The politics of organizational change

The Politics of Organizational Change (November 22, 2007)

By Benito L. Teehankee

The View From Taft, Business World

There’s always plenty of good ideas for change in organizations. Managers constantly argue for new products, new services, better linkages, new markets, etc. But the real challenge is implementation – making all of it happen. This all important ability to make things happen can be simply called power, and the way such power is wielded to gain advantages or avoid disadvantages is called politics. Organizational researchers have long pointed out that, when it comes to converting ideas to reality, considerations of power and politics become extremely important.

Unfortunately, power and politics are two concepts that remain relatively unexplored even in business schools. An MBA graduate would be lucky to have had a passing one-chapter discussion of power and politics in the organizational behavior course. Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School has been quoted as saying that “power is the organization’s last dirty secret”.

Why this discomfort with discussing such an important aspect of organizational reality? One reason could be the assumption of a “just world” among educated professionals who lull themselves into thinking that as long as they do their work right, deliver needed results and use the formal communication lines to correct any problems, the workplace merit system will take care of them and so they have all the power they need. Such “good soldiers” are disappointed to find out that colleagues who do half as good a job can get more organizational rewards as long as they remain in the favor of important authority figures. The sycophant (“sipsip” in the vernacular) is a popular though much maligned figure in literature (and a much-hated figure in the workplace) but gaining personal advantage by massaging the egos of bosses remains a tried and true political tactic -- strong proof that the organizational world can be anything but just, especially to the naive.

Another possible reason is the belief that power politics is the same as “dirty tricks” and is, therefore, a violation of the “rules of the game” for decent people. This is not necessarily the case. While the sycophancy of incompetents or the back-stabbing of seemingly forthright colleagues are ethically illegitimate, there are ways to legitimately practice power politics. Building coalitions within the organization for a worthwhile goal is one such practice. The 3M Post-It Note story showed how like-minded and persevering individuals can push for an idea despite scepticism and formal obstacles in their way.

Open advocacy (or its converse, conscientious objection) is another legitimate political practice. Advocacy is making one’s position in favor of an initiative known and being willing to engage anyone in reasonable debate about its merits or demerits. Conscientious objection is registering one’s dissent on a course of action being pursued by the majority of the organization. Taking positions on important matters is only to be expected from principled professionals and, while it can carry substantial career risk, it can also lead to innovative breakthroughs and vindication if played right. A colleague of mine has the knack for expressing the most difficult objections in a calm, positive but firm manner in meetings. As a result, even though not all her proposals are supported, she has accumulated a sterling reputation for integrity that garners support for her other innovative undertakings.

Organizational leaders need to create conditions which discourage illegitimate power politics while encouraging the legitimate variety. It may be easier to do this by neutralizing factors which cause illegitimate power politics. These include self-serving senior managers, low trust cultures and zero-sum (“I win only if you lose”) reward allocation practices. Senior managers who have an exaggerated belief in their wisdom and knowledge of a situation will often refuse to acknowledge or even resent thoughtful inputs from lower levels. To survive, organizational members cope by learning to say what such managers want to hear. The fable about the emperor with no clothes refers to this phenomenon.

Low trust and zero-sum practices breed destructive internal competition. They arise when leaders fail to communicate caring for those affected by changes and neglect to build constructive communication channels and opportunities for synergy between contending parties in an organization. For example, members threatened by loss of resources or status are tempted to resort to dragging their feet or sabotaging top management plans. Drops in morale and productivity in the organization predictably follows.

Organizational leaders and members alike have to face the realities of organizational power politics. More importantly, they must learn to use organizational power so that it serves and dignifies (rather than debases) them. Only then can organizational change be a positive force.