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Organizations as political systems

Organizations as political systems

When we see organizations as political systems we are drawing clear parallels between how organizations are run and systems of political rule. We may refer to ‘democracies’, ‘autocracy’ or even ‘anarchy’ to describe what is going on in a particular organization. Here we are describing the style of power rule employed in that organization.

The political metaphor is useful because it recognizes the important role that power play, competing interests and conflict have in organizational life. Gareth Morgan comments, ‘Many people hold the belief that business and politics should be kept apart But the person advocating the case of employee rights or industrial democracy is not introducing a political issue so much as arguing for a different approach to a situation that is already political.’

The key beliefs are:

  • You can’t stay out of organizational politics. You’re already in it.

  • Building support for your approach is essential if you want to make anything happen.

  • You need to know who is powerful, and who they are close to.

  • There is an important political map which overrides the published organizational structure.

  • Coalitions between individuals are more important than work teams.

  • The most important decisions in an organization concern the allocation of scarce resources, that is, who gets what, and these are reached through bargaining, negotiating and vying for position.

This leads to the following assumptions about organizational change:

What are the limitations of this metaphor? The disadvantage of using this metaphor to the exclusion of others is that it can lead to the potentially unnecessary development of complex Machiavellian strategies, with an assumption that in any organizational endeavour, there are always winners and losers. This can turn organizational life into a political war zone.

See Pfeiffer’s book, Managing with Power: Politics and influence in organizations (1992) to explore this metaphor further.

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