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What is a Healthy Organisational Culture

What is a Healthy Organisational Culture

The clue is in the word. Organisation. From organ. An arrangement of specialist parts (i.e. heart, liver, kidney) that make a larger whole. The etymology of organisation is from the human body. It's one of many metaphors management research has borrowed. Usually from the natural sciences or technological innovation. To try and explain how organisations work. 

Trendy Metaphors

Looking at the trends, it seems we have not moved too far. The body metaphor persists. Organisations must be lean, agile and flexible. They must carry no flab. An optimised combination of bone, sinews and muscle.  Capable of making the organisation look hot, quick and strong.

They must be able to leap from one opportunity to the other. Never miss a step or stumble.  Land with such ease that complicated manoeuvring looks simple. They must be able to twist themselves into all manner of shapes to adapt to the task at hand.

We're talking Brad Pitt merged with Nadia Comaneci, topped off with a little Zlata.  

Now, it's not to say that these concepts are bad or wrong.  But that they come replete with built-in blind spots and risks. Just like all our other organisational metaphors did. Risks and blind-spots that a further investigation of the metaphor will reveal. For example:

Leanness: Whilst leanness is far healthier than obesity, it carries inherent health risks. A too lean body leads to decreased performance. The increased risk of fractures and illness. The loss of reproductive function, dehydration and starvation. Organs can get damaged, weird growths can occur. You might even die.

Some fat is good for you. It's even called essential body fat. Is there any reason to think that organisations will be immune to similar side effects? Or do they risk all kinds of challenges to their longevity if they trim off too much fat?

Agility: Agility comes with youth. Ask any old tennis player stretching for the ball he can't quite reach. Yes, it does give an innate advantage in some areas, but it blurs or misses others. The agile performer doesn't need to think so much about strategy or tactics.  He can rely on his speed and strength to compete. 

Yet, he loses something when he plays somebody with a well of tactical experience. That's why the world's leading tennis players have past greats as coaches.  To find minor strategic and tactical advantages. At that level, agility is not enough to win in itself. Why should it be enough for organisations? 

Flexibility: Extreme flexibility is often referred to as hypermobility or double-jointedness. It means the body is more susceptible to injury and can dislocate. Contortionists all suffer from disc degeneration, disc bulges, osteophytes and limbus fractures. To prevent injury, they only hold each contorted position for a second or two. Are flexible organisations risking the same? Stretching everywhere but unable to remain in a stable enough position to succeed? 

So What?

These are just observations and questions about a trendy set of metaphors. A thought experiment. To get you reflecting on other organisational metaphors. Why? Because organisational history teaches us one thing. Without proper reflection organisational metaphors eat themselves.  And the organisation with them.

The metaphor I want you to think about is culture. Yes, culture! Organisational culture? A metaphor? Never, you say. It's not a metaphor. It's reality. 

Well, no, it isn't. Even culture when used for national culture has its origins in metaphor. It has its roots in gardening. How to cultivate a beautiful plot of land. Grow the flowers. Tend the lawn. Feed the soil. And remove or kill the weeds. 

It became popular when philosophers began to think about how to design good societies. Benevolent nation states. Utopias. 

It is now so embedded in our language we have forgotten it is a metaphor. Everybody knows what it means. Everybody can explain it. And the same thing has happened for organisations. 

The idea we should have strong organisational cultures became trendy in the 1980s. It emerged out of Japanese organisations. The loyalty of their workforce. The enthusiasm. And the effectiveness of their products. It moved across the ocean to the USA. Seemed to work. And spread like wildfire thanks to books examining and explaining its success. 

But it has run its course. Don't believe me? You could trust the academics.Who predicted it would be the last great organisational metaphor. Because, unlike the specialised metaphors that came before it, everyone could understand it. Different interpretations would make it mean everything. And nothing. 

Then it would die. And get replaced with a metaphor that resembles the one that started it all. One taken from the human body. Perhaps, much like the fitness and health metaphors we looked at earlier.

Or you could look at its limitations and paradoxes. And how they are becoming more obvious. We imagined it as the one best way of doing things. Producing loyal, hard-working and committed teams. It bonds. Creates people who think the same way. Feel the same way. Live the same way. 

The problem should be obvious. We crave people who are innovative. Creative. Disruptive. As it bonds, culture prevents people seeing things from different perspectives. They fear other ways of doing things. They think their ways are better. That we should stop other ways. By whatever means possible!

Look at the distrust between world cultures in the national sense. The notion that Muslims and Mexicans shouldn't enter a country. Because they are different. And thus dangerous. 

Why should organisational cultures be exempt from this? Any change agent worth his salt will tell you they aren't. That resistance to change is all over the place. 

So, how can we have cultures of diversity? Wouldn't that be an oxymoron? Or innovative cultures? Don't cultures take an age to change? Or cultural transformations? Which are bloody and often destroy generations of knowledge!

So what is a healthy organisational culture? I'm not sure. I only wanted you to think about it. To immerse yourself in some organisational theory. And organisational history. And come out the other side critically refreshed. And, with luck, creatively energised. 

As I said, this is only a thought experiment. But, maybe, one that makes you stop and reflect. If only for a second.

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Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

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