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Organizational Culture Diagram

Organizational Culture Diagram

Charles Handy, a respected British management writer and teacher who tracked organizational behavior across many decades, developed a model that identifies four major organizational cultures. He linked these four cultures (Power culture, Role culture, Task culture and Person culture) to four Greek gods:

Power = Zeus, Role = Apollo, Task = Athena and finally Person = Dionysius

According to Handy each organizational culture is distinct and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The Power culture (sometimes called a Club culture or Web culture) is often found in small entrepreneurial organizations, which makes sense when you think about the nature of such enterprises. Power cultures rely on central control (whether individual or a small group who hold power). Their typical Characteristics are:

  • Depends on trust for effectiveness
  • Mainly face to face communication
  • Few rules and procedures (because those in charge have power to decide and change rapidly)
  • Very little bureaucracy
  • Political (power figures make key decisions) – autocratic, not democratic
  • Can adapt and move quickly
  • Results oriented
  • Tends to promote individuals who are comfortable with power, fast decision making ability, capacity to take risks, influencing skills.

Some large organizations use power cultures by creating “mini-Zeus” figures to run key departments/ divisions. GE under Jack Welch (a Zeus figure) was like this for example.

The Role culture (Apollo – who ruled by logic and rationality) is probably the one most of us would be most familiar with in large organizations. Roles cultures emphasize careful, logical work machines and therefore structure around clearly defined roles within defined structures. This creates the typical hierarchical top-down structure we often associate with large organizations. Its strengths are its predictability and stability, but of course this can also lead to inflexibility and slowness.

Manuals, budgets, procedures, systems – these are all words and approaches that are part of the role culture. Individuals within these cultures are essentially “role occupants” with job descriptions specifying requirements, responsibilities and boundaries. Communication is often formalized and transmit from job to job (title to title) rather than person to person. Their  typical characteristics are:

  • Strong structure, usually pyramidic, hierarchical
  • Relies on systems and order
  • Procedures and specified standards
  • Formalized communication mechanisms
  • Prefers to design work so it is routine, stable and unchanging
  • Often slow and bureaucratic in decision making
  • Not quick or comfortable with major change
  • Believes in firm control and management with little or now questioning of authority

Most organizations will have some “role” culture component because such approaches do provide order and structure. The culture becomes dominant when most activities operate in this way.

The Task culture (Athena) sees itself as task and action oriented. There is an emphasis on solving problems, achieving goals, taking action. The structure is flexible and can form and re-form according to the task at hand. The image depicts a net or matrix, where power comes from the junctions or points of connection (of which there are many). Power and respect come from individual knowledge and contribution rather than rank, title or position. Power therefore depends upon the task at hand.  Their typical characteristics are:

  • Little formal hierarchy, prefers flexibility and an adaptable matrix structure
  • Often teamwork or collaboration oriented
  • Problem solving, action oriented
  • Believes in challenging the existing system, asking lots of questions
  • Communication is formal and informal, high value on feedback at all levels
  • Will often seek widespread input but can still make pragmatic decisions
  • Expects people to form relationships to get work done
  • Happy to share expertise and power

The approach is of a team of collected talents or resources that can respond flexibly to demands. It is about plans rather than procedures, routine is avoided with the emphasis on solving one problem and moving on to the next. The nature of such organizations is that they often have to solve problems that are beyond the scope of one individual and so rely upon this team interaction.

Leadership is often referred to in more general terms than traditional job titles like “manager” (so, “team leader, coordinator”, etc.).

The Person culture (Dionysius) presents an organizational challenge because a Person culture is one where the individuals believe themselves to be superior to the organization (“the organization only exists because of me”). The very concept of an organization suggests a group of like-minded individuals working together to pursue the goals of the organization.

Such a culture is not common, but can be found in areas of organizations. Typically it consists of educated and articulate individuals or specialists who have come together because of a common interest. Solicitors, academic researchers, consultants, etc., typify such groups.  (Dionysius was depicted as pursuing ecstasy and having no respect for authority or convention.) Person centered cultures see administration and management as lowly functions simply necessary to serve their expertise. Often the members of a Person centered culture will share common resources like office space, support staff, equipment, but will nevertheless operate independently.

Managing such people typically requires influence and persuasion, rather than attempts at command and control. Their typical characteristics are:

  • Loose and flexible, minimal organizational structure
  • Collects people to work for the organization based on talent and skills
  • Communication generally around influence and persuasion
  • Decisions made by personal negotiation or bargaining between individuals
  • Few controls or procedures
  • Few organization-wide standards, leaving individuals to develop their own systems and approaches
  • Allows careers to develop according to individual preferences and skills
  • Accepts long tenure as a way of locking in expertise

While the “experts” may enjoy – or even demand – such an organizational culture within which to work, managing them is very demanding.

So, how do these different cultures impact organizational life and how is our knowledge of them useful?

  • By being able to identify and name the prevailing practices we are better able to understand why things are happening a certain way – and whether some of those practices need to change.
  • It helps explain differences in approach that may be causing problems between individuals, managers, departments, divisions.
  • It helps us when assessing efficiency, effectiveness and productivity – is the culture helping or hindering, has it outlived its appropriateness?
  • It informs our approach to restructuring of work – how sustainable will new structures on paper actually be when subject to prevailing cultures?
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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