Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations

Cranfield School of Management
Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
David Butcher and Martin Clarke
Palgrave, 2001
ISBN: 033394903X, 157 pages
Theme of the Book
Politics play a central role in all organizations but to this point they have
largely been seen as a negative force. Butcher and Clarke expose this as a
misunderstanding and show how political behaviour is entirely endemic to
managerial activity and how
‘Smart Management’ is a practical guide for
understanding and managing
managers on how to work with both the
it can have extremely
rationality that is expected of them, and the
powerful positive effects.
inevitable self-interest they see in themselves
and others, which it makes little sense to
They provide an approach to
deny. It is a book about how to use all that is
managing politics by
good about politics, and to do so with skill
balancing personal and
and a clear conscience.”
organizational interests and show how the centrality of politics to
organizational life make it the ideal place from which to change existing
patterns of power and influence.
So three key themes are addressed in the book are :
1. Organisational politics is central in managing productively. Lobbying and
“There is no opting out.
positioning and alliance building are
Like it or not… politics
core managerial tasks. People
play a central role in all
produce more in corporate life when
they see personal relevance in what
they do: this is a motivational tool for change and achievement.
Cranfield School of Management
Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
2. A principled use of power balances self-interest and interest in others.
Constructive organisational politics justifies one’s own agenda and the
business’ agenda. Political managers learn reflectively from their own
motives and reality tests others’ motives.
3. When you combine Nos. 1 and No. 2 above, you redefine managerial
work. The rational mindset no longer suffices. To it is added a positive,
constructive political mindset, deliberately learnt so both are used side-byside.
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
Key Learning Points
In the 21st century organisation, it is more necessary than ever before:
To reframe different agendas in organisational life: to acknowledge
that corporate life gains through mutual and competing interests.
To accept the logic of constructive organisational politics: to recognise
political skill is legitimate and needed as much as rational competence
To find out what power in an organisation really is, where it is situated,
what it can do: to know sources of power are diverse and motives
behind its use crucial
To distinguish between constructive and destructive politics: to be
able to read the difference between selfless and selfish motives and
between ethical and unethical means of achieving political goals
“Being a politician is part of the job for management. Our key objective now is to
help . . . appreciate the logic of constructive organisational politics, since without
that starting point, no manager is likely to be motivated to enhance his or her own
political skill.”
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
Organisational Politics and its Relevance to Managers
Each business trend below makes organisational life more complex, and
“Organisational politics: the
process of dynamic tension
through which competing agendas
are resolved.”
legitimate political action more important,
so that managers make the most of:
Tacit knowledge contributing to business innovation and improvement
Employee empowerment raising customer satisfaction
Key talent motivated to contribute value-added voices to organisational
Competitive advantage by reducing organisational boundaries so
external stakeholders influence more of what goes on inside
Legislation imposing management obligations to its employees
Each reality above potentially increases employee autonomy and diminishes
formal authority. Each trend respects or elevates difference. More difference
means less unanimity. The politically smart manager deals not just with
greater diversity and less commonality, but designs them into the
organisation. The mindset and skills of the politically aware manager
welcomes and searches out competing voices and dissenting views. Acquiring
that mindset and honing those skills are formidable tasks.
The Pervasive Culture of Rationality
Overshadowing the political imperative is a pervasive business culture of the
rational manager. It dominates organisational life through control, consistency
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
and consensus. It views organisational politics as negative and wrong. It has
long forgotten organisational life is social. The rational mindset ignores that
social organisation which contains
difference and distinction.
“Organisations appear to be
constantly changing yet something is
clearly staying the same. Something is
distorting or at least filtering the
But people do not think alike. When
momentum of continual change on
they are pressured to, organisations
contemporary organisations. That
are diminished. Dissension and
something is what we have come to
minority views add value to the
describe as the rational mindset.”
collective – commercially, ethically, psychologically. Aware managers know
this: politically active people do position their interests, they do engage with
differences, they do negotiate and reconcile competing viewpoints.
Power in Organisations
Why is power so problematic in organisations? One reason is the difficulty of
defining it, its sources and implications; another is the challenge in applying it
1. Power: Sources and Implications
Power is complex and contradictory. It has two sources, situational and
Situational Sources:
1. Formal authority: derives from one’s managerial position, based in
the rational economic organisation.
2. Control of information: power is information as is proximity to
information sources: ‘people in the know.’
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3. Reduction of uncertainty for others: if their work depends upon
your function (eg, finance), you have power over them (controlling
budgets or headcounts).
4. Control over rewards: tangible benefits valued by others decide
their fortune, like career progression and remuneration.
Personal Sources:
Referent power: role modelling (integrity, resilience); while
psychological in nature (like confidence), the power lies in it
observed as a behaviour.
2. Expertise: exercise of superior knowledge / specialist training
gives you credibility by making what you do inaccessible to others.
3. Social competence: using high order, often difficult to learn skills,
often in short supply, eg, reading another person’s motives or giving
praise genuinely.
4. Success: success breeds success and people back winners,
identifying them with achievement and effort.
These two lists open up appreciation of diverse power sources.
It is not helpful as a manager to view power as if it only has one source
(usually that of situational position power). Also, keep in mind how others
evaluate power sources: their perceptions and its social acceptability will vary
over time and place. What is valuable, then, is awareness of and sensitivity to
the range of power sources. This is a necessary starting point in shifting a
manager’s mindset.
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
2. Applying Power
The politically smart manager is not only sensitive to what power is but what it
can do. That manager will know the importance of motives. The worthiness of
their own and others’ motives distinguish legitimate use of politics from misuse
“ . . . motives are everything, the basis for all
of power. This distinction
thriving political alliances, and they are the final
continues to judge where
criterion for judging your stance in relation to
each of your stakeholders. . . . Every action of
capable politicians needs to be underpinned by
means do not justify ends –
in both their own and others’
sound reading of the motives of others.”
So making that distinction starts clarifying whether managerial politics are
serving organisational or self interest. Clarity of whether means justify ends
never comes easily. What codes of conduct help guide you at such difficult
times? Which trusted friends can you talk quietly with when faced with the
dilemma of whether means are acceptable?
Another resource for the manager mobilising a political mindset is
appreciating parallels in politics between organisation and government.
Competing interests, power sharing and lobbying are taken for granted every
day in good governance. Formal principles of democracy only work through
these informal processes of governance. This is particularly relevant as
corporate life becomes increasingly
“Democratisation is based partly on
the acceptance that organisations
function far more effectively when
their internal dynamics are treated as
In democracy, we trust motives
markets, rather than centrally planned
behind publicly pursued agreeable
economies, and partly on the
aims: such means justify the ends
recognition that organisations are not
(even when the means are not
sovereign entities that can operate
wholly transparent). So what
independently of their environment.”
prevents the manager from applying this parallel from democratic politics to
organisational politics?
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
Perhaps the scale of societal transformation is exceeding many managers’
ability to see it. Or is fear that others who don’t see organisational politics as
legitimate won’t approve of the new mindset needed by the politically smart
The politically smart manager requires an enhanced job specification,
requiring greater sensitivity to business agendas and relationships which drive
political processes; explicit legitimacy for exercising power towards vested
interests; sharper interpersonal skills for approaching people and information
from a political rather than rational perspective.
“A shift of mindset only occurs when there is sufficient dissatisfaction with the
prevailing one. It is the same with any significant personal transformation.
Negative feelings have to exist in order to overcome the pull of familiar, tried
and tested ways of thinking, or skills and knowledge you have learned over
many years. There is a lot to lose . . .”
3. Acting Smart
By now we are seeing some of the reasons why it takes time and thought to
act as a politically smart manager. Part of it is re-learning an old managerial
role acquired through time-tested experience but based on the ‘official’
(rationally run) organisation. Harder this time round to unlearn a rational
model and acquire and implement new skills – the majority of which are still
seen as not acceptable in corporate life.
Continuous updating of your political relationships, of your organisation’s
decision making paths, of your priorities among stakeholders and your
scanning of the business environment are all required. As is new self
understanding, specifically about
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
Balanced motives: being clear about how ambitious and responsible and
selfless you are
“Putting to positive use the inherently political
prepared to be in
nature of organisations turns on the idea that
pursuing a political
managers are sometimes motivated by worthy
agenda – and reading
causes, that these sometimes conflict, and that
how motivated others
just as with the politics of government, this is
are in these same
fundamentally good, not bad.”
Managerial irreverence: an attitude of healthy scepticism and impiety
“When it comes to changing your own
towards excessive
attitudes, remember that orthodox management
reliance on rationality in
training “is anything but value-free . . . it
the organisation.
reinforces the dominant mindset. . . . too
entangled in the rational model.”
Finally, new interpersonal skills are needed:
Presenting persuasively: marshalling joint positions through face-to-face
suggestion, selective introduction of information and logical connections,
emboldened by commitment and timely disclosure of own motives.
Challenging productively: outright disagreeing is not the way forward
(causes resistance by provoking others), so try progressive questioning:
causes others to analyse their positions by educating them.
Reading others’ motives: continuous – direct and indirect – unobtrusive
reading of motivations in political alliances is the bottom line in your trust of
All these understandings and skills imply significant personal and professional
development, little of which, readers are reminded at the end of this useful
book, will be on offer through conventional management training or business
school education.
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
Managers need to seek out development specialists and unconventional,
challenging approaches in executive development which are offered beyond
the scope of the rational model of management education.
Smart Management – The Challenge
The challenge for managers and organisations is for organisational politics to
position itself centrally in management. Today’s business imperatives – new
technology, relentless innovation, globalisation impacts, business ethics –
demand organisations become more democratic, more individually orientated
and more capable of managing greater, not fewer, differences.
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Smart Management: Using Politics in Organisations
DAVID BUTCHER has been in management education for twenty years, and
has held positions in several major business schools. David is a leading
member of Cranfield`s faculty, Director of Open Executive Programmes and
Director of the flagship Business Leaders Programme, acts as a consultant in
a wide range of contexts on an international basis, including investment
banking, telecommunications and FMCG multinationals, airlines,
manufacturing and aerospace organisations. His focus is on developing
business strategy, leadership capability at senior and top executive level, and
the constructive use of managerial politics. David has published widely on the
subjects of business transformation and is a frequent speaker at both
international conferences and company seminars in many different countries.
MARTIN CLARKE is a Lecturer in Management Development at Cranfield
School of Management. Martin works as a management development
consultant to a broad range of international companies and is currently
Programme Director of the Cranfield General Management Programme. His
experience lies chiefly in the area of leadership and organisational
development, and his main interests and writing are in the role of
management development and organisational politics in personal and
organisational change.
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Produced by the Learning Services Team
Cranfield School of Management
© Cranfield University 2007