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Is All Organizational Politics Negative


by Stephany Schings Below

New Organizational Frontiers Book Discusses Theory and Research Considerations of Politics in Organizations

Perhaps you have worked with a colleague who is known around the office as a “suck-up,” a “brownnoser,” or a “yes-man”. Maybe someone in your office has been labeled overzealous, exploitative, or calculating. Stereotypes for those who participate in politics in the workplace can be harsh. Let’s face it, organizational politics gets a bad rap.

“There are a lot of definitions of organizational politics out there,” explained SIOP Fellow Gerald Ferris, editor of Politics in Organizations: Theory and Research Considerations. “Unfortunately, many if not most of them are cast in a really negative sense.”

However, not all organizational politics has to be negative, Ferris said.

“After 30 years now, our (my colleagues and my) position is that organizational politics is not good or bad, it is just there,” Ferris explained. “You can use politics in a negative way; you can do it in a self-serving way that is not going to help the organization. But you can also think of organizational politics as the management of shared meaning, so it really is about trying to get people to see things the way you do in order to get things done at work.”

Ferris’ book Politics in Organizations (Routledge Academic, 2012), the most recent in the SIOP Organizational Frontiers series, co-edited by Darren Treadway and published this month, will be one of the first to look at the psychological factors behind politics and power in organizations, with noted contributors including I-O professionals from schools of management, psychology, sociology and political science. The authors will look at the theory, research, methodology, and ethical issues related to organizational politics and climates.

Politics in Organizations is now available in the SIOP Store! (Members receive a discount, so make sure you login before purchasing.)

The book will discuss the good as well as the bad aspects of organizational politics, Ferris explained.

“Organizational politics really is an art form when it is done very well,” he said. “People who can do it, to get people to do things willingly, in a way that is what it is, an art form.”

Oftentimes, organizational politics can be seen as the real way an organization functions. Ferris said his experience with this in the past intrigued him.

“I used to hear people talk about organizational politics as kind of the way things really get done around here,” he said. “Forget about the organizational charts, this is how you do the real work.’ I also used to see that politics could intervene in organizational decisions. For example, who got the biggest pay raise, who got promoted. I always heard that if you work hard and you get work done, you get your just due, but that is not always the case.”

Ferris explained that oftentimes the usefulness of organizational politics depends on who you ask.

“Organizational politics is not always bad for an organization or bad for everybody,” he said. “Say another person and I both work for a manager and we do the same type of job and similar work, and I perform at a higher rate and do better quality work than the other person does, but that person gets a ten percent higher raise than I do. Is that bad? Well for me it is, but the other person would say it is good.”

Ferris explained that organizational politics are often an attribution for things that go wrong, though not always things that go right.

“If I don’t get the promotion then organizational politics is the result of the decision,” he said. “If I do get the raise, then my hard work or superiors skills are the reasons. When we talk about organizational politics, the perceived benefit or negativity has a lot to do with your own perceptions.”

Because organizational politics can be so subjective, Ferris explained that it can be difficult to study. However, you can approach the topic a few different ways, he said, all of which are explained in the book. Ferris said organizational politics is sorted it into three broad areas:

1. Political behavior. Political behavior is a behavior someone engages in to try to show themselves in a specific light or a good light. “Political behavior would be the actual demonstration of politics at work,” Ferris said. “For example, they are trying to ingratiate themselves with the boss to get the boss to like them.”
2. Political environment. The political environment deals with to what extent an organization engages in particular political behaviors. This can include favoritism verses merit, and cliques or “in-groups,” Ferris explained. “It is a set of questions you ask about the organization that, when you sum them up, tell you about the political nature of the environment,” he said. “What we have found is that how people score on that political perceptions questionnaire correlates to stress, job perceptions, and other things.”
3. Political skill. Those high in political skill are the people who can pull off politics very well so that they don’t look political, Ferris explained. “We have found that people who are high on political skill are better at developing relationships with their bosses, which results in higher pay raises and promotions,” he said. “They also tend not to be as affected by strain and stress in the work environment.”

Ferris explained that all three of these areas work together to create the organizational politics of an organization—and they do not always align. For example, a person may participate in political behavior but be low in political skill, he said.

“A person who is low on political skill might really want to ingratiate themselves with the boss, but the boss can see right through them and doesn’t like that they seem to be trying to manipulate them,” Ferris explained. “When people think of a classic example from television shows of someone behaving politically but not pulling it off well, they often think of the Eddie Haskell character from Leave it to Beaver. He used to always try to lay it on really thick when he would be talking to one of the parents of his friends. He would come on so heavy that anyone could see through it.”

On the other end of the spectrum are those who excel in political activities.

“People that we have tended to look at as high in political skill are people who are very polished, and appear very genuine and sincere, and we tend to believe them,” Ferris said. “This understandably includes a lot of politicians. Bill Clinton is a great example.”

Ferris said this political skill can be very important, expecially to high-level management, where lack of political skill can derail a career.

“In research, just beyond one promotion, the factors that derail high-level managers are that they do not have good social, political, and interpersonal skills,” Ferris said. “Not being able to sell their ideas.”

Ferris said this has led many mangers to work on their political skill.

“One recent new management development technique a lot of managers have been doing is taking acting classes,” he explained. “A lot of CEOs can hire speech writers, but those people can only write the speeches; they cannot convey the meaning and feeling of what they say. An understanding of organizational politics as well as political skill is critical to managers.”

Executive coaching is another good example, he said. “It is booming. When you talk to these executive coaches and really ask them what they focus on a lot, it is teaching these people to really understand and navigate the politics of the organization.”

Just because it is important to managers does not mean political skill should be used synonymously with power, however.

“There have been books written on the topic of power,: Ferris said. “But just on organizational politics, not many at all. And I think that is why SIOP was interested in having one published. They thought that was a gap in the literature.”

Ferris said he hopes Politics in Organizations fills that void. The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 looks at the historical evolution of the field, Part 2 provides an integration of the organizational politics with important organizational behavior constructs and/or areas of inquiry, such as the chapter by Lisa Leslie and Michele Gelfand in which they discuss the implications of cross-cultural politics on expatriates and within cross-national mergers. Part 3 focuses on individual differences and organizational politics focusing on the nature of political relationships.

“I would say that this book is geared toward researchers and PhD students,” Ferris said. “So if someone was teaching a doctoral seminar, they would want this book.”

He said the editors were aiming to accomplish two goals: first, they wanted to approach people in the field that are widely recognized for studying the topic and know a lot about it and ask them what their ideas are for what researchers should be studying. Second, the editors went to people identified with related areas and asked them to write a chapter that talks about how they think that topic and organizational politics fit together. For example, they asked researchers on stress, social networks, and social capital to explain how these topics can relate to organizational politics.

“I think with the 18 chapters and the 30-something people we have writing in this book, we pulled together a pretty impressive group of people,” Ferris added. “These are some new areas that people haven’t really studied in politics before, but we are giving you ways you can research them.”

One important message Ferris said the editors wanted to get across in Politics is that organizational politics is not necessarily a negative activity.

“For all these years we have studied organizational politics, we think it has gotten a bad rap,” he said, referring to himself and his fellow researchers. “In all these years, people have focused on the negative aspect of politics in the workplace, conveying the distinct impression that this is the only view; and that is just not true. Politics do not have to be viewed negatively all the time; it doesn’t have to be all bad.”

Gerald R. Ferris is the Francis Eppes Professor of Management and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. Ferris received a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ferris is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the American Psychological Society. He has research interests in the areas of social and political influence in organizations, the nature and consequences of personal reputation in organizations, the underlying dimensions and characterization of work relationships, and particularly how politics, reputation, and work relationships play key roles in human resources management practices. Ferris is the author of numerous articles published in such scholarly journals as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Personnel Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, and Academy of Management Review. Ferris has authored or edited a number of books including Political Skill at Work, Handbook of Human Resource Management, Strategy and Human Resources Management, and Method & Analysis in Organizational Research. Ferris has been the recipient of a number of distinctions and honors and has consulted on a variety of human resources topics with companies including ARCO, Borg-Warner, Eli Lilly, Motorola, and PPG, and he has taught in management development programs and lectured in Austria, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, in addition to various U.S. universities.