4.3 Ethical Use of Power and Politics

The Ethical Use of Power

People are often uncomfortable discussing the topic of power, which implies that somehow they see the exercise of power as unseemly. On the contrary, the question is not whether power tactics are or are not ethical; rather, the question is which tactics are appropriate and which are not. The use of power in groups and companies is a fact of organizational life that all employees must accept. In doing so, however, all employees have a right to know that the exercise of power within the organization will be governed by ethical standards that prevent abuse or exploitation.

Several guidelines for the ethical use of power can be identified. These can be arranged according to some of the previous bases of power that we discussed. Several techniques, summarized in Table 4.2 are available that accomplish aims without compromising ethical standards. For example, a manager using reward power can verify subordinate compliance with work directives, ensure that all requests are both feasible and reasonable, make only ethical or proper requests, offer rewards that are valued by employees, and ensure that all rewards for good performance are credible and reasonably attainable.

Table 4.3 The Ethical Use of Power

Basis of Power Guidelines for Use
Referent power Treat subordinates fairly
Defend subordinates’ interests
Be sensitive to subordinates’ needs, feelings
Select subordinates similar to oneself
Engage in role modeling
Expert power Promote image of expertise
Maintain credibility
Act confident and decisive
Keep informed
Recognize employee concerns
Avoid threatening subordinates’ self-esteem
Legitimate power Be cordial and polite
Be confident
Be clear and follow up to verify understanding
Make sure request is appropriate
Explain reasons for request
Follow proper channels
Exercise power regularly
Enforce compliance
Be sensitive to subordinates’ concerns
Reward power Verify compliance
Make feasible, reasonable requests
Make only ethical, proper requests
Offer rewards desired by subordinates
Offer only credible rewards
Coercive power Inform subordinates of rules and penalties
Warn before punishing
Administer punishment consistently and uniformly
Understand the situation before acting
Maintain credibility
Fit punishment to the infraction
Punish in private
Source: Rice University, Organizational Behavior,CC BY 4.0.

Original Source: adapted from Gary A. Yukl, Leadership in Organizations, 8th edition 2013 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; Pearson), pp. 44–58.

Even coercive power can be used without jeopardizing personal integrity. For example, a manager can make sure that all employees know the rules and penalties for rule infractions, provide warnings before punishing, administer punishments fairly and uniformly, and so forth. The point here is that managers have at their disposal numerous tactics that they can employ without crossing over into questionable managerial behavior. In view of the increasing number of lawsuits filed by employees for harmful practices, it seems wise for a manager to consider his behaviors before acting; this will help ensure the highest ethical standards.

Let’s Focus: Power Position

As mentioned earlier, the idea of “power” often seems negative, but we can use power in an appropriate way when getting ahead in our organizations. This is called power position. Power position comes from the concept of feng shui, where the power position is the physical position in the room for a business meeting.

In this position, the person can see all entrances to the room and is seated against a wall. Because of this, they are said to be the center of attention and thus in the power position. Our meaning here refers to your ability to use conscientious techniques that can lead to personal and professional organizational growth; these also happen to be the characteristics needed for career success. Techniques that may help increase your power position at work include the following:

  • Be authentic. Be yourself. Stay true to your values and those things you find important.
  • Refuse to let people push your buttons. This can result in conflict, which does not increase your position power. Make an effort to try and get along with others.
  • Develop esteem and confidence. Esteem and confidence will give you the ability to take on difficult tasks, help others, and contribute to the organization.
  • Be a team player. Do all the things necessary to be part of a team. Get along with and help others. Helping others shows leadership, ability, and good citizenship. It can put you in a position of not only earning the respect of others but also showing your value to the organization.
  • Be someone that makes others feel good. Make others feel good when they are around you—for example, by being genuinely interested in them.
  • Develop your communication skills. Work on your written, oral, and nonverbal language skills. Learn to read and understand others’ body language.
  • Be visible in the workplace. Don’t take credit for others’ work, but do take credit for your own work. Choose high-profile projects that can put you in a position where others see your work.
  • Don’t complain. Unless you can also provide a solution, don’t offer a complaint!
  • Be goal oriented and willing to take risks. Focus on goal setting personally and professionally. Show managers and colleagues how you can help them meet goals.
  • Have positive psychological capital. There are four aspects to positive psychological capital: hope, self-efficacy, optimism, and resiliency. Self-efficacy refers to belief in your own abilities while optimism means to have a positive outlook. Resiliency is the ability to make it through difficult circumstances. In a study by the Leadership Institute (Luthans et al., 2007) on psychological capital, there was a clear relationship between positive psychological capital and job performance/job satisfaction—two very important components for good human relations!

Source: Luthans et al., (2007). 

The Ethical Use of Politics

Similar to power, there is not inherent good or bad in politics. Politics in organizations cannot be eliminated. Yet to some extent, the negative aspects of it can be neutralized if managers carefully monitor the work environment and take remedial action where necessary. Several strategies can be identified that can help manage organizational politics. As shown in Table 4.3, four basic strategies can be used (Beeman & Sharkey, 1987).

First, managers can try to reduce interpersonal or intergroup competition by using impartial standards for resource allocation and by emphasizing the superordinate goals of the entire organization—toward which all members of the organization should be working. Similarly, efforts can be made to reduce the uncertainty in the organization through clarifying job responsibilities, bases for evaluations and rewards, and so forth. The less ambiguity in the system, the less room there is for dysfunctional political behavior. Third, managers can attempt to break up existing political fiefdoms through personnel reassignment or transfer or by changing the reward system to encourage interunit cooperation. Finally, managers can work to prevent the development of future fiefdoms through training programs, selection and promotion, and reward distribution.

To the extent that employees see the organization as a fair place to work and to the extent that clear goals and resource allocation procedures are present, office politics should subside, though not disappear. In organizations where politics prosper, in fact, you are likely to find a reward system that encourages and promotes such behavior. The choice is up to the organization.

Table 4.4. Limiting the Effects of Political Behavior

To Reduce System Uncertainty
Make clear what are the bases and processes for evaluation.
Differentiate rewards among high and low performers.
Make sure the rewards are as immediately and directly related to performance as possible.
To Reduce Competition
Try to minimize resource competition among managers.
Replace resource competition with externally oriented goals and objectives.
To Break Existing Political Empires/Coalitions
Where highly cohesive political empires exist, break them apart by removing or splitting the most dysfunctional subgroups.
If you are an executive, be keenly sensitive to managers whose mode of operation is the personalization of political patronage. First, approach these persons with a directive to stop the political maneuvering. If it continues, remove them from the positions and preferably from the company.
To Prevent Future Political Empires/Coalitions
Make one of the most important criteria for promotion an apolitical attitude that puts organizational ends ahead of personal power ends.
Source: Rice University, Organizational Behavior, CC BY 4.0.

Original Source:: adapted from “The Use and Abuse of Corporate Politics,” by Don R. Beeman and Thomas W. Sharkey. Reprinted from Business Horizons, March–April 1987 by the Foundation for the School of Business at Indiana University.

Adapted Works

Power and Politics” in Organizational Behaviour by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Power and Politics” in Organizational Behaviour by Saylor Academy and is licenced  under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.


Beeman, D. & Sharkey, T. (1978). The uses and abuses of corporate politics. Business Horizons, 25–35.

Luthans, F., Avolio, B. J., Avey, J. B., & Norman, S. M. (2007). Positive psychological capital: Measurement and relationship with performance and satisfaction. Leadership Institute Faculty Publications. Paper 11. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/leadershipfacpub/11


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