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CONCLUSION The question is not whether organizations are political, but what kind of politics they will encompass. Political dynamics can be sordid and destructive. But politics can also be a vehicle for achieving noble purposes. Organizational change and effectiveness depend on managers’ political skills. Constructive politicians know how to fashion an agenda, map the political terrain, create a network of support, and negotiate with both allies and adversaries. In the process, they will encounter a predictable and inescapable ethical dilemma: when to adopt an open, collaborative strategy or when to choose a tougher, more adversarial approach. In making such choices, they have to consider the potential for collaboration, the importance of long-term relationships, and, most important, their own and their organi- zation’s values and ethical principles.

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11 c h a p t e r

Organizations as Political Arenas and Political Agents

Peace extends only to private life. In business it is war all the time.

—George Eastman, Founder of Eastman Kodak

Sam Walton started his merchant career in 1945 as proprietor of the second-best variety store in a small rural Arkansas town. From that

humble beginning, he built the world’s largest retail chain. With more than 2 million “associates,”Walmart became the world’s largest employer and, for both better and worse, one of the most powerful companies on the globe. More than 90 percent of American households shop at Walmart stores every year, expecting the company to keep its promise of “always low prices” (Fishman, 2006).

Walmart’s subtle and pervasive impact is illustrated in a little-known story about deodorant packaging. Deodorant containers used to come packed in cardboard boxes until Walmart decided in the early 1990s that the boxes were wasteful and costly—about a nickel apiece for something consumers would just toss. When Walmart told suppliers to kill the cardboard, the boxes disappeared across the industry. Good for Walmart had to be good enough for everyone. The story is but one of countless examples of the “Walmart effect”—an


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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umbrella term for multiple ways Walmart in!uences consumers, vendors, employees, communities, and the environment (Fishman, 2006).

Yet, for all its power and success, Walmart has struggled in recent years to cope with an assortment of critics and image problems. The company has been accused of abusing workers, discriminating against women, busting unions, destroying small businesses, damaging the environment, and bribing government of”cials in Mexico and elsewhere. Circled by enemies, it has mounted major public relations campaigns in defense of its image.

Like all organizations, Walmart is both an arena for internal con!ict and a political agent or player operating on a “eld crammed with other organizations pursuing their own interests. As arenas, organizations house an ongoing interplay of players and agendas. As agents, organizations are powerful tools for achieving the purposes of whoever calls the shots. Walmart’s enormous size and power have made its political maneuvers widely visible; almost everyone has feelings about Walmart, one way or another. The company’s historic penchant for secrecy and its secluded location in Bentonville, Arkansas, have sometimes shielded its internal politics from the spotlight, but tales of political skullduggery still emerge, including a titillating story about a superstar marketing executive who was “red amid rumors of an of”ce romance and con!ict with her conservative bosses. The same year also spawned the strange tale of a Walmart techie who claimed he’d been secretly recording the deliberations of the board of directors. Walmart has historically resisted any efforts to unionize its workers, but in the fall of 2012, the company had its “rst experience with strikes by workers in multiple cities. Ambivalent shoppers told reporters that they sympathized with the workers but still shopped at Walmart because they could not afford to pass up the low prices.

This chapter explores organizations as both arenas and political agents. Viewing organizations as political arenas is a way to reframe many organizational processes. Organization design, for example, can be viewed not as a rational expression of an organization’s goals but as a political embodiment of contending claims. In our discussion of organizations as arenas, we examine the political dimensions of organizational change, contrasting directives from the top with pressures from below. As political agents, organizations operate in complex ecosystems—interdependent networks of organizations engaged in related activities and occupying particular niches. We illustrate several forms that ecosystems can take—business, public policy, business-government, and society. Finally, we look at the dark side of the power wielded by big organizations. We explore the concern that corporate giants represent a growing risk to the world because they are too powerful for anyone to control.

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ORGANIZATIONS AS ARENAS From a political view, “happily ever after” exists only in fairy tales. Today’s winners may quickly become tomorrow’s losers or vice versa. Change and stability are paradoxical: Organizations constantly change and yet never change. As in competitive sports, players come and go, but the game goes on. In the annals of organizational politics, few have illustrated these precepts as well as Ross Johnson, who once made the cover of Time magazine as an emblem of corporate greed and insensitivity. In Barbarians at the Gate, Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (1990) explain how.

Barbarians at the Gate

Ross Johnson began his career in the 1960s. His charm, humor, and charisma moved him ahead, and by the mid-1970s he was second in command to Henry Weigl at the consumer products !rm Standard Brands. Johnson’s lavish spending (on limousines and sumptuous entertainment, for example) soon put him on a collision course with his tight!sted boss, who tried to get him !red. But Johnson had wooed members of Standard’s board of directors so successfully that he had more friends on the board than Weigl. Johnson argued that Weigl’s conservative style was strangling the company, and the board bought his pitch. Weigl was kicked upstairs, and Johnson took over. He !red many of Weigl’s people and enjoyed a spectacular period of lavish spending on executive perks. After four years of mediocre business results, the company got an unexpected call from the chairman of the food giant Nabisco, who proposed a merger of the two companies. Within two weeks, the transaction was done: a $1.9 billion stock swap—a big deal in 1981.

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