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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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2.3.6 Organisations as political systems

This is the third of Morgan’s metaphors that we will explore. It is concerned with issues of power, authority and superior/subordinate relationships, and here Morgan’s metaphor is that of the ruler and ruled. Morgan sees that organisations are intensely political, with people plotting for advantage; however, this politicking at the same time is paradoxically ‘undiscussable’. The very ideas presented earlier about organisations being rational entities work against openly acknowledging a conception of organisations as political arenas. Morgan argues that the organisation may be viewed as a mini-state with three potential sets of relationships between the individual and the organisation: unitary, pluralist and radical.

The unitary, pluralist and radical views of organisation can be characterised in the terms shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Unitary, pluralist and radical frames of reference
UnitaryPluralistRadical
InterestsPlaces emphasis on the achievement of common objectives. The organisation is viewed as being united under the umbrella of common goals and striving toward their achievement in the manner of a well-integrated team.Places emphasis on the diversity of individual and group interests. The organisation is regarded as a loose coalition that has just a passing interest in the formal goals of the organisation.Places emphasis on the oppositional nature of contradictory ‘class’ interests. Organisation is viewed as a battleground where rival forces (e.g. management and unions) strive for the achievement of largely incompatible ends.
ConflictRegards conflict as a rare and transient phenomenon that can be removed through appropriate managerial action. Where it does arise it is usually attributed to the activities of deviants and troublemakers.Regards conflict as an inherent and ineradicable characteristic of organisational affairs and stresses its potentially positive or functional aspects.Regards organisational conflict as inevitable and as part of a wider class conflict that will eventually change the whole structure of society. It is recognised that conflict may be suppressed and thus often exists as a latent rather than a manifest characteristic of both organisations and society.
PowerLargely ignores the role of power in organisational life. Concepts such as authority, leadership and control tend to be preferred means of describing the managerial prerogative of guiding the organisation towards the achievement of common interests.Regards power as a crucial variable. Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are alleviated and resolved. The organisation is viewed as a plurality of power holders drawing their power from a plurality of sources.Regards power as a key feature of organisation, but a phenomenon that is unequally distributed and follows class divisions. Power relations in organisations are viewed as reflections of power relations in society at large, and as closely linked to wider processes of social control, e.g. control of economic power, the legal system and education.
(Source: Based on Burrell and Morgan, 1979, 204–388)

According to Morgan, a political take on organisations generally reflects a ‘pluralist’ frame of reference that emphasises competition between different interests and sources of power. This contrasts with a unitary view where the interests of the individual and the whole are synonymous, or the radical view ‘class war’ between deeply differentiated interests – a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach. He suggests that some organisations can encompass all three approaches in different sections of the organisation.

Stop and reflect

Which frame of reference applies to your organisation? Use the material in the table to work out the features that you observe.

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