The war in Iraq, beginning in 2003, brought down the overbounded Saddam Hussein regime and created a power vacuum that attracted a host of contenders vying for supremacy. By 2006, Iraq had the formal elements of a new government, including a constitution and an elected parliament, but Iraq has struggled ever since to bring con!ict and chaos under control. The Arab Spring, which began with unrest in Tunisia in 2010, brought unrest and
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revolt to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Fear of a similar fate drives the leaders of China’s ruling Communist party to mount an ongoing, massive effort to stem the tides of criticism and dissent welling up from China’s more than 700 million Internet users.
CONFLICT IN ORGANIZATIONS The political frame stresses that the combination of scarce resources and divergent interests produces con!ict as surely as night follows day. Con!ict is not something that can or should be stamped out. Other frames view con!ict differently. The structural frame, in particular, views con!ict as an impediment to effectiveness. Hierarchical con!ict raises the possibility that lower levels will ignore or subvert management directives. Con!ict among major partisan groups can undermine leadership’s ability to function. Such dangers are precisely why the structural perspective “nds virtue in a well-de”ned, authoritative chain of command, and why those in authority so often work to keep con!ict under control.
From a political perspective, con!ict is not necessarily a problem or a sign that something is amiss. Organizational resources are in short supply; there is rarely enough to give everyone everything they want. Individuals compete for jobs, titles, and prestige. Departments compete for resources and power. Interest groups vie for policy concessions. If one group controls the policy process, others may be frozen out. Con!ict is normal and inevitable. It’s a natural byproduct of collective life.
The political prism puts more emphasis on strategy and tactics than on resolution of con!ict. Con!ict has bene”ts as well as costs: “a tranquil, harmonious organization may very well be an apathetic, uncreative, stagnant, in!exible, and unresponsive organization. Con!ict challenges the status quo [and] stimulates interest and curiosity. It is the root of personal and social change, creativity, and innovation. Con!ict encourages new ideas and approaches to problems, stimulating innovation” (Heffron, 1989, p. 185).
An organization can experience too much or too little con!ict (Brown, 1983; Heffron, 1989; Jehn, 1995). Leaders may need to tamp down or stoke up the intensity, depending on the situation (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002). More important than the amount of con!ict is how it is managed. Poorly managed con!ict leads to in”ghting and destructive power struggles like those in the Challenger and Columbia cases. Well-handled con!ict, on the other hand, can stimulate creativity and innovation that make an organization a livelier, more adaptive, and more effective place (Kotter, 1985).
Con!ict is particularly likely to occur at boundaries, or interfaces, between groups and units. Horizontal con!ict occurs in the boundary between departments or divisions; vertical
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con!ict occurs at the border between levels. Cultural con!ict crops up between groups with differing values, traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles. Cultural quarrels in the larger society often seep into the workplace, generating tension around gender, ethnic, racial, and other differences.
But organizations also house their own value disputes. The world of management is different from that of frontline employees. Workers who move up the ladder sometimes struggle with elusive adjustments required by their new role. A classic article described foremen as both “master and victim of doubletalk” (Roethlisberger, 1945) because of the pressures they felt from above to side with management, and from below to think and talk like a worker.
The management challenge is to recognize and manage interface con!ict. Like other forms, it can be productive or debilitating. One of themost important tasks of unit managers or union representatives is to be a persuasive advocate for their group on a political “eld with many players representing competing interests. They need negotiation skills to develop alliances and cement deals that enable their group to move forward “without physical or psychological bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace” (Peck, 1998, p. 71).
MORAL MAZES: THE POLITICS OF GETTING AHEAD Does a world of power, self-interest, con!ict, and political games inevitably develop into a dog-eat-dog jungle in which the strong devour the weak and sel”shness trumps everything else? Is an unregulated organization invariably a nasty, brutish place where values and ethics are irrelevant? The corporate ethics scandals of recent years reinforced a recurrent suspicion that the morals of the marketplace amount to no morals at all.
Jackall (1988) views the corporation as a world of cabals and alliances, dominance and submission, con!ict and self-interest, and “moral mazes.” He suggests that “wise and ambitious managers resist the lulling platitudes of unity, though they invoke them with fervor, and look for the inevitable clash of interests beneath the bouncy, cheerful surface of corporate life” (p. 37). Moving up the ladder inevitably involves competition for the scarce resource of status. The favored myth is that free and fair competition ensures that, at least in the long run, better performers win.
But assessing performance in managerial work is fraught with ambiguity. There are multiple criteria, some of which can be assessed only through subjective judgment by the boss and others. It is often hard to separate individual performance from group performance or a host of other factors, including good or bad luck. Itmaymake a difference who is judging. Did Thiokol engineers who fought to stop the launch of Challenger deserve high grades for their
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persistence and integrity or low grades because they did not do a better job of persuading their bosses? When some of those same engineers went public with their criticism, were they demonstrating courage or disloyalty? Whistleblowers are regularly lauded by the press yet pilloried or banished by employers. This is exempli”ed byTimemagazine’s 2002Person of the Year award, given to three women who blew the whistle on their employers: Enron, WorldCom, and the FBI. By the time they received the award, all had moved on from workplaces that viewed them more as traitors than as exemplars of courage and integrity.
Managers frequently learn that getting ahead is a matter of personal “credibility,” which comes from doing what is socially and politically correct. De”nitions of political correctness re!ect tacit forms of power deeply embedded in organizational patterns and structure (Frost, 1986). Because getting ahead and making it to the top dominate the attention of many managers (Dalton, 1959; Jackall, 1988; Ritti and Funkhouser, 1982), both organiza- tions and individuals need to develop constructive and positive ways to engage in the political game. The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have.
Jackall’s view is bleak:
Bureaucracy breaks apart the ownership of property from its control, social independence from occupation, substance from appearances, action from responsibility, obligation from guilt, language from meaning, and notions of truth from reality. Most important, and at the bottom of all these fractures, it breaks apart the traditional connection between the meaning of work and salvation. In the bureaucratic world, one’s success, one’s sign of election, no longer depends on an inscrutable God, but on the capriciousness of one’s superiors and the market; and one achieves economic salvation to the extent that one pleases and submits to new gods, that is, one’s bosses and the exigencies of an impersonal market (1988, pp. 191–192).
This is not a pretty picture, but it captures the experience of many managers. Productive politics is a possible alternative, although hard to achieve. In the next chapter, we explore ways that a manager can become a constructive politician.
CONCLUSION Traditional views see organizations as created and controlled by legitimate authorities who set goals, design structure, hire andmanage employees, and ensure pursuit of the right objectives.
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The political view frames a different world. Organizations are coalitions composed of individuals and groups with enduring differences who live in a world of scarce resources. That puts power and con!ict at the center of organizational decision making.
Authorities have position power, but they must vie with many other contenders for other forms of leverage. Different contenders bring distinct beliefs, values, and interests. They seek access to various forms of power and compete for their share of scarce resources in a “nite organizational pie.
From a political perspective, goals, structure, and policies emerge from an ongoing process of bargaining and negotiation among major interest groups. Sometimes legitimate authorities are the dominant members of the coalition, as is often true in small, owner- managed organizations. Large corporations are often controlled by senior management rather than by stockholders or the board of directors. Government agencies may be controlled more by the permanent civil servants than by the political leaders at the top. The dominant group in a school district may be the teachers’ union instead of the school board or the superintendent. In such cases, rationalists recoil because they see the wrong people setting the agenda. But the political view suggests that exercising power is a natural part of ongoing contests. Those who get and use power to their advantage will be winners.
There is no guarantee that those who gain power will use it wisely or justly. But power and politics are not inevitably demeaning and destructive. Constructive politics is a possibility—indeed, a necessary option if we are to create institutions and societies that are both just and ef”cient.
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vie = compete cuisine ) contenders competitor