It is rare to find the words “power” and “politics” listed on the index pages of mainstream management books. One might reasonably assume, therefore, that these have little or no part to play in the dynamics of organization and management. In contrast to this, I argued in Informal Coalitions that acting politically is a central aspect of real-world management practice. That is to say,
“… organizations that succeed do so not only in spite of political behaviour but also because of it.”
Organization is an ongoing, political process. It is continuously (re-)enacted through the everyday, power-related interactions of people. People, that is, who have different – and potentially conflicting – intentions, interests, ideologies and identities. People who perceive, interpret, and value things differently. People who are, nevertheless, inter-dependent - enabling and constraining each other, as they seek to find their way through the individual and collective challenges they face.
What people come to see as ‘the established order’, ‘disorder’, and ‘new order’ emerge from these ongoing, conversational interactions. Some of these exchanges occur in line with the formally acknowledged, ‘legitimate’ themes and practices. Others reflect the hidden, messy, and informal, ‘shadow’ themes and ways of being that are characteristic of everyday human relations. Nothing happens, then, except through the political actions of real people.
According to conventional management theory, managers use a number of formal interventions to bring about the changes that they have settled upon. These can be thought of in terms of a spectrum of approaches, ranging from imposing (‘tight’), through informing, to involving (‘flexible’). These strategies are not neutral. They are unavoidably political. Each of them relates to a desire for, respectively, compliance, acceptance, or agreement. From this viewpoint, change happens when managers say that it should. The only question concerns the means that they choose to adopt to bring this about.
From an informal coalitions/wiggly world perspective, though, organization is always in a state of flux. Change is happening continuously, as people coalesce informally around themes that resonate strongly with their own intentions, interests, ideologies, identities, and so on - whether to initiate, support or frustrate particular formal initiatives. The challenge for managers then becomes one of interacting in ways that seek to mobilize collective action around those themes that they judge to be organizationally beneficial. Building informal coalitions of support for change in this way is an important aspect of their muddling through with purpose, courage, and skill. Again as I said in the book,
“…informal coalitional activity will happen whether managers want it to or not - the only choice open to them is whether or not to engage with it in a deliberate and informed way.”
The diagram below offers a rough overview of some of the political dynamics of organizational change. It illustrates some of the differences of approach that are implicit in the various strands of conventional change-leadership practice, as well as highlighting the all-pervasive informal coalitional activity. Needless to say, the reality is much messier than suggested here!