Module M040

Organizational Micropolitics


Module author

Ayad Al-Ani

Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society

Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

Learning objectives

After you completed this module, you will be able to

  • Define micropolitics as a label describing competitive situations between members of organizations.
  • Explain the emergence of organizational strategies and structures as the result of specific power relationships between the organzination's  members.
  • Explain the sources of micropolitical power and the different strategies that members of organizations can develop in order to achieve their goals.
  • Analyze political behavior and also to understand practical tools and approaches that are being used by the organizational practitioner to analyze and participate in micropolitical interactions.

Chapter 1: Micropolitics as a ‘New' Paradigm in Management and Organization Science
1.1. Management and Organization Science and Micropolitics: First Observations and Concerns
1.2. Methodological challenges
1.3. Images and Descriptions of Micropolitics
1.4. Sources of Power
1.5. Politics and the Rational Organization
1.6. Organization Supresses the Market

Chapter 2: Power as a Game
2.1. Organizations as a Result of Games
2.2. The Individual ‘Program'
2.3. Micropolitical Tactics

Chapter 3: Analyzing Micropolitics
3.1. The Need to Predict: The Problem of Small Numbers
3.2. Watching You Play
3.3. Managing Pluralistic Organizations
3.4. Losing Innocence: The Need for Political Expertise

Chapter 4: Micropolitics in the Digital Era: Some Observations
4.1. The Crisis and the Emergence of New Organizations
4.2. Watching You At Work in the Digital Era

Chapter 5: Strength and Weakness of the Micropolitical Concept

Workload units 3
Reading extract Organizational Micropolitics


Why Open School of Management believes that knowing the concept of micropolitics is helpful

Micropolitics is defined by the way individuals and groups in organizations use formal and informal power to achieve their goals within the organization. To explain the concept further, it is important to remember that all individuals have actual and perceived power; people with strong personalities, or ancillary talents, are often perceived as being more powerful than they actually are.

So, when people with real power, the executives in a corporation or the superintendent in a school, for instance, have goals that conflict with the goals of others with less real power but more magnetism and persuasive talents, the resulting alliances often result in conflict. The leaders are often referred to as "players." The way in which the people with power—real or perceived—build the alliances and use them to further their goals is called micropolitics, or "games." Sometimes the alliances are built openly and other times it is a subtle, covert process. It can be a cooperative alliance or a conflictive one. Often, the alliances are built upon "favors" owed. These alliances and favors are the currency of the organization, spent just as capital to buy cooperation in achieving a goal. The extent to which different players (individuals or groups) can cooperate to achieve their goals, and the influence exerted by the player with the most real or perceived power determines the personality and the mission-statements of organizations. This system of alliances, and the powers that form them, predicts to a great degree, whether organizations will thrive or whether they will survive at all.


Why study micropolitics?

There has always existed a model of leadership where the power is invested in one person or group that acts on behalf of the others. In that spirit we elect representatives and governors. Corporate boards elect CEOs and CFOs to direct the function and manage the wealth of the organization. Today however, that model is challenged by one in which there is distributed leadership. Power is divided among several departments of a company. In a global economy that distribution is vital because there are too many contingencies for one man or even a small board to take into account. Still, that division of power can result in an internal power struggle over corporate goals when the welfare of one division impinges upon the goals of another. A business that manages accounts in an oriental culture may find there is conflict over the resources allocated to that market at the expense of another. Leaders may "butt heads" over international investment of any form. The logistics of the supply chain and contractual obligations with certain suppliers may conflict with leaders who favor newer, cheaper suppliers and modes of transportation. Corporations that fail to anticipate the development of alliances or conceptual "camps" may eventually be crippled by internal wars. Complicating the picture is the fact that departments are not always led by "leaders." The players are sometimes not in intrinsic roles of leadership and there are secondary alliances formed to "tip the scales."

Schools are another hotbed of micropolitics, since there are several learning paradigms that are espoused by educators. The fact that one leader may not have the professional position to direct which path the school will take does not keep others of perceived power from furthering their dissenting agendas. This is understood when we look at mathematics. There are a score of ways to teach the subject, but the current trend is toward "Common Core." Not all educators are behind the innovation, and alliances that foster hanging onto the traditional methods of solving mathematical problems can exert influence through subtle appeals to confused and frustrated parents. The "player" who gains the most support, can change the game economically for the school. Though this may seem an invasive and detrimental process, there is the accompanying concept of "survival of the fittest" that may predict a healthy outcome for the organization.


Module overview

Students taking this module will learn to identify the model of micropolitics within organizations in contrast to traditional blueprints of leadership and management. They will investigate the multitude of problems associated with the traditional model and understand how the distributed power model brings a wealth of new initiatives and ideas. They will also isolate political games and trace their beginnings; this leads to investigating the tools and thought patterns that can help people or teams achieve their goals in the micropolitical economic environment. Students will be able to understand how the management concept of micropolitics will give a different face to industry, as the digital age makes it impossible to separate "capital" from the new idea that drives an innovative product. Both have intrinsic value when the whole picture from vision to marketing is viewed through a data field, and power, whether perceived or real, is shared among all players.

This module aims to introduce a specific view of management and organizations: one in which the designs and strategies of an organization are the result of specific power relationships between its members. These members interact in a way that facilitates their interests, and, by doing that, shape the organization and its module. Highly subjective and personal interests lead them to behave in a specific way at certain decision points. Their behavior, therefore, is determined not only by ‘rational choices' but also by their ‘inner programs', which drive their decision making in a given context. In this paradigm, organizational structures and strategies evolve around these power relationships—also labeled as ‘games'.

The reader will be made familiar with the different definitions and interpretations of micropolitics, as a label describing competitive situations between members of organizations. The reader will be enabled to understand the sources of micropolitical power and the different strategies that members of organizations can develop in order to achieve their goals.

This concept clearly is very different from similar concepts in organization and management theory that adhere to a rational or ‘one best' way of getting things done. In micropolitics, many different ways of deciding are possible and viable: might makes right. The reader will be made aware of the differences between such a (contingent) view of possibilities and the current prevailing rational models of organizations and management theory. It will also become clear why traditional models have many methodological problems, illustrating the richness of the micropolitical metaphor.

Students of micropolitics will then be in a position to analyze political behavior and also to understand practical tools and approaches that are being used by the organizational practitioner to analyze and participate in micropolitical interactions.

Finally, and looking ahead, with the advent of the digital era, the way in which organizations work will be completely redefined. It will become clear to the observer that methods for refining micropolitical strategies are now available (i.e. using big data to predict the behavior of our opponents), but also that micropolitics in network organizations will manifest a very different approach.

The first section of the module is devoted to the definition of micropolitics and the way in which it impacts the economic environment. It looks at the challenges of transitioning from traditional models and examines where the power comes from in the new paradigm.

The second section takes a close look at the "players," both their agendas and their strategies for attaining their goals (the game). Students also examine how this system of "games" affects the organization.

The third section is a call to action; Students study the function of organizations and investigate the need to predict the outcomes of political "games." They also accept the reality of the need to become adept at understanding politics and using it to manage power-dividing corporations.

The fourth section looks at management in a digital age. It examines the emergence of new organizations in the digital, global culture and the crisis precipitated by the interaction with older institutions.

The fifth section introduces ideas of strength and weakness in the concept of micropolitics.

The module will allow students to peer into the economic future where organizations and their management will operate on completely different planes than today's corporations and industries do. Students will recognize the data that is available today to help them plan for emerging trends and new concepts in organizational management.


Return to Organization Management (MO module).