Organizational Politics – The Good, The Bad or The Ugly?
God’s master stroke was not in creating wo/man human continuum, but in letting be the human psyche as amorphous as it is – at least that is my understanding. What we have soon ceases to be inspirational, either we want more of what we have or what we do not have is usually the reason we exist. One ‘Siddhartha’ was not content with the comforts that a princely life could give, one ‘Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu’ thought that pain and misery she saw in the streets of Calcutta needed much more doing, someone called Adolf Hitler was not at ease by being a common foot soldier in the German Army. All of them have had immense impact in human history. Their legacies have different worth, no one will deny, no one will also deny that they aspired to be what they were not, their driving force was what they felt was lacking! What they had or what they thought was happening was just not sufficient to satisfy them – and hence their legacies, for better or for worse. ‘Santosham Paramm Sukham’ – its mentioned somewhere in our scriptures. The Chinese say that “He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” (Lao-Tzu). Despite, ‘santosham’ does not come as easily as one would wish and humanity has not known as yet what and when ‘enough’ is. This is human nature as I see it, and this is where I see its relevance to employees at work.
People come together to work, because this way they can achieve more; both individually as well as jointly, this is the brighter side of combined human endeavor. The lesser luminous side is that ‘more’ needs to be qualified, for it never seems to be enough. Following Maslow’s framework, that our basic needs are being more or less met is not sufficient, we want more, we engage ourselves in immensely complex human relation networks, both as a requirement of our work and as an innate human behavior. For some unexplained reasons this inevitable and in some cases self-invited complexity is not sufficient either, we want more, we want status and inevitably again; status is unevenly distributed, therefore, unfairly for some. Add to this the fact that humans are not rational animals but creatures that are excellent at rationalizing – we have humans aspiring for more and perhaps more significantly so with the knowledge that more is not abundant. Nearly all aspire for more; few, very few actually achieve the more and even for them it is but momentary. It is now that the means with which the more has been achieved is put into question; it is here that the question is raised: do the means used justify the ends achieved? In organizational context it is here that Organizational Politics finds the most fertile conditions to germinate and establish firm roots. Organizational politics can be viewed as intentional actions (either covert or overt) by individuals to promote and protect their self-interest, sometimes at the expense of and without regard for the wellbeing of others or their organizations (Rosen, Harris, & Kacmar, 2009). Office politics have been around since ancient times. Julius Caesar succumbed to them, so did many elites of our own country in our own history (the Kot Parva’s) and Aristotle told the Greeks: “Man is by nature a political animal.” Ignoring organizational politics is not likely to land a dagger in the back or a bullet in the head as in the past, but underestimating or ignoring it can/will lead to career fatalities
Given that human beings are excellent at rationalizing, always face scarcity; have to compete to fulfill desires for scarcity is omnipresent, given also that the norm to gauge self-worth is by how high and apart we stand from others rather than in terms of how many and who stand with us, given also our inability to accept that means could be just and fair, even when we are on the losing side; all collectively and inevitably cloak the perceptions of organizational politics with a diabolical façade. Negligible of us can consider ourselves untouched from organizational politics and still few of us can deny the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of it. Moreover, given that organizational politics can be understood in terms of what people think of it rather than what it actually represents, politics in organizations reflects organizational climate (Kim, 2004). Whatever else organizations may be (problem-solving instruments, sociotechnical systems, reward systems, and so on), they are political structures. Somehow, power and politics are dirty words (Zaleznik, 1970). Organizations demand, on the one hand, cooperative endeavor and commitment to common purposes. The realities of experience in organizations, on the other hand, show that conflicts of interest exist among people who ultimately share a common fate and are supposed to work together. What makes business more political and less ideological and rationalistic is the overriding importance of conflicts of interest (Zaleznik, 1970). An interesting aspect of organizational politics or its perception (OP or POP) is that any attempt to explore it leads to a common platform, the particular paths may differ but the direction in general is the same. Regardless of if OP is taken as a simple aggregated measures of influence tactics by employees or as a wider and more complex cognitive construct (Vigoda, 2001) OP/POP refers to (Belen & Lorbes, 2007):
a. Intentional behaviors that are designed to enhance or protect a person’s influence and self-interest.
b. In terms of self-interest, the management of influence to obtain ends not sanctioned by the organization.
c. As a necessary function, the art of creative compromise among competing interests.
d. Not automatically good or bad as it also serves a number of important functions like overcoming personnel inadequacies, coping with change, and substituting for formal authority.
Innate reflections within ourselves or purposive references to what the learned have said/stated/proved about OP/POP will lead us in the general direction of the following conclusions:
a. Three types of reactions of employees in a politically ‘abused’ organization (Bodla & Danish):
• Strong coalition such that overall organizational goals are neglected.
• Even those who are not a part of the coalition will ‘get along to get ahead’.
• Biasness in pay and promotion.
b. OP/POP is an indispensible construct of workplace dynamics (Vigoda, 2001).
c. OP/POP reflect fairness and justice levels inside work arena, therefore they have impact on organizational climate and a variety of work outcomes (Vigoda, 2001).
d. Political behavior may be perceived as positive or negative, negative political behaviors have detrimental effects on individuals and organization as such buffering their negative effects becomes crucial (Byrne, 2005).
e. Five outcomes of POP (Witt, Andrews, & Kacmar, 2000):
• Increased stress
• Reduced organizational commitment
• Intention to turnover
• Job dissatisfaction
• Lower job-performance.
f. Political behaviors are outside of accepted behavior; the specific political actions individuals take may be quite unpredictable (Witt, Kacmar, Carlson, & Zivnuska, 2002).
g. Activities that give rise to POP (back-stabbing, influence tactics and favoritism based employment decisions) often occur without concern for the welfare of the organization and co-workers, POP are often but not always perceived as harmful, divisive and pejorative (Rosen, Harris, & Kacmar, 2009)
Innate reflections and purposive references make it abundantly clear that OP/POP is one of the many ‘nerve centers’ that go on to have a substantial impact on the ultimate goal of making the work productive and at the same time the worker achieving. I personally opine that exponential advances have been made in trying to make the work productive and as one of evidences, I urge reference to the work of Fredrick Taylor and the Scientific Management School of thought and many others who followed, they have contributed so much that understanding how to shovel ore (or any work/task for that matter) is near perfection. On the other hand, what makes a wo/man want to happily shovel and let others do their shoveling, presumably happily, is the question whose answer has been elusive. The elusivity is despite the same level of effort if not more as has been expended in making the work productive. I also opine that this elusivity will not end with one magical moment of enlightment. OP/POP is a nerve center in attempting to make the worker achieving; the antecedents, the construct itself, and the consequences thereof is a chaotic mess at the moment, the only way out as I see to untangle this chaotic web is to isolate one nerve at a time and hope that others will follow, happily to ‘shovel on’ so to speak.
OP/POP has not been able to free itself, like so many other constructs in social science, from the paradox of so little in the midst of so much. I referred to OP/POP as being a nerve center as well as to a chaotic mess and had pleaded that the only way out is to take each nerve one at a time as we proceed to try and untangle it. What I have understood is that OP/POP is an organizational reality, that more often than not it is given a diabolical façade, that it does seem to have sensitive and yet very durable relations with such work outcomes as organizational commitment, job performance, citizenship behaviors, job stress and burnout, absenteeism, turnover-intentions and actual turnovers. I have also understood that this relationship between OP/POP & identified work outcomes is not virgin, but is impregnated by characteristics of the work (participation in decision making, fairness and justice with reference to distributive, procedural & interactional justice and work setting with reference to private vs public organizational settings), as well as characteristics of the worker (personality, gender, age, tenure) and the larger environment within which this courtship is happening (the broader cultural context of the country). This was the ‘so much’ part of the paradox that I mentioned in the beginning of the section; in what follows I will address the ‘so little’ side of the same paradox.
Invariably, from whatever literature review that I did, it seems that research efforts take OP/POP as given. All the intellectual exercise seems to begin post OP/POP. None have explained why OP/POP happens in the first place – none have addressed the antecedents of OP/POP. What I fail to understand is why there is such a dearthly void in our attempts to engage with the antecedents to mitigate the negativity which has come to be associated with OP/POP? I have been unable to convince myself that OP/POP is a beginning in itself. Let it not be thought that I am discrediting the prevalent approach of dealing/managing the consequences of OP/POP, to the contrary, I appeal that similar rigor and vigor in case of antecedents will add substantially to our attempts in minimizing the gaping void in our understanding of OP/POP and its consequences.
If we have erred on the antecedents’ side, I also see gaps on the way to consequents from OP/POP. The gap that I am referring to is the responses which employees may resort to before the stated consequents happen. Are not the various possible responses that employees might resort to fertile grounds for developing mechanisms to better deal with negativity associated with OP/POP. For instance reference has been made to General Political Behavior (GPB) and Get Along to Get Ahead (GATGA) as manifestations of OP/POP, I propose that research be undertaken so as to understand what can be done that GPB and GATGA or any other behavior response as yet unidentified serve as solid footing and prevent employees from slipping into the vicious domain of afore stated negative work outcomes (low commitment, high job stress etc). There is a general agreement that it is not actual politics but the perceptions of it which are more crucial. Ascertaining the existence of politics relies on a judgment by the individual as to whether a perceived behavior is within the parameters of sanctioned behavior (Witt, Andrews, & Kacmar, 2000). Based on this I contend that one possible solution to the issue of POP is within the individual worker; a line of thought which has not been much explored upon.
Finally, and based on the findings of a meta-analytical study (Miller, Rutherford, & Kolodinsky, 2008), no relationship could be established between OP/POP and in-role job performance. My understanding of this finding is that OP/POP will have negligent effect in efforts to make the ‘work productive’, but the effect will be more pronounced, negative and severe in our attempts to make the ‘worker achieving’ –the question that remains answering is: for how long can we expect a dissatisfied worker to work productively? The organization is incapable of giving accolades to all the deserving; and all the deserving are incapable of understanding that even though it is good to have the accolades bestowed upon, but perhaps what is even more important is to realize how worthy one is without the accolades.
Vijay Anand Sharma Timilsina
Program Director – The Undergraduate School
Ace Institute of Management (Affiliate of Pokhara University)
Naya Baneshwor, Kathmandu
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