Politics, Change and Reflective Practitioners

By Porter, Elisabeth | Organization Development Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Politics, Change and Reflective Practitioners


Porter, Elisabeth, Organization Development Journal


Abstract

In a rapidly changing work environment, OD practitioners need to be aware of political complexities in which they operate. The major point of this paper is that students learning about organizational change and OD practice would benefit from studying Politics. In the process of studying Politics and engaging with others in the classroom or on Internet discussion boards, they would increase their ability to reflect on their experiences and those of others. This paper offers suggestions for politicizing OD education.

Setting

I coordinate the Politics major in a School of Social and Workplace Development in a Division of Business. Most of our undergraduate students major in Human Resource Management, Human Resource Development, and Human Relations and Communications. Some go on to do graduate studies in Organizational Development, Training and Development, or Leadership in Workplace Development. Many go into the workforce as Organizational Development Practitioners (ODPs). My experience is that those students who seek careers as ODPs, or in Human Resources, mainly tend to avoid electing Politics subjects. It is as if they deem an understanding of politics as irrelevant to their needs, or minimally, as marginal. It is my aim in this article to explain why I would like to change this understanding. My central proposition is that teaching Politics to students who may become ODPs is a pedagogical commitment to educate reflective practitioners who effectively balance action and political astuteness in a fast paced, changing work climate.

Organizational Politics

As an initial point of clarification, I am not referring merely to teaching the politics of an organization; I am referring to teaching an understanding of global politics. In particular, I am referring to a way of looking at the world through a three-fold process: of being aware of how political controversies influence organizations; of daring to ask contentious political questions; and of ethically reflecting on some apt responses. If OD refers to longrange efforts to improve organizations' problemsolving and adaptive capabilities (French, 1969), then how can consultants act as change agents within a complex global world without some educational pursuit as students of the significant political issues of the day?

Before answering this question, it is worth exploring what it means to manage the political dynamics of an organization. Wherever there are clashes of interest (between senior and middle management), conflicts of power (between shop-floor worker and top executive), different priorities (between marketing, production, and manufacturers), or resources to be allocated (wages, bonuses, promotions and profits), there are political dynamics at play. ODPs who attempt to change an organization without giving due weight to the political dynamics may threaten power balances, exacerbating internal political struggles. "Traditionally, OD has tended to neglect political issues, mainly because its humanistic roots promoted collaboration and power sharing among individuals and groups" (Waddell, Cummings, & Worley, 2000, p. 159; also Cobb & Marguilies, 1981). However, by promotion of such "collaboration and power sharing" in hierarchically structured organizations, OD is political in challenging current workplace structures and practices. My point is to make these political issues explicit.

Butcher and Clarke (1999) conducted a study of the political fluency of fifty senior managers. Their research confirmed that organizations are political, that politics are endemic to managerial relationships, and that political skill can equate to self-serving manipulation or to managerial adeptness. Working on the assumption that politics is conspicuous when change is imminent, they asked these fifty managers about resistance to change and cooperation. "The results did not reflect a world of rational change management methodologies, but one in which political fluency was a central management discipline" (Butcher & Clarke, 1999, p. …

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