At one time, power and politics were not considered polite topics for coverage in organizational textbooks. At best, they were seen as irrational, and at worst, as evil. Now, though, theorists and researchers recognize what managers have known all alongóthat power and politics are natural expressions of life in organizations. They often develop as a rational response to a complex set of needs and goals, and their expressions can be beneficial. However, it can also put a strain on ethical standards.


Power is the potential ability to influence behavior, to change the course of events, to overcome resistance and to get people to do things they would not other wise do. It is the ability or official capacity to exercise control or authority over a person, group, or nation. Power exists on all levels of life from the household to the government of a country. In some way we all have someone who can influence our behavior or our decisions. Power is vested in us by the dependence of othersóby how much they need what we control and by how few alternatives there are.

Power to the human race in some way resembles the food chain in the animal kingdom. Some situations are symbiotic relationships where both parties are dependent on each other for a particular behavior, and some are simply one-sided. Sometimes the obtaining of power can make a person feel that they can do whatever they wish, since we know the old saying "those with the gold make the rules," a position of upmanship may easily become out of control.

In the arena known as the corporate sector, management generally holds power. Occasionally, the reverse may be true if a subordinate is privy to knowledge that may damage his or her boss. In this type of situation, the boss is held in a compromising

position, and may be forced to treat the subordinate in a way that would not be usual and customary. Granting of special favors to insure the information does not leak out may be a benefit that the subordinate may seek in his or her own struggle to gain power.

Power can be found in many different ways in the world in which we live. It is the structure of our lives and most people wish to have it at sometime or another. We will explore this issue in the following sections. First, we consider individual bases of power. Then we examine how organizational subunits express power.  


Power can be found in the position that you occupy in the organization or the resources that you are able to command. The first basis of power, legitimate power, is dependent upon oneís position or job. Power is a word now used by more women in the workplace with less self-consciousness and apology. Women are less constrained by gender ideology and freer to choose options largely because of the feminist movement. The focus of the movement is that women must be respected and allowed to develop as full human beings.

Diversity in the workforce today has also allowed the ethnicity in management to broaden as well as the placement of women in management positions. Although individual power in the workplace looks quite different than it did in the1950ís, men still remain dominant in the food chain and are still today earning higher incomes for performing the same job that a woman is performing. Unfortunately, power is not given as easily to women and minorities as it is to the white male stereotype. This is definitely changing in the 1990ís, but it is interesting to see that power has been slowly redistributed from the white male stereotype to people who are considered able to do an equal job.

Getting things done in organizations requires the use of power. Accomplishing innovation and change threatens the status quo. Thus, innovation and change are political activities, because implementation requires political will, expertise and the use of power.  

Characteristics perceived to be important for gaining and using power:

In summary, coercion is likely to produce resistance and lack of cooperation.

Legitimate power and reward powers are likely to produce compliance with the bossís wishes. Referent and expert power are most likely to generate true commitment and enthusiasm for the managerís agenda.


The issue that faces us now is; how do people get power in the workforce? How do people get promotions? How do people demonstrate their expertise? How do people get others to like them? How do they acquire the ability to provide others with rewards and punishment when necessary? The following section will help answer these questions


There are different ways of obtaining power, but choosing the best one is crucial. There is three different activities that may lead to power; Extraordinary, Visible, and Relevant Activities.

Extraordinary Activities:

In order to obtain the power you want you must provide excellent performance, in both unusual and non-routine activities. For example try this strategy: Try to become the smartest person in your company about your company. See your organization as a whole, and learn how each department contributes to other departments and to the whole. Then, look externally for emerging trends that may affect your industry or the general business climate, and determine how they can affect your company. Finally, suggest to management how you can create programming that effectively presents these emerging issues to the right people in the company. If you learn more about your company, and are able to apply that knowledge to the meetings you coordinate, your value should become clear-perhaps winning you the title, responsibilities, and paycheck of an executive before long.

Visible Activities:

In order for your extra effort at your work to be noticed it must be visible. Visible to those who will give you those promotions and the power you have longed for. If higher management doesnít notice the extra effort you put in, it will not be of any use to you.
Relevant Activities:

Extraordinary, visible work may fail to generate power if no one cares. If nobody sees the work as relevant to the solution of important organizational problems, it will not add to oneís influence. For example: If you want to make a significant impact with whatever content youíre presenting to meeting attendees, you must learn more about their departments and the issues they face in their jobs. Other suggestions for learning more about your company include browsing youíre your firmís Web site; joining a task force outside your area of expertise; and listening a little more closely to the chatter taking place around the water cooler and in the cafeteria. Finally, "Just network in your company" as you would at a convention, says Donna Gay of Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The results may surprise you.

Cultivating the Right People

As the old saying goes, "Itís not what you know, itís who you know." Meaning, in order for individuals to advance in society they must be able to have connections out there. Networking is the best way to do this. Networking can be done in different ways. As a college student joining clubs, fraternities, or sororities is the best way of networking. In fraternities and sororities students are able to network through their fellow alumni and friends of those alumni. Get to know different people, you never know when they may become handy.


Power used to be treated as a fixed quantity where the management at the top level of an organization had the most power. This theory has slowly deteriorated over time. We see more and more throughout organizations that power is trickling down to lower level positions in companies. This concept is called empowerment. Empowerment means giving people the authority, opportunity, and motivation to take initiative and solve problems.

Employees at all levels now have the freedom to make decisions on situations that occur. "The presence of leadership of leadership at all levels will create an organization that is able to adapt, learn and innovate" (Wong and Kleiner, 1996, p.7). Bureaucratic red tape has been reduced drastically by the concept of empowerment. Employees now have the ability to handle situations in a timely manner. One thing to remember is that by empowering lower level employees upper management must not lose site of their management responsibilities. "The purpose of shifting decision making to the employees is not to remove managers totally from decisions, or to turn the operation into a democracy" (Odiorne, 1991, p.66).

Employees who are empowered have a strong sense of self worth. They are confident in their capabilities of being able to do required duties efficiently and thoroughly. "By helping employees feel that they have power over significant aspects of their work, and by enabling them to develop a sense of pride and ownership in their work and in the organization" (Hardy and Leiba-O;Sullivan, 1998, p. 451).

Empowerment does have negative aspects too. There is the possibility of employees having too much power, which can lead to the abuse of power and ineffective performance. Managers need to be careful on who is assigned authority so that the department runs as a well-oiled machine and not as a machine with many squeaks and cancers. The relationship between power and performance needs to be balanced in order for empowerment to be effective.


What are the tactics used most often to gain commitment and buy in from coworkers? In Leadership through Influence, individuals learn how to increase personal performance and team effectiveness by employing positive influence tactics.

Influence use is explored in a variety of organizational contexts, including influencing upward, downward, laterally, and in a team. Team members are taught how to cooperate, negotiate, and create alliances. Interactive role-plays, demonstrations, and one-on-one feedback and coaching enable each individual to practice these skills.


As we discussed earlier that power has the potential to influence others, but only if it is being used in the right manner. Research has shown that various influence tactics convert power into actual influence. These are specific behaviors that power holders use to affect others. These tactics include the following:

Your base of power determines what form of influence tactics you would be able to use in order to grab the attention of others. Someone with coercive power might gravitate towards assertiveness, someone with referent power might gravitate toward integration, and someone with expert power might try rationality.

As you can guess, the use of influence tactics is also dependent upon which you are just trying to influence- subordinates, peers, or superiors. Subordinates are more likely to be the recipients of assertiveness than peers or superiors. Exchange, ingratiating, and upward appeals are favored tactics for influencing both peers and subordinates.

Which influence tactics are most effective? Research has show that upward influence attempts directed towards superiors to be the most effective. At least for men, using rationality as an influence tactic was associated with receiving better performance evaluation, earning more money, and experiencing less work stress. As for women who used integration as an influence tactic received the highest performance evaluations from male managers.


Who wants power? Everyone in the first glance will want to be in power. Although it seems rewarding to have influence over others, but there are considerable individual differences in the extent to which individuals pursue and enjoy power. For example on television shows we see some celebrities get embarrassment over unwarranted power that the public brings them.

Some people consider power a manifestation of evil, but history shows of power seekers that some psychologists and political scientists had shown. There are several aspects of this image that are strikingly similar:

These points do apply to certain power seekers but this negative image of power seeking is the idea that some power seekers feel weak and resort primarily to coercive power to substitute there weakness. Power was thought of as for itís own sake and it is used to hurt others. An exaple can be given like Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milocevic who comes to my mind as extreme example.

The question being asked is can one use power responsibly to influence others? Psychologist like David McClelland agreed on that to have strong influence over others.

McClelland says the most effective managers:

He calls these managers institutional managers because how power for the good of company rather than for himself. His research showed that institutional managers are more effective than personal power managers, who use their power, are, for personal purpose is. And affiliate managers that are only concerned with being liked than exercising power. Finally we can conclude that the need for power can be useful asset as long as it is not a neurotic expression of perceived weakness. 



Thus far in the chapter we have been concerned with the bases of individual power and how individual organizational members obtain influence. In this part the concern is going to be shifted to subunit power. This term applies to organizational departments. In other cases, subunits could also refer to particular jobs, such as those held by computer software engineers. Now the question that comes up is how does organizational subunits acquire this power? This refers to how do they get the influence that will enable them to grow in size, get a larger share of the budget, obtain better facilities, and have a bigger impact on decisions making? To sum it up they control strategic contingencies, which are very important factors that affect organizational effectiveness. This means the work preformed by subunits is contingent upon the performance of a key subunit. Again one can see the very vital role of dependence in power relationships. And now we turn to such conditions under which subunits can control strategic contingencies.


Subunit differences in power are likely to be magnified when resources become scarce. When the budget money or support for staff is high, they will seldom waste their energies fighting for power. If there are cut backs that occur, then the differences in power will become apparent. One example of that would be if the funding of quality worklife and incentives for developmental efforts might disappear when economic setbacks take place because the subunits that are in charge are not essential to an organizationís existence. In most part subunits tend to get power when they are able to secure scarce resources that are vital to the organization as whole. One study of a large university found that the power of academic department was associated with the departments ability to obtain funs through consulting contracts and research grants, and by the number of undergraduates taught by that department.

Organizations detest the unknown. Unanticipated events will cause havoc with financial commitments, long term goals, and the operations of the future. That is why "business estimates are based on the probable future conditionsÖ The leader, however, must see all the future trends and unite them." Decisions have to anticipate the development. The very basic source of uncertainty exists mainly in the organizationís environment- sources of supply and demand might dry up, policies might change, or the economy might take an unanticipated turn. This is why it shows that the subunits that are most capable of coping with uncertainty will tend to get the power. By this same reason uncertainty permits changes in power priorities as the environment of an organization changes.

A dramatic example of a shift in subunit power has occurred for the personnel or human resource departments of large corporations during the past 15 years. For a long time, the personnel function in most organizations had very little power. However, beginning in the 1970s, an increase in government intervention into personnel policies began. This was very true in the area of job discrimination, in which legislation provoked considerable uncertainty. In coming to the rescue, personnel departments acquired a long awaited measure of power.


A subunitís activities can be central in at least three different ways. First, they should influence the work of most other subunits. The accounting or book keeping department is a very excellent example- its authority to approve or disapprove expenses and make payments affects every other department in a firm.

Centrality can also exists when the subunit has a crucial impact on the quantity or quality of the firmís key product or service. This again is one reason for the former low power personnel department- their tasks were then seen as remote from the primary goals. On the other hand, a production department should have more power than a development department that only "fine-tunes" existing product.

Finally, a subunitís activities are more central when their impact is more immediate. As an example, lets consider a large urban city government that includes a police department, fire department, and a public works department. The impact of a delay in fire or police services will be felt much greater and immediate than a delay in the street repairs. This would give the former department more power for acquisition.

A subunit will have very little power if others inside or outside of the firm can perform its activities. If the subunitís staff is nonsubstitutable, however, it can acquire substantial power. One of the crucial factors here is the labor market for the specialty performed by the subunit. A change can result in a change in the subunitís influence.

If the labor market is constant, subunits whose staffs are highly trained in technical areas tend to be less substitutable than those are, which involve minimal tech. Expertise. For example lets consider an IBM computer programmer and a software packager. Now the programmer is not very likely to be substituted for, but on the other hand if the union goes on strike and the packager goes than IBM can easily replace that person with some one else because of his/her non-technical background.

Finally, if the work can be contracted out, the power of the subunit that usually performs these activities is reduced greatly. A good example of this would be part time temporary office help. The subunits that control these activities often lack power because the threat of "going outside" can counter their influence attempts.


The strategic contingencies theory presents a very rational view of subunit power-power can be gravitated to where it is needed to solve pressing organizational problems. When a subunit acquires power, however that may happen, it will often attempt to hold onto that power for as long as possible. This goal is aided by the facts that it has that power at its disposal to influence other departments even though the firmís priorities appear to have been changed.



A sixteenth-century Italian philosopher and statesman named Niccolo Machavelli defined the word Machiavellianism. His best known writings include a set of suggestions for obtaining and holding governmental power. Machiavelli has come to be associated with the use of opportunism in interpersonal relations. Thus, machiavellianism is defined as the use of your power in order to make other people act or believe for your own behalf; it is a set of cynical beliefs about human nature, morality, and the permissibility of using various tactics to achieve oneís ends.

The Machiavellian person is characterized by,

According to the way of thinking of a Machiavellian, he or she would probably agree with the following statements: (1) the best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear, (2) anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble, (3) never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so, and (4) it is wise to flatter important people. Machiavellians are good at manipulating other people. They often effectively influence others and tend to initiate and control social interactions.

Machiavellians are characterized into two groups "low Machs" and "high Machs." The contrast between low Machs and high Machs is that high Mach are able to accurately identify situations in which their favored tactics will work. They are excellent at playing around with words, literally speaking. They may use power particularly effectively in face-to-face contacts. One of the tactics used by high Machs is that they remain calm and rational, and create a social structure that facilitates their personal goals at the expense of others.

Networking- the Softer Side of Politics

It is often necessary to have political influence to enable organizational members to achieve their goals, especially if these goals involve some degree of change or innovation. Network is defined by Richard L. Daft as, "a system that links together people and departments within or among an organizations for the purpose of sharing information resources." But, a more common and more subtle form of political behavior involves networking. Networking is when an individual establishes good relations with key organization members and/or key people outside the organization in order to accomplish oneís goals.

One can say that networking is a type of machiavellianism because networking involves developing informal social contacts to enlist the cooperation of others when their support is needed. But, networking is characterized under low Machs.

Individuals, like high power executives, are not the only people who are concerned about networking. Networking is also very important amongst organizations. When different organizations want to achieve something together they could not accomplish individually (Barry Allen Gold 1994). This power governs a politics concerned with creating new possibilities in a world where resources may be scarce but some interests may be joined and new resources created.

Defensiveness-Reactive Politics

Another form of political behavior is more reactive in that it concerns the defense or protection of self-interest. Individual or organizations that practice this type of political behavior do not respond to social demands in which the organization or individual admits to some errors of commission or omission and act obstructively. And, neither do they seek to learn what is in its constituenciesí interest and to respond without pressure from them. In other words, all these individuals and organizations do not respond well to proaction, accommodation, defense, nor obstruction.

These individuals and organizations tend to, either, avoid action or avoid blame. They avoid action because they believe that sometimes the best action to take is no action at all, and use different types of defensive behaviors. Some of these defensive behaviors are stalling, overconforming, buck passing, playing dumb, and depersonalizing.

Individuals and organizations avoid blame by buffing, scapegoating, or justifying. These individuals believe that if you ca not avoid action, avoid blame for its consequences.



A few years ago, the subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson responsible for Tylenol quickly withdrew the product from the market after poison-laced samples of it were discovered. Another pharmaceutical company, Copley, was criticized for not acting fast enough to recall tainted drugs. Also, Syntex and Upjohn were both charged with obscuring negative side effects in newly developed medicines. "Over the past decade or so, the media have been more than satisfying the publics appetite for stories of illegal and unethical activity in the business world. We have read and judged the steady stream of headlines, from the early days of Ivan Boeskyís Wall Street world of insider trading and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to more recent front page news: Texacoís executive-level racial discrimination caught on tape; Prudential Insuranceís admission of unethical life insurance sales policies and the churning of accounts; Gerberís manipulation of survey data and misleading advertising claims regarding the extent to which doctors recommend its baby food; sexual misconduct charges at Mitsubishi and W.R. Grace (not to mention the U.S. military). These headlines have many of us- as customers, shareholders, employees, and community citizens-wondering how these things could have happened at these otherwise successful organizations" (Green 33).

For our purposes, ethics can be defined as systematic thinking about the moral consequences of decisions. These consequences are framed in terms of the potential for harm to any stakeholder in the decision. Stakeholders are those people inside or outside of the organization who can be potentially affected by the decision. Ethics is a major branch of philosophy with many schools of thought.

Many surveys have been conducted in order to determine managersí views about the ethics involved in making business decisions. It has been found that many managers agree that unethical practices occur in business. Also, a substantial proportion report that they have been pressured to compromise their own ethical standards when making decisions. Managers also feel that their ethical standards are higher than their peers and sometimes their superiors. These findings suggest that managers will succumb to unethical behavior but will feel that they are more ethical than others around them are. It has also been found that students of business have looser ethical standards than practicing managers, at least when responding to written descriptions of ethical issues.

The Nature of Ethical Dilemmas

What are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that most frequently face organizational decision-makers? These are the results of a survey conducted by the New York Conference Board on 300 executives from worldwide companies asking whether the following constituted ethical issues in business. The percentage of affirmative responses is listed next to the issue.

Issue Percent

Employee conflicts of interest 91

Inappropriate gifts to corporate personnel 91

Sexual harassment 91

Unauthorized payments 85

Affirmative action 84

Employee privacy 84

Environmental issues 82

Employee health screening 79

Conflicts between companyís ethics and foreign business practices 77

Security of company records 76

Workplace safety 76

Advertising content 74

Product safety standards 74

Corporate contributions 68

Shareholder interests 68

Corporate due process 65

Whistleblowing 63

Employment at will 62

Disinvestment 59

Government contract issues 59

Financial and cash management procedures 55

Plant/facility closures and downsizing 55

Political action committees 55

Social issues raised by religious organizations 47

Comparable worth 43

Product pricing 42

Executive salaries 37

Contrasting these specific ethical dilemmas in business, there are also common themes that run through the ethical issues which managers face. An interview survey conducted on a diverse group of managers discovered seven themes that define their moral standards for decision making. They are:

    1. Honest communication.
    2. Fair treatment.
    3. Special consideration.
    4. Fair competition.
    5. Responsibility to organization.
    6. Corporate social responsibility.
    7. Respect for law.

Causes of Unethical Behavior

Knowing the causes of unethical behavior can help prevent it but because of the sensitivity of the topic, it is not the easiest area to research. However, the best source of evidence on this matter comes from surveys of executive opinion, case studies of prominent ethical failures, business game simulations, and responses to written scenarios involving ethical dilemmas.


The anticipation of healthy reward for following an unethical course of action with no punishment will promote unethical decisions. It is critical to recognize the role that temptation plays in unethical activity. There are many examples of this behavior from Charles Keating in the S&L scandal to Dennis Levine, the Drexel Burnham Lambert investment banker who was convicted of insider trading in Wall Streetís biggest scandal.

Role Conflict

Ethical dilemmas that take place in organizations are often forms of role conflicts. For example, an executiveís role as custodian to the environment might be at odds with his role as community employer if he works for a business knowing that the business pollutes the environment.


Competition in industries that deal with scarce resources can stimulate unethical behavior. In highly competitive industries, there is a temptation to engage in price fixing. Also, in industries with no competition there could be temptation to engage in unethical behavior. This is because in this type of industry the opportunity to make large gains is not offset by market checks and balances. The most talked about example of this occurs in the defense industry where monopoly contracts often result in ridiculous amounts being charged to taxpayers.


Are people with certain types of personalities more likely to act unethically? Business game simulations have shown that people with strong economic value orientations are more likely to behave unethically than those with weak economic value. Also, people with a high need for personal power might be prone to make unethical decisions in order to further self-interest rather than for the benefit of the organization. "Contrary to what we might think (particularly based on the mediaís frequent portrayal of corporate Americaís "bad guys"), an individualís unethical character explains a surprisingly small percentage of the wrongdoing that occurs in business. Rather, we believe most people want to do the right thing, but they:

  1. Do not have access to the information (policies, practices, norms) they need, understand the information, or know how to apply it;
  2. Are put in situations where they are faced with competing, inconsistent, or unrealistic expectations; or
  3. Are confronted with decisions in which two equally good values conflict and they must make a judgement as to the best course of action (Green 39).

Organizational and Industry Culture

Aspects of an organizationís culture can influence ethics. In executive surveys, it is found that peer and superior conduct are viewed as strongly influencing ethical behavior, for good or bad.

For example if role models in organizations are rewarded and not punished for unethical behavior, the development of an unethical corporate culture is likely. Firms convicted of illegal acts are often repeat offenders.

The role of culture is also seen in the tendency for firms in certain industries to be convicted of illegal acts such as the food, lumber, oil refining, and automobile industry.

Employing Ethical Guidelines

Making ethical decisions is not easy but if a few simple guidelines are followed the process can be easier. These are the guidelines:

"Ethics is today where the IT revolution was in the days of the 8086 microprocessor. Corporate ethics as an issue is barely 20 years old and ethics as a formal management discipline is newer than that (Krohe 29).


Green, Natalie M., "Creating an Ethical Workplace" Employment Relations Today v. 24 (Summer í97) p33-44

Krohe, James Jr., "The Big Business of Business Ethics" Across the Board v. 34 (May í97) p23-9

Womanís Day Magazine

Article: The power of women in the workforce.

Issue: June 1998.

Labor Studies Journal, Spring99, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p58.

Rural Cooperatives, sep/oct 96, vol. 63 issue 5, p29

Title : A management strategist for our time.

Author: Reynolds, Bruce J.

Hardy, Cynthia and Leiba-O'Sullivan, Sharon, "The power behind empowerment: implications for research practice." Human Relations, April 1998 v51 n4 p.451 (33).

Wong, Anna and Kleiner, Brian H., "Empowerment - in today's business paradigm it is a competitive must. (Managing Change in the Workplace). Management Decision, Sep 1996 v34 n5 p.7 (2).

Successful Meetings October 1998 "Moving on Up" by Robert Carey

Bill communications publication and Divisions

Successful Meetings March 1999 "25 Ways to Do Your Job Better" by Melinda Ligos. Bill Communications Publication and Divisions

Sucessful Meetings April 1999 "Ethics Takes Center Satge"

Bill Communications Publication and Divisions.