the United States.65
Researchers have also noted several interesting qualifiers. First, the politics–
performance relationship appears to be moderated by an individual’s understanding of
the “hows” and “whys” of organizational politics. “An individual who has a clear
understanding of who is responsible for making decisions and why they were selected
to be the decision makers would have a better understanding of how and why things
happen the way they do than someone who does not understand the decision-making
process in the organization.”66 When both politics and understanding are high,
performance is likely to increase because the individual will see political actions as an
opportunity. This is consistent with what you might expect among individuals with
well-honed political skills. But when understanding is low, individuals are more
likely to see politics as a threat, which can have a negative effect on job
Second, political behavior at work moderates the effects of ethical leadership.68 One
study found that male employees were more responsive to ethical leadership and
showed the most citizenship behavior when levels of both politics and ethical
leadership were high. Women, on the other hand, appear most likely to engage in
citizenship behavior when the environment is consistently ethical and apolitical.
Third, when employees see politics as a threat, they often respond with defensive
behaviors —reactive and protective behaviors to avoid action, blame, or change.69
(Exhibit 13-5 provides some examples of these behaviors.) And defensive behaviors
are often associated with negative feelings toward the job and work environment. 70 In
the short run, employees may find that defensiveness protects their self-interest, but
in the long run it wears them down. People who consistently rely on defensiveness
find that, eventually, it is the only way they know how to behave. At that point, they
lose the trust and support of their peers, bosses, employees, and clients.
Reactive and protective behaviors to avoid action, blame, or change.
Overconforming. Strictly interpreting your responsibility by saying things like “The
rules clearly state …” or “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
Buck passing. Transferring responsibility for the execution of a task or decision to
Playing dumb. Avoiding an unwanted task by falsely pleading ignorance or inability.
Stretching. Prolonging a task so that one person appears to be occupied—for example,
turning a two-week task into a 4-month job.
Stalling. Appearing to be more or less supportive publicly while doing little or
Buffing. This is a nice way to refer to “covering your rear.” It describes the practice of
rigorously documenting activi ...
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