Should change practitioners engage with organisational politics?

16th March 2020

The film Lincoln featuring Daniel Day-Lewis recounts the struggle to end slavery in the USA. With victory in sight in the civil war, President Abraham Lincoln fears that when the slave states re-join congress after the war, it will no longer be possible to pass legislation to emancipate the slaves.

Lincoln’s high-minded, principled vision of a free society does not prevent him from engaging in underhand political action to realise it. He offers government jobs to congressman who have lost their seats, in effect bribing them for their votes. He also prevents peace envoys from the South from coming into Washington so the vote on emancipation can go ahead – which it does, to be passed by just two votes.

The question is: if the ends justified the means for Lincoln – an archetypal transformational leader – is the same true for contemporary organisational changes?

It is often suggested that change practitioners should avoid organisational politics. Is this really an option, though? Abstaining doesn’t prevent political factors influencing change outcomes, it simply means the practitioner is leaving them unaddressed.

David Buchanan, Professor at Cranfield University and co-author of Power, Politics and Organisational Change, says:

“If you are trying to change something in an organisation, if you are not prepared to play the politics game you will fail sooner or later, and probably sooner[…]”

“In a very real, practical managerial sense it almost doesn’t matter what your position on this is. The research evidence shows that most managers will and do play politics. So if you take the moral high ground, if you take a position that says no I am not going to get engaged in this, then you take that stance safe in the knowledge that somewhere between 70, 80 or 90 per cent of your colleagues don’t think that way, and won’t behave that way either.”

If we do decide to engage with political factors, Buchanan suggests we should be aware of four aspects when considering how to act:

  • Your personal values and beliefs about what you should and shouldn’t do
  • Whether the action will achieve the desired outcome
  • Your next option if it doesn’t work
  • How it will affect your reputation

Buchanan says that the accepted image of the ‘transformational leader’ (whether in politics or business) does not include political skill; rather, it is based on personality, charisma, competence, and communication skill. But in reality, he says, change always requires political skill – as Abraham Lincoln exemplified.

Organisational politics is seldom discussed in change management or the wider business literature. Given its (often decisive) influence on change success, though, shouldn’t we at least consider our options for engaging with political issues, instead of simply ignoring them?

Otherwise, we echo the fabled exchange between two colleagues:
“I don’t play these games at work.”
“Ah, so you play the ‘I don’t play these games at work’ game!”

by John Saunders, CMC Consultant



Buchanan & Badham. Power, Politics, and Organizational Change: Winning the Turf Game.

See also: Pfeffer. Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.