Perceptions of Organizational Politics


As the figure below shows, the basic approach to studying perceptions of organizational politics involves four questions:

  • What are organizational politics perceptions?
  • What antecedent conditions are related to perceiving one's workplace as political?
  • What are the outcomes of these politics perceptions? and,
  • What kinds of factors influence the relationships amongst the antecedents, perceptions, and outcomes?


Perceptions of Organizational Politics


Adapted from Research in Multi-Level Issues: The Many Faces of Multi-Level Issues, Vol. 1, Ferris, G. R., Adams, R. W., Hochwarter, W. A. and Ammeter, A. P., Perceptions of organizational politics: Theory and research directions, pp. 179-254, Copyright (2002), with permission from Elsevier (subsequently acquired by Emerald Group Publishing Limited).

As you can see in the figure, Organizational Politics Perceptions (OPP) is the center of the model. Further, there are three categories of "antecedent" influences--Organizational, Job/Work, and Personal--that influence OPP. The model also suggests there are various "outcomes" associated with OPP. Finally, various demographic and personality variables may influence how antecedents relate to OPP and how OPP relate to outcomes.

Although the figure may look overwhelming at first, the research findings to date paint a somewhat simpler picture. Before looking at specific findings, however, let's review three basic themes.


Basic Themes in OPP Research

Not unsurprisingly one of the key themes in OPP research is personal "control". That is, to the extent someone feels he or she has control in a work situation, the less likely it will be that he or she will perceive a work situation as political. Another theme is "certainty" in that people who have information about a work situation are less likely to see the situation as political. Conversely, people who feel they have little control over an uncertain situation are more likely to see a work environment as politicized.

A third theme is conflict. Politics often is defined as the pursuit of self-interest and such pursuits invariably result in conflict with others--peers, supervisors, and so on. To the extent that someone experiences little conflict in the pursuit of self-interests, then he or she is less likely to see the work setting as political.

People who see the work situation as political thus are likely to view the work situation as a situation where the pursuit of self-interest is something like a battle in that who is likely to control significant outcomes of a particular encounter remains ambiguous and uncertain.


The Relationship Of Antecedent Influences to OPP

Job/Work Influences. How do your advancement opportunities influence your perceptions of organizational politics? How about your relationship with your boss and peers? Does the feedback you receive influence your perception of workplace politics? These are the types of questions asked in research on job/work influences.

What do the results indicate? Research generally supports the idea that people report less politics to the extent they feel they are able to accomplish personal goals in a supportive work environment. For example, to the extent people see they have advancement opportunities and career development opportunities, the less they report seeing their work as politicized. Similarly, the more that people report they have good interactions with their bosses and co-workers, and get to participate in making decisions, the less likely it is that they see the workplace as political.

These findings fit nicely with the basic political themes of control, certainty and conflict. That is, people are less likely to see their situation as political to the extent they are certain about their situation and future in their work, and they work with people who support this future.

These results seem fairly straight-forward and sound like just plain common sense. But, such is not always the case with OPP research. For example, studies of the relationship between another job/work influence--job autonomy--and OPP have been mixed. On first consideration it would seem that people who have freedom to make decisions in their job would have more control over their work and thus report less politics at work. Well, some studies suggest this might be true whereas other studies don't support this notion. For example, you might be a college professor who has a lot of autonomy in terms of how you do your job as a teacher and what you research. Yet, you may see your work environment as highly political if you are constantly in conflict with peers about other department matters or you don't think you impact important departmental decisions about tenure, promotion, and staffing. 

Organizational Influences. Organizational factors that have been studied include: centralization, formalization, organizational size, span of control, and hierarchical level. The most consistent results indicate formalization and centralization may be significantly related to perceptions of organizational politics.

Highly formalized organizations are characterized by written policies, procedures, rules and so on. Thus, highly formalized organizations attempt to provide clear expectations about how people should behave in certain situations. If perceptions of organizational politics are associated with uncertainty and ambiguity, then we should expect that the more formalized an organization, the less likely that organizational members will report perceptions that the organization is politicized. This relationship indeed is what the research findings suggest.

Highly centralized organizations are those where top management retains authority and control over decision-making and lower organization levels have little input into this process. To the extent that an organization is highly centralized, we might expect organizational members at lower organizational levels to experience more uncertainty and ambiguity given that they may not understand why and how various decisions are made, and thus be more likely to report their workplace is politicized. Again, this relationship is what the research findings suggest. Moreover, these findings are reinforced by studies showing that top managers generally report lower levels of OPP than do middle managers or lower level organizational members.

Personal Influences. Numerous individual factors have been studied as antecedent to OPP including: age, sex, race, organizational tenure and such personality factors as Machiavellianism, self-monitoring, positive and negative affectivity, and locus of control. Research results for most all of these factors have indicated no significant relationship between the factors and OPP, or the results have been mixed. The current approach (as indicated in the figure above) is to explore the role of personality and demographic factors as influencing relationships between other factors (such as a job/work factor and OPP).

The personality factors that do seem to predispose individuals to see their work situation as politicized include Machiavellianism, negative affectivity, and positive affectivity. Individuals who score high on Machiavellianism and negative affectivity tend to see their work situation as politicized more so than individuals who score lower. On the other hand, people who score higher on positive affectivity tend to report lower levels of OPP. These results make sense when we consider that people who score high on negative affectivity or Machiavellianism are predisposed to look critically and suspiciously at life generally and not just at work.

For example, negative affectivity (or neuroticism) "reflects the tendency to experience emotional distress and the inability to cope effectively with stress. Highly neurotic people are extremely tense, anxious, insecure, suspecting, jealous, emotionally unstable, hostile and vulnerable." And, people who score high on Machiavellianism (High Machs) "tend to take a more detached, calculating approach in their interaction with other people. They tend to believe most people are concerned only with their own well-being and to depend too much on anyone else is foolish. They believe the best way to get by is to use deception, rewards, promises, flattery, and even punishments to manipulate others into doing their bidding. To them, power may be more important than love."


The Relationship of OPP to Outcomes

So, what is it like to work in an environment you see as highly politicized? Does it stress you out? Make you distrust people? Make you want to find another job? Probably.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most researched outcomes of seeing one's workplace as politicized is one's satisfaction with that workplace. 

 And, results indicate consistently that people who report their workplace is politicized tend to report lower satisfaction with numerous aspects of work including dissatisfaction with the job, co-workers, pay, supervision, and the organization.

 Similarly, people report that working in a politicized environment is stressful and also report they are likely to leave the job (turnover). Thus, there is a general tendency to report less organizational commitment on the part of these organizational members.

Do perceptions that work is politicized always produce such negative outcomes? Not for some individuals. As the model above suggests, certain personality factors and perceptions tend to "moderate" the relationship between OPP and Outcomes. The factors include such personality factors as tolerance for ambiguity and task self-efficacy as well as such perceptions as understanding. Thus, e.g., even though someone might report her work environment is politicized, if she is high in tolerance for ambiguity she is less likely to report being stressed by the political environment than is someone who is low in tolerance for ambiguity (and thus more stressed by the uncertainty of the politicized work setting).


Outcomes-Organizational Politics Perceptions Feedback

The arrow pointing from Outcomes to Organizational Politics Perceptions indicates the idea that "politics begets politics." Thus, people who perceive their workplace as politicized--and behave politically in response--simply create more office politics.


Summary Observations

First, the Perceptions of Organizational Politics figure shown above is not complete. Please consult the referenced article for a more complete (and complex) version of the model. What we have discussed, however, covers the basics.

Second, as with much research in organizations, the research discussed above involves studies looking at the relationship between variables (such as OPP and job satisfaction). The results from the studies are based on correlational research and not results from experimental designs. Thus, strictly speaking, it is not appropriate to state for example that increasing the formalization in an organization will lead to lower perceptions of organizational politics.

Third, we are not aware of any studies which look at the relationship between Jungian psychological types and OPP. If you know of any, please send them our way!


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