The term organizational politics refers to the informal ways people try to exercise influence in organizations through the management of shared meaning. As such, politics should be viewed as neither an inherently bad nor good phenomenon but rather one to be observed, analyzed, and comprehended to gain a more informed understanding of organizations and how they operate. Theory and research on organizational politics has fallen into essentially three categories. One area concerns itself with the nature of actual political behavior, types of tactics and strategies, and their consequences. A second category focuses on perceptions of politics in work environments by individual employees, the antecedents of such perceptions, and their consequences. The third, and most recent, category of research on organizational politics emphasizes the construct of political skill, and demonstrates the role it plays in organizational behavior.
Research in the domain of political behavior has been widespread and largely disconnected, being categorized in a number of distinct ways. Some of these include influence tactics, impression management, power, and social influence. Essentially, no matter the categorization, all these behaviors reflect attempts to influence someone or some outcome. These behaviors are generally considered to be self-serving in nature and employed to achieve some benefit for the influ-encer. The success of the influencing attempt depends on a multitude of factors including appropriateness and uniqueness of the attempt, readiness of targets, personal characteristics of both influencer and target, and the context. Influencing tactics have been studied singularly and in combinations or strategies of tactics such as ingratiation as a single tactic or shotgun as a combination of many tactics.
Researchers have examined political behaviors as antecedents, outcomes, and moderators of a myriad of organizational phenomena. Furthermore, both the antecedents and consequences of political behaviors have been studied. Although there have been numerous studies of work-related outcomes of influence attempts, many have found mixed results. The specific attempts of ingratiation and rationality have demonstrated the strongest relationships with work outcomes. Nonetheless, these mixed results suggest a need to examine whether the influence tactics are successful or unsuccessful.
Perceptions of Organizational Politics
Although the study of actual political behavior is important, many researchers consider the perception of organizational politics of equal importance. It can be argued that individuals’ perceptions of organizational politics may be just as influential on individual and organizational outcomes as the actual political behaviors occurring in the organization. People react to their perceptions of reality. Because people cannot see into the minds of others to determine the motive (e.g., self-serving or not) behind influencing attempts, they must rely on their perceptions of the attempts. The investigation of these perceptions is important, even if they differ from the actual reality of the organization.
Perceptions of organizational politics are individuals’ subjective attributions of the extent to which behaviors occurring in the organization are of self-serving intent. There are three broad categories, which may influence individuals’ perceptions of politics: personal influences such as personality factors, job environment influences such as autonomy and variety, and organizational influences such as organizational structure.
Several reactions to organizational politics have been investigated in the literature. Individuals perceiving a political environment could withdraw from the environment or have decreased job satisfaction, increased job anxiety, and even increased job involvement. With few exceptions, politics perceptions have been related to negative individual and organizational outcomes, such as decreased job satisfaction and increased actual turnover. Furthermore, researchers have found that politics perceptions can be viewed as a stressor causing strain reactions such as job anxiety.
However, these negative outcomes may not always occur. Specifically, there may be personal and environmental moderators of the perception-outcome relation. For example, if both supervisors and subordinates are striving toward the same goals, the impact of politics perceptions on important work outcomes is lessened. Furthermore, control and an understanding of the work environment lessens the extent to which organizational politics affects important work outcomes. Individual differences also affect the relationships between politics perceptions and negative outcomes, with some individuals working quite effectively in political environments.
It is commonly held that organizations are inherently political. However, despite the negative consequences of politics perceptions, some individuals seem to manage or even thrive in these environments. Political skill, which encompasses a skill set individuals use to understand the environment, choose the appropriate political behaviors, and act them out in ways that appear earnest, might explain how some individuals not only endure but are able to succeed in political environments. It accounts for individual influencing style. Political skill is seen as partly dispositional and partly learned.
Recent work has identified four dimensions of political skill:
- Social astuteness
- Interpersonal influence
- Networking ability
- Apparent sincerity
Social astuteness is an understanding of the environment and the actors involved in the environment. Interpersonal influence enables politically skilled individuals to chose and implement the correct influencing behaviors for a given situation. Networking ability refers to politically skilled individuals’ abilities to garner and use social networks of people to their advantage. Finally, apparent sincerity involves coming across as honest without ulterior motives. Political skill is different from other social variables, such as social skill, and has been shown to be an important coping mechanism in stressful and political environments.
In conclusion, organizational politics is a vast area of organizational study that spans many literatures and many decades of research. Several conclusions can be drawn through this brief introduction to the politics literature. It is important to examine not only political behavior but also individual subjective evaluations of organizational environments. Furthermore, when examining political behaviors, it is necessary to account for the style of the influencing technique as well as the success of the technique. This information will help bring consistency to the findings of political behavior studies.
Although organizational politics and perceptions of organizational politics largely have been related to negative personal and organizational outcomes, this negative relationship is avoidable. Political skill, although partly inherent, can be taught to train individuals to thrive in organizational environments that they deem political.
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