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Organisations as political systems


Organisations are intrinsically political. Ways must be found to make decisions and create order in situations where different people have diverse and possibly conflicting interests.

The word politics derives from the Greek word polis, a city-state. Aristotle advocated politics as a way of creating unity among the diverse members of the polis and avoiding totalitarian rule. Seen in this way, politics is an essential and valuable aspect of organisational life. Morgan writes that "we can understand organizations as systems of government that vary according to the political principles involved."

Deriving from another Greek word, 'kratia' meaning power or rule, there are a number of varieties of political rule found in organisations, including:

Autocracy - where power is held by an individual or a small group
Bureaucracy - where rule is exercised through the use of the written word
Democracy - where everyone is involved in decision making, often through the election of officers
Meritocracy - where power and advancement are vested in individuals according to their ability and achievement
Technocracy - where rule is exercised through the use of knowledge and expert power

In day-to-day organisational life, politics is seen as negative, something of a dirty word. It is regarded as the wheeling and dealing that people engage in to advance their interests. While most folk recognise this, it usually is not discussed openly. Rather, political motives are often hidden behind the myth that the organisation is a rational enterprise where people are pursuing common goals. Morgan writes:

In contrast with the view that organizations are integrated rational enterprises pursuing a common goal, the political metaphor encourages us to see organizations as loose networks of people with divergent interests who gather together for the sake of expediency (e.g. making a living, developing a career, or pursuing a desired goal or objective). Organizations are coalitions and are made up of coalitions, and coalition building is an important dimension of almost all organizational life.

Conflict arises when interests collide, and hence conflict will always be present in organisational life. Morgan notes that:

Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are ultimately resolved. Power influences who gets what, when, and how.

In a notable study of power French and Raven (1960) identified the following five types of power found in organisations:

  • Reward power: the ability of a group to reward those who obey it, with money, prestige, status or some other valued attribute. This is one of the key powers which senior managers exercise.
  • Coercive power: the ability of a group to deliver penalties or sanctions if they are disobeyed. Again this is seen as a common attribute of senior managers.
  • Referent power: the ability of a group to present themselves as having desired attributes that should be followed. This sort of power is much more widely dispersed in an organisation. It reflects the way in which certain groups or individuals emerge as representing key positive attributes of the organisation by virtue of their performance at times of stress and difficulty for the organisation.
  • Legitimate power: the ability of a group to present itself and its goals as legitimate for the organisation as a whole. This characterises many professional organisations where the dominant professional group is seen as representing the goals of the organisation, even though many other groups may be involved and significant.
  • Expert power: the ability of a group to claim expertise in a certain area and thereby induce obedience and compliance to its wishes. This is often associated with technical expertise which it is difficult for non-specialists to understand.

Watch this video summary of French and Raven's five forms of power.

Morgan concludes that:

The political metaphor encourages us to see how all organizational activity is interest based and to evaluate all organizational functioning with this in mind. Organizational goals, structure, technology, job design, leadership style, and other seemingly formal aspects of organizational functioning have a political dimension as well as the more obvious political power plays and conflicts.