Power and Politics

Distinctions Between Power, Authority and Influence

Power itself refers to the ability of an individual or group to bring about a change in some other individual or group in some way. Power may or may not be legitimate, whereas authority is the source of power, and hence, is legitimate. Authority has the willing acceptance of the person over whom it is exercised, whereas power is (generally) unidirectional. It may or may not be liked by the person over whom it is exercised. Influence refers to the ability to modify or change people in general ways, like changing their performance and satisfaction. It is a broader concept than both power and authority. Although both power and influence are an essential part of leadership, influence is more closely associated with the function of leading than power. Another difference between power and influence is that power has more ‘force’ than influence. Power gives a person a right to change certain relationships within an organization. It has the ability to alter reality. Influence, however, can only alter a person’s perceptions about reality and the relationships in the organization. Therefore, the difference between power and authority is that authority has legitimacy and acceptance, whereas power may or may not. And influence differs from power in terms of scope: it has a broader scope than power. Though influence and power are different, the two are related and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. There is a subtle difference between authority and influence. While authority generally flows from a higher level to a lower level in a hierarchy, influence jumps levels and in many cases may flow from a lower level to a much higher level.

Political Behavior in Organizations

Organizational politics is a reality in most organizations of reasonable size. Researchers and practitioners of OB have also acknowledged the role played by politics in organizational dynamics. It has been recognized that a certain amount of political behavior is necessary on the part of managers to succeed in their work and that politics is sometimes vital to the achievement of organizational goals. Politics has been defined by a number of scholars of OB. Definition and Nature of Politics Organizational politics has often been called ‘power in action.’ Stephen Robbins has defined politics in organizations as “those activities that are not required as part of one’s formal role in the organization, but that influence, or attempt to influence, the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within the organization.” Robbins has also differentiated between legitimate and illegitimate political behavior. Legitimate political behavior is that which forms a part of the day-to-day work in an organization. This includes forming organizational coalitions, networking and developing contacts within and outside the organization, complaining to superiors on routine matters, ignoring rules and procedures, adhering to rules strictly, etc. Illegitimate political behavior, however, is extreme in nature and does not keep to the accepted level of politicking. Protesting violently against rules, deliberately breaking rules, not conforming to the accepted procedures, absconding from work, sabotaging organizational activities, whistle blowing, etc., are examples of illegitimate political behavior. Experts in OB feel that politicking can have beneficial effects on an organization. For instance, when an employee develops a new tool to improve productivity, he may do politicking to enlist the support of his superiors. If the new tool gets adopted by the organization, the benefits accruing to the organization may be more than those to the employee.

We can identify at least five conditions conducive to political behavior in organizations.

These are shown in along with possible resulting behaviors. The conditions include the following:

  1. Ambiguous goals. When the goals of a department or organization are ambiguous, more room is available for politics. As a result, members may pursue personal gain under the guise of pursuing organizational goals.
  2. Limited resources. Politics surfaces when resources are scarce and allocation decisions must be made. If resources were ample, there would be no need to use politics to claim one’s “share.”
  3. Changing technology and environment. In general, political behavior is increased when the nature of the internal technology is nonroutine and when the external environment is dynamic and complex. Under these conditions, ambiguity and uncertainty are increased, thereby triggering political behavior by groups interested in pursuing certain courses of action.
  4. Nonprogrammed decisions. A distinction is made between programmed and nonprogrammed decisions. When decisions are not programmed, conditions surrounding the decision problem and the decision process are usually more ambiguous, which leaves room for political maneuvering. Programmed decisions, on the other hand, are typically specified in such detail that little room for maneuvering exists. Hence, we are likely to see more political behavior on major questions, such as long-range strategic planning decisions.
  5. Organizational change. Periods of organizational change also present opportunities for political rather than rational behavior. Efforts to restructure a particular department, open a new division, introduce a new product line, and so forth, are invitations to all to join the political process as different factions and coalitions fight over territory.

Because most organizations today have scarce resources, ambiguous goals, complex technologies, and sophisticated and unstable external environments, it seems reasonable to conclude that a large proportion of contemporary organizations are highly political in nature.

Factors Relating to Political Behavior

Political behavior is subjective, i.e., it differs from person to person and organization to organization. Studies have shown that individuals differ in their orientation towards politicking. Some tend to be more interested and capable of politicking than others. Similarly, organizations differ in their political orientation. Individual differences in political behavior are based on environmental differences and personality, whereas organizational differences are based on the culture and the environment of the organization.


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Organizational Behavior by Icfai Business School is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.