divider image

Organization design blog

« Thinking about design  |   Main   |  Handling multiple disjointed pieces of design work  »

Do organisation designers need political skills?

03/14/17  4:53 PM 

In a couple of work-shops I've been in during the last week we've started to explore 'politics' – both in a governmental sense and in an organisational sense. They're shorthanded as 'Politics' and 'politics', and they're both difficult to navigate, and when they're in the same piece of work the difficulties are compounded.

Gareth Morgan, in Reflections on Images of Organization, discusses organizations as political systems, saying 'When you start to explore organizations as political systems you quickly get into images of autocracy and democracy, Machiavellianism, gender, racial and social power imbalances, images of exploiting and exploited groups, subtle or crude power plays, and so on.' He asks, 'Isn't the stakeholder approach another way of exploring the relations between the interests, conflict, and power that lie at the heart of political analysis?' (Morgan, 2011)

A classic piece of work by management academic Henry Mintzberg suggested that: 'Politics and conflict sometimes capture an organization in whole or significant part, giving rise to a form we call the Political Arena'. He proposes four basic types of Political Arenas:

  • the complete Political Arena (characterized by conflict that is intensive and pervasive)
  • the confrontation (conflict that is intensive but contained)
  • the shaky alliance (conflict that is moderate and contained)
  • the politicized organization (conflict that is moderate but pervasive). (Mintzberg, 1985)

Most organisations that I've worked in have elements of the political images or arenas that Morgan and Mintzberg talk about. And it is in these arenas that political behaviours come into play. Other research has 'identified several areas in which employees engage in political behaviour, namely pressures for economy, management and sub-ordinates relationships, structural power struggles between configured groups such as unions and employers, conflicts between the workforce and management for construing agreements, uncertainty about standards and strategies of promotion, difficulty in linking reward with productivity ... when there is uncertainty involved in decision-making procedures and performance measures, and when competition is present among individuals and groups for limited resources.'

The politics and political behaviours can be either negative or positive (or on some point in between). The negative play out can 'involve convenient and illegal behaviour, and the positive side which is a social function that is important for organisations to survive. Negative organisational politics are disapproved of because of the ethical dilemmas encrusted with them and the workplace conflicts that are generated, whilst positive organisational politics results from the amalgamation of shared goals and stimulating collaboration.' (Cacciattolo, 2014)

It seems to me that in order to navigate the political arenas, practitioners need finely honed political skill that is: 'The ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one's personal and/or organizational objectives' (Ferris, et al., 2005)

Politically skilled people 'combine social astuteness with the capacity to adjust their behaviour to different and changing situational demands in a manner that appears to be sincere, inspires support and trust, and effectively influences and controls the responses of others.' (Ferris, et al., 2007). Influence or control can be used for good or ill (hence the phrase 'appears to be sincere') and it is to be hoped that organization design practitioners are using it for good. Nevertheless, there can be difficult conflicts. As this practitioner found:

One organization where I consulted was highly political. Cliques had formed. People slipped into each other's offices before meetings to share the latest offense of the out-group and to plan their revenge. In highly political organizations like this one, there usually isn't one person responsible for the climate. Political activity is relational -— even if only a couple of people are engaging in negative types, others get pulled and playing-along-to-get-along becomes the norm. (Reardon, 2015)

The challenge for the organization designer is to work out how to behave in a helpful way in this context, how to find out who the 'real' players are, what are the vested interests in it that may not be obvious, how easy will it be to do the work without compromising ethical and moral principles, or the management consulting code of conduct.

How do you approach working in political arenas? Let me know.

Cacciattolo, K. (2014, August). Defining Organizational Politics. European Scientific Journal, 238-246.
Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwarter, W. A., Kacmar, C. J., & Douglas, C. (2005). Development and validation of the political skill inventory. Journal of Management, 31, 126-152.
Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Perrewe, P. L., Brouer, R. L., Douglas, C., & Lux, S. (2007). Political Skill in Organizations. Journal of Management, 33(3), 290 - 320 . Retrieved March 4, 2017, from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206307300813?journalCode=joma
Mintzberg, H. (1985, March). the Organizations as Political Arena. Journal of Management Studies, 22(2), 133–154. Retrieved March 4, 2017, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1985.tb00069.x/abstract
Morgan, G. (2011). Reflections on Images of Organization and its Implications for Organization and Environment. Organization and Environment, 24(4). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1086026611434274
Reardon, K. K. (2015, January 12). Office Politics Isn't Something You Can Sit Out. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/01/office-politics-isnt-something-you-can-sit-out

Post a comment


  • Copyright 2017
    Naomi Stanford
  • Naomi Stanford is an author, teacher,
    consultant and expert in organization design.
  • You can contact Naomi at naomi@stanford.cc
    or our contact page here.
  • Website design & CMS:
    SiteStrux, Inc.