Sense-making power politics cultural perspective


Power, politics and conflicts are few of the most classical building blocks in organizational studies. Nowadays everywhere is full of tension because the society has been experiencing unprecedented competitions from many significant changes in the last century such as globalization, financial restructuring, and shift of global economic power, global alliance, merger and acquisition. These serve as a wake-up call for social scientists to review whether the characteristics of power, politics and conflict still respond as we understood in the past.

Casey (2002:15) comments that an efficient organization is not one that functions flexibly and stably, but one that complexity, conflict, constant change and uncertainty are managed or compromise reached. She also adds Crozier's (1964) viewpoint on power which is considered the new central problem of organization analysis on management of uncertainty. Organization can be regarded as relationships formed and confronted by human actors in the relations of production.

Presumably, organizations are no longer use a 'one-size-fit-all' approach to manage business without considering the impact of policies in different cultures.

This essay attempts to understand how the issue of culture would impact the management and application of power, politics and conflict from an organizational perspective. It begins with introduction of power, politics, conflicts and culture in organizational activities together with comments from a Chinese cultural point of view. In the end, it will be concluded by discussion of impact of culture on power, politics and conflicts.

Power, Politics, Conflicts and Culture in Organizational Activity

This section delineates how power and politics and conflicts function in an organization.


According to Clegg (2008:256), power is an opportunity of an actor to realize one's own will in a social action which may against the opposition of others. Power sometimes is interpreted as forcing others to do things against ones' will. However, power could be considered positive because it could facilitate, shape and frame what ones want to do.

Power can be developed by i) creating dependence in others (e.g., unique skills and qualifications), ii) coping with uncertainty on behalf of others, iii) developing personal networks and iv) developing and constantly adding own expertise (Hatch 1997:286).

In an organization, one uses power to i) control information flow to others, ii) control agendas, iii) control decision-making criteria and iv) cooptation and coalition building (Hatch 1997:286).

Power, by its own nature is relationship specific. It exists between social actors rather than within the actors themselves. Ideally it is assumed to be exercised to achieve desired outcomes which are beneficial to the majority of people in the organization by means of coercion, reward, norms and knowledge (Hatch 1997:282).

The challenge of managing power, according to Clegg (2008:294) is about how to translate and include members within organizational courses of action, whereas at the same time discerning others' need, modifying one's position accordingly, and adopting the appropriate strategies and tactics to achieve whatever is chosen, yet to recognize, diagnose, and respect interests of the majority. However, sometimes the leader also exercises power on something which may not benefit of the majority such as retrenchment of staff.

Another related concept, empowerment refers to who and how power is exercised in an organization. Power can be "defined" formally in job description but also informally "defined" by the staff, norm and culture of an organization or a society (e.g., seniority, opinion leader).

This is important for one or an organization to understand how empowerment is executed in a new culture. In comparison to the West, in the Asian culture, power is centralized in the top management, sometime is inherited or assigned by the predecessor. The delegation of power can be subtle and not clear cut.


Daft (1995:420) describes politics as "the use of power to influence decisions in order to achieve those outcomes". He further adds that the exercise of power and influence lead politics to become

  1. self-serving behaviour or as a natural organizational decision process
  2. a natural organizational process for resolving differences among organizational interest groups which is consistent with the organization theory perspectives (Drory 1990)

Political behaviour serves both positive and negative (Daft 1995:421). It is the mechanism to exercise power to get things done. This is of higher importance during conflicting, uncertain and turmoil situations.

Rational and political models are the two typical models used to understand an organization. Compared with the rational model, a political model is inconsistent, pluralistic within the organization. In terms of power and control, it is decentralized. The decision process is disordered and characterized by push and pull of interests. The norm depends on free play of market forces. Conflict is in fact acceptable and expected. The decision is made by the result of bargaining and interplay in which interests brings about struggle, conflict, winners and losers (Daft 1995; Pfeffer 1981).

In general, in the Asia context, politics is negative. Due to the traditional and important traditional of face, one usually feel offended because he or she would easier take politics or one's criticism too personal instead of using it as a mean to resolve problem. Therefore, politics usually is exercised tactfully with more lobbying behind in order not to stir up too much emotion or personal attack.

Compared with the West, the control of society or organization is still centralized in people, although there are official constitutions and policies. Singapore government for example is a good example. The Lee's family is dominating the politics in the government. Laws and regulations can be passed in the legislation council without much argument because it council is dominated by a party. People try to exercise politics behind the scene in order to save each other's face.


In social contexts, Clegg (2008) defines conflict as one of more people perceiving that one's interests are or will be negatively affected by the interests of others. Usually conflicts arise when people want the same thing (power, job, resources, land, space, etc) especially when they are limited resources.

Conflicts are seen by theorists as:

  1. Dysfunctional: It is interpreted as "a sign of a defective or an incomplete social structure" and therefore committees, liaison roles, task forces and etc. were created as structural mechanisms for handling issues that generate conflict (Hatch 1997:302).
  2. Natural: Hatch (1997:302) also adds that although conflict may be unpleasant, it is an inevitable part of organizing. This helps manager to realize the fact that conflict is unavoidable and needs to be resolved.
  3. Functional: From the positive perspective, conflict brings about adaptation, stimulation, innovation and better decision making from the input of divergent opinions (Hatch 1997:304).

From the cultural perspective, the natural approach seems to be more relevant because it gives the manager a clear and positive justification before he or she can actually make use of conflict to improve decision make. From the cultural point of view, conflicts bring about revolutions and evolutions to speed up change in the society. One can also see conflict as an exercise to show who has stronger bargaining power or support among a group or society.

In general, there are five approaches for dealing with conflict (Robins 2003; Clegg 2008:117):

  1. Collaborative problem-solving: a win/win approach which intends to concern for self and others to reach an effective solution acceptable to both parties by means of open, changing information, exploring and examining differences.
  2. Avoiding: a lose/lose solution because it has low concern for self and others by avoiding tactics such as buck-passing, withdrawal and sidestepping.
  3. Forcing: win/lose situation because the needs of one party are ignored in expense of another's interest.
  4. Accommodating: a lose/win situation because one party gives up or sacrifice one's interest in order to let the other party achieve the objectives.
  5. Compromise: both parties win a little or lose a little because both parties give up something to achieve an amicable solution.

I take a contingent perspective in seeing conflict resolution because one may need to respond different in respond to different situation, environment and people.

Conflict can be presented differently in an organization. In general people would perceive it as an argument or debate. In fact it can also be handled professionally and peaceful by open communication and discussion.

Conflicts come out when different agents see things differently and fight for their own interest. Conflicts usually has negative connotation. From the positive side, conflict will lead to clarity, collaboration, compromise, final decision which would facilitate the operation of an organization. Unquestionably, if conflict cannot be handled properly and timely, it can be devastating.


Culture is consistent and clear phenomenon evident whereby "only manifestations of it that accorded with this definition, thus excising all the plural and non-integrative aspects of the culture". In the organization context, it usually refers to a set of commonly agreed norms and values which somehow set the underlying rules and regulations for people to follow and facilitate an organization's operation. (Clegg 2008:239).

Culture is a social subject matter which permeates everyone's life. Social scientist Geert Hofstede tries to understand culture by measuring it with five dimensions (Hofstede 2001, 2009). They are:

Power distance: it is "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally" (Hofstede 2001, 2009).

China is a high power distance country. Due to the thousand years of rule under the kings in different dynasty, people are used to the "man ruling" rather than the "law ruling" mechanism. Policy is usually top-down instead of bottom up. If there is conflict or rebellion, sometime it is acceptable to exercise suppression, for example, the student revolution in 1989 and Tibet riots. Due to the high power distance, although people encounter unfair situation, they dare not express their true feeling because he or she does not want to be punished. From the organizational point of view, it will impair the long term operation because the problem is just hidden but not solved rationally.

Uncertainty avoidance: refer to a "society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty avoiding cultures intends to minimize the possibility of uncertain situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures" (Hofstede 2001, 2009).

China is medium in that aspect. In the contemporary Chinese history, China has been going through somewhat dramatic transition from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1960s to the Open Door Policy in 1980s, and now market economy. People in general are more tolerant and find their own way out for survival.

Individualism versus collectivism: it refers to "the degree that individuals are integrated into groups. Individualists are found in societies where the ties between individuals are loose. Everyone is expected to take care of him/herself and his/her immediate family" (Hofstede 2001, 2009).

China and most of the countries in Asia are collective. For example, during the conversation, one can easily from that Asian will say "we or us" more than "I or me". The management needs to bear in mind that in Asia, Asian are resolving problem or conflicts for the interest of a group of people instead of individual.

When Chinese interpret power, politics and conflicts from the cultural aspect, due to their collective nature, a group of people will enjoy the 'in-group' power if one of them is in power. When a person is involved in politics or conflicts, people in the 'in-group' would see it as they being involved as well. That is why it would lead to unnecessary emotion and people prefer resolving conflict "under the table".

Masculinity versus femininity: refers to "the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found" (Hofstede 2001, 2009). The assertive group is called 'masculine' while the modest one is categorized 'feminine'.

China has a medium score in this dimension, which partly could be due to the teaching of Taoism, which emphasizes in being in the middle and not going to the extreme.

Long-Term Orientation versus short-term orientation: the is "values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's face'' (Hofstede 2009).

It is not surprising that Chinese has a very high value in this dimension because this measurement is derived from Chinese's greatest philosophy Confucius' teaching.

Since culture could be very subtle, non-verbal and is not documented, a new staff or staff from different business functions may need to learn and unlearn. Conflict of interests and politics may arise if one feel that a member violate the culture or subculture in the organization.

Power, Politics and Conflicts in Cross-cultural Management

The following will discuss the impact of culture on power, politics and conflict:

Impact of Culture on Power and Politics Management

According to a research by Purohit and Simmers (2006) about the impact of cultural values on conflict management mode preferences for people from India, Nigeria and the U.S., it is found that Nigerian, from a country of higher power distance, has the lowest preference for compromising. It is likely because Nigerians have negative association with power and wealth. This is also in line with Nigerian's high uncertainty avoidance preference. Based on Hofestede's (2001:98) study, "the uncertainty inherent in life is felt as a continuous threat that must be fought," and "only known risks are taken". In other words, compromise means giving way to control and increase of risk.

In order to improve cultures with high uncertainty avoidance and sense of insecurity, an organization can implement rules and regulations for them to follow.

This is also related to the fact that Asians have been ruled in a monarchy system than the legislation system in the West. Relationship and respect to senior people are relatively more important than the 'written' authority in job. People in power usually enjoy a lot of formal and informal benefits and 'convenience'. This also gives leeway for people to get things done through informal channels such as gift-giving or even corruption.

Due to the relatively cultural heritage and ill-defined nature of power in the Asian culture, it is more easily to see negative outcomes of politics in the society. News of corruption, election scandal, political suppression and enforcement of law by personal interpretation are more covered.

In the business world, comparatively speaking, many countries in Asia such as China and Japan, age and period of employment are indicators of power. Promotion especially in Japan is decided by a person's number of years of employment in an organization. The senior staff in a department usually has longer period of employment with the organization. This is also partly related to Asian's value about filial piety. Asian usually tries to show respect to the senior people and recognize their contribution in an organization. Power is generally centralized to the top management. Rules are loose and not well defined. Therefore, people are more commonly 'find their way out' due to the ambiguous definition of power in the culture.

Having said that, globalization and the influx of western management has changed many Asian traditions and thinking. Many organizations adopt the management style and systems from the west such as performance appraisal and balanced scorecard which gradually change the 'rules of game'. Organization set up more well defined job description, authority, reporting system, rules and guidelines for staff to follow. But the management still need to try to identify the 'informal' leader set by the tradition and "cultural heritage".

On the country, the United Kingdom counterpart has lower ranking in Hofstede's (2009) power distance ranking bracket of 30. This could be explained by it well-established legislation system. People usually do things according to laws, rules and regulations. The structure of power is more formal in the sense that it is better defined in organization on paper and system. People can easily identify the source of power and know where and how much help they could resort from.

Due to the well defined nature, sometimes organization could become less flexible and bureaucratic because everything needs to be followed by procedures and approval. Things could hardly be achieved by relationship.

Impact of Culture on Conflict Management

Definitely culture plays an important role in conflict management because culture accounts interpret how messages are communicated among people.

According to Purohit and Simmer' (2006) study, Nigerian has higher degree of uncertainty avoidance and negative reaction to power. This leads them not to choose the win-win approach of compromise in conflict management.

Managing conflict in high uncertainty avoidance countries (e.g., Chile, Colombia, Iran, Israel, and Japan) could be different from low uncertainty avoidance countries (e.g., Australia, United Kingdom)

Usually countries of high uncertainty avoidance are bound by 'strict laws and rules, safety and security measures (Hofstede 2009). Likewise, it could be easier for an organization to manage conflict by setting clear and strict rule and procedures for people to follow. Otherwise, when conflicts arise, staff may not be willing to compromise because they may see compromising makes them lose security.

For countries with low uncertainty avoidance, the company may take a more liberal approach of management to organize different type of form and informal activities to discuss the existing and potential conflict staff may be facing. They are relatively more open to speak out and more tolerant to different opinions. Probably conflicts can be resolved and compromise approach would be used through open communication.


The notion of Power, Politic and Conflict play an important role in the organization in terms of giving direction to the organization development, decision making and learning in both practice and academia.

Globalization and international business let social scientists realize that the understanding and execution of the mentioned topic varies across culture.

Together with research finding by Purohit and Simmers (2006) and critiques from the writer's based on the understanding of Chinese culture as a Chinese, culture plays an important role in the interpretation and execution of power, politics and conflict in different cultures.

As such, the management may need to use different management tools, such as formal rules and regulations and informal norms and subculture building in different in different society to run the organization more effectively.


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