In the context of business organizations, co-optation refers to the process of adding members to a group, project or committee, often with the intention of overcoming that person's resistance to the group's policies. Co-opted members are given very little power since their function is to endorse the company's programs and convince other people to accept the policy. Change management experts see it as a form of manipulation.
There is no difference between the words "co-option" and "co-optation." They mean exactly the same thing.
The term "co-optation" was devised in 1949 by the noted academic Philip Selznick. He used the phrase to describe a political process whereby outsiders were co-opted into the organization or committee as an act of self-defense because those outsiders either had specialized knowledge that could be used against the organization or because they were opposing the organization in some way. Co-optation in government, for example, might involve bringing opposing party supporters into your own political party.
The co-optation itself could be formal or informal, but it rarely involves giving any real power to the co-opted individual. Most of the time, the co-opted person is permitted to share participation but not share in the decision making. The committee may keep the new member on a tight leash by tightly controlling the flow of information.
Absorbing (co-opting) these new elements into the leadership structure helps to avert the threat of opposition without diluting the committee's original policies in any way. Thus, it can make the committee more stable. Co-optation usually happens when an organization lacks legitimacy or is out of step with its environment in some way.
In 1979, change management experts John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger brought the concept of co-optation into the business arena. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they described co-optation as a "form of manipulation" for dealing with people who were resistant to change in an organization.
The theory says that when communication, negotiation and training do not work to bring a reluctant employee on one side, the business can co-opt him by giving him a leadership role in the change program. This new role and status will serve to overcome any objections the employee has to the change initiative and thus remove one of the roadblocks standing in the way of the change program.
Businesses use co-optation as a form of expediency when all other change management techniques have failed. It is almost the technique of last resort, used in preference to coercion when it is essential that the business drives the change through.
Generally, a business will only co-opt employees to a program when the program itself is much more important than the interests of the employees. That's because the role given to the employee is a symbolic one.
Usually, the employee is not given any genuine power or participation. The business has not co-opted her for her specialized skill set and does not want her advice. Her role is simply to endorse the program and convince other resisters to accept the change.
Sooner or later, the co-opted employee may discover that she is in a position without authority, and she may feel used. This is especially true when the change program involves undesirable consequences such as job losses, dismissals, job relocations and the like.