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We all work in a house of cards… don’t we?

Have you ever wondered what is going on when your successful pilot project does not receive implementation approval? Or why your performance does not land that promotion?
Decoding power plays and political dynamics provides us with a working tool with which we can analyze organizational politics and orient our action in a politicized way.
We all work in a house of cards… don’t we?

Have you ever wondered what is going on when your successful pilot project does not receive implementation approval? Or why your performance does not land that promotion?

Decoding power plays and political dynamics provides us with a working tool with which we can analyze organizational politics and orient our action in a politicized way.

Former President Frank Underwood and Gareth Morgan, a highly renowned organizational theorist and management consultant, will guide you through the house of cards.

Below you will see 14 types of power plays:

  1. Can you recognize the typical power play for your company?
  2. Which type of play does your boss exercise?
  3. What type do you prefer for yourself to use?
  4. How many types of power plays can you relate to Frank Underwood?

“Democracy is so overrated.”

Former President Frank Underwood, House of Cards

1 Formal authority

A form of legitimized power that is respected and acknowledged by those with whom one interacts:

  • Socially approved, through election, ownership/property rights, or demonstrating appropriate qualifications
  • The authority is recognized when the individual acts on the people’s behalf and legitimized by the people lower in the hierarchy
  • Underpinned by charisma, tradition, or the rule of law
  • Typically associated with the position one holds in an organization
2 Control of resources

A person with a valued skill, a supplier with a precious raw material, or a person holding information on a new project opportunity can often be persuaded to exchange a valued resource for an attractive price – money is the most liquid of all resources.

  • Conversion into promotions, patronage, threats, promises
  • Or favors to buy loyalty, service, support, or raw compliance
  • Reflected in budgeting and the control and allocation of financial resources
3 Use of organizational structure, rules, regulations, and procedures

Organizational structure is frequently used as a political instrument; plans for organizational differentiation and integration, designs for centralization and decentralization, and the tensions that can arise in matrix organizations, often entail hidden agendas related to autonomy, or interdependence of departments and individuals.

An ability to use the rules to one’s advantage is an important source of organizational power.

“Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”

Former President Frank Underwood, House of Cards

4 Control of decision process

An ability to influence the outcomes of decision-making processes is a well-recognized source of power:

  • Preventing crucial decisions from being made and fostering those that one actually desires
  • Manipulation of ground rules to guide decision making to stack the deck in favor or against a given action
  • Shaping the issues and objectives through preparing the reports and contributing to the discussion on which the decision will be based
5 Control of knowledge and information

Power accrues to the person who is able to structure attention to the issues in the way that in effect defines the reality of decision-making process.

By controlling knowledge and information, a person can systematically influence the definition of organizational situation and can create patterns of dependency.

Gatekeepers open and close the channels of communication and filtering, summarizing, analyzing and shaping knowledge in accordance to their interests.

6 Control of boundaries

By monitoring and controlling boundary transactions between different elements of the organizations, such as teams, departments, and outside of the organization.

  • Monitor external changes and initiate timely responses
  • Acquire knowledge of critical interdependencies and secure a degree of control
  • Gain access to critical information and obtain a particularly powerful position to guide action
  • Create a buffer function, allowing/blocking certain transactions

“After all, we are nothing more or less than what we choose to reveal.”

Former President Frank Underwood, House of Cards

7 Ability to cope with uncertainty

Organization implies a certain degree of interdependence, so that discontinuous or unpredictable situations in one part of an organization have considerable implications for operations elsewhere.

An ability to deal with these uncertainties gives an individual or group considerable power in the organization as a whole.

  • Environmental uncertainties with regard to markets, sourcing raw materials, financing
  • Operational uncertainties within the organization, such as breakdown of critical machinery or data processing
8 Control of technology

Technology provides its users with an ability to achieving amazing results in productive activity, and it also provides them with an ability to manipulate this productive power and make it work effectively for their own ends.

The technology a company depends on, influences the patterns of interdependence within an organization and hence the power relations between different individuals and departments.

Where technology impacts power, conflicts arise when there are attempts to introduce a new technology.

9 Control of the informal organization

Friends in high places, sponsors, mentors, ethnic or cultural affiliations, coalitions of people prepared to trade support and favors to further individual ends, and informal networks for touching base, sounding out, or merely shooting a breeze – all provide a source of power to those involved.

The coalitions, alliances and networks built through these processes may remain highly informal and to a degree invisible.

The currency of successful coalition building is one of mutual dependency and exchange.

“Of all the things I hold in high regard, rules are not one of them.”

Former President Frank Underwood, House of Cards

10 Control of counter-organizations

Whenever a group of people manages to build a concentration of power in relatively few hands it is not uncommon for opposing forces to coordinate their actions to create a rival power block.

  • Unions develop when there is a high degree of industrial concentration in an industry
  • Regulatory agencies check on the abuse of monopoly power
  • Consumer advocates act as critics and champions of consumer rights
11 Symbolism and the management of meaning

In managing the meanings and interpretations assigned to a situation, the leader in effect wields a form of symbolic power that exerts a decisive influence on how people perceive their realities and hence the way they act.

  • Use imaginary to achieve your aims: organization is a team, problems are challenges
  • Be aware of the theater one is in: style, decor and layout of the office, dress code
  • Play games according to one’s own set of unwritten rules
12 Gender and the management of gender relations

Many organizations are dominated by gender-related values that bias organizational life in favor of one sex over another.

  • Glass-ceiling effect: one sees the opportunity, but one is blocked
  • Language, rituals, myths, stories and other modes of symbolism
  • From impression management by avoiding gender stereotyping behavior to switching the archetype

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it.”

Former President Frank Underwood, House of Cards

13 Structural factors that define the stage of action

Underlying structures or logics may underpin power relations.

Many powerful managers have been the victims of downsizing. Racial prejudice may block an extremely skilled employee. Not belonging to the right social class, may stop someone from moving up the hierarchy. Not having access to education may lead to someone not even getting a foot into the door of a company.

14 The power one already has

Power is a route to power, and one can often use power to acquire power. Power used in a judicious way takes the form of an investment and, like money, often becomes useful on a rainy day (IOU).

The presence of power attracts and sustains people who wish to feed off that power and actually serves to increase the power of the holder’s power. When people experience progress or success, they are often energized to achieve further progress and success; a sense of power can actually lead to more power.

You can always be kind and play the ace of hearts!

I am sure that you have recognized the majority of power plays and realize that certain situations or cultures demand for a certain power play. 

If you do not feel comfortable with your style, the preferred power play of your manager, or the power culture in your company, it may not always be possible to make a change or to ask for a change.

Therefore it is important to practise self-reflection, ask for feedback from your colleagues, and to be aware of situational changes.

Authenticity is important in leadership and in guiding your team towards the objective. And as we are all human beings who spend a weekly +/- 40 hours out of 168 hours at the office, you can always be kind to another and play the ace of hearts. Regardless of the situation.

As one executive once told me:

People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you saidbut they will always remember how you made them feel.

If you want to read more about organizational theories, Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization – the source for this article – is your choice. If reading a book is not your thing, there is always Netflix.