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Learn how to play the political game and become more effective

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Most people dislike having to play the political ‘game’ in their organization. However, organizations exist through the interdependent cooperation of the employees, and therefore the ability to get things done requires you to develop power and the capacity to influence those on whom you depend. The blunt truth is that if you fail in this effort, either because you don’t recognize the need to do it or because you don’t know how, you will fail to achieve your goals.

If you have ever worked for a boss who lacked influence or credibility, you will understand the risks. But you can avoid ‘playing politics’ while building the influence you need. Focus each time on the strategic benefit to your organization and work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own. And always behave according to your personal values, regardless of the behavior of others (Harvard Business Review Daily Stat, 18 January 2012).

Power is the ability to influence the decision-making process, influence behavior, change the course of events, overcome resistance and get people to do things they would not do otherwise (Pfeffer, 1992, p. 30). Corporate politics is one way in which power is expressed and used. Corporate politics is generally informal, is related to the decision-making process, and is often perceived as being self-serving, either for the individual or for a particular group within the organization (Spicer, 1997, p. 142).

People are sometimes reluctant to think very systematically or strategically about acquiring and using power. They tend to think that sheer logic, the merit of their ideas or the force of their personality should be enough for acceptance. However, life doesn’t work like that. There are many managers who have made good decisions and recommendations but who have failed to get others to support them—and so they have been ineffectual. Power is so thoroughly embedded in the fabric of our social lives that ‘every human relationship is to some degree a power relation’ (Foucault, 1988, cited in Berger & Reber, 2006, p. 66).

When there is consensus about what to do and how to do it, there is no need to exercise influence or develop the power to affect others, since they will do what needs to be done anyway. But agreement on how to do it is the important thing. Even though people may agree on the organizational or project goals, they are likely to disagree about how to achieve those goals because each comes from a different viewpoint, depending on their own role, their training and their knowledge: ‘Where you stand depends on where you sit’.

Sources of power

‘Power’ is a strong and perhaps intimidating word that may cause you to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you are more comfortable in thinking in terms of your support base, allies, like-minded colleagues, friends, mates, supporters or stakeholders. But the concept is the same—it is vital to establish who are your allies in the organization, and to consciously develop a systematic plan to strengthen links with and gain support from those allies.

It is vital to understand power and to try to get it. You must be able to identify and be willing to act to build your sources of power, or you will be less effective than you would want to be (Berger & Reber, 2006, p. 75). And you need to focus much more on implementing decisions and dealing with the ramifications of the decisions. Good managers are good decision makers, but more importantly, they are skilled implementers.

Those who maintain power and influence over a long period of time consciously know how power is developed and what its sources are and they work to acquire and maintain these sources through planned effort.

US studies of corporate political power found that that sources of power result from the control of:

  • A resource

  • A technical skill

  • Knowledge

  • Performance

  • Formal attributes applicable to a person’s organizational position

  • Access to those who have one or more of the above (Spicer, 1997, pp. 138-41, 150).

The common characteristics found in managers who use their power successfully are:

  • Effective managers are sensitive to the sources of their power and are careful to keep their actions consistent with people’s expectations

  • Good managers understand - at least intuitively - their bases of power and recognize which to draw on in different situations and with different people. They are aware of the costs, risks and benefits of their power

  • Successful managers temper their power with maturity and self-control

  • Successful managers know that power is necessary to get things done.

The person with the most resources, including financial resources and also non-financial resources such as allies, is vitally important as a source of power.

Alliances are built by supporting and doing favors for people in critical positions. The best approach is to capitalize on the rule of reciprocity, which says we feel obligated to future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations and other benefits.

A major source of power is your reputation in the organization—how well you have performed in your present and previous positions, especially in terms of getting things done and holding on to power. Your location in the formal organizational structure obviously helps to determine power. But the power of position, and the use of that power, is more than just formal authority. It involves building and maintaining a reputation for being effective and also the capacity to get things implemented. These two components are essential for power.

Since reputation is affected by first impressions, it helps to develop a good track record early.

Knowledge is power. People who are well placed in the communication network also tend to be the central players in terms of power and influence. Since information is core to the PR function, practitioners are well placed to increase their power through the use of their information.

A central position in the flow of communication can in itself provide a great deal of influence to seemingly powerless units and individuals. This may partly describe the public relations function. Certainly the public relations function has influence if it is fulfilling a strategic role.

Taking account of power factors in implementing decisions

The process of implementation involves several steps:

  • Decide what your goals are and what you are trying to accomplish

  • Diagnose patterns of dependence and interdependence—identify which individuals are influential and important to your achieving your goal

  • Establish their likely points of view and how they will feel about what you are trying to do

  • Identify their power bases and which of them are more influential in the decision

  • Find out your own bases of power and influence and which bases of influence you can develop to gain more control over the situation

  • Conclude which of the various strategies and tactics for exercising power seem most appropriate and are likely to be effective, given the situation you confront

  • Based on the above, choose a course of action to get something done (Pfeffer, 1992, p. 29).

In effect, the above process is a stakeholder relations strategy. When each of the key internal stakeholders is identified and analyzed, a suitable course of action can be planned and implemented for that person.


  1. Berger, B & Reber, B (2006), Gaining Influence in Public Relations, Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  2. Pfeffer, J. (1992), Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

  3. Spicer, C (1997), Organizational Public Relations: A Political Perspective, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates..


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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