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spike bullet October, 1997 - Power and Corporate Politics

Corporate Politics
Types of Power
Using Power
Selecting a Power Strategy
Understanding Corporate Power
Understanding Your Own Power
What if? . . .
Internet Resources and Books

spike bullet Corporate Politics

This may be the toughest of all areas within corporate life - dealing with power and politics. It can make or break your career, cause many sleepless nights, and often has very little to do with the actual job you thought you were paid to do. Some companies are better or worse than others in the amount of political activity required in order to do your job. In some companies, playing corporate politics is the only job you have time for. In others, it is only marginally important.

Usually, the larger the company, the more part the politics play in your ability to perform.

In order to be successful in the corporate world, people need power. The types of power available are formal power and informal power. Smart corporate politicians will build their base of power in many different ways.

spike bullet Types of Power

FORMAL POWER (conferred by the organization):

Formal power is most easily recognized in our society: generals and presidents have formal position power.

Position Power: The power of role and the expectations associated with a role or job title.

  • Advantages: compliance without resentment. New relationships, triggered by role changes (promotions) enjoy a honeymoon period. Things can be done in that period that may not be accomplished at other times.
  • Disadvantages: lack of certainty that desired action will occur as the other person questions 'rights' and 'privileges.' Expectations regarding a new role are fuzzy, possibly minimizing position power.

Reward Power: The ability to provide something of value to another.

  • Advantages: rapid action.
  • Disadvantages: desire on the part of the other to do the minimum required to earn the reward.

Coercive Power: The ability to punish or to deprive the other of something of value.

  • Advantages: rapid action, absolute compliance.
  • Disadvantages: resentment, fear, desire to withdraw from the situation, need for constant surveillance.

INFORMAL POWER (earned, not conferred):

Informal power is less well understood, however, it is far stronger than formal power over the long term.

Expert Power: The power of respect gained as a result of what we know and what we can do.

  • Advantages: inspires commitment to your approach.
  • Disadvantages: the gap closes as others become equally expert; need to work to maintain respect of others. Expert power does not generalize from one area to another - need to re-prove expertise in the new area.

Friendship Power: The power of trust, shared goals, sense of identification.

  • Advantages: inspires commitment to you as a person.
  • Disadvantages: vulnerability; need to work to maintain trust; trust is very difficult to build and very easy to destroy.

Presence Power: The power of image.

  • Advantages: gets attention; people listen; people assume you are worthwhile and have something to contribute.
  • Disadvantages: establishes expectations, which must be realized through words and actions.

spike bullet Using Power

It is important to consider the personality type of the target of influence when selecting a power strategy. Ask yourself, "What are their needs, motivations and unique working style?" In order to influence someone, several strategies may be used:

  • Involvement: Entails a flexible response and use of informal power.
  • Negotiation: Accepting flexible outcomes, while relying on formal power.
  • Direction: Pursuing a fixed response while relying on formal power.
  • Enlistment: Going after a fixed response while relying on informal power.

spike bullet Selecting a Power Strategy

Michael Korda, author of Power! notes that power pays off. He reminds us, "it is not enough to want power or even to have it. It must be used creatively. And, it must be enjoyed. The use of power as a weapon of aggression makes monsters of us. . . . Power must be the servant, not the master."

Following are suggestions for when to use different power strategies, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Strategy: Involving Others

GOALS: Your goals are interdependent (to reach yours is to contribute to the ability of others to reach theirs and vice versa).

CONTROLS: You rely on the on-going commitment and judgment of the other person.

URGENCY (TIME): Time is available for exploration and problem-solving. Delay would not hurt either of you.

BALANCE OF POWER: Both parties have information or expertise the other party needs. Or, both parties trust and respect each other.

COMMITMENT: Long-term commitment to your goals by the others is sought.

Strategy: Negotiating with Others

GOALS: Your goals are independent; (not related).

CONTROLS: "Rules" covering fair play and foul play exist and are understood by all parties to the contract.

URGENCY (TIME): Delay would hurt the other person more than you. You can tolerate a deadlock better than the other. Or, delay would hurt both of you.

BALANCE OF POWER: Both parties can help (reward) or hurt (punish) each other.

COMMITMENT: Commitment to a contract or agreement is more important than commitment to goals.

Strategy: Directing Others

GOALS: Your goals are counter-dependent ( if you succeed, chances are the other will fail).

CONTROLS: You have ways to find out about "sabotage" before you're badly hurt. Constant or frequent surveillance is possible.

URGENCY (TIME): Delay would be detrimental to you.

BALANCE OF POWER: You can reward or punish the other person more than he/she can reward or punish you.

COMMITMENT: Long-term commitment of the other person is not important. Opposition or antagonism is acceptable (the other party can be replaced).

Strategy: Enlisting Others

GOALS: You can't reach your goal without the others' help, however, their goals are not dependent upon you.

CONTROLS: The worst thing the other person can do is turn you down. They would not gain by hurting you in the other ways.

URGENCY (TIME): Delay would hurt you more than the other person.

BALANCE OF POWER: The other person likes you, respects you, and is not in a position to be hurt by you.

COMMITMENT: Permission or acquiescence is more important than commitment. Opposition or antagonism is not acceptable.

spike bullet Manipulative Power

In order to manipulate someone, there are several strategies that may be used:

  • Seduction: A hidden agenda combined with the open use of informal power.
  • Entrapment: A hidden agenda combined with the open use of formal power.
  • Disclaimer: A double whammy .. pursuing a hidden agenda while denying or falsifying the informal power base.
  • Camouflage: Another double whammy . . . pursuing a hidden agenda while denying or falsifying the formal power base.


Manipulation is a dangerous tactic, and should be avoided if at all possible. Manipulation destroys trust, makes it difficult to build and use expert power or friendship power in the future.

Manipulation also creates suspicion and hostility from others. The results will lead to lose of power by the manipulator (what goes around, comes around).

spike bullet POWER PLAYS

Power plays are uses of power designed to more publicly exert power over another. They most often occur when someone is threatened by turf issues, general or specific insecurity, corporate reorganizations (merger, acquisition, down-sizing). A power play may occur when someone wants to expand their empire and doesn't know healthy ways to gain power.

Some people know only how to operate through the use of power politics and are totally confused by someone who won't play their game. If you find yourself in this environment and are the type who won't (or can't) play, you may be in the wrong company.

Or, you may want to learn how to play the corporate politics game. The choice is yours.

spike bullet Understanding Corporate Power

One of the best techniques for understanding where power resides in a corporation is the Power Map.  A Power Map is a way of presenting (in picture or graph form) the ways power exists within an organization.

To create a power map, start with an organization chart of your company. Then, use a color code to draw lines on your chart showing the 'informal' org-chart.

Use different colors to show the type of power that exists between two people. For example, if the Manager of Marketing is the son of the president's wife's brother, use a red color to show they have an outside social/family relationship. Use a green color to show people who often collaborate through shared motives, but are not organizationally reporting to each other. Use orange to denote those who can influence each other, and so on.

When you have finished, your power map will answer many of your questions about where the power resides. Your chart will be quite extensive and detailed if you have worked in a large company for any length of time.

In some cases, it may be easier to develop index cards with the knowledge you have about each person on your org-chart. On each card list: name, personality style, management style, motivation attributes, comfortable working arrangements, power styles and actions, trust/influence relationships, type of power that they use or which motivates them, and other interesting notes about them.

Once you've done your homework, you'll have something very few others have: Information Power and Knowledge Power.

Keep your chart hidden - or better yet, keep it at home. It will serve you well and will require almost constant attention with updates as changes occur. It will give you knowledge and awareness of how to gain support for your efforts and projects. It can keep you out of trouble and out of others' power plays, although some people will try to drag you into their issues anyway. It may also serve you well should your company become a victim of: down-sizing, merger, acquisition, failure or other trauma. It may protect you, prepare you for failure, or for success.

This exercise is one of the secrets to understanding power and how it really works !!

spike bullet Understanding Your Own Power

Building a Professional Network Outside

If any of the 'What If ... ' situations come about, how quickly can you find another job? Do you have a network of friends who can help you find another job, or give you introductions to others?

This used to be a less important issue than it is today - with mergers, acquisitions, down-sizing and major companies re- structuring almost daily. Many very successful and highly competent people have found themselves out of work due to the economy, industry changes, corporate politics or just plain bad luck.

The true value of a professional network, combining people you work with today, those you've worked with in the past, and those that you work with in community or professional groups may be the difference between finding a new position quickly and facing financial disaster !! This network also provides fresh ideas, new insights into daily challenges, different perspectives to use in old situations and a way to broaden your talents, skills and interests in a fun way.

Your outside network is often your 'safety net' and support system of people who care about you, and have your interests at heart. They aren't usually after your job, or concerned about the politics of your company, so are willing to provide advice without political bias. They usually have nothing to lose if you don't take their advice.

If you haven't spent time and energy building a professional network, start today.

Some ways to build an external professional network:

Join a professional group in your industry, take a class at a local university or graduate school, work with your church or the local chamber of commerce, or attend any group that interests you. Start with one group: attend meetings, get involved in a committee, have lunch with others, help where you can and see how it works. You may find you like being involved in a board of directors or enjoy coaching a sports team. The contacts you make there can help you develop new skills and help you gain confidence, particularly if your current job isn't all you hoped it would be. Many people have found new jobs or new careers through their outside professional network.

Making solid contacts takes time and effort, but it is one of the most fun ways to help move ahead professionally. The day will come when you recognize the contacts are worth their weight in gold!!

Building a Professional Network Inside

One way to gain corporate power is to build your informal network. Think about the questions listed to see how strong your internal network already is. Consider scheduling regular time to improve and maintain your internal network. For example, have lunch with someone at least a month or make at least one phone a week to someone you would like to maintain in your network.

1. Who do you have power over?

  • your own employees
  • your peers and colleagues
  • people above you in the organization
  • others in the organization

2. What type of power do you hold over them (for each of the above people, identify the type(s) of power you have over them):

  • hire/fire them
  • sign their time sheets
  • job performance reviews
  • salary increases/decreases
  • bonus/incentive recommendations
  • promotion/demotion recommendations
  • approve/disapprove their projects/work projects
  • approve/disapprove their budgets/expenses
  • know something about them that might be damaging if revealed
  • related to them: family, marriage, etc.
  • belong to outside organizations together
  • they just like you or respect you
  • they are afraid of you
  • other types of power

3. Who can you influence?

  • your own employees
  • your peers and colleagues
  • your immediate manager/supervisor
  • people above you in the organization
  • others in the organization

4. What kinds of influence can you exert?
For each of the above people, identify the type(s) of influence you have on them:

  • persuade them to work with you on a project
  • persuade them to vote on your behalf
  • ask them to intercede for you with an adversary
  • ask them to fire someone you dislike
  • ask them to hire someone who like
  • recommend you for a promotion
  • recommend one of your friends for a promotion
  • other positive actions
  • other negative actions

5. What types of persuasion or motivation do you use?

  • promises of rewards
  • remind them of the benefits of past help on your behalf or things you've done for them
  • encourage them to work with you because it will improve their skills, work situation, career benefits
  • encourage them to work with you because they like you, you like them, or you can have more fun together on this project
  • other positive benefits to you, or to them if they do participate
  • threaten them if they don't participate
  • other negative benefits to you or to them if they don't participate

6. Why do you have this influence power with these people (history of relationship)?

7. Have you moved around in your company?

  • lateral transfer from another department
  • promotion from another department
  • promotion within your current department
  • merger/acquisition moves
  • demotion
  • planned rotation within the company

8. For each position/job title you've held in the company (or parent, subsidiary or division), list: your job title, department, superiors, subordinates, peer colleagues.

9. How have you maintained your relationships with each of these people:

  • still keep in touch with them
  • don't keep in touch with them
  • call occasionally, just to see how they are, call them only when you need something
  • they call you, just to see how you are
  • they call you only when they need something
  • continue to see each other outside the office, through social or professional connections
  • work well together now on projects
  • haven't worked with them since leaving that spot

10. How would your describe your relationship previously:

  • excellent, worked well together, understood and trusted them
  • cordial, professionally cool, but respectful
  • antagonistic or had a lot of conflicts
  • tried to stay away from each other
  • you regularly attacked them, or you often found yourself opposing their views of an issue
  • they regularly attacked you, or they often found themselves opposing your views
  • were you able to "bury the hatchet" and find a way to compromise after these conflicts? (why?, or why not?)
  • even though you disagreed with them, you developed respect for them or their viewpoints
  • even though they disagreed with you, they developed respect for you or your viewpoints
  • other

11. How would your describe your relationship currently:

  • excellent, work well together, understand and trust them
  • cordial, professionally cool, but respectful
  • antagonistic or still have a lot of conflicts
  • try to stay away from each other
  • you regularly attack them, or you often find yourself opposing their views of an issue
  • they regularly attack you, or they often find themselves opposing your views
  • are you able to "bury the hatchet" and find a way to compromise after these conflicts? (why?, or why not?)
  • even though you disagree with them, you have developed respect for them or their viewpoints
  • even though they disagree with you, they have developed respect for you or your viewpoints
  • other

spike bullet What if . . . ?

Consider some of the following professional disasters, and see how your current professional network might be able to help you. Given the amount of mail we get about hostile work place situations, these questions are not far-fetched. A little disaster planning is well advised for people in many major corporations.

  1. If you were fired unjustly today, who would help you if you filed a lawsuit against the company?
  2. If you were fired unjustly today, who would give you references?
  3. If you were fired unjustly today, who would talk to you, but wouldn't give you references?
  4. If you were fired today for any reason, what information do you have in your files that would be damaging to others? Is it enough that you might be fired because you have it?
  5. If you were fired today for any reason and immediately escorted out of the building, do you already have this information secured outside the office, or would it be difficult/impossible to retrieve from your office?
  6. If you were fired today, why would it happen and who would most likely be responsible?
  7. What, if anything, have you done to protect yourself against this possibility?
  8. If your boss suddenly and unexpectedly became your enemy and starting making false accusations or demands, what would you do?
  9. What, if anything, have you done to protect yourself against this possibility?
  10. Who would help you or defend you?
  11. What documentation do you have to show you've done a good job, that your boss hasn't, or that others haven't?
  12. What proof or solid evidence do you have that you've conducted all your business affairs ethically and legally?

World Wide Web graphic  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women. Betty Lehan Harragan. Warner Books. 1977 (a classic book for anyone who wants to understand corporate politics) ASIN: 0446344001
  • Power! How to Get It, How to Use It. Michael Korda. Warner Books; Reprint edition (September 1991)ASIN: 0446360163
  • Tender Power: A Revolutionary Approach to Work and Intimacy. Sherry Suib Cohen. Addison�Wellesley. 1978 (January 1989) ASIN: 0201092425  
  • The System Made Me Do It! A Life Changing Approach to Office Politics, by Susan Osborne, PhD., 1997, Life Thread Publications, P. O. Box 185, Newark CA 94560-0185 (September 1, 1997) ISBN: 0965536807
  • Turf and Other Corporate Power Plays, Pamela Cuming (a fictional story about Larry's career progression from MBA graduate to CEO over 20 years; gives excellent examples of corporate power and politics at work.  This is an excellent book, now out of print but available in libraries or used). Simon & Schuster; (January 1986) ASIN: 0139331026

Source: In Search of Identity: Clarifying Corporate Culture, Barbara Taylor � 1993

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