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Organizational Political Savvy

It is a fact of organizational life: politics influence virtually everything that happens in an organization. Leaders, especially change leaders, must develop political savvy. I am not advocating unethical behavior, but I am recommending that leaders consciously fine tune their political awareness.

In organizations, individuals and groups are continually vying for scarce resources. Each one is attempting to maintain or enhance its self interests. Many leaders and consultants underestimate these powerful forces.

Any attempt to implement organizational change will invariably threaten one of these individuals or groups. Organizational change is frequently accompanied by conflicting interests, unethical behavior, and emotional turmoil. Change leaders must learn to navigate these dangerous waters.

Power and Change

The word "power" has positive and negative connotations. In this chapter, we will concentrate on the positive, ethical uses of power. Burke (1982) believes "for change to occur in an organization, power must be exercised" (p.127).

Letís take a brief look at Richard Emerson's Power-Dependency Theory. Emerson's (1962) theory depicts a social relationship between two parties in which scarce resources (commodities and rewards) are controlled by one party and desired by another. Thus, power is inherent in any social relationship in which one person depends on another.

"Commodities" in power-dependency theory can include social commodities, such as respect, praise, influence, and information. French and Bell (1999) state, "We enter into and continue in exchange relationships when what we receive from others is equivalent to or in excess of what we must give to others" (p.284).

Bases of Power

Managers and consultants should be able to recognize the bases of power individuals, groups, and coalitions exert in organizations.

French and Raven (1959) suggest five bases of power:

1. reward power - based on the ability to reward another

2. coercive power - based on the ability to punish another

3. legitimate power - based on the holder's position

4. referent power - based on charisma (i.e. popularity)

5. expert power - based on knowledge or expertise

Mintzberg (1983) also speaks of five bases of power:

1. control of a critical resource

2. control of a critical technical skill

3. control of a critical body of knowledge

4. legal prerogatives (e.g., exclusive rights)

5. access to any of the other four bases

Additionally, Mintzberg believed the influencer must have both the "will and skill" to use his or her base(s) of power.

Salancik and Pfeffer (1977) also contribute some valuable insights into our understanding of power in organizational settings. They view power as a positive and necessary force for change and progress in organizations. They believe power bases can be created by the placement of allies in key positions.

Using Political/Power Skills

For change efforts to succeed, managers/change agents must develop and use power skills. The first skill required is the ability to analyze the current political situation. Failure in this assessment phase invariably leads to frustrated change efforts.

French and Bell (1999) believe, "one gains a quick understanding of the overall political climate of an organization by studying its methods of resource allocation, conflict resolution, and choosing among alternative means and goals" (p.286).

Greiner and Schein (1988) believe change agents must be able to assess their own power and to identify key stakeholders. Only after assessing their own power base(s) can they determine how to use it/them to influence others. This assessment will also reveal areas where enhancement of power is necessary. Some of these weak areas can be strengthened by developing allies in the organization.

Submitted by:

Mike Beitler

Dr. Mike Beitler is the author of "Strategic Organizational Change." Read 2 free chapters of the book online at http://www.strategic-organizational-change.com/




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