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Power and Politics Not Too Dirty Stuff For Managers

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“You are too good for politics”. This statement implies that politics is not for good people. Good people are positioned as not being ideal candidates for political office. This is because the political culture has normalized politics as a dirty game. This suggests that only those who can “play dirty” are fit to lead. Most “so-called politicians” have scandalous histories, questionable wealth, pending court cases, murder charges and decay attached to their character.

The culture of politics implies the organized control over human community, particularly a state and this control has been associated with chaos, violence and even murder. Politics has been a game of lawlessness where everything goes unpunished.

In Kenya, the most admired “leaders” are those who defeat the justice system and never get caught, hence potential political players who come in seeking law and order are automatic outsiders. Politics is laced with abusive and abrasive language, derogatory demeanor, zero civility, deceit and publicly accepted mannerism

Due to the aforementioned, executives are reluctant to acknowledge the place of power both in individual motivation and in organizational relationships. Somehow, power and politics are dirty words. And in linking these words to the play of personalities in organizations, some managers withdraw into the safety of organizational logic.

Frank recognition of the importance of personality factors and sensitive use of the strengths and limitations of people in decisions on power distributions can improve the quality of organizational life.

Organizations as Political Structures

Whatever organizations may be (problem-solving instruments, socio-technical systems, reward systems, and so on), are political structures. This means that organizations operate by distributing authority and setting a stage for the exercise of power. It is no wonder, therefore, that individuals who are highly motivated to secure and use power find a familiar and hospitable environment in business.

There are few business activities more prone to a credibility gap than the way in which executives approach organizational life. A sense of skepticism occurs when managers purport to make decisions in rationalistic terms while it is known that personalities and politics play a significant if not an overriding role.

Where does the error lie? In the theory which insists that decisions should be rationalistic and nonpersonal? or in the practice which treats business organizations as political structures?

Power Base for Individuals

Organizations provide a power base for individuals. From a purely economic standpoint, organizations exist to create a surplus of income over costs by meeting needs in the marketplace. But organizations also are political structures that provide opportunities for people to develop careers and therefore provide platforms for the expression of individual interests and motives.

The development of careers, particularly at high managerial and professional levels, depends on accumulation of power as the vehicle for transforming individual interests into activities which influence other people

Competition for Power

A political pyramid exists when people compete for power in an economy of scarcity. In other words, people cannot get the power they want just for the asking. Instead, they have to enter into the decisions on how to distribute authority in a particular formal organization structure. Scarcity of power arises under two sets of conditions:

First, where individuals gain power in absolute terms at someone else’s expense. And secondly where there is a gain comparatively—not literally at someone else’s expense—resulting in a relative shift in the distribution of power. 

Scarcity and Comparison

In either case, the psychology of scarcity and camparison takes over. The human being tends to make comparisons as a basis for her sense of self-esteem. She may compare herself with other people and decide that her absolute loss or the shift in proportional shares of authority reflects attrition in her power base.

She may also compare her position relative to others against a personal standard and feel a sense of loss. This tendency to compare is deeply ingrained in people, especially since they experience early in life the effects of comparisons in the family where — in an absolute sense — time and attention, if not love and affection, go to the most dependent member.

Displacement in Rank

Corporate acquisitions and mergers illustrate the effects of both types of comparisons. In the case of mergers, the chairperson of the acquired company is likely to resign rather than accept the relative displacement in rank which occurs when he no longer acts as a Chief Executive Officer. Two vice-presidents vying for the position of executive vice-president because of their conflicting ambitions, the expedient of making them equals drives the competition underground, but not for long.

The vice-president with the weaker power base soon resigns in the face of his inability to consolidate a workable definition of his responsibilities. His departure results in increased power for the remaining vice-president and the gradual elimination of “rival camps” which have been covertly identified with the main contenders for power.

Scarcity of Positions

The fact that organizations are pyramids produces a scarcity of positions the higher one moves in the hierarchy. This scarcity, coupled with inequalities, certainly needs to be recognized. While it may be humane and socially desirable to say that people are different rather than unequal in their potential, nevertheless executive talent is in short supply. The end result should be to move the more able people into the top positions and to accord them the pay, responsibility, and authority to match their potential.

On the other side, the strong desires of equally able people for the few top positions available means that someone will either have to face the realization of unfulfilled ambition or have to shift his interest to another organization.

Subordinates Affirmation & Support

Besides the conditions of scarcity and competition, politics in organizations grows out of the existence of constituencies. A superior may be content himself with shifts in the allocation of resources and consequently power, but he represents subordinates who, for their own reasons, maybe unhappy with the changes. These subordinates affirm and support their boss. They can also withdraw affirmation and support, and consequently, isolate the superior with all the painful consequences this entails

While appointments to positions come from above, affirmation of position comes from below. The only difference between party and organizational politics is in the subtlety of the voting procedure.

Power Transactions

A factor which heightens the competition for power that is characteristic of all political structures is the incessant need to use whatever power one possesses. Corporations have an implicit “banking” system in power transactions. The initial “capitalization” which makes up an individual’s power base consists of three elements. Firstly, the quantity of formal authority vested in a position relative to other positions.Secondly, the authority vested in expertise and reputation for competence and thirdly the attractiveness of personality to others


This capitalization of power reflects the total esteem with which others regard the individual. By a process which is still not too clear, the individual internalizes all of the sources of power capital in a manner parallel to the way he develops a sense of self-esteem. The individual knows he has power, assesses it realistically, and is willing to risk his personal esteem to influence others.

A critical element here is the risk in the uses of power. The individual must perform and get results. If he fails to do either, attrition occurs in his power base in direct proportion to the doubts other people entertained in their earlier appraisals of him. What occurs here is an erosion of confidence which ultimately leads the individual to doubt himself and undermines the psychological work which led him in the first place to internalize authority as a prelude to action.

Authority Structure

What distinguishes alterations in the authority structure from other types of organizational change is their direct confrontation with the political character of corporate life. Such confrontations are real manipulations of power as compared with the indirect approaches which play on ideologies and attitudes. In the first case, the potency and reality of shifts in authority have an instantaneous effect on what people do, how they interact, and how they think about themselves.

In the second case, the shifts in attitude are often based on the willingness of people to respond the way authority figures want them to; ordinarily, however, these shifts in attitude are but temporary expressions of compliance. 

Compliance and Commitment

One of the most common errors executives make is to confuse compliance with commitment. Compliance is an attitude of acceptance when a directive from an authority figure asks for a change in an individual’ position, activities, or ideas. The individual complies or “goes along” usually because he is indifferent to the scope of the directive and the changes it proposes. If compliance occurs out of indifference, then one can predict little difficulty in translating the intent of directives into actual implementation.

SEE ALSO >> Strategic Tools Giving Organisations a Competitive Edge

Commitment, on the other hand, represents a strong motivation on the part of an individual to adopt or resist the intent of a directive. If the individual commits himself to a change, then he will use his ingenuity to interpret and implement the change in such a way as to assure its success. If he decides to fight or block the change, the individual may act as if he complies but reserve other times and places to negate the effects of directives.

Compliance as a tactic to avoid changes and commitment as an expression of strong motivation in dealing with organizational problems are in turn related to how individuals define their interests. In the power relations among executives, the so-called areas of common interest are usually reserved for the predictabilities of human relationships. The more significant areas of attention usually force conflicts of interest, especially competition for power, to the surface.

Conflicts of Interest

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.

If an individual (or group) is told that his job scope is reduced in either absolute or proportional terms for the good of the corporation, he faces a conflict. Should he agree for the idea of common good or fight in the service of his self-interest? Any lucid person will fight . The willingness to fight increases as the person comes to realize the intangible nature of what people think is good for the organization. And, in point of fact, the willingness may serve the interests of corporate purpose by highlighting issues and stimulating careful thinking before the reaching of final decisions.

Competition for Resources

Conflicts of interest in the competition for resources are easily recognized, as for example, in capital budgeting or in allocating money for research and development. But these conflicts can be subjected to bargaining procedures which all parties to the competition validate by their participation. 

The secondary effects of bargaining do involve organizational and power issues. However, the fact that these power issues follow debate on economic problems rather than lead it creates a manifest content which can be objectified much more readily than in areas where the primary considerations are the distributions of authority.

Severity of Conflict of Interest

In such cases, which include developing a new formal organization structure, management succession, promotions, corporate mergers, and entry of new executives, the conflicts of interest are severe and direct simply because there are no objective measures of right or wrong courses of action. The critical question which has to be answered in specific actions is: Who gets power and position? This involves particular people with their strengths and weaknesses and a specific historical context in which actions are understood in symbolic as well as rational terms.

Consolidation of Power

Organizational life within a political frame is a series of contradictions. It is an exercise in rationality, but its energy comes from the ideas in the minds of power figures the content of which, as well as their origins, are only dimly perceived. It deals with sources of authority and their distribution; yet it depends in the first place on the existence of a balance of power in the hands of an individual who initiates actions and gets results. It has many rituals associated with it, such as participation, democratization, and the sharing of power; yet the real outcome is the consolidation of power around a central figure to whom other individuals make emotional attachments.


The formal organization structure implements a coalition among key executives. The forms differ, and the psychological significance of various coalitions also differs. But no organization can function without a consolidation of power in the relationship of a central figure with his select group. The coalition need not exist between the chief executive and his immediate subordinates or staff. It may indeed bypass the second level and instead rely on members of the executive staff or on selected individuals outside the formal apparatus.

The failure to establish a coalition within the executive structure of an organization can result in severe problems, such as paralysis in the form of inability to make decisions and to evaluate performance, and in-fighting and overt rivalry within the executive group.

READ >> How to Optimise Knowledge Management in Organisations

When a coalition fails to develop, the first place to look for causes is the chief executive and his problems in creating confident relationships. The causes are many and complex, but they usually hinge around the nature of the chief executive’s defenses and what he needs to avoid as a means of alleviating stress.

In any failure, the place to look is in the personalities of the main actors and in the nature of their defenses which make certain coalitions improbable no matter how strongly other realities indicate their necessity. But defensiveness on the part of a chief executive can also result in building an unrealistic and unworkable coalition, with the self-enforced isolation which is its consequence. One of the most frequently encountered defensive maneuvers which leads to the formation of unrealistic coalitions or to the isolation of the chief executive is the fear of rivalry.

failure to establish a coalition within the executive structure of an organization can result in severe problems, such as paralysis in the form of inability to make decisions and to evaluate performance. [ Photo / karibu.mambozuri.com ]

A realistic coalition matches formal authority and competence with the emotional commitments necessary to establish and maintain the coalition. The fear of rivals on the part of chief executives, or the jealousy on the part of subordinates of the chief executive’s power, can at the extreme result in paranoid distortions. People become suspicious of one another, and through selective perceptions and projections of their own fantasies create a world of plots and counterplots. 

The displacement of personal concerns onto substantive material in decision making is potentially the most dangerous form of defensiveness. The need for defenses arises because people become anxious about the significance of evaluations within existing power coalitions.

But perhaps even more basic is the fear and the rivalry to which all coalitions are susceptible given the nature of investments people make in power relations. While it is easy to dismiss emotional reactions like these as neurotic distortions, their prevalence and impact deserve careful attention in all phases of organizational life.

Professionals and intellectuals have the responsibility to expand the civic treatise by ensuring equal depictions of diverse notions. This way we get to reflect, perceive and absorb outside our comfort zones. We need to discard the view that an upright person cannot lead just because a few good people tried and failed

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DR ELIJAH O. ACHOCHhttp://www.businesstoday.co.ke
Dr Elijah O. Achoch is a seasoned Senior Executive with experiential and practical experience in Organizational Transformation. He has strengths in areas of Public Service Transformation, Business Process Re-engineering, Policy Formulation Analysis and Implementation, Strategic Leadership, Knowledge Management, Organizational Planning, Performance Management, and Improvement. He holds a Doctorate (PhD) degree in Human Resource Management from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), a Master of Science (Msc) degree from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom in Human Resource Management and Development and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.Hons) degree from University of Nairobi (UON). Professionally, Dr.Achoch is a Certified Ethics Officer (CEO 131)- from the Ethics Institute of South Africa, a Certified Public Secretary (CPS(k)) from the Institute of Certified Public Secretaries (ICPS). He is a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management Kenya (MIPM (K), Member, Kenya Institute of Management (MKIM) and aChief Examiner in Human Resource Management – Kenya National  Examination Council (KNEC). He was also a Chief Examiner in Proficiency and Administrative Officers Examination, Public Service Commission of Kenya (PSC-K). Email: [email protected]
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