Organizational political climate and employee engagement in political behavior in public sector organizations: A mixed methods study

Aviv Kidron (Department of Human Services, The Academic Yezreel Valley College, Jezreel Valley, Israel)
Hedva Vinarski Peretz (Department of Political Science, Department and of Health Systems Management, The Academic Yezreel Valley College, Yezreel Valley, Israel)

International Journal of Organizational Analysis

ISSN: 1934-8835

Publication date: 3 September 2018

Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to understand how the organizational political climate as a contextual antecedent contributes to individual engagement in political behavior; and the moderating role of organizational commitment and trust in local government organizations.

Design/methodology/approach

A mixed methods integration and an explanatory-sequential mixed methods design were used. Data were collected from 217 managers and employees, and 16 interviews were conducted. Data were collected in sequence, and the quantitative results were explained by the qualitative data.

Findings

The results suggest that political climate is related to political behavior and that both trust and affective commitment are negatively related to political climate. Trust moderated between political climate and political behavior. However, affective commitment moderated by the political climate and political behavior only for women. The qualitative results suggest that men perceive organizational politics as having more positive outcomes than women.

Practical implications

Human resource practitioners and managers can use this model to gain insights into their organizational political climate and to implement practices that will foster a climate that is functional and positive and which will cultivate a positive subjective experience in the workplace for their employees.

Originality/value

The mixed methods design for studying the contextual-organizational antecedent (perception of political climate) for politicking and individual engagement in political behavior may serve to expand the theory of organizational politics.

Keywords

Citation

Kidron, A. and Vinarski Peretz, H. (2018), "Organizational political climate and employee engagement in political behavior in public sector organizations", International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 773-795. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJOA-09-2017-1243

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Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Political behavior is integral to complex organizations (Parker, 2014) and plays a significant role in the workplace environment. Organizational politics are rife with opportunities for employees to experience various behaviors (Hill et al., 2016; Vigoda-Gadot et al., 2003). Organizational and management scholars are naturally deeply concerned with the question of why certain employees decide to engage in political behavior, while others do not (Ferris and Treadway, 2012; Gotsis and Kortezi, 2010; Hochwarter, 2012; Kapoutsis and Thanos, 2016). This study explores some of the ways in which the organizational political climate as a contextual antecedent affects individual engagement in political behavior within local government organizations.

Contemporary organizational science theory and research increasingly recognize the importance of contextual factors in explaining organizational experiences, particularly their effect on organizational behavior (Johns, 2006). A growing body of research is directed to understanding the triggers behind workplace political behavior (Buchanan, 2008; Elbanna et al., 2014; Valle and Perrewé, 2000) and suggests that various organizational and individual factors contribute to individuals’ engagement in political behavior (Champoux, 2016; Liu et al., 2010). The proposed model shows that the relationship between political climate and political behavior is moderated by trust and affective commitment, which are both also generally recognized as having a key influence on individual behavior (Chen and Indartunu, 2011; Vigoda-Gadot, 2006; Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010).

Despite this increased interest in the contextual antecedents of individual political behavior in the workplace, the subjective experience of the organizational political context remains largely unexplored, particularly at the micro level (Buchanan, 2008; Ferris et al., 1996). Indeed, empirical research into workplace organizational politics concentrating on the individual’s perceptions of the organizational political climate is scarce (Landells and Albrecht, 2013). The present research therefore adopted the micro-level approach (Buchanan, 2008; Christiansen et al., 1997) into individual subjective political perceptions and behavior, and sought to understand the larger political issues of the workplace.

This paper challenges certain accepted theoretical and methodological principles by providing insight into the antecedents of political behavior in public sector organizations. To date, relatively few researchers investigated the ways in which a specific political climate provides fertile ground for individual political activity (Landells and Albrecht, 2013). Attention to the question of individual responses to the political climate in the workplace is particularly scarce (Dipboye and Bigazzi Foster, 2002; Liu et al., 2010). The ways organizational political climate as a contextual antecedent contributes to individual engagement in political behavior were explored within local government organizations.

As both the antecedents of political behavior and the moderating role of trust and affective commitment were found in previous studies to be central variables that influence individual behavior (Chen and Indartunu, 2011; Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010), they are scrutinized empirically here. Both trust and affective commitment were assessed as vital moderators of political climate–behavior relationships (Chen and Indartunu, 2011; Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010). A greater awareness of the effect of trust and affective commitment on the relationship between political climate and behavior may lessen some of the misunderstandings that often exist in organizational settings.

Most importantly, studies on organizational politics have to date been based almost exclusively on quantitative research methods, only rarely making use of qualitative research (Landells and Albrecht, 2015; McFarland et al., 2012). Investigating multiple actors with multiple positions having multiple interactions requires a methodological approach that allows the researcher to consider much context and to carry out such “holistic” research (Groeneveld et al., 2015). A mixed methods research was employed, which enriches knowledge on political climate and political behavior in public sector organizations. This is a response to a recent call for more multi-study approaches in organisation science research (Hochwarter et al., 2011). For example, Landells and Albrecht (2013, p. 358) encourage researchers to pursue “opportunities to more clearly understand organizational politics, to specify its dimensions and to identify how it impacts at varying levels of analyses”. Nonetheless, only 5.9 per cent of journal articles on public administration studies employ a mixed methods design (Groeneveld et al., 2015, p. 72). This explains our use of an explanatory-sequential mixed methods design, which Creswell (2014) recommends in particular for probing the meaning of quantitative results by follow-up qualitative methods when the cultural context is relevant.

Consistent with our main focus on the specific antecedents of political behavior in public sector organizations, the paper takes the following form: First, the theoretical literature on individual engagement in political behaviors and organizational political climate is reviewed. Second, the main approaches used to examine the moderating role of affective commitment and trust are then presented. Third, the methodology and data collection used in both the quantitative and the qualitative procedures are described. Finally, the findings are analyzed and their practical implications are addressed.

Theoretical background

Theoretical framework

The Social Exchange Theory and the Attribution Theory were used as a framework for our hypotheses and for governing the empirical analysis. Together, their main principles and processes support our hypothetical model.

Blau (1964) described two characteristics of social exchange to explain its relevance to political behavior:

  1. social exchange includes any behavior that is motivated by an expected return or response from another; and

  2. during a social exchange, one individual voluntarily provides a benefit to another, thus eliciting a reciprocal obligation from the second party to provide a benefit in return.

Blau further argues that only social exchange tends to engender feelings of personal obligation/commitment, gratitude and trust. Under the various forms of the Social Exchange Theory, the longitudinal exchange relation between two specific actors is always conceptually central (Emerson, 1987). The concept of a dynamic exchange process, developing over time, is absolutely central to the Social Exchange Theory (Emerson, 1987; Whitener et al., 1998).

In a complementary fashion, the Attribution Theory attempts to understand individuals’ causal explanations for events and occurrences, and individuals’ perceptions and judgments of others (Kelley, 1967). The Attribution Theory delineates the rules which the presumed average individual uses in attempting to infer the causes of observed behavior. Three assumptions underlie the Attribution Theory:

  1. An individual assigns a cause to important instances of behavior, his or her own as well as the actions of others (when necessary, this individual seeks information about the cause of the action).

  2. This assignment of underlying causes is determined in a systematic manner.

  3. The particular cause attributed to a given event has important consequences for the individual’s subsequent feelings and conduct (Jones et al., 1972).

The Attribution Theory thus describes two core processes: social perception, which entails developing inferences about another person’s internal characteristics and the reason for his or her behavior; and self-perception, which involves gauging one’s own internal characteristics, including one’s beliefs about behavior (Kelley, 1967). These two complementary theories will enable us to analyze and interpret political behavior from different points of view.

Individual engagement in political behaviors.

Political behavior refers to a wide variety of practices that may lead to gain or the accumulation of resources in the workplace (DuBrin, 2009). Forman’s (1962) classic definition described political behaviors in organizations as those activities that are not required as part of one’s organizational role but influence, or attempt to influence, the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within the organization. Most researchers support the idea that political behavior is based on self-serving strategies used by individuals in an attempt to acquire, develop, and use power or other resources to gain desired outcomes (Ashforth and Lee, 1990; Ferris and Kacmar, 1992). Over the years, most researchers have come to agree with Valle and Perrewés’ (2000, p. 361) definition of individual political behavior:

[…] as the exercise of tactical influence by individuals which is strategically goal directed, rational, conscious and intended to promote self-interest, either at the expense of or in support of others’ interests.

Individuals are motivated to engage in political behaviors only when they believe that doing so will help them achieve valued organizational experience (Liu et al., 2010; Treadway et al., 2005). Political behavior has traditionally been associated with negative and undesirable features (Ferris et al., 1989; Porter et al., 1981). This includes behaviors that are tactical-assertive, self-serving or self-promoting (Harrell-Cook et al., 1999), which are considered organizationally undesirable, are generally not sanctioned, and are related to negative outcomes (Allen and Angle, 1981; Ferris et al., 1989). In recent years, researchers have adopted a contradictory approach to the classical approach and have argued that political behavior is neither inherently constructive nor destructive (Ferris et al., 2007; Hochwarter, 2012). This raises the issue of the nature of the organizational political climate.

Organizational political climate.

Buchanan (2008) distinguished between individual and contextual antecedents and suggests that political behavior can be triggered by factors other than self-interest, such as environmental factors. Broadly speaking, organizational climate is a construct with which to understand the integrative experiences of employees in the workplace or in any organizational setting and is significant to the meaning people attribute to their experiences of the way their organization works (Barbera and Schneider, 2014). In the past two decades, renewed interest in the concept has yielded significant progress in conceptual thinking and research methodologies (Berbera, 2014; Schneider et al., 2013). Organizational political climate has been defined as:

[…] shared perceptions about the building and use of power in practices and workarounds regarding policies and procedures to influence decision-making, resource allocation and the achievement of individual, team, and organizational goals (Landells and Albrecht, 2013, p. 356).

If we break this definition down into its components, the political climate is not an abstract pattern but also converts into deeds and actions. Employees actively engage in politicking after determining that their workplace environment is political (Perrewé et al., 2012, p. 216). The important role of perceptions of organizational politics in explaining organizational climate has been noted (Dipboye and Bigazzi Foster, 2002). Moreover, it is likely that a strong correspondence exists between the objective level of political activity in an environment and employees’ perceptions of politics (Ferris and Kacmar, 1992). It is therefore relevant to consider the degree to which employees perceive their supervisor’s decision power as greater than their own (Drory, 1993), the extent to which their colleagues politick and strategize and the way in which significant resources are provided and decisions are made.

The relationship between organizational politics and employees’ perceptions is mutually reinforcing: An organizational environment where employees are continually exposed to political behavior generates a work context that employees perceive as politicized. In turn, employees’ perceptions of a politicized environment and that a link exists between politics and work outcomes will intensify politicization (Perrewé et al., 2012). In a similar vein, the Social Exchange Theory maintains that certain norms direct behavior and attitude (Emerson, 1976). Our research supports the idea that the concept of organizational politics exerts certain effects on organizational behavior (Hochwarter, 2003). The Social Exchange Theory sheds light on the dynamics of engagement in political behavior under the auspices of the political climate. When someone finds that political activity is rewarded and that these rewards are greater than the costs of that action, she/he is likely to engage in additional political action (Waldman, 1972). We therefore propose our first hypothesis:

H1.

Political climate will be positively related to political behaviors.

The moderating role of trust.

All work relationships that depend on cooperation, such as in an organization, require trust (Jones and George, 1998). Mishra (1996, p. 265) defines trust as one party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party because of the belief that the latter is competent, open, concerned and reliable. Trust between co-workers entails confidence that one’s colleagues are competent and will act in a fair, reliable and ethical manner (Ferres et al., 2004). Organizational members are more likely to cooperate when unconditional trust (i.e. an experience of trust between parties whose shared values construct the social situation) is present in a relationship (Jones and George, 1998). In light of these findings, the question that arises is, how does the political climate affect organizational trust?

The perception of politics has been considered an important aspect of trust in any organization, especially in the public service sector (Vigoda-Gadot, 2006). Trust was found to be negatively related to organizational politics (Poon, 2003). Power has been identified as a critical variable related to trust and the two are interrelated (Tomlinson, 2005). Power probably has important implications for trust violation. Trust at the individual level may be influenced by factors across levels, such as organizational climate and inter-organizational competition (Fulmer and Gelfand, 2012). A competitive organizational context induced by competitive organizational values encourages individual achievements rather than trust in co-workers (Hill et al., 2009).

The presence of trust as a moderating variable in the relationship between the organizational political climate and employees’ engagement in political activities may shed light on its role and importance in the public sector. The organizational political climate dictates the subjective norms in public sector organizations. Trust is therefore considered to be a critical component of an organization’s climate and an essential prerequisite for positive exchanges (Gould-Williams and Davies, 2005). The social exchange has a dynamic element that emphasizes the exchange process and its development over time (Whitener et al., 1998). When people exchange they have no way of ensuring an appropriate return for their favour, so initially they have to trust others to discharge their obligations (Blau, 1964). Furthermore, according to the Attribution Theory, while people trust each other, the individual processes information and draws inferences about the other person (social perception) and also develops and can report an internal belief about her or his level of trust in the person (self-perception) (Ferrin and Dirks, 2003, p. 20). These two theories, which consider trust as an inseparable part of relationships, test it under the condition of political climate. The decision to trust may therefore be a necessary preliminary step for engagement in political behavior. For example, Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud (2010) found that trust moderated the relationship between perceived organizational politics and job outcomes among academic university staff. Drawing on these findings, we propose the following hypotheses:

H2.

Political climate will be negatively related to trust.

H2a.

Trust will moderate between political climate and engagement in political behaviors.

The moderating role of affective commitment.

Organizational commitment is experienced by individual employees and is associated with a particular organization (Gohar et al., 2015). Organizational commitment is an important aspect of organizational life and has implications for the organization’s lifecycle (Meyer and Allen, 1997). Meyer and Allen’s (1991) three-dimensional commitment construct has been repeatedly tested and appears to have become the conceptualization most accepted in the literature, especially as the theory captures the main possibilities for organizational commitment. They defined affective commitment, one of the components that has received the most attention and has been studied the most extensively as “emotional attachment to, identification with and involvement in the organization” (Meyer and Allen, 1991, p. 67). Affective commitment is not a target in itself. Rather, it is a means for achieving valuable behavioral results such as continued employment, attendance and job performance (Meyer and Herscovitch, 2001).

In general, the nature of an organization’s internal political atmosphere is crucial in shaping work behaviors such as organizational commitment (Vigoda, 2002). Hassan and Rohrbaugh (2012) found that reduced goal ambiguity, one of the key aspects of organizational climate, is the strongest predictor of higher affective commitment in the public sector. Some scholars maintain that a negative relationship exists between organizational politics and commitment (Kimura, 2013; Olson et al., 2014; Vigoda, 2000). The differences in research findings raise questions about the relationship between organizational commitment and political climate.

However, organizational commitment as a moderating variable has received little attention in the literature. In this study, we examined whether organizational commitment moderates the relationship between organizational political climate and employees’ engagement in political behavior. In Abubakr’s (2002) study, employees who reported a less positive perception of the work climate were found to be less committed and, as a result, reported lower levels of performance. In a political working environment, individuals who perceive exchange relationships as risky investments for the long term are therefore more likely to withdraw from the organization (Cropanzano et al., 1997). The Attribution Theory and attribution models (Kelley, 1967) focus on the various facets of the explanation-seeking process in which individuals engage when attempting to make sense of events in general, but especially when they are surprised or threatened by unexpected or negative events (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). In this political scenario, individuals will engage in political behavior to protect their status and careers, while attributing this behavior to a low level of affective commitment. Drawing on the findings reported in this section, we propose the following hypotheses:

H3.

Political climate will be negatively related to organizational commitment.

H3a.

Organizational commitment will moderate between political climate and engagement in political behaviors.

Research method

Study setting

Data were collected and analyzed using an explanatory-sequential mixed methods design that combines both quantitative and qualitative research methods. The study therefore comprised a quantitative phase followed by a qualitative one that helped explain the survey results (Creswell, 2014). Combined quantitative and qualitative model analysis generates more valid findings (Silverman, 2013). Moreover, qualitative research counterbalances the potentially dehumanizing nature of quantitative studies and theory by emphasizing the meaning and human interactions underlying relationships between variables (Rynes and Gephart, 2004).

Data Collection on Local Authorities: There are 257 local authorities in Israel (www.moin.gov.il). Israel has three kinds of local authorities with different municipal statuses: Municipal council – a local authority that has the status of a city; local council – a local authority that is not large enough to have the status of a city; and regional council – a local authority of several (usually rural) settlements. Local authorities provide their citizens with local services, such as water supply, road paving and maintenance, public gardens and parks maintenance, social services and establishment of institutions for sports, education, culture, health, etc. Education, health, welfare and religious services are provided by the central government (www.knesset.gov.il/lexicon/eng/LocalAuthorities_eng.htm).

Study 1

Sample.

Three hundred questionnaires were originally distributed among managers and employees of municipal and regional councils throughout the country. A final sample of 217 remained after excluding incomplete and unreturned questionnaires. This sample is both demographically and geographically appropriate. The participants included 53 per cent women and 47 per cent men; the average age was 41 years (SD = 9.16). Of the participants, 84 per cent had an academic education; 42 per cent were employees, 12 per cent were team leaders, 32 per cent were department managers and 14 per cent were senior managers. The sample included 84 per cent permanent and 16 per cent temporary employees. The average tenure at the organization was 14 years (SD = 10.51). Questionnaires which were originally written in English were translated into Hebrew using the back-translation method (McGorry, 2000).

Measures

Employees’ engagement in political behavior.

Treadway et al.’s (2005) six-item scale was used to measure employees’ political behavior. Responses were rated on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). An example for an item is “I spend time at work politicking”. Cronbach’s alpha was 0.84.

Individual perception of political climate.

Schriesheim and Hinkin’s (1990) scale was modified to a six items scale to measure individual perception of political climate. The wording of original items was changed from, for example, “expressed my anger” to “expressed their anger”, and the instructions were altered to focus on self-serving attempts of people in their department, such as “in order to get their own way”. Each of the six political climate items was rated on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Cronbach’s alpha was 0.85.

Trust.

The 16-item scale developed and used by Mishra and Mishra (1994) was modified such that only ten items remained. The scale assessed the level of trust on a seven-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7). Cronbach’s alpha was 0.93.

Affective commitment.

Organizational affective commitment was measured using the scale developed and used by Meyer et al. (1993). The scale assessed the level of commitment on a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Cronbach’s alpha was 0.72.

Control variables.

The following control variables were incorporated to rule out alternative explanations for the relationships reported in this study: age and tenure were measured as continuous variables; gender, education, organizational level and organizational status.

Results

Preliminary analysis.

Exploratory factor analysis was conducted to assess the underlying structure of political climate and political behavior. As these two variables are by definition highly interrelated, they must be loaded onto distinct factors so that they can be treated as distinct. To assess the fit between the items and their construct, the primary factor loadings must be greater than 0.5 (Nunnally, 1978). The results of the exploratory factor analysis (principal component analysis with varimax rotation) revealed two factors (i.e. variables): political climate (five items) and political behavior (six items).

Descriptive statistics and bivariate Pearson correlation coefficients for all the study variables are presented in Table I. The results indicated that political climate had a significant negative correlation with trust (r = −0.261, p < 0.01), but was not correlated with affective commitment. Political climate had a significant positive correlation with political behavior (r = 0.465, p < 0.001). Trust had a significant negative correlation with political behavior (r = −0.126, p < 0.05), and affective commitment had a significant positive correlation with political behavior (r = 0.212, p < 0.01). These findings provided general support for H1-H3. All Cronbach’s alpha coefficients for the multiple-item scales exceeded 0.70, indicating acceptable scale reliability.

Moderated regression analysis.

A moderated hierarchical regression analysis was used to plot the interaction effects which examine the direct and indirect relationships between the model’s variables (Cohen et al., 2013). In the first step, demographic variables (i.e. control variables) and political behavior were recorded. In the second step, political climate and trust vs affective commitment were entered. Finally, the political climate × trust vs affective commitment interaction was entered. Standardized regression coefficients are reported. Each moderating variable and its interaction with political climate were analyzed separately to further avoid multicollinearity.

Hierarchical regression analysis (Table II) was used to test H2a. Model 3 shows that political climate had a positive effect on political behavior (β = 0.228, p < 0.001). The results of the regression analysis indicated a significant positive interaction effect (β = 0.234, p < 0.01) between trust and political behavior. The model was able to account for 27 per cent of the variance, F(10, 206) = 7.62, p < 0.001, R2 = 0.270. H2a was confirmed for the entire population. The interaction effect plot in Figure 1 shows that low levels of political climate and trust predicted a lower level of political behavior, whereas high levels of political climate and trust predicted a high level of political behavior.

Hierarchical regression analysis (Table III) was used to test H3a. Affective commitment was not found to moderate political climate and political behavior only for the female population, but not for males[1]. The results of the regression analysis indicated that affective commitment significantly moderated the relationship between political climate and political behavior (β = 0.490, p < 0.01). Thus, a positive interaction between commitment and political behavior was found. The model was able to account for 31.9 per cent of the variance, F(9, 106) = 5.52, p < 0.001, R2 = 0.319. H3a was confirmed for the female population only. As the plot in Figure 2 shows, affective commitment moderated between political climate and political behavior: the higher the level of political climate and affective commitment, the higher the level of political behavior (Figure 3).

Study 2

Using the findings of the study above, we performed a series of t tests1. The t tests show significant differences between women and men with respect to political behavior, political climate and affective commitment. Following up directly on the quantitative results (Creswell, 2014), a qualitative study was designed to attempt to explain how these differences are reflected in the organization’s daily life and to gain insights into norms, perceptions and behaviors of local and regional council employees. The research questions for the second phase of the study were as follows:

RQ1.

How do men and women perceive political behavior and its causes?

RQ2.

What motivates engagement in political behavior of public sector employees?

Participants.

Theoretical sampling, which refers to a selection method of participants who are deemed to be “particularly suitable for illuminating and extending relationships and logic among constructs” (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007, p. 27), was used. According to Creswell (2014), individuals from the initial quantitative sample should be selected for the qualitative follow-up sample. Those individuals were purposefully selected to help us best understand the research questions and problems. Semi-structured, face-to-face interviews were therefore held with 16 managers and employees from the same local and regional councils in Israel who participated in the quantitative study. The typical number of participants in phenomenological studies is between three and ten (Creswell, 2014). We held 16 interviews, until the themes were saturated. The participants included ten women and six men whose average age was 40 years. Seven were employees and nine held managerial positions. The average tenure in the organization was nine years. The gender and seniority of the interviewees were among the main criteria for their selection, so that they could provide a broad background on the phenomenon studied based on their experience.

Coding procedure.

The interview questions were formulated according to the study variables. All interviews were recorded and transcribed for clear identification of the codes. Coding the interviews, which is the heart and soul of whole-text analysis (Ryan and Bernard, 2000), was carried out according to Miles and Huberman’s (1994) procedure: We began by deriving themes extracted from the literature and applying them to the interviews, as relevant. We continued identifying and assigning more themes and subthemes to the interviews as they emerged while reading them. The data were then reorganized according to the codes to confirm that all the segments with the same code had the same meaning. The codes were then named and operationally defined so that their meanings would be clear and that they correspond to the conceptual framework. Finally, the codes were grouped into more meaningful units of analysis, especially according to the model variables. We will present and interpret these findings to expand on the quantitative results (Creswell, 2014).

Results

Political climate.

Most respondents, both men and women, agreed that there was a political climate at the local councils. Political climate is not a foreign concept in the context of the public sector workplace. Nonetheless, women and men perceive it differently. For men, it is part of organizational life, and they are more likely to engage in informal political activities (Wang et al., 2012). The existence of a political climate motivates organizational members to use power that may have an impact on different goals and policies (Landells and Albrecht, 2013). As expressed by one interviewee:

Many things are done as secretly as possible, because the deputy chairman of the council and two other members want to inherit the council in the coming term, and they do not want the chairman to succeed now. This kind of thing slows down and even kills [future projects] […]. Not everyone speaks in front of everyone, but according to blocs, according to parties, the interests of upcoming elections (8, male respondent).

Women view it as an obstacle with which they must contend and regard participating in the activities as an obligation required of them. As a result, they may perceive the organization as stressful, ambiguous and frustrating (Ferris et al., 1989):

What I’m talking to you about are things that aren’t on record, which all go to prove the same point, that only when someone wants something for you, on your behalf, it happens. This is the only truth [here] in the municipality. It is all politics. It is very noticeable here. There are many irregularities. They break the rules and disregard procedures all the time (11, female respondent).

Trust under a political climate.

The men we interviewed tended to trust their employees and colleagues even in the context of a political climate. Men and women cite different reasons for having trust: For example, for one male respondent, it was the perception that everyone was working toward the same organizational goals:

My trust in my co-workers is very strong, even when it comes to political rivals. At the end of the day, if we look at everyone in the organization, their goals and mine are the same; everybody chooses a different way to reach their goals (which also includes [getting] senior positions and status) (5, male respondent).

In contradistinction, the tendency among women to trust the organization’s members in a highly political climate was low. For the women we interviewed, the political climate violated the premises of trust: expectations of benevolent behavior and the willingness to be vulnerable (Rousseau et al., 1998). Among the women participants, the political climate decreased the levels of three key dimensions of trust: concern, reliability and harmony. As Mishra (1996, p. 267) notes, concern means “at a minimum […] one party believes it will not be taken unfair advantage of by another”. In a political climate, we find calculus-based trust, which refers to the expectation of receiving rewards (such as a career promotion) from someone in return for being trustworthy (Lewicki and Bunker, 1996). Reliability, predictable behaviors and the systematic and consistent applying of procedures is strengthened when promises and commitments are kept and fulfilled (Butler, 1991). However, in a political climate, colleagues’ behavior may become unreliable and unpredictable across situations, causing women to lose trust or causing their trust to be violated. Harmony refers to trust in a set of abilities, feelings, opinions, purposes and values within the employment relationship system (Tzafrir and Dolan, 2004). In a political climate where colleagues do not share values, women’s trust may also be violated:

There’s no trust between people. There is no one I trust. It’s dog eat dog. Everyone wants to get ahead at the expense of someone else. There are only a few people that you can share with. You can’t trust anyone […]. In general, I have friends, but not the kind I trust (10, female respondent).

Organizational commitment under political climate.

Both men and women described themselves as being committed to their organizations, but gave different reasons. Quantitative studies found only slight differences between men and women (Cohen and Lowenberg, 1990; Mathieu and Zajac, 1990), whereas qualitative studies reveal that women and men attribute different meanings to commitment (Fisher et al., 2010; Franzway, 2000; Singh and Vinnicombe, 2000). In these studies, women express commitment in terms of passion, service to members and personal fulfilment. Men, on the other hand, express commitment as being able to add value and quality, and in terms of being proactive, innovative and challenge-seeking:

I have a very strong sense of belonging. Education is an area close to my heart and I believe in moving it forward. I aspire to go far in education and that is why I work around the clock […]. I am loyal to my job, I give 200 per cent, and do not rest until I reach the goals that have been set […]. I do not take on other departments’ problems and I focus on my area of responsibility […]. I do not go looking for trouble if I cannot help or advise (2, male respondent).

Women are more involved, more caring. For example, the deputy mayor – the residents feel that she is open. On Sunday she receives the public and does not go home until [she has met with] the last of the residents. She gets to them all (12, female respondent).

Political behavior.

Political behavior refers to any activity through which employees try to influence processes to gain advantage or resources in the workplace (DuBrin, 2009) and can serve to exert tactical influence as a means for achieving personal or organizational goals (Liu, et al., 2010). Political behavior can take diverse forms, more or less active, from discussions and debates to dissemination of political propaganda to influence opinions (Brewer, 2003). Men’s involvement in political behavior is viewed as more natural than women’s involvement, even though women exhibit a changing trend in terms of involvement of political behavior. Although the political arena is not perceived as their natural arena, women are changing their perception and see themselves integrated into the political conduct of the organization:

I am, personally, not involved and do not control what is happening. [I] listen, but nothing else […]. The problems of the organization are not mine. I focus on my work and do not tend to interfere with organizational problems (4, female respondent).

Men were born into politics because all the political systems were built in a masculine environment and it is natural for them to integrate into politics. Primitive and less enlightened social perceptions still attribute political power to men only. Men understand that they are an exclusive and central factor in this world and thus their status is strengthened. [I] want to clarify that even in 2015 men think they have innate and exclusive abilities to manage and lead. In recent years this has been proven false (15, female respondent).

Women like to be personally involved and take responsibility […]. If a woman behaves like a mother at work she has a desire to be more involved […]. Just like men, women strive to move forward and motivate areas of interest that are important to them. Understanding that they have a professional/educational/academic basis, and can also take an active part of partnership and capabilities leads you to move forward politically. Perhaps if they do not have political status, they will not be heard (16, female respondent).

Discussion and conclusions

The literature on the political climate in complex organizations points to a need to attend to the triggers of individual political behavior in the workplace (Buchanan, 2008; Elbanna et al., 2014; Valle and Perrewé, 2000). The scarcity of material about individual responses to the workplace political climate (as noted in Dipboye and Bigazzi Foster, 2002; Liu et al., 2010) prompted the present investigation into some of the specific antecedents of political behavior in public sector organizations. As detailed in H1, this study explored some of the ways in which the organizational political climate as a contextual antecedent contributes to individual engagement in political behavior within local government organizations. To date, research on the role of organizational political climate has not been extensive (Landells and Albrecht, 2013), and survey and interview data are particularly lacking in the literature on public management.

In general, the study’s quantitative section may prove novel for its examination of the ways organizational commitment and trust moderate between political climate and political behavior. Both trust and affective commitment were assessed and were shown to act as vital moderators of the political climate–behavior relationship, as both were previously found to be central variables possibly influencing individual behavior (Chen and Indartunu, 2011; Vigoda-Gadot, 2006; Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010).

According to H2a, the quantitative survey suggests that trust moderates between political climate and political behavior. Previous studies have shown that the level of trust decreases as the political climate levels increase (Fulmer and Gelfand, 2012; Palanski and Yammarino, 2009). However, the results also show that political climate and political behavior are indirectly affected by trust. This finding – that political climate and trust both predict a higher level of political behavior – is therefore potentially significant. When measured variables are directed toward different levels in the organization, these differences may explain the findings (Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010). To reiterate, trust in this study refers to the attitude toward colleagues at the workplace, while the political climate scale applies at the organizational level.

The findings of H3a are more complex. Affective commitment was found to moderate between political climate and political behavior only for women, and not for men. This is inconsistent with previous research (Kimura, 2013; Randall et al., 1999; Vigoda-Gadot et al., 2003). However, partial support for the existence of a relationship between organizational commitment and individual attitude and organizational outcomes in the research literature is not unknown (Cropanzano et al., 1997; Randall et al., 1999).

Our findings underscore the role of contextual factors in enhancing public employees’ organizational commitment and trust. Previous studies found that organizational politics affect the level of trust (Poon, 2003; Tomlinson, 2005; Vigoda-Gadot, 2006; Vigoda-Gadot and Talmud, 2010) and influence employees’ commitment (Hassan and Rohrbaugh, 2012; Rahman et al., 2011; Olson et al., 2014; Vigoda, 2000). However, these studies focused primarily on the relationship between perception of organizational politics and trust or commitment, particularly among public sector employees. However, the effects of these variables on political behavior have not received consideration. As our findings indicated a bifurcation along gender lines, we maintain that qualitative research best explains these differences.

Using existing qualitative research (Landells and Albrecht, 2017), our interpretative phenomenological approach provided insight into the differences between female and male perceptions of political behavior and the ways in which individual members of an organization perceive politics in the workplace. Here, we drew on Kacmar et al.’s (2011, p. 634) notion that “gender-appropriate behaviors are socially modelled, learned, and reinforced through society’s power and status structures”. In other words, according to the Attribution Theory, women and men assign different causes to politics in their organization, as well as to commitment and trust under the political climate.

The results of this section suggest that both women and men understand the importance and significant role of political behavior as a social mechanism. However, they explain their political perceptions and behavior through a different lens. These findings are consistent with the Attribution Theory (Kelley, 1967) and are a central argument that individuals have different causal explanations and judgments for events. More specifically, the Social Role Theory (Eagly, 1987) suggests that gender differences emerge because of two interrelated processes: social learning and societal power relations (House, 1981). These processes explain the causes of gender differences in the perception of political climate and political behavior in terms of the interrelated context of social learning and relationships of social power. The positive and negative politics approach (Hochwarter, 2012; Kapoutsis and Thanos, 2016) thus helps identify gender differences in political perceptions and behavior.

The findings of our qualitative research add a useful layer to the study of positive and negative politics. Landells and Albrecht (2017) indicate that there is no unanimity in the perception of organizational politics, and attitudes range between positive and negative politics. Careful analysis reveals that men perceive organizational politics as having potentially positive results, such as achieving goals, solving problems, and increasing organizational communication. On the other hand, women perceive organizational politics as having potentially negative consequences, such as conflicts and tension, loss of trust, frustration and unprofessional behavior. According to the Social Exchange Theory, men, unlike women, perceive the political behavior as providing benefits. These dynamic exchange processes are not hidden from women’s eyes, who are also beginning to adopt political behavior. The Attribution Theory focuses the interpretation of behavior differences through the “self-perception” process, and as stated, women and men have different beliefs about political behavior. For example, women adopt communal patterns including social behavior, while men are more likely to display agentic patterns, including competitive and achievement-oriented behavior (Eagly, 1987; Kacmar et al., 2011).

In conclusion, the findings of both the quantitative and the qualitative study contribute to the literature on organizational politics, first by responding to Ferris and Treadway’s (2012) request that organizational theory of politics be advanced and by partially answering Hochwarter’s (2012) demand that organizational politics research adopt new approaches that promote more profound interpretations. Although several studies examined perceptions of organizational politics, organizational climate and political behaviors in the workplace (Perrewé et al., 2012), this is the first study to investigate how political climate, as a stand-alone climate, intensifies individual engagement in political behavior. In so doing, we responded to Landell and Albrecht’s (2013) call for more research on the impact of organizational political climate on individual behavior in the workplace and the need to more clearly understand organizational politics.

Our second contribution concerns an expansion of methodology in public organization research. To date, only a very limited number of studies in the public administration field make use of such a mixed methods design (Groeneveld et al., 2015, p. 72). To gain an interdisciplinary perspective and to construct a theory of organizational politics in the public management field, we used Creswell’s (2014) mixed methods design to study the co-textual-organizational antecedent (perception of political climate) of politicking and individual engagement in political behavior. This qualitative study provides greater depth of understanding of organizational politics by explicating the perceptual differences between women and men, differences which have not been studied previously.

Research limitations and implications for future research

A mixed methods design was chosen because it combines the strengths of qualitative and quantitative research, while minimizing the limitations of each (Creswell, 2014). Nevertheless, as with any study, some limitations must invariably be addressed. The data were collected from a single source. The findings may thus be partly affected by common-method bias. Furthermore, while qualitative research explained the quantitative research findings, a future longitudinal study is needed to strengthen claims of causality. In another matter, the qualitative finding supported most of the quantitative findings, except the differences in trust between men and women. The coherent justification between the two sources of data strengthens the qualitative validity (Creswell, 2014). Nonetheless, the differences in trust findings need to be re-examined by both research methods.

Contrary to our expectations, the findings did not support the hypothesis that affective commitment moderates between political climate and political behavior for the entire population. It does so only for women. Future studies should therefore re-examine this hypothesis. As gender differences in the perception of politics as positive or negative are revealed here for the first time, confirmatory qualitative and quantitative studies are essential. The findings of this study raise another question worthy of study, namely, the differences in political skills between men and women. This leaves researchers with many avenues for investigation in future research. Moreover, all respondents in this study were from one country, raising questions as to the findings’ generalizability. We therefore suggest considering a comparative study to other countries on the same topic. Finally, as the two studies were conducted in municipal and regional councils, we are aware of the caution that must be exercised when generalizing the findings. A similar study should be carried out in the private sector to expand the generalizability of these findings.

Practical implications

Because of the prevalence of political behavior in organizations, it is important that managers understand the antecedents and consequences, as well as factors that explain how it can be used effectively in the organizational context (Liu et al., 2010). Based on the present study, we make two specific recommendations.

First, managers need a deeper understanding of individuals’ political behavior and perceptions of political behavior, such as micro-level studies offer (Buchanan, 2008; Kacmar and Ferris, 1991; Perrewé et al., 2000). Managers should be aware that political climate, as one aspect of a range of organizational climate types, may lead to political behavior. However, managers should also be aware of the differences between men and women in the perception of political behavior and the motives for this behavior. The central insight that arises from these differences is that managers need to interpret the motives for political behavior according to gender, and must understand gender differences in trust and organizational commitment under the political climate.

Second, managers will benefit by recognizing that political behavior is not necessarily negative or damaging and has the potential to contribute to organizational goals and objectives (Buchanan, 2008) or facilitate achieving personal ones (Liu et al., 2010). In the spirit of the findings of this study, managers should foster and develop women’s political skill. This socialization for engagement in political behavior may serve numerous significant functions: to secure resources, to promote ideas, to achieve personal goals, to build one’s reputation or that of one’s group, to build networks and to bond. Effective and efficient managers, both women and men, must possess political skills (Bacharach, 2005) and regulate the political climate in their organizations so that employees’ subjective experience will be positive.

Figures

The interaction between political climate and trust predicting political behaviour (all population)

Figure 1.

The interaction between political climate and trust predicting political behaviour (all population)

The interaction between political climate and affective commitment on political behaviour (female population)

Figure 2.

The interaction between political climate and affective commitment on political behaviour (female population)

Full research model

Figure 3.

Full research model

Descriptive and correlation matrix

Variables Mean SD 1 2 3
Political climate 1.89 0.90 (0.85)
Trust 3.80 1.12 ** 0.261- (0.93)
Affective commitment 3.66 0.76 0.013- *** 0.432 (0.72)
Political behaviours 1.97 0.90 *** 0.465 * 0.126- ** 0.212 (0.84)
Notes:

***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05, (α), n = 229

Summary of hierarchical regression analysis for trust as a moderator of political climate and political behaviour

Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Age 0.085 0.102 0.124
Manager’s age 0.112 0.096 0.097
Gender −0.215** −0.138* −0.114
Family status −0.038 −0.054 −0.069
Seniority −0.259* −0.232* −0.240*
Employment status 0.170* 0.105 0.082
Education −0.006 0.020 0.010
Political climate 0.366*** 0.228***
Trust −0.011 −0.143
Political climate × Trust 0.234**
R2 0.119 0.245 0.270
Adjusted R2 0.090 0.213 0.235
F 4.07*** 7.48*** 7.62***
Notes:

***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05, n = 217

Summary of hierarchical regression analysis for affective commitment as a moderator of political climate and political behaviour (female population)

Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Age 0.094 0.007 −0.019
Manager’s age 0.119 −0.029 0.043
Family status −0.174 −0.175 −0.201*
Seniority −0.207 −0.073 −0.094
Employment status 0.054 0.021 0.062
Education −0.005 0.002 −0.004
Political climate 0.373*** 0.170
Affective commitment 0.357*** −0.054
Affective commitment × Political climate 0.490**
R2 0.056 0.243 0.319
Adjusted R2 0.004 0.186 0.261
F 1.08 4.28*** 5.52***
Notes:

***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05, n = 116

Note

1.

Our t test analyses of men and women indicate significant differences among the variables. The level of political climate [t(227,0.95) = 3.54, p < 0.001] for men (M = 2.11) is significantly higher than for women (M = 1.70); levels of affective commitment [t(227,0.95) = 3.34, p < 0.01] are significantly higher for women (M = 3.82) than for men (M = 3.49); and levels of political behavior [t(227,0.95) = 4.45, p < 0.001] are significantly higher for men (M = 2.45) than for women (M = 1.73). No significant difference between men and women was found with respect to trust.

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Kang, D., Stewart, J. and Kim, H. (2011), “The effects of perceived external prestige, ethical organizational climate, and leader-member exchange (LMX) quality on employees’ commitments and their subsequent attitudes”, Personnel Review, Vol. 40 No. 6, pp. 761-784.

Karadal, H. and Arasli, H. (2009), “The impacts of superior politics on frontline employees’ behavioral and psychological outcomes”, Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, Vol. 37 No. 2, pp. 175-190.

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Corresponding author

Aviv Kidron can be contacted at: avivb@yvc.ac.il

About the authors

Aviv Kidron, PhD, is a member of the department of Human Services in the Academic Yezreel Valley College. Her research interests are within the fields of organizational behaviour, human resource management and manager–employee relationship. She is a member of the management of ‘The Israeli Association for the Study of Labor Relations’. She is a member of the Editorial Board ‘Time for education – Journal of Study and Research in Education’. She is also a member in the scientific committee in EuroMed Academy of Business.

Hedva Vinarski Peretz is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Health System Management at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and head of the practice: Public Sector Internal and External Audit. Also, she is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Department of Public Policy, Tel Aviv University. She previously held the position of a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Collaboration Science: Creativity and Innovation in Organizations - at the Department of Psychology at University of Nebraska, USA (June October 2014) and at the School of Business and Economics – International Business, Strategy and Innovation Research Group at Loughborough University, England (June-October 2013).