Coalition Building 707
Photo by: Yuri Arcurs

Coalitions refer to the temporary formation of persons, groups, or even nations for some type of joint or common action. It has been used as a term most often in relation to political or national issues, such as President George H. W. Bush's allied coalition during the Gulf War. In business, coalitions have been present for many years as a means of bringing together people, departments within an organization, entire companies, or industries with some common purpose. Examples of such purposes might include; achieving a common corporate goal, lowering insurance rates, regulating an industry action, or strategic planning. Coalitions are an exercise in power, whether in politics or business.


The concept of coalition building has too often been confused with interest groups and lobbying. The term refers to the formation of different interests, but not necessarily with the same intent as an interest group. From the French coalascere, the word is generally defined in political terms. Most early coalitions were temporary alliances formed among nontraditional allies to combat a common foe. Bush's Gulf coalition is one such example, and an example of a coalition that did not hold together even over a short span of time. Coalitions are also formed for election purposes. A historical example of this is the Republican Party, formed in the mid-nineteenth century from representatives from virtually all parties then existing on the American political scene—Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, members of the temperance movement, and others without a party allegiance. All of these elements did not survive the formation of the Republican Party as we know it today.


There are various definitions of a coalition that fit an organizational behavior setting. One simply states that a coalition occurs when members of a group organize to support their side of a particular issue. Another definition refers to a coalition as a relationship over a specific issue. Coalitions exist to preserve and even enhance self-interests, whether those of an individual or group, and achieve an adequate balance of power favorable to the coalition members's advantage. A more complete definition is a group formed to pursue a strategy that will be to the advantage of those most directly affected.

Another example of a coalition is one that forms over the issue of funding for management information systems within a single organization. Individuals express initial concern about a lack of resources to fully develop an integrated information system, yet have no formal way to share concerns with management. These individuals represent several units within the organization, including accounting, research, marketing, and distribution—few of whom commonly interact with the others. The issue focuses on management's budget control. But, as a group, membership serves on the overall organizational budget planning committee. At the point of decision making, the coalition acts in accord with common interests to recommend a comprehensive information system mutual to the needs of all units. Once this recommendation is forwarded to the organization's executive, the coalition disbands or continues, depending on the final decision on how the resources are to be used for information management.

Whatever definition of coalitions is accepted, understanding organizational coalitions helps to understand behavior in a complex organizational structures. Coalitions are a potent force in organizations. Organizational behavior literature is largely independent of the social psychology literature on coalitions, yet a closer tie between the two fields is building. Likewise, business and organization literature has not utilized the vast literature of political science that examines the unique formation of coalitions for mutual goals. The merging of these three independent disciplines into a body of coalition literature can only enhance our understanding of the formation of groups for common purposes.


A review of the business and behavioral science literature on coalitions suggests the following are common characteristics found in most coalitions:

  1. Members act as a group.
  2. They are formed for a specific purpose.
  3. They contain a group of interacting individuals.
  4. They are independent from the organization's formal structure.
  5. They have no formal structure.
  6. They are oriented to a specific issue to advance the group's purpose.
  7. Perception of membership is mutual among members.
  8. They have an external focus.

These characteristics may be common with other types of groups within organizations, but coalitions are separate and quite often powerful. As a part of an organizational power structure, coalitions are frequently seen as a manager's legitimate search for power, and as such, are used to increase personal power or to achieve organizational goals. When building a coalition, potential members will identify those individuals or groups who have a common interest or goal and who are most likely to join. Generally, coalitions take time to form as participants identify the common goal, the best manner to approach that goal, and the individuals or groups most likely to share the preferred strategy of goal-seeking. Borrowing from social psychology literature, "Coalitions form one person (or group) at a time."

Coalitions are used to increase a power base. Therefore, an understanding of coalition building is integral to a comprehensive knowledge of organizational behavior. As in politics, the emphasis on the word, "temporary" is closely associated with coalitions, but is not necessarily the rule in corporate life. Social psychologists Keith Murnigham and Danny Brass conclude that successful coalitions are fluid, form rather quickly, expand, burst at the moment of decision, and then rapidly disappear. Other types of relationships within the organization can include alliances, networks, cliques, a supportive managerial relationship, and other forms. Networks are a broad-based cooperative pursuit of general self interests, while alliances involve individuals or groups supporting each other. A clique is a group of individuals held together by a common interest. Cliques often form coalitions. Research indicates that some surreptitiousness (e.g., mobilizing quietly) may be essential to building a coalition. There is also research concluding that resistance, fear of retaliation, and insults often create ripe conditions for coalition building.

Several conditions have to be present for the formation of a coalition. First, there has to be an issue that requires addressing or interest in an issue that coalition members find they have in common. Second, potential members have to share a belief that they can achieve success through building a coalition. Third, there must be an understanding that the action taken has to be jointly performed. Once these criteria are met, the building of the coalition begins. Generally, coalition members form from a weakness—that is, individually they are not strong enough in the organization to achieve their goal.

When this collective action leads to a response, coalitions can take one of several directions. If initially successful, the coalition may grow. But the same is true if the coalition first encounters failure yet persists in reaching a collective goal. Disbanding the coalition is also a possibility in either scenario, resulting in the dormancy of the coalition. Coalitions may well be strengthened by success and continue to grow in power and influence. A dormant coalition may also be able to exercise power at a later time, but this is unlikely in most organizations. Coalitions may prevail and coalition goals may become the dominant organizational goal, although this alternative course of coalition action lacks adequate research findings from which to derive any solid conclusions. The stability of coalitions thus depends on goals, course of action, outcomes, and continued common interest.


Coalition goals generally focus on the distribution of resources, always a source of contention in organizations. The lack of adequate resources, changes in the resource base, perceived inequitable resource distribution, and lack of a comprehensive understanding of resource allocation frequently result in the development of coalitions. Research also indicates that those with broader discretion and influence in job responsibilities and work activities are more likely to participate in coalition building. When the work environment is more rigidly controlled, coalitions are not as likely to be pursued as a strategy for addressing collective goals.

An example of a coalition and its effectiveness is found in the experience of Transworld Corporation's president Charles Bradshaw. As reported in Business Week, Bradshaw's fate as president was doomed by a coalition of forces within the company. At a finance committee meeting where Bradshaw opposed Transworld's acquisition of a nursing home corporation, the committee chair recited an endless list of facts and figures in support of the purchase. Bradshaw reflected, "Within two or three minutes I knew I had lost. No one was talking directly to me, but all statements addressed my opposition. I could tell there was general agreement around the board table." The finance committee assumed the form of a coalition for a common organizational purpose and Bradshaw was defeated on the acquisition issue. Although an example of a very powerful coalition, it includes most of the common characteristics of the coalition—an interacting group (the finance committee), a specific purpose (the nursing home corporation acquisition), a concentrated act (voting together in opposition to Bradshaw), no formal internal structure (a corporate committee), external focus (acquisition of an entity outside the organization), and orientation to advance the members's purpose (the corporate acquisition).


The concept of coalitions has undergone differing applications and meanings within organizational theory. The earliest uses focus on conflicts within organizations and the presence of multiple goals within the same organization. Herbert Simon, former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and 1978 recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, was one of the first researchers to identify the issue of conflict over goals in an organization. Simon, however, failed to mention coalitions arising within the organizations over this conflict. Simon's 1958 book, Organizations, which he co-authored with James G. March, mentioned coalitions between but not within organizations. March, also at Carnegie Mellon and later at Stanford, did draw a relationship between coalitions and organizations in a 1962 article in the Journal of Politics. March continued his work with Richard Cyert (also at Carnegie Mellon at that time and later president of the institution from 1972 to 1990) in works like the 1963, A Behavioral Theory of the Firm.

The second significant period of coalition research centered on James Thompson, who adopted the work of March and Cyert in his 1967 book, Organizations in Action , where he coined the term, "dominant coalition." Thompson (who was teaching business at Indiana University in 1967) concluded there were certain constraints on coalition building, mainly the organization's technology and environment. Thompson theorized that the more uncertainty in organizations due to technology and environment, the more power bases that exist. The coalition grows as the uncertainty increases.

Thompson also used the term, "inner circle" to describe the select few within an organization whose connections provide them with influence. Their role in coalition building is often one of leadership, but they seldom act alone in achieving goals. Their power is enhanced as the coalition strives to achieve a group goal; thus, the individual and coalition feed off each other. Carrying Thompson's point one step further, interdependency in an organization creates a greater likelihood for the formation of a coalition or coalitions.

A third phase of coalition scholarship was generated with the introduction of political science and social psychology methods and studies to organizational behavior. This led to the current divergent use of the term, and research from several disciplines points to how individual efforts at influence become the basis for coalition building. The application of different schools of research on coalitions led to more thorough study into the formation and operation of coalitions in the organization. In addition, game theory proponents contribute to understanding of the role of coalitions and their formation.

More recently, research into coalitions has moved away from the organizational environment to the political arena where coalitions have an impact on business. Periodical literature is highlighted with articles on how coalitions influence international business and economics, the health care industry, diversity and integration issues, foreign trade, the insurance market, and community activism. In the area of organizational behavior, research centers on the role of coalitions in organizational change, or how groups with seemingly dichotomous interests merge to exercise power on business strategy and decision making within an organization undergoing significant administrative and structural change.

In their seminal article on coalition research, William Stephenson, Jone Pearce, and Lyman Porter (of the University of California at Irvine) state that the study of coalitions has yet to produce any new way of understanding organizational processes. Considering the wide array of research from psychology, political science, game theory, sociology, and organizational behavior, their conclusion still begs an adequate answer. We can come to an understanding of the conditions necessary for the formation of a coalition, how they are built, how they exercise power and influence, and how they survive or disband, yet the question of the role of the coalition in organizational behavior remains unanswered and fertile for the researcher so inclined to look further for questions and answers.

SEE ALSO: Group Decision Making ; Group Dynamics ; Managing Change ; Organizational Structure ; Teams and Teamwork ; Trends in Organizational Change

Boyd Childress

Revised by Wendy H. Mason


Johns, Gary. Organizational Behavior: Understanding and Managing Life at Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

March, James G., and Richard M. Cyert. A Behavioral Theory of the Firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Murnigham, John Keith, and Daniel J. Brass. "Intraorganizational Coalitions." In Research on Negotiation in Organizations. eds. Max H. Bazerman, Roy J. Lewicki, and Blair H. Sheppard. Greenwich: JAI Press, 1991.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. New Directions for Organization Theory: Problems and Prospects. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Roberts, Joan M. Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships: Building Collaborative Organizations. St. Paul, MN: New Society Publishers, 2004.

Simon, Herbert A., and James G. March. Organizations. New York: Wiley, 1958.

Stephenson, William B., Jone L. Pearce, and Lyman W. Porter. "The Concept of Coalition in Organization Theory and Research." Academy of Management Review (April 1985): 256–268.

Thompson, James D. Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

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