This paper explores the “ lived experience” of organizational politics from the standpoint of the change agent. While political behavior appears inevitably to accompany organizational change, the literature of change manage ment seems to adopt an ambivalent approach to this area. The literature of organizational politics, on the other hand, identifies power bases, and offers prescriptive lists of “ power tactics” without explaining how these are deployed in the context of driving, shaping, influencing, or implementing change.
How do change agents become engage d in political activity, what forms does this take, and can these actions withstand public scrutiny? This paper is based on qualitative, idiographic accounts drawn from five interviews from a pilot study designed to develop a research methodology for advancing understanding of the shaping role of political behavior in organizational change.
The case illustrations presented sugge st that political behavior is an accepted rather than an objectionable dimension of the change agency role; that change agents are drawn into political behavior by a combination of organizational and interpersonal factors; that political behavior can serve organizational goals (such as protection of a change agenda) as well as personal career objectives; and that while specific actions may appear unacceptable when considered in isolation, political behavior is potentially defensible in context.
The definition of “political” here is the one used by respondents. This constructivist perspective reveals interpre tations inconsiste nt with negative definitions, e mphasizing the illegitimate and self-serving character of political behavior, which tend to dominate the literature. KEY WORDS: change age nts; organization development; organization politics; managing change. 1 2 De Montfort University, School of Business, Leicester LE1 9BH, England. The University of Wollongong, Department of Management Studies, Wollongong, New.
South Wales, Australia. (e-mail: [email protected] edu. au) 3 Requests for reprints should be addressed to David Buchanan, De Montfort University, School of Business, Bosworth House, Leicester LE1 9BH, England. (e-mail: d. [email protected] ac. uk) 609 0018-7267/99/0500-0609$16. 00/1 O 1999 The Tavistock Institute 610 Buchanan and Budham INTRODUCTION Interviewer: But many manage rs argue that organizational politics are a distraction, it’s not what they’re paid for, not part of the job? Manager : I would say bollocks to that.
I would say that people who get to those jobs only get to that level because , first, they are reasonably good at playing these games, and second, actually enjoy playing them. The people who fail at that level are, by-and-large, people who aren’t particularly good at playing and don’t understand. Conflict and resistance are pervasive feature s of organizational life. Markus (1983) identifies the trigge rs of what she describes as “the political variant ” in disputes over goals, value s, and appropriate solutions to organizational problems, and in the competition for scarce resources and valued power base s.
However, it may be assume d that, in most organizations, the prevale nce of political behavior is the norm rathe r than a variant. Organizational politics is often equated with the devious, the unde rhand, the cunning, and the manipulative. Political activity has thus been viewed by some as a field of “dirty tricks,” to be avoided and eradicate d, and not as an aspect of organizational behavior to be incorporate d systematically into theoretical perspectives. Where politics is recognized as critical, commentators typically restrict their remarks to generalized theoretical overviews, and to lists of “ power tactics.
” The focus of this paper lies with the political dimension of change age ncy. The change agent is here defined as any individual seeking to reconfigure an organization’s roles, responsibilities, structure s, outputs, processes, systems, technology, or other resource s. Significant reconfigurations invariably trigger conflict and resistance, both overt and covert, motivated by a blend of organizational conce rn and self-interest. Recognizing the politically motivated contributions of a plurality of individuals and groups moves discussion into the sphere of stake holder analysis.
Egan (1994) offers an entertaining list of the various stakeholder groups —fencesitters, allie s, bedfellows, loose cannons, the voiceless, opponents, adversarie s—who, he argue s, should be treated or managed differently. Those who seek to block or subvert change can be expected to resort on occasion to political tactics, potentially trigge ring a parallel response from those promoting change. T paraphrase Ashby’s (1964) cyberne tic o law of requisite variety, the behavior repertoire of the change agent may need to be as rich and diverse as the behavior repertoire s of those resisting change.
This paper seeks to explore the “ lived experience ” of organizational politics from the standpoint of the change age nt. How do change agents become engaged in political activity, what forms does this engageme nt take , and can these behaviors withstand public scrutiny? The paper argue s that approaches which emphasize the negative and self-serving dimensions of Politics and Organizational Change 611 political behavior are not faithful to the unde rstanding of change age nts. There are clear difficulties in bringing empirical data to such questions, given the sensitivities of disclosure.
Atte mpts to disguise organizations and actors can separate accounts from their history and context, making adequate interpretation proble matic. The most appropriate research designs are perhaps qualitative and idiographic, thereby impeding the development of generalizable propositions. In considering a limited sample of case material, the aim here, therefore , concerns analytical generalization to relevant theory and not statistical generalization to a wider population of change agents (Mitche ll, 1983; Bryman, 1988; Yin, 1994; Stake , 1994).
Power is conventionally defined as the capacity of individuals to exert their will over others. Politics, therefore , is the practical domain of power in action, worked out through the use of techniques of influence and other (more or less extreme) tactics. Mintzbe rg (1983, p. 172) argue s that, “Politics refers to individual or group behavior that is informal, ostensibly paroc hial, typically divisive , and above all, in the te chnical se nse , illegitimate —sanctioned neither by formal authority, accepted ideology, nor certified expertise (though it may exploit any of these).
” Mayes and Allen (1977) offe r a definition of political behavior base d on the lack of organizational sanction for both the means used and the ends being pursued. Drory and Romm (1990) identify three “ definition elements” which characterize political behavior. These include a situation conditioned by conflict and uncertainty, the use of covert nonjob-re lated means to pursue conceale d motive s, and self-serving outcomes acting against organizational goals. Political behavior is thus typically regarde d in negative terms. Zaleznik (1989) scathingly contrasts “ psychopolitics ” with “ real work.
” Stone (1997) offers a similarly one-sided account of the need to eradicate politics from organizational life. Othe r commentators, such as Burns (1966), Mangham (1979), and Kakabadse and Parker (1984) argue that organizational politics are central to a theoretical unde rstanding of change and to practical intervention in the change process. Pfeffe r (1992) points to the costs involved in addre ssing politics, and argue s also that attempts to marginalize key decisions and to encourage a “strong” culture of share d objectives stifles debate and creativity.
Change and uncertainty can heighte n the intensity of political behavior. Schon (1963) argues that “ champions of change ” can expect to encounter resistance to new ideas, and that political behavior is by implication desirable. Tushman (1977) obse rves that diversity of opinion, value s, beliefs, interpre tations, and goals in the context of organizational change inevitably triggers political behavior.
Frost and Egri (1991) similar argue that political behavior is not only inevitable in the context of organizational 612 Buchanan and Budham change but also necessary, in stimulating creativity and debate , and that such behavior should thus be viewed positively. THE REPRESSION OF POLITICS The literature of organizational change is fragmente d, and deals with political behavior from a range of stance s. The contextual/proce ssual approach to change (Pettigrew, 1973, 1985, 1987, 1988; Pettigrew, Ferlie, & McKee, 1992) explicitly recognizes the significance of political factors in implementing strate gic organizational change . Dunphy and Stace (1988, 1990) similar endorse the need for political action in particular change contexts.
However, commentators in this perspective (including Wilson, 1992) offer little guidance on the nature and consequences of political interventions, and have instead sought to distance their theore tical position from mundane practical concerns (Pettigre w & Whipp, 1991). One exception is Dawson (1994, 1996), whose practical guide lines from detailed processual analyses of change do extend to political issues, but are confined to the generalities of obtaining support and commitme nt of key individuals and groups, and to maintaining good communications.
The contextual/proce ssual perspective, however, in drawing attention to the nonline ar dynamic of change , to the political arenas in which decisions are made , and to the enabling and constraining characteristics of the substance and conte xt of change , may provide a useful platform for further detailed research into political agendas. Practitioners and researchers in the field of organization development (OD), in contrast, have sought to distinguish their perspective from political behavior, but in a manne r that is not wholly convincing.
In one “ mainstream” OD text, French and Bell (1995) devote ove r 20 pages to power and political issues. The OD practitioner is “ encouraged to learn as much as possible about bargaining, negotiations, the nature of power and politics, the strategy and tactics of influence, and the characte ristics and behaviours of powerholders ” (French & Bell, 1995, p. 318). However, these authors also emphasize the “normative-re-educative ” and “empirical-rational ” bases of OD, and deny the relevance of “ power-coercive ” strategies.
They note that: “ The role of the OD practitione r is that of a facilitator, catalyst, problem solver, and educator. The practitione r is not a political activist or power broker ” (French & Bell, 1995, p. 313). Greiner and Schein (1988) appear to offe r a contrasting OD perspective, emphasizing the effective deployme nt of power. However, their argument rests on the distinction between positive and negative uses of power. They contrast “ the high road, ” in which power broke rs are led to deploy their resources and tactics in ways that are “ open and above board,” with “the low Politics and Organizational Change.
613 road ” where deceit, manipulation, and “political game s” are used to furthe r self-interest. Greiner and Schein thus reproduce the traditional distinction made by McClelland and Burnham (1976, 1995), between “socialized” and “unsocialize d” uses of power in organizations, arguing that successful managers deploy the forme r. Egan (1994) base s his prescriptions for “working the shadow side ” of organizational life on a distinction between institutionbuilding and empire-building politics, once again arguing for the benefits of the forme r and the damaging consequences of the latter.
This crude dichotomy can be seen as an attempt to bracke t a legitimate domain of political activity, allowing commentators to claim that their perspective confronts organizational realities, while discounting the legitimacy of “ dirty tricks,” “wheeler-dealing,” “backstaging,” and other dubious tactics. Early T avistock Institute works in sociote chnical systems thinking appear not to recognize organizational politics in their model building, or prescriptions (Rice, 1958, 1963; Emery, 1963; Trist et al. , 1963; Davis, 1966).
This genre has maintaine d a focus on the joint-optimization of the social and technical subsystems of the organization, deploying the technique of variance analysis to highlight the sources and resolution of proble ms, applying an enriched work design model that relies on the humanist psychology of Maslow (1943). The sociotechnical mode l of “responsible autonomy” (de Sitter, 1993) still lies at the heart of much contemporary prescription, including Lawler’s (1986) advocacy of “high involvement manage ment,” and Peters’ (1987) advocacy of self-managing teams.
In sociotechnical systems thinking, it has been axiomatic that participative organization design should be implemented in a participative manner. Cherns (1976, 1987) calls this the “ principle of compatibility,” claiming that participation cannot be developed autocratically. The dominant roles of the change driver are thus the “ therapist-facilitator ” (Klein, 1976) and the “non-authoritarian social engineer” (van Eijnatten, 1993).
The therapist has a restricted and instrume ntal role, in providing the knowledge and expertise necessary to “ensure free and informed choice ” and to “ensure internal commitment, ” rather than to prescribe solutions (Argyris, 1970). The role of the social engineer is to help with the “technical ” dimensions of proble m definition, the collection and analysis of information, and the use of tools such as variance analysis, “search confe rences” and “deep slice workshops ” to help an organization ’s members identify and implement their own chose n solutions.
These observations seem to be confirmed by van Eijnatten (1993) in a comprehensive review of sociotechnical systems thinking. The “proble ms of power” in this pe rspective are to be dealt with through “self-de sign by knowledge transfer. ” The concept of the change agent utilizing political tactics is anathema as it “will attack the main values of the socio-technical system de- 614 Buchanan and Budham sign paradigm,” because it involves “ unde mocratic processe s,” “because the learning process cannot take place properly,” and it “ produces the wrong values and re-establishe s an old culture ” (van Eijnatte n, 1995, personal communication).
The “right culture ,” from a managerial humanist perspe ctive, is one where individuals are treated as ends and not means, are offe red meaningful work, can develop their abilities, are treated with dignity and respect, and are able to exercise substantial control over events affecting them (Nord, 1978).
Managerial humanism, which sociotechnical systems thinking share s with othe r strands of manageme nt thought (OD, “ soft HRM,” “excellence,” “high performance systems,” “self-managing teams”), variously denies, represses or neglects the political dimension of organizational functioning in general, and of organizational change in particular. The failure to confront openly the political dimensions of change within the sociotechnical frame work has attracte d criticism from those with a practical appreciation of change agency.
Klein (1976, p. 5) argue s that the therapist? facilitator function fails to addre ss the realities of industrial proble m solving. She highlights the political age nda of the social scientist working in a context where power relationships influence key decisions, where commitme nt hinges on career interests, and where the supply and exchange of resources is a continuing feature of change implementation. Exploring trends in sociote chnical systems thinking, den Hertog (1995, p.16) note s that, “Although the involvement of a great deal of people is needed to arrive at a sound alternative, involvement and goodwill alone do not take us far.
That is what we have learned from the experiences with numerous work consultation and work restructuring experiments in the 1970s. Power plays an important role. ” Much of the now extensive literature on planne d organizational change cannot be classified within the contextual/proce ssual, organization development or sociote chnical systems genres, although there is much borrowing and intermingling of terminology and technique between these areas.
This domain includes, for example , the work of Waterman (1988) who offe rs eight “renewal factors ” for successful change; Kotter (1995) who also offe rs eight reasons why organizational transformations fail; Burnes (1992) who presents a nine-element approach to implementing strate gic change ; Eccles (1994) who identifies eight preconditions for effective change, and a 14point implementation checklist (including a “ hierarchy” of technique s for dealing with resistance , leading ultimate ly to “neutralization ” and “exit”); and Woodcock and Francis (1992) who present a 15-point checklist for the effective manage ment of change .
These various “ recipes” invariably recognize the significance of identifying “power broke rs,” and of obtaining where possible the support of influential individuals and groups. However, these factors are typically treated in a relatively superficial manner. The relation- Politics and Organizational Change 615 ship between the political and othe r ingre dients in the recipe is usually explore d through a stakeholde r analysis that fails to capture the complex and controversial dynamics of political activity (Mintzberg, 1994).
Within this genre, Ward (1994, p.143) argues with an air of finality that, “To ignore organizational politics when managing change is to fail. What then is the alternative ? Should one be political? The short answer is no. You should not be political. If you do become political, then professional integrity is sacrifice d. You are just anothe r silver-tongue d hustle r parading your wares while seeking to manipulate. This is the road to disaster. Politics does not add value. ” Hardy (1996), in sharp contrast, notes that political behavior provides a critical dynamic for organizational reconfiguration.
Kumar and Thibode aux (1990) similarly acknowledge and advocate the use of political strate gies in planne d organizational change . They identify three levels of change . First level change involves improving unit or department effectiveness. Second level change involves the introduction of new perspectives to organizational subsystems. Third level change concerns organizationwide shifts in values and ways of working. They argue that, while first and second level change s respectively require political awareness and political facilitation, third level change entails political intervention.
In other words, the more widespread the implications of organizational change, the greater the political involve ment required by the change agent. Intervention at this level involves stimulating debate, gaining support from key people, and covert manipulation. Kumar and Thibode aux admit that what they advocate may be regarde d as “ethically objectionable, ” pointing to the “distaste ful ” reality of organizational politics in their defense (p. 364). This last comment offers one reason for the relative neglect of political themes in relation to change.
Most organizations, and their members, perhaps do not regard disclosure of these topics as valuable corporate or personal publicity. Decisions are legitimated by visible evidence and rational argument, not by intrigue and wheeler-dealing. The scheming and manipulative dimension of organizational politics may concern maintaining an appearance of not “ playing politics” in the first place. Burns (1961) and March and Olsen (1983) point to the demarcate d public and private languages of organizational decision making.
In addition, the manage rial humanism which pervades manageme nt commentary preclude s critique of the politically constituted nature of the goals and behavior of organizational actors. The premise underlying this pape r, therefore, is that the change age nt becomes engage d of necessity in the exercise of power, politics, and interpersonal influence. This potentially moves the change age nt beyond traditional notions of the role —in what Bennis (1969) calls the “truth, trust, love and collaboration ” approach to change —into the murky domain of 616 Buchanan and Budham the political operator, or of “power-assiste d steering. ”
This is not a novel argume nt. It has long been recognized that the rational rules and procedure s of Weberian bure aucracy are regularly bent, broke n, ignored, and applied selectively in the interests of “getting things done ” and in the pursuit of interdepartme ntal rivalry (Merton, 1957; Blau, 1963; Gouldne r, 1964; Selznick, 1966; Perrow, 1970). Dalton (1959) reveale d manage rs working on two levels, one for the records and appe arance s, and one submerged.
Dalton (1959, p. 31) argued that manage rs are implicitly coached in the “ fitnesses of workable illegalities,” such as losing records when advantageous, manipulating accounts to fund secret operations, organizing informal favors, giving advance warning of inspections, nonre cording of accidents to improve the safety record, and guards on the gate s colluding in the removal of company goods. The conte mporary nature and implications of political intervention in organizational change, however, has attracted less attention and commentary.
Little seems to be known about the motives, conduct, mane uvering, tactics, “ power plays,” perceptions, and self-justifications of change agents at the level of lived experience. POWER PLAYS How do change age nts deal with what Bacharach and Lawler (1981, p. 7) describe as “compe titive tactical encounters? ” There is a rich organization research and management consultancy literature on power and political tactics. Martin and Sims (1964) point to the “ instinctive revulsion against the term power among managers in America,” but advocate a series of manage rial “ power tactics.
” McMurry (1973) offers advice to “the ambitious executive ” on how “ to gain and retain power by tactics that are in a large measure political and means that are, in part at least, Machiavellian. ” McClelland and Burnham (1976, 1995) argue that the need for power is a predictor of manage rial career success. Keen (1981) offers a discussion of the “counte r implementation ” and “counter-counter implementation ” tactics deployed in organizational settings involving information systems applications.
Kante r (1983) discusse s the “ power skills” required by the “change architect,” for establishing supportive coalitions and for blocking interfe rence. Buchanan and Boddy (1992) and Buchanan (1993a) similarly advise the change age nt to support the rational-line ar “ public performance ” of the implementation proce ss with “backstage behaviors” that involve the covert manipulation of language, relationships, and organization structure s.
Scott-Morgan (1995) develops an approach by which managers can discover “the unwritten rules of the game ” in their organization, to uncover dysfunctional rules affe cting behavior and performance, and thus to atte mpt Politics and Organizational Change 617 to redefine those rules. Von Zugbach (1995) identifies 13 “winner’s commandme nts” for manage rial success, including “say one thing and do another,” “get your retaliation in first,” and “othe r people ’s ideas of right and wrong do not apply to you. ” Rieple and Vyakarnam (1996) develop a model linking manage rial ruthlessne ss to organizational performance.
A numbe r of commentators reinforce the role of (overt and covert) interpersonal influence tactics, including Kipnis et al. (1984), Rosenfe ld, Giacalone, and Riordan (1995), Huczynski (1996), and Lambert (1996). However, the literature s of change manage ment have tended to neglect the use of political tactics in both theory construction and in prescription. While the skills and contributions of the social engine e r and therapist-facilitator have been explored at length, the role of change age nt as political operator is less well defined and unde rstood.
Failures in organizational change programs have been attribute d to a range of factors, such as inadequate attention to human and organizational issues (Long, 1987; McLoughlin & Clark, 1994; Preece, 1995), a misplaced focus on culture rathe r than results (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990; Schaffe r & Thomson, 1992), and to the political weakne ss of organizational coalitions supporting change (Perrow, 1983; Clegg, 1993). Failure to addre ss political issues, particularly in radical strategic change , may provide a further source of explanation here.
The following accounts are drawn from a pilot study designed to develop a research methodology for advancing understanding of the shaping role of political behavior in organizational change . Five senior managers with current major change implementation responsibilitie s (four male, one female) were recruited in their personal capacity to this study (Buchanan, 1993b). The organizational bases of these managers at the time of interview included a hospital, two local authoritie s, manageme nt consultancy, and a computer manufacturer.
Interviews were schedule-unstructure d, base d on 15 question which interviewees could address in their own preferred sequence. Questions covere d the use and illustrations of the term “political behavior,” the value of political skill to the individual, the contribution of politics to organizational change, and requests for specific examples in the respondent ’s experience. Interviews lasted one and a half hours and were tape-recorded, producing transcripts each around 10,000 words long.
Both authors of this paper have senior manage ment experience involving change implementation, and generate d their own accounts of political behavior in such settings. Individuals and organizations are not identified; more adequate accounts would have to offe r significantly detailed background and context information. Each account is produce d form the standpoint of the individual change agent. Obtaining accounts from related actors would, clearly, be proble matic, if fascinating. 618 Buchanan and Budham
The se accounts are limite d in pe rspe ctive , de tail, and re presentativeness, but serve to illustrate something of the phenomenological texture of the lived experience of organizational politics. The reporting across these accounts is uneven, as responde nts were invite d to disclose only what they felt comfortable to disclose in the circumstances. The first account comes from a freelance management consultant. The second is drawn from the experience of one of the authors in a university management conte xt. The third account is from an interview with a senior, female, hospital manager.
The final account comes from a senior manage r with a computer manufacturing company. Case 1: Managemen t Consultan t—What the Chief Executive Wants The annoying thing was, we got the assignment against stiff compe tition, because we didn’t want to sell any one particular solution. They were impre ssed by our flexibility. Borough council, wanted a review of their twenty year old officer and member organization structures. In fact they wanted us to present options, maybe simple, maybe radical, from which they could choose , within the constraint of a no redundancy policy.
We won the assignment in a presentation to [a policy and resources] sub-committee, mainly councillors, with a couple of senior officers present. The leader of our consulting team was an ex-colleague and friend of the council’s new chief executive. The following week, we were invited to a meeting with the chief executive, to launch the project, agree our liaison mechanisms, find a room to work in, and so on. We spent a couple of hours discussing the logistics, then he asked us if we would have some lunch, and sandwiches and stuff were trayed in.
However, as we were hoove ring this lot up, he produced a seven page docume nt, and gave the four of us copies. He worked through this, line by line for about an hour. This set out what he wanted to see in our final report. Some of this had been in the original brief for the assignment, set out in general terms, and here it was again with some specific recommendations and markers for action, concerning parts of the organization structure and named individuals in specific posts, which were not expected to survive the review.
We didn’t have such flexibility with our recommendations as we had thought. The project rolled out over that year, and our recommendations got firmed up as we collected more information. Basically, this was an autocratically managed, hierarchical, rigid, bureaucratic organization, with lots of time and money wasted on unne cessary procedure s and rule-following, and with poor staff morale. So our recommendations were going to be about cutting hierarchy, empowering people, changing the manageme nt Politics and Organizational Change
619 style , making proce dure s more flexible , ge tting decisions take n more quickly, and the chief executive was behind all this. The main client was the subcommittee to which we reporte d, about every quarter. But not before the chief executive had at his request seen an advance copy of the report, commented on it and suggested changes. Quite reasonable , as he would be directly affe cted by any recommendations about the structure , and also saw himself as a client for our services. This put us in an awkward position.
We knew his thinking, and other manage rs would ask us about that, and we had to fudge answers like, “that’s one of the issues still under conside ration. ” This also meant we had to build his ideas into our reports, finding some rationale for supporting them, which was important because if questions came up in committe e, we would have to explain and defend the point, although he might chip in and voice some agree ment with and sympathy for our view from time to time. Then we started getting bother from one of the councillors, saw himself as an expert in organization theory.
He came up with a proposal for a matrix structure with multidisciplinary team working. The team working was our idea too, partly to address some communications problems. But the matrix wasn’t going to fit their busine ss. We got nowhere with the guy in the full committe e meeting, so two of us aske d him if we could meet him the next day, maybe ove r lunch, to kick this around. Turned out his concern was not with a matrix at all, b