Don't confuse authority, power, and politics

DN Staff

May 5, 1997

4 Min Read
Don't confuse authority, power, and politics

If you work in an organization, you need a clear understanding of three closely related concepts--authority, power, and politics. Unfortunately, for many employees these concepts often confuse, frustrate, or elicit anxiety or indifference.

The traditional concept of organization is built upon the principle that someone has the "right" to command someone else, whose duty is to obey the command. This "right" is bestowed by the formal organization, and we call it authority.

It is important to note that "right to command" does not connote the "capacity to command." Most of us would be making a mistake if we were to equate right and capacity--i.e., authority and power. This is especially true in a professional environment. We must always be careful to undergird our right to command with the appropriate power, the capability to secure dominance of one's values or goals, if we want to develop and maintain highly effective organizations.

Even though it may be socially unacceptable to admit that one aspires to power or worries about power relationships, we must recognize that power and politics enter into every organizational decision.

Positive power. However, concern about power and politics does not mean that a person is committed to such Machiavellian tactics as "doing unto others before they do unto you." Power has a positive side as well. Organizations could not function without some kind of power relationships. The positive side is characterized by a concern for group goals and their achievement. Leaders enjoy the greatest overall influence when they help their followers feel powerful and accomplish greatness on their own.

The direction of communications, their frequency, and their content reveals a great deal about the power relationships within an organization. It is as simple as who talks to whom about what.

Office politics. The process by which power is exercised and sometimes acquired is called politics. In politics, contesting forces compete for favorable outcomes on decisions involving who gets what and how. Political activity is usually stronger where there are no prescribed routine answers or no stated policy. It also centers around the interpretation of existing policies and those situations involving value judgments. Any organization that attempts to totally reduce these arenas of political activity by instituting rules, regulations, and policies from the top would quickly strangle in its own red tape. Political processes form the dynamic that enables the formal organization to function. In a sense, power and politics act as the lubricant that enables the interdependent parts of the organization to operate smoothly together.

When we pretend that power and politics don't exist, we greatly reduce the ability of an organization to get things done, especially when innovation and change are involved, because they abandon procedures we have always followed.

Since power and political processes are a fact of life in all organizations, we must develop and use the appropriate skills to achieve the organization's goals.

Managers must avoid working in isolation and instead as part of the flow of social forces. They must understand that a managerial position is not self-perpetuating.

Ask the Manager

Q: Why should design engineers be concerned with Machiavelli and his philosophy?

A: "A Machiavellian is clear-minded and carefully weighs the risks and benefits of every move. [This person] won't automatically accept any rules or constraints but examines each before deciding to obey or flout them," according to Business Week (10/13/75).

Based on this quote, a Machiavellian is one who tries to take the rational approach to situations. He or she, being too clever, seldom threatens or attacks others. Instead, this person identifies and analyzes rivals and tries to exploit any weakness found in them or in the system. The Machiavellian follows the creed to "do unto others before they do unto you."

Nicolo Machiavelli was the Florentine civil servant and social scientist who wrote The Prince in 1513 (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, last reprint 1952). It was a contemporary handbook prescribing how to acquire and keep power. In it he says:

Introduction of change. "And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

A person rarely forgets insults. "He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived."

Lasting rewards. "Injuries (which are necessary to inflict) ought to be done all at one as not to have to repeat them do otherwise one is always compelled to keep the knife in his this manner being tasted less, they offend less. Benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavor of them may last longer."

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