Considering Political Behavior in Organizations

By Goltz, Sonia M. | The Behavior Analyst Today, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Considering Political Behavior in Organizations


Goltz, Sonia M., The Behavior Analyst Today


Political behavior in organizations is examined using an operant perspective. Operant principles help explain why political behavior tends to occur in competitive environments in which there are unclear rules for the distribution of outcomes and resources and why the true motivations behind political activities tend to be hidden. In addition political tactics are thought to occur when individuals are reinforced directly for these behaviors, when the tactics result in desired changes to consequences for performance, and when they increase power. Reasons why power holders are susceptible targets of political influence are also considered. Keywords: Political behavior, operant principles, power holders, political influence.

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Over the years, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) has enjoyed a great deal of success in terms of generating performance improvements in organizations, developing from the use of basic operant principles to the application of complex contingencies in a variety of fields (Johnson, Redmon, & Mawhinney, 2001). However, the effectiveness of these interventions may have predisposed behavior analysts to view their role in organizations as being fairly limited to using certain tools to achieve certain behaviors (e.g., Komaki, 1986). As Hantula (1992) discussed, this narrow focus has only reinforced the suggestion by other organizational researchers (e.g., Locke, 1977) that behavior analysis does not explain more general behavior in organizations.

Fortunately, recent contributions have expanded the behavior analysis of organizational behavior. Behavior analysis has been used to explain leadership (for a review, see Komaki, 1998), escalation in organizational decisions (for a review, see Goltz, 2000), organizational culture (for a review, see Redmon & Mason, 2001), social power (Goltz, 2003), and resistance to organizational change (Goltz & Hietapelto, in press). Additional behaviors in organizations also could be examined using behavior analysis. For example, Homans (1961, 1987) suggested that a aspects of groups such as norms, competition, and justice could be understood using behavioral psychology, and Goltz (2003) suggested that the operant model of power could be used to understand related processes such as politics and conflict. Thus, the purpose of the present paper is to continue to address more complex organizational dynamics by examining political behavior in organizations from an operant perspective.

Analyzing additional organizational processes using behavioral principles can require thinking outside the typical operant chamber, so to speak. In terms of examining political behavior in organizations, behavior analysts will need to avoid thinking of reinforcement schedules as being "applied" since this terminology suggests that subjects have little impact on the reinforcement schedules they receive. The implication for organizational settings is that, as long as employees respond with the targeted behaviors, they will receive the reinforcement according to previously determined amounts and schedules. Delivery of reinforcement as planned may be the case at times, but even our own experiences in organizations indicate that individuals often actively try to influence how and when the outcomes that they desire are delivered. For instance, individuals will sometimes attempt to increase the magnitude and frequency of their reinforcement, obtain desired outcomes not contingent on their performance, obtain reinforcement for behaviors that aren't part of their jobs, or decrease the negative consequences they receive for poor performance.

Attempts by employees to influence their own outcomes are, in fact, the focus of the increasing literature on individual political behavior in organizations. Individual political behavior has been defined as involving actions that further one's own self-interests without regard for fairness or the well-being of others or the organization (Kacmar & Baron, 1999). …

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