The Role of Power and Politics

Introduction

This paper explores the role that power and politics plays in organisations. The specific objectives of this paper include defining the concepts of power and politics in the workplace, exploring how a manager could work to become politically active, exploring how a manager could acquire power in the workplace, the impact of power and politics in organisations, and the ethical implications of power and politics in organisations.

The Concept of Power in the Workplace

There are numerous definitions of power in the workplace. For Abernethy and Vagnoni (2004), power refers to an individual’s capacity to influence other’s behaviour in a way that other people act or behave in a manner that they do not usually do. Another definition of power in the workplace has been provided by Brennan and Castles (2002), who perceived power as the ability to influence behaviour. A similar definition of power was provided by Culpepper (2010), who defined power in the workplace as the capacity of a group or a person to influence the outcome of any given situation in order to ensure that they access the desired and scarce resources within an organisation. From the different definitions of power in the workplace provided by various authors, it is evident that power in the workplace relates to the ability of an individual, group of people or a unit in an organisation to influence other individuals in the workplace in order to achieve desired outcomes (Ferris et al. 2007). In this case, the underlying inference is that power relates to the capability and capacity of influencing others in an organisation; however, this influence is directed towards achieving goals and desired outcomes of those holding power. In the workplace context, power is characterised by being able to influence others by making them to do what, when and how a power holder desires to be done.

The Concept of Politics in the Workplace

In its broad sense, politics involves mobilizing power. Many definitions of politics in the workplace have been provided by various authors. For instance, Haslam (2004) perceives politics in the workplace as self-serving behaviours primarily for individual gain at the expense of an organisation as a whole and other people within an organisation. Koh (2003) perceives politics in the workplace as a process involving negotiations and bargaining in order to address conflicts as well opinion differences. Workplace politics is influenced by people, groups and departments within organisations while competing in accessing valued and scarce resources. Power is different from politics in the sense that politics entails the actual exercising of the influence on departments or individuals in order to achieve desired outcomes and influence workplace decisions (Mann 2012). Politics in the workplace manifest itself in organisational settings characterized by high uncertainty and disagreement with regard to resource allocation and goals. Other contributors of politics in the workplace include management succession and structural change in an organisation.

Politics in the workplace is conventionally perceived as being deleterious; as a result, many workplaces have efforts aimed at prohibiting their employees from exhibiting political behaviour (Mitchell & Moore 2012). Some of political tactics that people within an organisation use to increase their individual power include tapping sources of divisional and functional power; making sure that one controls the agenda; establishment of alliances and coalitions within the workplace; and recognition of centres of power or power holders within an organisation. Political behaviour among employees is exhibited through activities that are not prescribed as one’s formal role in a firm. Political behaviour in the workplace comprise of two categories including legitimate political behaviour and illegitimate political behaviour. Legitimate political behaviour comprises of normal daily politics whereas illegitimate political behaviour comprises of the extreme political behaviours that breaches the established formal and informal rules within an organisation (Murray 2006).

How a Manager Could Work to Acquire Power in the Workplace

In order for a manager to acquire power in the workplace, it is imperative to identify various sources of power in the workplace, which include legitimate power, coercive power, expert power, informational power, reward power, connection power and referent power. Legitimate power is characterized by an individual in higher position in the workplace having control over other people in lower organisational levels (Pease 2002). Legitimate power is sometimes referred to as a bestowed form of power. By default, a manager in an organisation has legitimate power in the sense that the authority bestowed is needed in the organisational decision process, which implies that a manager is at a position of issuing orders to subordinates, who are expected to adhere to commands or orders issued by a manager. Therefore, establishing legitimate power should be least prioritized by managers seeking to acquire power (Abernethy & Vagnoni 2004). As a result, they have to embark on building other earned forms of power mentioned above. Coercive power entails using threats and forces to influence others. Coercive power has been established to be ineffective in winning loyalty and respect from employees in the long-term. As a result, managers seeking to acquire power should refrain from using coercive power. Informational power is characterized by an individual being in possession of the needed information. Informational power is considered to be a short-term power that neither guarantees credibility nor influence. As a result, in the short-term, managers can rely on informational power; however, this ought not to be in their plan to acquire power in the long-term and in a sustainable power (Brennan & Castles 2002). Expert power can be acquired by developing expertise or knowledge in a specific area. Organisations usually value people with expert power, because of their problem solving skills; as a result, they are usually perceived to be indispensable. Decisions, ideas and opinions of individuals with expert power are usually perceived to be valuable by other employees; thus, it can have a significant influence on their actions (Culpepper 2010). According to Vigoda-Gadot and Drory (2006), having expert power is usually considered to be a stepping stone to acquiring other forms of power like legitimate power. Reward power is acquired from an individual’s ability to influence how incentives such as promotions, appraisals and salary increments are allocated within an organisation. People having reward power are in a position to influence behaviours and actions of employees (Van Gramberg 2005). Reward power can be used appropriately to motivate employees. Referent power can be acquired from the building interpersonal relationships with other employees in the workplace. People having reference power receive respect and loyalty from other members in an organisation. Van Gramberg (2005) asserts that referent power can be built from charisma and personal connections with people at higher organisational levels. Referent power has been branded as most important form of power in the workplace. From the above mentioned sources and forms of power, a manager has to determine the most appropriate form of power to develop based on the workplace settings. For instance, a manager in a technical department may find expert power to be crucial whereas a person in the Human Resource Department may find reward power necessary in influencing others (Turner 2005).

Another approach that a manager can use to acquire power in the workplace is through disseminating power (Robbins et al. 2011). This is achieved by decentralizing the positions of authority, which plays a significant role in reducing the anxiety associated with bestowed power. In a decentralized power system, employees tend to work independently and make decisions on their own without necessarily consulting a manager owing to the fact that each employee feels a sense of ownership with regard to the vision of an organisation (Koh 2003). Decentralization of power as a means of consolidating power is analogous to empowerment, which takes place through the delegation of authority to subordinates with regard to making decisions and problem solving. Decentralization can be used to acquire power since it increases the total amount of power that is available within an organisation (Haslam 2004). Another approach that can be used to decentralize power in an organization is through the use of shared leadership. Shared leadership involves team leadership that is exercised by at least one appointed leader. Essentially, this form of leadership can be used to galvanise power at the team level (Robbins et al. 2011).

How a Manager Could Work to Become Politically Active

For managers to be successful, their power has to be invisible. As a result, employee participation has to be derived from commitment rather than as a result of a manager exercising his/her power. For managers seeking to be politically active, they have the challenge of cultivating moral political power and influencing other people in an organisation without necessarily corrupting their own values (Rodney, Ariadne & Cook 2012). As mentioned before, politics in the workplace has been traditionally perceived to have deleterious impacts on an organisation. As a result, it is prudent for managers to be politically active in order to manage politics in the workplace so that they turn out to be healthy. The first approach that a manager can adopt to become politically active is to place emphasis on activities that promote a healthy political environment rather than embarking on eradicating or reducing politics within the workplace. This helps in improving knowledge and information flows as well as organisational performance. To this end, a manager must allow employees to expose and articulate issues facing them including their frustrations and engage with employees transparently. Second, it is imperative for managers to support employee behaviour and align responsibilities, goals and interests among organisational members (Vigoda-Gadot & Drory 2006). Lastly, a manager can become politically active by empowering subordinates to take part in decision-making; consequently, this plays a significant role in breaking and preventing political feuds in an organisation. Delegating power offers an ideal platform for managers to be politically active in the activities taking place within an organisation. According to Koh (2003), when delegation is properly implemented with integrity, empowering employees using delegation can play a significant role in building a solid base through which a manager can establish powerful allies, which motivate to work towards an organisation’s interest.

Impacts of Power and Politics in an Organisation

Power and politics are unavoidable aspects in organisational life. The main challenge for organisations is to make sure that politics and power are used in a way that results in positive outcomes for an organisation. In all organisations, the impact of politics and power is determined by the manner in which employees utilize the positive or negative power in influencing their colleagues (Koh 2003). Politics directly influences an individual welding the power as well as the overall organisational workplace culture. Positive forms of power entail encouraging workplace productivity through giving employees the authority to make their own decisions, and providing high performing employees with rewards and incentives (Culpepper 2010). Positive power can be used in building employees’ confidence and motivating them. Employees who are capable of navigating organisational politics tend to be more productive. As a result, encouraging productivity requires organisations to establish a political culture that employees can easily understand such as developing precise chains of command and policies. On the other hand, there are negative forms of power that have detrimental impacts on an organisation. For instance, coercive power that is derived from punishments and disrespecting subordinates may lessen employee motivation and result in higher employee turnover. Negative workplace politics have been found to contribute significantly towards workplace conflict and negativity. In addition, it encourages employees to exhibit unethical and dishonest behaviour in order to progress. Favouritism may also have a negative effect on the quality of work (Haslam 2004).

Ethical Implications of Power and Politics in Organisations

Organisations comprise of informal and formal set of laws that coordinate and govern the actions of various people within an organisation. The key challenge that many organisations grapple with relates to making sure that employees having different understandings, specific interests and diverse backgrounds obey the established organisational rules (Culpepper 2010). Addressing this challenge requires dealing with the fine line that exists between ethics and power. Politics and power in organisations is usually linked with dirty tactics adopted ill minded individuals pursuing their own personal agenda (Culpepper 2010). Despite the fact that a personal agenda may be a characteristic of organisational politics and power, it can be implemented with integrity, which can prove to be a crucial source of legitimate power.

Conclusion

Power in the workplace relates to the ability of an individual, group of people or a unit in an organisation to influence other individuals in the workplace in order to achieve desired outcomes whereas politics involves mobilizing power. Workplace politics is influenced by people, groups and departments within organisations while competing in accessing valued and scarce resources. Politics in the workplace is conventionally perceived as being deleterious. A manager should determine the most appropriate form of power to develop based on the workplace settings and disseminating power through delegation. Managers can become politically active by placing emphasis on activities that promote a healthy political environment rather than embarking on eradicating or reducing politics within the workplace and empowering subordinates to take part in decision-making.

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