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A jaundiced view of politics constitutes a serious threat to individual and organizational effectiveness. Viewed from the political frame, politics is the realistic process of making decisions and allocating resources in a context of scarcity and divergent interests. This view puts politics at the heart of decision making.

We introduce the elements of the political frame in Chapter 9. We begin by examining the dynamics lurking behind the tragic losses of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger. We also lay out the perspective’s key assumptions and discuss basic issues of power, con!ict, and ethics.

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Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

 

 

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In Chapter 10, we look at the constructive side of politics. The chapter is organized around basic skills of the effective organizational politician: setting agendas, mapping the political terrain, networking, building coalitions, and negotiating. We also offer four principles of moral judgment to guide in dealing with ethically slippery political issues.

Chapter 11 moves from the individual to the organization. We look at organizations as both arenas for political contests and active political players or actors. As arenas, organizations play an important role in shaping the rules of the game. As players or actors, organizations are powerful tools for achieving the agenda of whoever controls them. We close with a discussion of the relative power of organizations and society. Will giant corporations take over the world? Or will other institutions channel and constrain their actions?

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9 c h a p t e r

Power, Con!ict, and Coalition

Politics [is] a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

—Ambrose Bierce

Early in the morning of February 1, 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia was returning to earth from a smooth and successful mission. Suddenly

something went terribly wrong. The crew was !ooded with emergency signals—the noise of alarms and the glare of indicator lights signaling massive system failure. The craft tumbled out of control and was “nally blown apart. Cabin and crew were destroyed (Wald and Schwartz, 2003a, 2003b).

After months of investigation, a blue-ribbon commission concluded that Columbia’s loss resulted as much from organizational as technical failures. Breakdowns included: “the original compromises that were required to gain approval for the shuttle, subsequent years of resource-constraints, !uctuating priorities, schedule pressures, mischaracterization of the shuttle as operational rather than developmental, and lack of an agreed national vision for human space !ight” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 9).

In short, politics brought down the shuttle. It all sounded sadly familiar, and the investigation board emphasized that there were many “echoes” of the loss of the space shuttleChallenger 17 years earlier. Then, too, Congressional committees and a distinguished panel had spent months studying what happened and developing recommendations to keep

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Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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it from happening again. But as the Columbia board said bluntly: “The causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been “xed” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 195).

Flash back to 1986. After a series of delays, Challenger was set to launch on January 28. At sunrise, it was clear but very cold at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The weather was more like NewHampshire, where Christa McAuliffe was a high school teacher. Curtains of ice greeted ground crews as they inspected the shuttle. The temperature had plunged overnight to a record low of 24 degrees Fahrenheit (–4 degrees Celsius). Temperatures gradually warmed, but it was still brisk at 8:30 AM. Challenger’s crew of seven astronauts noted the ice as they climbed into the capsule. As McAuliffe, the “rst teacher to venture into space, entered the ship, a technician offered her an apple. She beamed and asked him to save it until she returned. At 11:38 AM, Challenger lifted off. A minute later, there was a massive explosion in the booster rockets. Millions watched their television screens in horror as the shuttle and its crew were destroyed.

On the eve of the launch, an emergency teleconference had been called between NASA and theMorton Thiokol Corporation, the contractor for the shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket motor. During the teleconference, Thiokol engineers pleaded with superiors and NASA to delay the launch. They feared cold temperatures would cause a failure in synthetic rubber O-rings sealing the rocketmotor’s joints. If the rings failed, themotor could blowup. The problemwas simple and familiar: Rubber loses elasticity at cold temperatures. Freeze a rubber ball and it won’t bounce; freeze an O-ring and it might not seal. Engineers recommended strongly that NASAwait for warmer weather. They tried to produce a persuasive engineering rationale, but their report was hastily thrown together, and the data seemed equivocal (Vaughan, 1995). Meanwhile, Thiokol and NASA both faced strong pressure to get the shuttle in the air:

Thiokol had gained the lucrative sole source contract for the solid rocket boosters thirteen years earlier, during a bitterly disputed award process. Some veteran observers called it a low point in squalid political intrigue. At the time of the award, a relatively small Thiokol Chemical Company in BrighamCity, Utah, had considerable political clout. Both the newly appointed chairman of the Senate Aeronautics and Space Science Committee, Democratic Senator Frank Moss, and the new NASA administrator, Dr. James Fletcher, were insiders in the tightly knit Utah political hierarchy. By summer 1985, however, Thiokol’s monopoly was under attack, and the corporation’s executives were reluctant to risk their billion-dollar contract by halting shuttle !ight operations long enough to correct !aws in the booster joint design (McConnell, 1987, p. 7).

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Meanwhile, NASAmanagers were experiencing their own political pressures. As part of the effort to build congressional support for the space program, NASA had promised that the shuttle would eventually pay for itself in cargo fees, like a boxcar in space. Projections of pro”tability were based on an ambitious plan: 12 !ights in 1984, 14 in 1985, and 17 in 1986. NASA had fallen well behind schedule—only “ve launches in 1984 and eight in 1985. The promise of “routine access to space” and self-supporting !ights looked more and more dubious. With every !ight costing taxpayers about $100 million, NASA needed a lot of cash from Congress, but prospects were not bright. NASA’s credibility was eroding as the U.S. budget de”cit soared.

Such was the highly charged context in which Thiokol’s engineers recommended canceling the next morning’s launch. The response from NASA of”cials was swift and pointed. One NASA manager said he was “appalled” at the proposal, and another said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch? Next April?” (McConnell, 1987, p. 196). Senior managers at Thiokol huddled and decided, against the advice of engineers, to recommend the launch. NASA accepted the recommendation and launched Flight 51-L the next morning. The O-rings failed almost immediately, and the !ight was destroyed (Bell and Esch, 1987; Jensen, 1995; McConnell, 1987; Marx et al., 1987; Vaughan, 1990, 1995).

It is deeply disturbing to see political agendas corrupting technical decisions, particu- larly when lives are at stake. We might be tempted to explain Challenger by blaming individual sel”shness and questionable motives. But such explanations are little help in understanding what really happened or in avoiding a future catastrophe. Individual errors typically occur downstream from powerful forces channeling decision makers over a precipice no one sees until too late. With Columbia and Challenger, key decision makers were experienced, highly trained, and intelligent. If we tried to get better people, where would we “nd them? Even if we could, how could we ensure that parochial interests and political gaming would not ensnare them? The Columbia investigating board recognized this reality, concluding, “NASA’s problems cannot be solved simply by retirements, resignations, or transferring personnel” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 195).

Both Columbia and Challenger were extraordinary tragedies, but they illustrate political dynamics that are everyday features of organizational life. The political frame does not blame politics on individual foibles such as sel”shness, myopia, or incompetence. Instead, it proposes that interdependence, divergent interests, scarcity, and power relations inevitably spawn political activity. It is naive and romantic to hope organizational politics can be eliminated, regardless of individual players. Managers can, however, learn to acknowledge,

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understand, and manage political dynamics, rather than shy away from them. In govern- ment, politics is a way of life rather than dirty pool. Chris Matthews calls it hardball: “Hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs” (1999, p. 13).

This chapter seeks to explain why political processes are universal, why they won’t go away, and how they can be handled adroitly. We “rst describe the political frame’s basic assumptions and explain how they work. Next, we depict organizations as freewheeling coalitions rather than as formal hierarchies. Coalitions are tools for exercising power, and we contrast power with authority and highlight tensions between authorities (who try to keep things under control) and partisans (who try to in!uence a system to get what they want). We also delineate multiple sources of power. Because con!ict is normal among members of a coalition, we underscore the role it plays across organizations. Finally, we discuss an issue at the heart of organizational politics: Do political dynamics inevitably undermine moral principles and ethics?

POLITICAL ASSUMPTIONS The political frame views organizations as roiling arenas, hosting ongoing contests arising from individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:

• Organizations are coalitions of different individuals and interest groups.

• Coalition members have enduring differences in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.

• Most important decisions involve allocating scarce resources—deciding who gets what.

• Scarce resources and enduring differences put con!ict at the center of day-to-day dynamics and make power the most important asset.

• Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining and negotiation among competing stake- holders jockeying for their own interests.

Political Propositions and the Challenger All “ve propositions of the political frame came into play in the Challenger incident:

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