Politics and Organizational Change: The Lived Experience

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Abstract

This paper explores the “lived experience” of organizational politics from the standpoint of the change agent. While political behavior appears inevitably to accompany organizational change, the literature of change management seems to adopt an ambivalent approach to this area. The literature of organizational politics, on the other hand, identifies power bases, and offers prescriptive lists of “power tactics” without explaining how these are deployed in the context of driving, shaping, influencing, or implementing change. How do change agents become engaged in political activity, what forms does this take, and can these actions withstand public scrutiny? This paper is based on qualitative, idiographic accounts drawn from five interviews from a pilot study designed to develop a research methodology for advancing understanding of the shaping role of political behavior in organizational change. The case illustrations presented suggest that political behavior is an accepted rather than an objectionable dimension of the change agency role; that change agents are drawn into political behavior by a combination of organizational and interpersonal factors; that political behavior can serve organizational goals (such as protection of a change agenda) as well as personal career objectives; and that while specific actions may appear unacceptable when considered in isolation, political behavior is potentially defensible in context. The definition of “political” here is the one used by respondents. This constructivist perspective reveals interpretations inconsistent with negative definitions, emphasizing the illegitimate and self-serving character of political behavior, which tend to dominate the literature.

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