Politics, power and influence

How does management differ from power and are Polish managers aware of the difference between these two notions? Or maybe we are followers of Francis Underwood from the House of Cards – we follow our own agendas, governed by emotions and intrigues of the organisations we work in?


We should be discussing three notions i.e. management, power and influence – remembering that it is crucial to differentiate between influence and power, which is only potential influence. Power may result from multiple factors, although it does not change anything in its own right. It is only influence is an act of change of attitudes in the direction we want. It is very important to identify this difference because you may have power but no influence e.g. if you are not aware that you have it or are unable to use it properly.

Secondly – if we influence someone i.a. actually change behaviours, attitudes or opinions e.g. when the person would not have undertaken any action without our intervention, then such influence must be backed by power. This is why from the point of view of a manager it is more practical to see power as a management tool. Professor Pfeffer, who has been involved with the notion of power for years, proposes in his scholarly work the theory that power is akin to static energy – it is like a charged battery, which does not do anything on its own. Only when connected to something it will cause an effect – starting an influence.

Do people understand the difference? I do not know research about the degree of awareness. There is research however, which has it that people are aware that both these notions exist in an organisation. Practice and experience teach us that many of them do not call them by their proper name every day. What is also important is that they associate the term of power and politics with negative situations in the company, though this is a fairly narrow approach to these matters.

It is worth emphasising that politics in management terms is comprised of three components. First of all the change of power into influence i.e. transformation of some potential into real change. This happens every time when we overcome opposition and induce people to behave in what we deem to be the proper way. Politics in this sense means our power, which is used to reach specific objectives.

Secondly politics is about increasing our power by reaching its sources. Power results from something – from a formal position, from relationships or features that we have. Say, if we are experts in something and others need our know-how then we have power. People will agree to do something for me because they need me. Also being liked is a source of power. I will be more willing to give up or do something the way someone wants if I like him…

Thirdly and at the same time most ethically ambiguously, politics is a way of limiting the power of others. If we have no possibility to increase our power then we can demonstrate that whoever disagrees with us is not as good an expert as we are. For example when discussing a budget draft we can support our point by proving that someone else does not how to build a budget. Instead of elevating our position I downgrade someone else.

Whether we want it or not, whether we call a spade a spade, in the long run you cannot be an effective manager without using power, politics and influence. There are basically no goals or directions that everyone agrees with – that are objectively good for the entire organisation – counterarguments can always be found. Thus such actions will be implemented, which are backed by appropriately strong power of people who support them. The other reason, for which power is needed is the fact that there are relatively few things you can do single handed. If we need people to help us reach goals while many by definition will disagree, then it becomes a necessity for us to resort to power.

The role of persuasiveness in transforming power into real influence is known. Do you think this creates an opportunity for Public Relations? What is the relationship between PR and persuasion?

Public Relations in their most fundamental form have two functions: information and persuasion – building trust and support for the organisation. These two tasks can hardly be split apart; it is seldom that we encounter communication, which is purely informative or persuasive. Public Relations actually use and should use persuasion to a large extent. If we do not conceal the purpose then showing the good sides in specific contexts or emphasising efforts will facilitate interpreting the situation. The opposite approach is to use lies and to conceal key information, which first of all is unethical and also involves the risk of reputation loss.

Reasonable reasons vs. emotions – both these factors are essential in communication; the former to convince people to see your way, the latter to shake the audience. Are there any methods for building messages using both factors? How does such a process flow?

A lot of recent research into motivation indicates a greater than expected role of emotions. Our decision, even if based on reasonable grounds, are always filtered by emotions. We have basically always known that these two factors – reasonable and emotional – are complementary; it is difficult to approach them separately. Even purely numerical calculations may screened with a filter of emotional factors.

We know that emotions, both positive as well as negative ones, affect the way decisions are taken. For example the negative ones make us analyse the situation meticulously and in detail. So they can be a good influence when taking serious decisions. One the other hand under the influence of positive emotions we take decisions more easily, which may mean faster – but not always better. As far as communication goes a balance is needed. A purely reasonable message will not move people; it will speak to reason, not the heart. Emotions play a major role especially in direct communication. The best way is to avoid extremes – a strictly emotional message may actually be treated as having low credibility. Psychologists say that facts are neutral and we give them meaning, which in turn is the essence of communication. Numbers say nothing unless they are interpreted. It is like an image from the Schindler’s List movie – the ghetto undergoing destruction; everything was shown in black and white, with the exception of the girl in the red cloak. On the one hand we have fire and people getting killed, but we remember this particular contrast. Also behavioural economy makes reference to the unreasonableness of decisions we take. It is as with stereotypes and advertising. The more you believe there are no stereotypes, or believe that advertising does not affect him, the more he succumbs to it. In a limited way you can control such factors if we honestly admit to ourselves that these mechanisms do work.

The process of social cognition is very close to the process of taking advantage of stereotypes. We are unable to perceive every individual separately. It is a two-stage process. The first stage is activation – we identify social groups, assigning specific features to them and when we meet the next person then we say: this is a scientist, this is a programmer. The next stage is application i.e. what I do with this stereotype and what I use it for. Is this only a cognitive tool; a road sign, which helps me take the proper decisions? Today we know that we are not fully able to control activation but we can control application.

How to practically build coalitions to reach PR goals?

In simple terms, a coalition may be based on two premises: common goals and mutual services, which actually do not need to have much in common with the purpose and essence of the coalition. It must be said however that a sustainable, honest and proper approach is to build coalitions based on common interests. We unite people who have an interest vested in what the coalition is striving for and additionally the interest is not against the community. If the coalition is built on interest and mutual services, which are completely unrelated to the purpose of the coalition’s existence (e.g. I involve people, organisations or institutions, which help me only because I will do other things for them), then this is cynical, fragile and short-lived. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with institutions forming coalitions to reach a goal. This should simply not be hidden. M. Porter speaks similarly about CSR – only such actions make sense, which directly concern the organisation’s area of competence and are in its best interest.

Power and politics are called a manager’s tools of the trade. How do these two notions relate to „public relations”? Do you think communication is more about “power” or rather “politics „?

As regards coupling power and politics with public relations, the very functioning of PR requires its professionals to use power and politics. This is particularly important because a PR professional often goes into areas that he has no superiority over and PR covers all areas in a company. These soft tools of influence are particularly important. You do not employ people from accounting or marketing departments if you do not have the skill of exerting influence, this seldom being attainable with use of power and hard tools of influence.

The role of independent experts and advisors – do people from outside the organisation have a natural ease of convincing others to change attitudes and why?

Most often people with authority are chosen whose dominating features are: knowledge, experience and achievements. Independent experts are seen to be neutral; they do not have a vested interest in the organisation. Their advice, guidance and recommendations do not pursue their own objectives, only those of the organisation. Of course many experts may be known for being known. They become celebrities. On the other hand they are often employed by specific persons in an organisation who require a certain degree – not only of knowledge but above all loyalty.

Unethical conduct in business – are there situations in which they may be justified?

Practice shows that such conduct does happen and tends to be quite widespread. This is a practical issue, not just a theoretical one. Applying economic and management measures to ethical actions i.e. an attempt to demonstrate that such actions are not cost-effective is a one-way street. It does not have to be true – there are people and organisations, which have been generating a hefty income for years acting in an ethical way. One should behave in an ethical because this is and should always be the norm, not only because it pays to do so.

Prof. Jacek Mironski, Ph.D. – Academic Director of CEMS MIM Program (Master’s in International Management  ranked top 3 in the world in the Financial Times ranking). Head of Business Communication Department in the International Management and Marketing Institute in Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) in Warsaw (Poland). Head of the Postgraduate Study Program in Public Relations in SGH. His research and teaching interest focuses on Organizational Behavior and Management, Leadership, Business Communication and Cross-cultural Management. Jacek Mironski teaches at graduate, postgraduate and executive levels (e.g. Polish-Canadian CEMBA  Executive MBA Program)