Professor Jacky Lumby
University of Southampton
Research Paper, September 2015
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Higher education leadership research, my own included1, reveals gaps in our understanding about the less visible, and perhaps less conscious activity that lies beneath formal leadership. Macropolitics in leadership involves overt displays of authority, and political lobbying and manoeuvring to gain advantage on the regional or national stage. In comparison, micropolitics encompasses a range of influencing behaviours, using social skills and interpersonal assets to achieve change through daily, often informal, activity. The exercise of power is a key facet.
Micropolitics is arguably so habitual in everyday leadership activity that for much of the time we stop noticing. Though exercised in often seemingly trivial choices, for example what to communicate and how, who to invite ‘on board’, what to reveal or conceal, what rewards or disincentives to put in play, this paper suggests it is the subtext of higher education and a fundamental engine of organisational change.
Focus of the study The aim of the research and the focus of this paper are to open micropolitical behaviour in higher education institutions (HEIs) to scrutiny and to address the gap that exists between ‘the organisational world which is presented in theory and research and the organisational world we all experience’2. The paper explores a range of literature and the views of HEI leaders on micropolitics in order to understand better current perspectives and methods, and to stimulate discussion of how the sector might collectively reflect on and develop this area of leadership practice.
The perspective of leaders in different functions, varied sizes and types of HEI, and different geographic contexts in the UK was explored in 18 interviews. Fourteen held a senior role in an HEI. Four were Leadership Foundation staff/associates. The analysis identified a range of underpinning theory-in-use and theory-in-action. The aim was to undo the partiality of leadership narratives where micropolitics and power are bleached out. The major themes emerging from the analysis are set out below.
The interviews indicated variation in the degree to which micropolitics is seen as omnipresent, necessary or positive. Some believed that micropolitical behaviour is clearly visible; others perceived it as hidden or unnecessary. The more prevalent view was that micropolitics is ubiquitous and offers benefits. A minority was uncomfortable with its exercise or desired leadership that transcends micropolitics, or both.
Leaders and power
The literature suggests that using power is a key aspect of micropolitics. There was reluctance by some to own power. Others were robust in acknowledging its centrality to their practice. Narratives display different concepts of power and a range of tactics. Although a display of direct power to impel is seen as generally inappropriate and ineffective, there are examples of it in use. Different approaches, establishing parameters for what can be spoken, or persuading others to believe their advantage to be identical with that of the leader, are also evident. The influence of power appeared very evident in seemingly rational processes.
Exploring micropolitical strategies
Micropolitical strategies were described as habitually part of the most common mechanisms of leadership; managing structure, communication, information and meetings are all explored in the paper. There were different perceptions about information flows. Some believed staff know or can find out anything. Others believed staff are often ill informed. The strategy to command information varies; some aspired to openness, while others had different approaches to partially concealing information. Tactics such as using misinformation were also reported.
The conduct of meetings reflected micropolitical techniques. The majority of those interviewed believed that formal committees are not usually the locus of decision-making. They recounted a range of tactics to achieve desired outcomes both outside and within meetings. However, on occasion, passion and commitment were the drivers of decisions rather than micropolitical manoeuvres.
Legitimacy and integrity
The evidence from this group of leaders suggests that explicit consideration of the legitimacy of micropolitical behaviour is infrequent. Persistent pursuit of legitimacy was judged to equate with integrity. The importance of organisational goals was in itself sometimes seen to justify micropolitical behaviour. Neither these data nor anything in the literature provide a reliable method of judging positive and negative forms of micropolitics, but it seems a greater degree of thoughtfulness and explicit discussion is needed.
Developing micropolitical skills
A change in the relationship with power is fundamental in the transition to a leadership role. ‘Intuitive savvy’3 in using power and micropolitical tactics is unlikely to be sufficient. Some interviewees were not optimistic about the usefulness of time-limited development programmes. Others were more sanguine. The possibilities of mentoring, coaching and apprenticeship with a more extended period for development and greater confidentiality were viewed as helpful, as were peer networks. Overall, there was support for offering rigorous preparation in relation to micropolitical skills.
This paper draws from the findings to set out some propositions for debate. It argues that at the individual level, leaders need to engage more mindfully with their use of micropolitics and, in particular, their use of power. They need not only to consider the spectrum of their own behaviour but also to confront any unacceptable tactics used by others.
This paper sets out to stimulate debate. It will not overturn the reluctance to be open about micropolitics, nor eradicate illegitimate micropolitical behaviour. Nevertheless, it is hoped that it may influence the efforts of individual leaders and those who support them towards a more conscious and positive use of micropolitical skills.
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