Office politics has a bad reputation but anyone trying to change their organisation without understanding where power lies, how to mobilise support and when to worry about resistance is likely to have a very tough time of it, new research suggests.

“One of the challenges firms face when attempting to change, is the question of power and how it is used to make change, or not”, said Tim Morris, a management professor at Said business school. Companies that used it well were much more successful than those that did not, he added.

Organisational power comes in several forms. Senior leader’s hold power by virtue of their place in the hierarchy, whether they choose to exercise it or not. People who are able to influence others to get things done have practical power, even if they have little formal authority.

Finally there is a third type of power, which is embedded in systems and processes. This is the sort of power that lets companies change employee’s behaviour through new ways of offering bonuses or other incentives or limiting the budget available for a particular piece of work, for example.

All three need to be marshalled to make changes that stick.

“Personal power such as that of the Chief executive is important when you are kicking off change, but it will not take you all the way along the road”, says Morris, whose research focused on professional services firms but is relevant across sectors. “You have to reinforce it with other forms of organisational power to make sure that the change is sustained. You have to build a coalition of support among other key players, and you have to manage the opposition through influence and other tactics”.

Part of managing the opposition is working out how strong the dissenters are and how many supporters they have. “If resistance comes from people who themselves have very powerful positions, that will have a very different effect to if it comes from relatively powerless people”, said Morris. “If the opposition comes from people who are relatively powerless, you can just say, ‘look, we are going to go on with it’. You can coerce them”.

“If, however, negative power is very strong, you can find that your business is seriously disrupted”. Coercion is a risky tactic in such cases; consultation and compromise are likely to be more effective ways of neutralising opposition.

Do not, though, spend so much on the antichange brigade that you forget to pay attention to people who are, or could be, in favour of change. “Organisations often fail to mobilise supports, but this is a key part of using power effectively”, said Morris. Think about all those people, even if they seem neutral, who could change and help build its momentum in the face of opposition.

Consider an analogy with politics, would be MP’s do need to counter the claims of their opponents, but the most important thing is persuading supporters and neutrals to get to the polling station and vote for them. “In terms of organisational change that means getting people doing things and working out that the new future will look like” said Morris. “Once people can see that change is happening whether they like it or not, they will think, fine we will live with this. That’s why mobilising support is so important”.

When Bob Gogel joined Integreon as Chief Executive, his job was to change the business and legal services company so that it was in the right shape for significant growth. Mobilising support was an important part of his strategy.

“I identified three groups of people, those who were clearly identified with my predecessor, but who were willing to change, those who had been frustrated under the previous management, and saw the changes as a possible ticket to a bright future, and a group of younger people”. Gogel then found three or four supporters within each of those groups who backed the change and were able to influence their colleagues accordingly.

“Did having them help? Absolutely. It’s never a one person show. It’s all about having a team, I did not pretend I could pull it off by myself”.

Morris also advised paying particular attention to middle managers when building support. “They are the people who implement strategy, so it is key to get their support”.  Often however they are neglected. People send the big vision to the top management and spend a lot of time trying to get those on the front line to change and the middle gets missed.

It is also important to make sure that your supporters at every level are genuine, not simply the figments of an eager to please adviser’s imagination. Walking the floors and following employees on Twitter are good ways to get first-hand information, Gogel suggested.

“You must understand your power base”, said Morris. “One of the dangers of being successful is the risk of overestimating your ability to get things done”.