THE POLITICAL FRAME
In Module 3, we turn to an in-depth review of the Political Frame. While Bolman and Deal have metaphorically described the Political Frame as a “jungle,” it should be noted here that “politics” is not used by Bolman and Deal in a wholly negative context. Rather, Bolman and Deal ultimately view political processes and political behaviors as inevitable means of ensuring that scarce organizational resources (people, money, and time) are allocated throughout the organization as efficiently and effectively as possible.
It is the paucity of resources and the differences among the people working within the organization that are the root cause of competition, and that create the need for bargaining and negotiation processes. And bargaining and negotiation greatly influence the decisions made by the organization – and that ultimately influence the organization’s strategies. In this view, politics are not only inevitable in organizational life, they are a necessary driver of key organization’s decisions – and they play a key role in the determination of an organization’s success, and in shaping its culture and identity.
Let’s begin here with an excerpt from Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley. Note the assumptions of the Political Frame, as you will use these to guide the writing of your Case:
Assumptions of the Political Frame
The political frame views organizations as living, screaming political arenas that host a complex web of individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:
- Organizations are coalitions of diverse individuals and interest groups.
- There are enduring differences among coalition members in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
- Most important decisions involve allocating scarce resources—who gets what.
- Scarce resources and enduring differences make conflict central to organizational dynamics and underline power as the most important asset.
- Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among competing stakeholders.
All five propositions of the political frame came to the fore in the Challenger incident:
- Organizations are coalitions. NASA did not run the space shuttle program in isolation. The agency was part of a complex coalition including contractors, Congress, the White House, the military, the media—even the American public. Consider, for example, why Christa McAuliffe–was aboard. Her expertise as a social science teacher was not critical to the mission. But the American public was bored with white male pilots in space. Human interest was good for both NASA and Congress; it built public support for the space program. McAuliffe’s participation was a magnet for the media because it made for a great human interest story. Three years earlier, Sally Ride generated excitement as the first female astronaut. Now the idea of putting an ordinary citizen in space—especially a teacher—caught the public’s imagination. Symbolically, Christa McAuliffe represented all Americans. Everyone flew with her.
- There are enduring differences among coalition members. NASA’s hunger for funding competed with the public’s interest in lower taxes. Astronauts’ concerns about safety were at odds with pressures on NASA and its contractors to maintain an ambitious flight schedule.
- Important decisions involve allocating scarce resources. On the eve of the Challenger launch, key parties struggled to balance conflicting pressures. Everyone from Pres. Ronald Reagan to the average citizen was waiting for the first teacher to fly in space. Higher safety carried a high price—not just money, but further erosion of support from key constituents for both Morton Thiokol and NASA. Survivor, a pioneer of “reality” television, guaranteed political infighting because the rules allowed for only one winner.
- Scarce resources and enduring differences make conflict central and power the most important asset. The teleconference on the eve of the launch began as a debate between the contractor and NASA. As a sole customer, NASA was in the driver’s seat. When managers at Morton Thiokol sensed NASA’s level of disappointment and frustration, they asked for time to caucus. The scene shifted to a tense standoff between engineers and managers. Engineers were unable leverage their expertise, their primary source of power, into a sufficiently persuasive case. Managers used their authority to recommend the launch despite the opposition.
- Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among competing stakeholders. Political bargaining with the help of powerful allies got Morton Thiokol into the rocket motor business. Thiokol’s engineers had been attempting to increase management’s attention to the booster joint problem for many months. But acknowledging a problem, in addition to costing substantial time and money, risked eroding Morton Thiokol’s credibility. A large and profitable contract was hanging in the balance.
The assumptions of the political frame outline sources of power dynamics. A coalition forms because of interdependence among its members; they need one another, even though their interests may only partly overlap. The assumption of enduring difference implies that political activity is more visible and dominant under conditions of diversity than of homogeneity. Agreement and harmony are easier to achieve when everyone shares similar values, beliefs, and culture.
The concept of scarce resources suggests that politics will be more salient and intense in difficult times. Schools and colleges, for example, have lived through alternating times of feast and famine in response to peaks and valleys in economic and demographic trends. When money and students are plentiful (as they were in the 1960s and again in the 1990s), administrators spend time determining which buildings to erect and programs to initiate. Conversely, when resources dry up, conflict mushrooms and administrators often succumb to political forces they neither understand nor control.
Another key political issue is power—its distribution and exercise. Power in organizations is basically the capacity to get things done. Pfeffer (1992, p. 30) defines power as “the potential ability to influence behavior, to change the course of events, to overcome resistance, and to get people to do things they would not otherwise do.” Russ (1994, p. 38) puts it more strongly as the ability to “make one’s will prevail and to attain one’s goal.” Social scientists have often emphasized tight linkage between power and dependency: if A has something B wants, A has leverage. In much of organizational life, individuals and groups are interdependent; they need things from one another, and power relationships are multidirectional. From the view of the political frame, power is a “daily mechanism of our social existence” (Crozier and Friedberg, 1977, p. 32).
The final proposition of the political frame emphasizes that goals are set not by fiat at the top but through an ongoing process of negotiation and interaction among key players. To illustrate, consider another example: a commitment China made in December 2001 to promote its accession to the World Trade Organization. The Chinese government promised to get serious about protecting intellectual property, ensuring that products carrying labels such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Sony, and Rolex were authentic. The central government passed laws, threw the book at the occasional unlucky offender, blustered in the media, and put pressure on local governments. Yet six months later, name-brand knockoffs and pirated software were still on sale all over China, even a few blocks from Tiananmen Square” (Bolman & Deal, 2003, pp. 186-9).
Let’s continue our discussion with this interesting presentation on the Political Frame:
Jacobs, R.M. (n.d.). Theories of practice: The political frame. Villanova University. Retrieved on May 1, 2014 from http://www83.homepage.villanova.edu/richard.jacobs/MPA%208002/Powerpoint/8002%20MPA/political.ppt
Forbes, W., & Watson, R. (n.d.). Destructive corporate leadership and board loyalty bias: A case study of Michael Eisner’s long tenure at Disney Corporation. City University London.
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