How 8 Organizational Metaphors Impact Leadership

Metaphors seize our attention, connect us with others, and simplify complex ideas. But they also trap us into a simplified way of thinking. At work, this means that the way we simplify our organizations determines how we can lead and embrace change.

A metaphor is a connection. It’s a piece of string coupling two ideas. One idea is usually complex and hard to convey. The other idea is then simple and commonplace. The ordinary illuminates the intricate.

Her heart was broken.

Metaphors are incredibly powerful. A good one grabs attention and helps people see through a shared set of eyes. But metaphors can also be a trap. They can obstruct our perspective, and in turn, limit our understanding of a situation, and confine our choices.

If hearts can be broken, they can also stay broken.

At work, we love metaphors. We climb the ladder and traverse our career path. We waste time in meetings. We kill time reading articles like this. We punch in and we punch out.

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And the metaphors we use to describe our organizations themselves, speak volumes about our roles as leaders, as followers, and our ability to make change. In his book, Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan lays out eight metaphors for an organization: machines, organisms, brains, cultural systems, political systems, psychic prisons, instruments of domination, and flux and transformation.

These metaphors expose us to new ways of seeing our organizations, ourselves, and others we work with. On first read, we quickly get a sense of the dominant metaphors we use in our own lives. On a second read, we can explore new ways of looking at the organizations we inhabit. When we read this with others, we can compare our perspectives and excavate the roots of our differences.

By knowing the metaphors we use and the people around us use, we can better work together.

The 8 Organizational Metaphors:

  1. Machine: an organization is a series of connected parts arranged in a logical order in order to produce a repeatable output
  2. Organism: an organization is a collective response to its environment and, to survive, must adapt as the environment changes
  3. Brain: an organization is a set of functions designed to process information and learn over time
  4. Cultural System: an organization is a mini-society, with its own culture and subcultures defined by their values, norms, beliefs, and rituals
  5. Political System: an organization is a game of gaining, influencing, and coordinating power
  6. Psychic Prison: an organization is a collection of myths and stories that restrict people’s thoughts, ideas, and actions
  7. Instrument of Domination: an organization is a means to impose one’s will on others and exploit resources for personal gains
  8. Flux and Transformation: an organization is an ever-changing system indivisible from its environment

Let’s take a closer look at each metaphor and its perspective on leadership and change.

Organization as Machine

People who see organizations as machines want a profound sense of order and control. They strive for neatly partitioned roles and seek interchangeable people to fill those roles. Above all, they expect logic and reason to always win the day.

  • When this metaphor works: it works in the same context as when machines do, i.e. when there is a straightforward task, a stable environment, a repeatable outcome, and a focus on precision
  • When this metaphor fails: when the environment changes and when employees crave a greater sense of purpose and human agency
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders think and workers do; it’s the duty of a leader to lay out exact requirements for every role and swap people out when there is an under-performance
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: people who hold this view think that change is a matter of shutting down, replacing a cog, and easily resuming production; obviously this overlooks how people actually think and feel about change

Organization as Organism

People who see organizations as organisms are concerned with the environment surrounding the organization and how best to fit into that environment. They see changes to that environment as forces and factors to respond to.

  • When this metaphor works: when there is a clear and discrete change in the environment that threatens the organization’s survival (e.g. a new law is enacted)
  • When this metaphor fails: when changes are continuous and when uncertainty is rampant; i.e. when it’s unclear what’s called for in response to seismic changes
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are called to sense for changes and formulate a step-by-step plan of action in response (this works when classical strategy also works, in a world of discrete, and predictable changes)
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: traditional models of change management fall here (e.g. Lewin), with the idea being that you can make a change and then return to a state of normalcy following the change vs adopting change as a constant state of being

Organization as Brain

People who see organizations as brains are concerned with the collective intelligence and organized wisdom of the organization. They see employees as sensors and management layers as sense-making functions in the pursuit of developing a learning organization.

  • When this metaphor works: when the environment is rife with unknowns but relatively stable so that learnings are still relevant over time (e.g. a team of medical researchers hoping to cure an infectious disease)
  • When this metaphor fails: when change is so unprecedented that knowledge of the past is no longer helpful for predicting and responding to the future
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are expected to install and instill the capacity for double-loop learning, helping teams not only develop feedback loops that help them gauge their effectiveness but also feedback loops that help them question how they define effectiveness itself
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: this metaphor assumes that past knowledge is always predictive of future behavior, meaning that changes can be rationalized and planned for with the benefit of enough hindsight and pattern recognition

Organization as Cultural System

People who see organizations as cultural systems are concerned with the shared beliefs, norms, and rituals of an organization. They are often thinking of the organization as a mini-society and are interested in the holistic experience of being an employee of the organization.

  • When this metaphor works: when competition for talent is fierce and employees desire for shared identity in their work
  • When this metaphor fails: when cultures become cult-like, i.e. when entering and exiting the culture causes trauma; when external changes are ignored in favor of group cohesion; when a push for a homogenous culture drives out sub-cultures and drives away talent who are not deemed “culture fits”
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are expected to be the embodiment of their cultures
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: cultural systems are inherently systems which favor tradition and reject change; these organizations then struggle to assimilate changes which threaten their core values and beliefs

Organization as Political System

People who see organizations as political systems are chiefly concerned with gaining and wielding power and influence. They view employees as followers to accrue, fellow leaders as either allies or foes, and superiors as those to influence and control.

  • When this metaphor works: when there are diverse and conflicting interests and when self-interests overrule rationality
  • When this metaphor fails: when a competitor or change of any kind emerges as a threat so great that only the collective cooperation of the organization can face it
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are expected to vie for attention, influence, and dominance; this leads to a single-minded obsession with how leaders are perceived (i.e. how they perform in a meeting) even over their long-term performance
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: this metaphor assumes that the leader who emerges victorious from a political system is also a leader who can foresee and marshal change; alas history is replete with examples of leaders who could manipulate a political system and yet fail to respond to societal shifts

Organization as Psychic Prison

People who see organizations as a psychic prison want to broaden our ability to perceive, question, and change our organizations. They fear that their organizations are trapped in a static way of thinking, that they adopt conformist ideals, and overall resist change.

Example: the social movements at companies like Google who want us to see a broader, more inclusive world led by our organizations

  • When this metaphor works: when past success, societal norms, and unconscious biases have deluded the organization into a state of complacency and/or persistent discrimination
  • When this metaphor fails: when the need to embrace new ways of thinking overrides the commercial realities of the organization
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are called to question their own self-awareness, prejudices, and biases in order to create more inclusive and equitable environments
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: this metaphor encourages organizations to progress ahead of governmental and societal changes; this is obviously difficult when an organization is large and diverse enough to encompass a broad set of views and opinion

Organization as Instrument of Domination

People who see organizations as an instrument of domination are often terrible people to work with and for. They see employees as objects to be subjugated. They also tend to see the natural resources available to the company as theirs to exploit.

  • When this metaphor works: in some cases, this is the most realistic view of organizational life (sadly)
  • When this metaphor fails: this view can be adopted by activists who paint a miserable and myopic view of any kind of effort concentrated to a capitalist end
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are expected to override the will and self-determination of their subordinates
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: this metaphor fails to respond to meaningful external change because it prioritizes the personal wants and needs of a leader; i.e. if a leader doesn’t find it attractive to change, the organization will not change

Organization as Flux and Transformation

People who see organizations in terms of flux and transformation have embraced uncertainty, complexity, and even chaos in terms of the changes their organization is experiencing. You can think of this metaphor as an evolution of Organism–rather than thinking that simply the environment changes and then the organization must respond in kind, this metaphor says that both the environment and organization influence one another and both must respond to change.

  • When this metaphor works: when there is continuous and complex change; when cause and effect no longer make neat sense
  • When this metaphor fails: when the organization itself need only work as simply as a machine, OR when the external chaos causes leaders to throw up their hands and abdicate responsibility for change
  • What this metaphor means for leadership: under this paradigm, leaders are called to experiment with small, safe-to-fail changes and then marshal resources to further successful experiments while shutting down failures; in contrast to the organism view, changes within an organization also spur changes in the environment
  • What this metaphor says about organizational change: this metaphor advocates for a test and learn mentality, even over rushing to introduce a series of planned changes informed by pattern recognition

As you explore these metaphors, consider these actions:

  1. Read through these metaphors and identify the one you predominantly use for your organization; question where and under what contexts you adopted or inherited that metaphor (likely from a past job or boss)
  2. Question if whether that metaphor is still working for you and the organization’s context; especially around the rate and recurrence of change and level of uncertainty around you
  3. Take it lightly and try on a series of different metaphors for your organization and see what insights those metaphors unlock (e.g. how would I feel if we were just a “brain”)
  4. Share this with your colleagues to determine the metaphors they use
  5. Share with your colleagues any insights or unlocks you found through thinking in different metaphors
  6. Take a complex or challenging topic, like deciding on how to allocate budget, through these different metaphors to understand how that simple decision could be seen across various mental models
  7. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Conversation is how the power of metaphor of unleashed.
Published August 28, 2019

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