Environmental scanning on an organization

Write the important information in 3 pages APA paper>> applying academic article, book, chapters<< Resource (attached here, do NOT bring or add outside resource) 

The paper will be including:  

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1)  An Introduction to an organization > (Visit Huntington Beach (VHB) is the official Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) for Huntington Beach, California)


2)    a: To conduct an Environmental Scan exactly how it was explained in the given resource  

        EX: Albright’s article, Bolman’s book<<< attached 

        B:  identify the situation in need of attention or to change in the organization the situation is 

        (Mobilizing better team with a common vision to carry out international event with how to deal with 30        different language that address the need of the best communication to make the annual event better in the   future)

Please Read the resource and make the paper understandable and complete on the organization and the enivermontal scan on the given situation only NOT all the scanning 

( 2 days deadline )

WEBFFIRS 05/26/2017 12:59:13 Page i

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Reframing Organizations, Sixth Edition is also available in WileyPLUS Learning
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WEBFFIRS 05/26/2017 12:59:13 Page iv
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WEBFFIRS 05/26/2017 12:59:13 Page v
In Memory of Warren Bennis
Exemplar, Mentor, and Friend
With Appreciation for All He Gave Us

WEBFFIRS 05/26/2017 12:59:13 Page vi

WEBFTOC 05/26/2017 3:10:35 Page vii
Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
P A R T O N E Making Sense of Organizations 1
1 Introduction: The Power of Reframing 3
2 Simple Ideas, Complex Organizations 25
P A R T T W O The Structural Frame 43
3 Getting Organized 45
4 Structure and Restructuring 71
5 Organizing Groups and Teams 93
P A R T T H R E E The Human Resource Frame 113
6 People and Organizations 115
7 Improving Human Resource Management 135
8 Interpersonal and Group Dynamics 157

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P A R T F O U R The Political Frame 179
9 Power, Conflict, and Coalition 181
10 The Manager as Politician 201
11 Organizations as Political Arenas and Political Agents 217
P A R T F I V E The Symbolic Frame 235
12 Organizational Symbols and Culture 239
13 Culture in Action 265
14 Organization as Theater 279
P A R T S I X Improving Leadership Practice 295
15 Integrating Frames for Effective Practice 297
16 Reframing in Action: Opportunities and Perils 313
17 Reframing Leadership 325
18 Reframing Change in Organizations 359
19 Reframing Ethics and Spirit 385
20 Bringing It All Together: Change and Leadership in Action 399
Epilogue: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership 419
Appendix: The Best of Organizational Studies 423
Bibliography 427
The Authors 467
Name Index 469
Subject Index 481
viii Contents

WEBFPREF 05/26/2017 3:11:2 Page ix
This is the sixth release of a work that began in 1984 as Modern Approachesto Understanding and Managing Organizations and became Reframing
Organizations in 1991. We’re grateful to readers around the world who have
told us that our books gave them ideas that make a difference—at work and
elsewhere in their lives.
It is again time for an update, and we’re gratified to be back by popular demand. Like
everything else, organizations and their leadership challenges continue to evolve rapidly,
and scholars are running hard to keep pace. This edition tries to capture the current
frontiers of both knowledge and art.
The four-frame model, with its view of organizations as factories, families, jungles, and
temples, remains the book’s conceptual heart. But we have incorporated new research and
revised our case examples extensively to keep up with the latest developments. We have
updated a feature we inaugurated in the third edition: “Greatest Hits in Organization
Studies.” These features offer pithy summaries of key ideas from the some of the most
influential works in the scholarly literature (as indicated by a citation analysis, described in
the Appendix at the end of the book). As a counterpoint to the scholarly works, we have also
added occasional summaries of management bestsellers. Scholarly and professional litera­
ture often run on separate tracks, but the two streams together provide a fuller picture than
either alone, and we have tried to capture the best of both in our work.
Life in organizations has produced many stories and examples, and there is new
material throughout the book. At the same time, we worked zealously to minimize bloat by
tracking down and expunging every redundant sentence, marginal concept, or extraneous
example. We’ve also tried to keep it fun. Collective life is an endless source of vivid examples
as entertaining as they are instructive, and we’ve sprinkled them throughout the text.

WEBFPREF 05/26/2017 3:11:2 Page x
We apologize to anyone who finds that an old favorite fell to the cutting-room floor, but we
hope readers will find the book an even clearer and more efficient read.
As always, our primary audience is managers and leaders. We have tried to answer the
question, what do we know about organizations and leadership that is genuinely relevant
and useful to practitioners as well as scholars? We have worked to present a large, complex
body of theory, research, and practice as clearly and simply as possible. We tried to avoid
watering it down or presenting simplistic views of how to solve managerial problems. This is
not a self-help book filled with ready-made answers. Our goal is to offer not solutions but
powerful and provocative ways of thinking about opportunities and pitfalls.
We continue to focus on both management and leadership. Leading and managing are
different, but they’re equally important. The difference is nicely summarized in an aphorism
from Bennis and Nanus: “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.” If an
organization is overmanaged but underled, it eventually loses any sense of spirit or purpose.
A poorly managed organization with a strong, charismatic leader may soar briefly—only to
crash shortly thereafter. Malpractice can be as damaging and unethical for managers and
leaders as for physicians.
Myopic managers or overzealous leaders usually harm more than just themselves. The
challenges of today’s organizations require the objective perspective of managers as well as
the brilliant flashes of vision that wise leadership provides. We need more people in
managerial roles who can find simplicity and order amid organizational confusion and
chaos. We need versatile and flexible leaders who are artists as well as analysts, who can
reframe experience to discover new issues and possibilities. We need managers who love
their work, their organizations, and the people whose lives they affect. We need leaders who
appreciate management as a moral and ethical undertaking, and who combine hardheaded
realism with passionate commitment to larger values and purposes. We hope to encourage
and nurture such qualities and possibilities.
As in the past, we have tried to produce a clear and readable synthesis and integration of
the field’s major theoretical traditions. We concentrate mainly on organization theory’s
implications for practice. We draw on examples from every sector and around the globe.
Historically, organization studies has been divided into several intellectual camps, often
isolated from one another. Works that seek to give a comprehensive overview of organiza­
tion theory and research often drown in social science jargon and abstraction and have little
to say to practitioners. Works that strive to provide specific answers and tactics often offer
advice that applies only under certain conditions. We try to find a balance between
misleading oversimplification and mind-boggling complexity.

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The bulk of work in organization studies has focused on the private or public or
nonprofit sector but not all three. We think this is a mistake. Managers need to understand
similarities and differences among all types of organizations. All three sectors increasingly
interpenetrate one another. Federal, state and local governments create policy that shapes or
intends to influence organizations of all types. When bad things happen new laws are
promulgated. Public administrators who regulate airlines, nuclear power plants, or phar­
maceutical companies face the problem of “indirect management” every day. They struggle
to influence the behavior of organizations over which they have very limited authority.
Private firms need to manage relationships with multiple levels of government. The
situation is even more complicated for managers in multinational companies coping
with the subtleties of governments with very different systems and traditions. Around
the world, voluntary and nongovernment organizations partner with business and govern­
ment to address major social and economic challenges. Across sectors and cultures,
managers often harbor narrow, stereotypic conceptions of one another that impede
effectiveness on all sides. We need common ground and a shared understanding that
can help strengthen organizations in every sector. The dialogue between public and private,
domestic and multinational organizations has become increasingly important. Because of
their generic application, the four frames offer an ecumenical language for the exchange.
Our work with a variety of organizations around the world has continually reinforced our
confidence that the frames are relevant everywhere. Translations of the book into many
languages, including Chinese, Dutch, French, Korean, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish,
Swedish, and Turkish, provide ample evidence that this is so. Political and symbolic issues,
for example, are universally important, even though the specifics vary greatly from one
country or culture to another.
The idea of reframing continues to be a central theme. Throughout the book, we show
how the same situation can be viewed in at least four unique ways. In Part VI, we include a
series of chapters on reframing critical organizational issues such as leadership, change, and
ethics. Two chapters are specifically devoted to reframing real-life situations.
We also continue to emphasize artistry. Overemphasizing the rational and technical
side of an organization often contributes to its decline or demise. Our counterbalance
emphasizes the importance of art in both management and leadership. Artistry is neither
exact nor precise; the artist interprets experience, expressing it in forms that can be felt,
understood, and appreciated. Art fosters emotion, subtlety, and ambiguity. An artist
represents the world to give us a deeper understanding of what is and what might be.
In modern organizations, quality, commitment, and creativity are highly valued but often
Preface xi

WEBFPREF 05/26/2017 3:11:2 Page xii
hard to find. They can be developed and encouraged by leaders or managers who embrace
the expressive side of their work.
As its title implies, the first part of the book, “Making Sense of Organizations,” focuses on
sense-making and tackles a perplexing question about management: Why is it that smart
people so often do dumb things? Chapter 1, “The Power of Reframing,” explains why:
Managers often misread situations. They have not learned how to use multiple lenses to get a
better sense of what they’re up against and what they might do. Chapter 2, “Simple Ideas,
Complex Organizations,” uses well-known cases (such as 9/11) to show how managers’
everyday thinking and theories can lead to catastrophe. We explain basic factors that make
organizational life complicated, ambiguous, and unpredictable; discuss common fallacies in
managerial thinking; and spell out criteria for more effective approaches to diagnosis and
Part II, “The Structural Frame,” explores the key role that social architecture plays in the
functioning of organizations. Chapter 3, “Getting Organized,” describes basic issues that
managers must consider in designing structure to fit an organization’s strategies, tasks, and
context. It demonstrates why organizations—from Amazon to McDonald’s to Harvard
University—need different structures in order to be effective in their unique environments.
Chapter 4, “Structure and Restructuring,” explains major structural pathologies and pitfalls.
It presents guidelines for aligning structures to situations, along with cases illustrating
successful structural change. Chapter 5, “Organizing Groups and Teams,” shows that
structure is a key to high-performing teams.
Part III, “The Human Resource Frame,” explores the properties of both people and
organizations, and what happens when the two intersect. Chapter 6, “People and Organi­
zations,” focuses on the relationship between organizations and human nature. It shows
how managers’ practices and assumptions about people can lead either to alienation and
hostility or to commitment and high motivation. It contrasts two strategies for achieving
effectiveness: “lean and mean,” or investing in people. Chapter 7, “Improving Human
Resource Management,” is an overview of practices that build a more motivated and
committed workforce—including participative management, job enrichment, self-manag­
ing workgroups, management of diversity, and organization development. Chapter 8,
“Interpersonal and Group Dynamics,” presents an example of interpersonal conflict to
illustrate how managers can enhance or undermine relationships. It also discusses emo­
tional intelligence and how group members can increase their effectiveness by attending to
xii Preface

WEBFPREF 05/26/2017 3:11:2 Page xiii
group process, including informal norms and roles, interpersonal conflict, leadership, and
decision making.
Part IV, “The Political Frame,” views organizations as arenas. Individuals and groups
compete to achieve their parochial interests in a world of conflicting viewpoints, scarce
resources, and struggles for power. Chapter 9, “Power, Conflict, and Coalition,” analyzes the
tragic loss of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger, illustrating the influence of
political dynamics in decision making. It shows how scarcity and diversity lead to conflict,
bargaining, and games of power; the chapter also distinguishes constructive and destructive
political dynamics. Chapter 10, “The Manager as Politician,” uses leadership examples from
a nonprofit organization in India and a software development effort at Microsoft to
illustrate basic skills of the constructive politician: diagnosing political realities, setting
agendas, building networks, negotiating, and making choices that are both effective and
ethical. Chapter 11, “Organizations as Political Arenas and Political Agents,” highlights
organizations as both arenas for political contests and political actors influencing broader
social, political, and economic trends. Case examples such as Walmart and Ross Johnson
explore political dynamics both inside and outside organizations.
Part V explores the symbolic frame. Chapter 12, “Organizational Symbols and Culture,”
spells out basic symbolic elements in organizations: myths, heroes, metaphors, stories,
humor, play, rituals, and ceremonies. It defines organizational culture and shows its central
role in shaping performance. The power of symbol and culture is illustrated in cases as
diverse as the U.S. Congress, Nordstrom department stores, the U.S. Air Force, Zappos, and
a unique horse race in Italy. Chapter 13, “Culture in Action,” uses the case of a computer
development team to show what leaders and group members can do collectively to build a
culture that bonds people in pursuit of a shared mission. Initiation rituals, specialized
language, group stories, humor and play, and ceremonies all combine to transform diverse
individuals into a cohesive team with purpose, spirit, and soul. Chapter 14, “Organization as
Theater,” draws on dramaturgical and institutional theory to reveal how organizational
structures, activities, and events serve as secular dramas, expressing our fears and joys,
arousing our emotions, and kindling our spirit. It also shows how organizational structures
and processes—such as planning, evaluation, and decision making—are often more
important for what they express than for what they accomplish.
Part VI, “Improving Leadership Practice,” focuses on the implications of the frames for
central issues in managerial practice, including leadership, change, and ethics. Chapter 15,
“Integrating Frames for Effective Practice,” shows how managers can blend the frames to
improve their effectiveness. It looks at organizations as multiple realities and gives guide­
lines for aligning frames with situations. Chapter 16, “Reframing in Action,” presents four
Preface xiii

WEBFPREF 05/26/2017 3:11:2 Page xiv
scenarios, or scripts, derived from the frames. It applies the scenarios to the harrowing
experience of a young manager whose first day in a new job turns out to be far more
challenging than she expected. The discussion illustrates how leaders can expand their
options and enhance their effectiveness by considering alternative approaches. Chapter 17,
“Reframing Leadership,” discusses limitations in traditional views of leadership and
proposes a more comprehensive view of how leadership works in organizations. It
summarizes and critiques current knowledge on the characteristics of leaders, including
the relationship of leadership to culture and gender. It shows how frames generate
distinctive images of effective leaders as architects, servants, advocates, and prophets.
Chapter 18, “Reframing Change in Organizations,” describes four fundamental issues
that arise in any change effort: individual needs, structural alignment, political conflict, and
existential loss. It uses cases of successful and unsuccessful change to document key
strategies, such as training, realigning, creating arenas, and using symbol and ceremony.
Chapter 19, “Reframing Ethics and Spirit,” discusses four ethical mandates that emerge
from the frames: excellence, caring, justice, and faith. It argues that leaders can build more
ethical organizations through gifts of authorship, love, power, and significance. Chapter 20,
“Bringing It All Together,” is an integrative treatment of the reframing process. It takes a
troubled school administrator through a weekend of reflection on critical difficulties he
faces. The chapter shows how reframing can help managers move from feeling confused
and stuck to discovering a renewed sense of clarity and confidence. The Epilogue describes
strategies and characteristics needed in future leaders. It explains why they will need an
artistic combination of conceptual flexibility and commitment to core values. Efforts to
prepare future leaders have to focus as much on spiritual as on intellectual development.
Lee G. Bolman
Brookline, Massachusetts
Terrence E. Deal
San Luis Obispo, California
July 2017
xiv Preface

WEBFACK 05/26/2017 3:11:35 Page xv
We noted in our first edition, “Book writing often feels like a lonelyprocess, even when an odd couple is doing the writing.” This odd
couple keeps getting older (ancient, to be more precise) and—some would
say—even odder and grumpier. It seems like only yesterday we were young,
vibrant new authors, but that was 40 years ago. To our amazement, we’re still
at it and have remained close friends. The best thing about teaching and book
writing is that you learn so much from your readers and students, and we have
been blessed to have so many of both.
Students at Stanford, Harvard, Vanderbilt, the University of Missouri–Kansas City, the
University of La Verne, and the University of Southern California have given us invaluable
criticism, challenge, and support over the years. We’re grateful to the many readers who
have responded to our open invitation to write and ask questions or share comments. They
have helped us write a better book. (The invitation is still open—our contact information is
in “The Authors.”) We wish we could personally thank all of the leaders and managers who
helped us learn in seminars, workshops, and consultations. Their knowledge and wisdom
are the foundation and touchstone for our work.
We want to thank all the colleagues and readers in the United States and around the
world who have offered valuable comments and suggestions, but the list is very long and our
memories keep getting shorter. Bob Marx, of the University of Massachusetts, deserves
special mention as a charter member of the frames family. Bob’s interest in the frames,
creativity in developing teaching designs, and eye for video material have aided our thinking
and teaching immensely. Conversations with Dick Scott and John Meyer of Stanford
University have helped us explore the nuances of institutional theory. Ellen Harris, of

WEBFACK 05/26/2017 3:11:35 Page xvi
Harvard and Outward Bound, provided many thoughtful comments on the manuscript.
Susan Griggs, of the University of Denver, offered a provocative critique of our handling of
issues related to gender and leadership. Elena Granell de Aldaz, of the Institute for
Advanced Study of Management in Caracas, collaborated with us on developing a
Spanish-language adaptation of Reframing Organizations as well as on a more recent
project that studied frame orientations among managers in Venezuela. We are proud to
consider her a valued colleague and wonderful friend. Azarm Ghareman, a clinical
psychologist, deepened our understanding of Carl Jung’s view of the important role
symbols play in human experience. Captain Gary Deal, USN, at the Eisenhower School,
National Defense Institute, teaches leadership and the frames to high-ranking officers from
all branches of the military and government services. Dr. Peter Minich, a transplant
surgeon, now brings the world of leadership to physicians. Major Kevin Reed, of the United
States Air Force, and Jan and Ron Haynes, of FzioMed, all provided valuable case material.
Richard and Sharon Pescatore have been a valuable source for insights into Hewlett-
Packard. The irrepressible Charlie Alfano and co-owner Audrey of Alfano Motorcars (San
Luis Obispo) have provided us a glimpse of key ingredients for success in a sales
organization (the Alfanos also own a dealership in Phoenix). Angela Schmiede of Menlo
College has broadened our views of the ways the frames can contribute to undergraduate
A number of friends and colleagues at the Organizational Behavior Teaching Confer­
ence have given us many helpful ideas and suggestions. We apologize for any omissions, but
we want to thank Anke Arnaud, Carole K. Barnett, Max Elden, Kent Fairfield, Cindi
Fukami, Olivier Hermanus, Jim Hodge, Earlene Holland, Scott Johnson, Mark Kriger,
Hyoungbae Lee, Larry Levine, Mark Maier, Magid Mazen, Thomas P. Nydegger, Dave
O’Connell, Lynda St. Clair, Mabel Tinjacá, Susan Twombly, and Pat Villeneuve. We can
only wish to have succeeded in implementing all the wonderful ideas we received from these
and other colleagues.
Lee is grateful to all his Bloch School colleagues and particularly to Nancy Day, Pam
Dobies, Dave Donnelly, Doranne Hudson, Jae Jung, Tusha Kimber, Sandra Kruse-Smith,
Rong Ma, Brent Never, Roger Pick, Stephen Pruitt, Laura Rees, David Renz, Marilyn Taylor,
and Bob Waris. Terry’s colleagues Carl Cohn, Stu Gothald, and Gib Hentschke, of the
University of Southern California, have offered both intellectual stimulation and moral
support. Sharon Conley, Professor at the University of Santa Barbara, is a constant source of
ideas and feedback. Her work keeps us attuned closely to the world of education. Terry’s
recent (2013) team-teaching venture with President Devorah Lieberman and Professor Jack
Meek of the University of La Verne showed what’s possible when conventional boundaries
xvi Acknowledgments

WEBFACK 05/26/2017 3:11:36 Page xvii
are trespassed in a class of aspiring undergraduate leaders. This experience led to the
founding of the Terrence E. Deal Leadership Institute.
Others to whom our debt is particularly clear are the late Chris Argyris, Sam Bacharach,
Cliff Baden, Margaret Benefiel, Estella Bensimon, Bud Bilanich, Bob Birnbaum, Barbara
Bunker, Tom Burks, Ellen Castro, Carlos Cortés, Linton Deck, Patrick Faverty, Dave Fuller,
Jim Honan, Tom Johnson, Bob Kegan, James March, Grady McGonagill, Judy McLaughlin,
John Meyer, Kevin Nichols, Harrison Owen, Regina Pacheco, Donna Redman, Peggy
Redman, Michael Sales, Joan Vydra, Karl Weick, Jilie Wheeler, Roy Williams, and Joe
Zolner. Thanks again to Dave Brown, Phil Mirvis, Barry Oshry, Tim Hall, Bill Kahn, and
Todd Jick of the Brookline Circle, now in its fourth decade of searching for joy and meaning
in those lives devoted to the study of organizations.
Outside the United States, we are grateful to Poul Erik Mouritzen in Denmark; Rolf
Kaelin, Cüno Pumpin, and Peter Weisman in Switzerland; Ilpo Linko in Finland; Tom Case
in Brazil; Einar Plyhn and Haakon Gran in Norway; Peter Normark and Dag Bjorkegren in
Sweden; Ching-Shiun Chung in Taiwan; Helen Gluzdakova and Anastasia Vitkovskaya in
Russia; and H.R.H. Prince Philipp von und zu Lichtenstein.
Closer to home, Lee also owes more than he can say to the recently retired Bruce Kay,
whose genial and unflappable approach to work, coupled with high levels of organization
and follow-through, had a wonderfully positive impact while he took on the challenge of
bringing a modicum of order and sanity to Lee’s professional functioning. We also continue
to be grateful for the enduring support and friendship of Linda Corey, our long-time
resident representative at Harvard, and Homa Aminmadani, a delightful character and
irreplaceable assistant, who now splits her time between Nashville and Teheran.
The couples of the Edna Ranch Vintners Guild—the Pecatores, Donners, Hayneses,
Alfanos, and Andersons—link efforts with Terry in exploring the ups, downs, and mysteries
of the art and science of wine making. Three professional winemakers, Romeo “Meo” Zuech
of Piedra Creek Winery, Brett Escalera of Consilience and TresAnelli, and Bob Shiebelhut of
Tolosa offer advice that applies to leadership as well as winemaking. Meo reminds us,
“Never overmanage your grapes,” and Brett prefaces answers to all questions with “It all
We’re delighted to be well into the fourth decade of our partnership with Jossey-Bass
and Wiley. We’re grateful to the many friends who have helped us over the years, including
Bill Henry, Steve Piersanti, Lynn Luckow, Bill Hicks, Debra Hunter, Cedric Crocker, Byron
Schneider, Kathe Sweeney, and many others. In recent years, Jeanenne Ray has been a
wonderful editor and friend. Jenny Ng and Lauren Freestone of Wiley have done vital and
Acknowledgments xvii

WEBFACK 05/26/2017 3:11:36 Page xviii
much-appreciated work backstage in helping to get all the pieces of this edition together and
keep the process moving forward.
Lee’s six children—Edward, Shelley, Lori, Scott, Christopher, and Bradley—and three
grandchildren—James, Jazmyne, and Foster—all continue to enrich his life and contribute
to his growth. Terry’s daughter Janie, a chef, has a rare talent of almost magically
transforming simple ingredients into fine cuisine. Special mention also goes to Terry’s
deceased parents, Bob and Dorothy Deal. Both lived long enough to be pleasantly surprised
that their oft-wayward son could write a book. Equal mention is due to Lee’s parents, Eldred
and Florence Bolman.
We again dedicate this book to our wives, who have more than earned all the credit and
appreciation that we can give them. Joan Gallos, Lee’s spouse and closest colleague,
combines intellectual challenge and critique with support and love. She has been an active
collaborator in developing our ideas, and her teaching manual for previous editions has
been a frame-breaking model for the genre. Her contributions have become so integrated
into our own thinking that we are no longer able to thank her for all the ways that the book
has gained from her wisdom and insights.
Sandy Deal’s psychological training enables her to approach the field of organizations
with a distinctive and illuminating slant. Her successful practice produces examples that
have helped us make some even stronger connections to the concepts of clinical psychology.
She is one of the most gifted diagnosticians in the field, as well as a delightful partner whose
love and support over the long run have made all the difference. She is a rare combination of
courage and caring, intimacy and independence, responsibility and playfulness.
To Joan and Sandy, thanks again. As the years accumulate (rapidly), we love you even
Lee G. Bolman
Brookline, Massachusetts
Terrence E. Deal
San Luis Obispo, California
July 2017
xviii Acknowledgments

WEBP01 05/25/2017 14:13:18 Page 1
Making Sense of
Sit no longer at your dusty window
I urge you to break the gaze
from your oh so cherished glass
—Gian Torrano Jacobs
Journeys through the Windows of Perception
Reprinted by permission of the poet, Gian Torrano Jacobs.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBP01 05/25/2017 14:13:18 Page 2

WEBC01 05/25/2017 14:32:21 Page 3
c h a p t e r
The Power of Reframing
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the German carmakerVolkswagen and the U.S. bank Wells Fargo were among the world’s
largest, most successful, and most admired firms. Then both trashed their
own brand by following the same script. It’s a drama in three acts:
Act I: Set daunting standards for employees to improve performance.
Act II: Look the other way when employees cheat because they think it’s the
only way to meet the targets.
the workers and paint top managers as blameless.
In Wells Fargo’s case, the bank fired more than 5,000 lower-level employees but offered
an exit bonus of $125 million to the executive who oversaw them (Sorkin, 2016).
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was known as an eagle-eyed micromanager
but pleaded ignorance when his company admitted in 2015 that it had been cheating for
years on emissions tests of its “clean” diesels. He was quickly replaced by Matthias
Müller, who claimed that he didn’t know anything about VW’s cheating either. Müller
also explained why VW wasn’t exactly guilty: “It was a technical problem. We had not
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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the interpretation of the American law . . . We didn’t lie. We didn’t understand the
question first” (Smith and Parloff, 2016). Apparently VW was smart enough to design
clever software to fudge emissions tests but not smart enough to know that cheating
might be illegal.
The smokescreen worked for years—VW sold a lot of diesels to consumers who
wanted just what Volkswagen claimed to offer, a car at the sweet spot of low emissions,
high performance, and great fuel economy. The cheating apparently began around 2008,
seven years before it became public, when Volkswagen engineers realized they could not
make good on the company’s public, clean-diesel promises (Ewing, 2015). Bob Lutz, an
industry insider, described VW’s management system as “a reign of terror and a culture
where performance was driven by fear and intimidation” (Lutz, 2015). VW engineers
faced a tough choice. Should they tell the truth and lose their jobs now or cheat and
maybe lose their jobs later? The engineers chose option B. The story did not end happily.
In January, 2017, VW pleaded guilty to cheating on emissions tests and agreed to pay a
fine of $4.3 billion. In the same week, six VW executives were indicted for conspiring to
defraud the United States.1 In Spring of 2017, VW’s legal troubles appeared to be
winding down in the United States, at a total cost of more than $20 billion, but were still
ramping up in Germany, where authorities had launched criminal investigations
(Ewing, 2017).
The story at Wells Fargo was similar. For years, it had successfully billed itself as the
friendly, community bank. It ran warm and fuzzy ads around themes of working together
and caring about people. The ads did not mention that in 2010 a federal judge ruled that the
bank had cheated customers by deliberately manipulating customer transactions to increase
overdraft fees (Randall, 2010), nor that in August, 2016, the bank agreed to pay a $4.1
million penalty for cheating student borrowers. But no amount of advertising would have
helped in September, 2016, when the news broke that employees in Wells Fargo branches,
under pressure from their bosses to sell more “solutions,” had opened some two million
accounts that customers didn’t want and usually didn’t know about, at least not until they
received an unexpected credit card in the mail or got hit with fees on an account they didn’t
know they had.
None of it should have been news to Wells Fargo’s leadership. Back in 2005,
employees began to call the firm’s human resources department and ethics hotline to
report that some of their coworkers were cheating (Cowley, 2016). The bank sometimes
solved that problem by firing the whistleblowers. Take the case of a branch manager in
Arizona. While covering for a colleague at another branch, he found that employees were
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opening accounts for fake businesses. He called HR, which told him to call the ethics
hotline. Ethics asked him for specific data to support the allegations. He pulled data from
the system and reported it. A month later, he was fired for improperly looking up account
In 2013, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about phony accounts in some local
branches. Wells Fargo’s solution was not to lower the flame under the pot but to try and
screw down the lid even tighter. They kept up the intense push for cross-selling but sent
employees to ethics seminars where they were instructed not to open accounts customers
didn’t want. CEO John Stumpf achieved plausible deniability by proclaiming that he
didn’t want “want anyone ever offering a product to someone when they don’t know what
the benefit is, or the customer doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t want it, or doesn’t need it”
(Sorkin, 2016, p. B1). But despite his public assurances, the incentives up and down the
line still rewarded sales rather than ethical squeamishness. Many employees felt they were
in a bind: they’d been told not to cheat, but that was the best way to keep their jobs
(Corkery and Cowley, 2016). Like the VW engineers, many decided to cheat now and
hope that later never came.
Maybe leaders at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo knew about the cheating and hoped it
would never come to light. Maybe they were just out of touch. Either way, they were
clueless—failing to see that their companies were headed for costly public-relations
nightmares. But they are far from alone. Cluelessness is a pervasive affliction for leaders,
even the best and brightest. Often it leads to personal and institutional disaster. But,
sometimes there are second chances.
Consider Steve Jobs. He had to fail before he could succeed. Fail he did. He was fired
from Apple Computer, the company he founded, and then spent 11 years “in the
wilderness” (Schlender, 2004). During this time of reflection he discovered capacities as
a leader—and human being—that set the stage for his triumphant second act at Apple.
He failed initially for the same reason that countless managers stumble: like the
executives at VW and Wells Fargo, Jobs was operating on a limited understanding of
leadership and organizations. He was always a brilliant and charismatic product
visionary. That enabled him to take Apple from startup to major computer vendor,
but didn’t equip him to lead Apple to its next phase. Being fired was painful, but Jobs
later concluded that it was the best thing that ever happened to him. “It freed me to enter
one of the most creative periods of my life. I’m pretty sure none of this would have
happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess
the patient needed it.”
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During his period of self-reflection, Jobs kept busy. He focused on Pixar, a computer
graphics company he bought for $10 million, and on NeXT, a new computer company that
he founded. One succeeded and the other didn’t, but he learned from both. Pixar became so
successful it made Jobs a billionaire. NeXT never made money, but it developed technology
that proved vital when Jobs was recalled from the wilderness to save Apple from a death
His experiences at NeXT and Pixar provided two vital lessons. One was the importance
of aligning an organization with its strategy and mission. He understood more clearly that
he needed a great company to build great products. Lesson two was about people. Jobs had
always understood the importance of talent, but now he had a better appreciation for the
importance of relationships and teamwork.
Jobs’s basic character did not change during his wilderness years. The Steve Jobs who
returned to Apple in 1997 was much like the human paradox fired 12 years earlier—
demanding and charismatic, charming and infuriating, erratic and focused, opinionated
and curious. The difference was in how he interpreted what was going on around him and
how he led. To his long-time gifts as a magician and warrior, he had added newfound
capacities as an organizational architect and team builder.
Shortly after his return, he radically simplified Apple’s product line, built a loyal and
talented leadership team, and turned his old company into a hit-making machine as
reliable as Pixar. The iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad made Jobs the world’s most admired
chief executive, and Apple passed ExxonMobil to become the world’s most valuable
company. His success in building an organization and a leadership team was validated as
Apple’s business results continued to impress after his death in October 2011. Like many
other executives, Steve Jobs seemed to have it all until he lost it—but most never get it
Martin Winterkorn had seemed to be on track to make Volkswagen the world’s biggest
car company, and Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf was one of America’s most admired
bankers. But both became so cocooned in imperfect worldviews that they misread their
circumstances and couldn’t see other options. That’s what it means to be clueless. You don’t
know what’s going on, but you think you do, and you don’t see better choices. So you do
more of what you know, even though it’s not working. You hope in vain that steady on
course will get you where you want to go.
How do leaders become clueless? That is what we explore next. Then we introduce
reframing—the conceptual core of the book and our basic prescription for sizing things up.
Reframing requires an ability to think about situations from more than one angle, which lets
you develop alternative diagnoses and strategies. We introduce four distinct frames—
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structural, human resource, political, and symbolic—each logical and powerful in capturing
a detailed snapshot. Together, they help to paint a more comprehensive picture of what’s
going on and what to do.
There was little need for professional managers when individuals mostly managed their own
affairs, drawing goods and services from family farms and small local businesses. Since the
dawn of the industrial revolution some 200 years ago, explosive technological and social
changes have produced a world that is far more interconnected, frantic, and complicated.
Humans struggle to avoid drowning in complexity that continually threatens to pull them in
over their heads (Kegan, 1998). Forms of management and organization effective a few years
ago are now obsolete. Sérieyx (1993) calls it the organizational big bang: “The information
revolution, the globalization of economies, the proliferation of events that undermine all our
certainties, the collapse of the grand ideologies, the arrival of the CNN society which
transforms us into an immense, planetary village—all these shocks have overturned the
rules of the game and suddenly turned yesterday’s organizations into antiques” (pp. 14–15).
Benner and Tushman (2015) argue that the twenty-first century is making managers’
challenges ever more vexing:
The paradoxical challenges facing organizations have become more numerous
and strategic (Besharov & Smith, 2014; Smith & Lewis, 2011). Beyond the
innovation challenges of exploration and exploitation, organizations are now
challenged to be local and global (e.g., Marquis & Battilana, 2009), doing well
and doing good (e.g., Battilana & Lee, 2014; Margolis & Walsh, 2003), social
and commercial (e.g., Battilana & Dorado, 2010), artistic or scientific and
profitable (e.g., Glynn, 2000), high commitment and high performance
(e.g., Beer & Eisenstadt, 2009), and profitable and sustainable (e.g., Eccles,
Ioannou, & Serafeim, 2014; Henderson, Gulati, & Tushman, 2015; Jay, 2013).
These contradictions are more prevalent, persistent, and consequential.
Further, these contradictions can be sustained and managed, but not resolved
(Smith, 2014).
The demands on managers’ wisdom, imagination and agility have never been greater,
and the impact of organizations on people’s well-being and happiness has never been more
consequential. The proliferation of complex organizations has made most human activities
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more formalized than they once were. We grow up in families and then start our own. We
work for business, government, or nonprofits. We learn in schools and universities. We
worship in churches, mosques, and synagogues. We play sports in teams, franchises, and
leagues. We join clubs and associations. Many of us will grow old and die in hospitals or
nursing homes. We build these enterprises because of what they can do for us. They offer
goods, entertainment, social services, health care, and almost everything else that we use or
All too often, however, we experience a darker side of these enterprises. Organizations
can frustrate and exploit people. Too often, products are flawed, families are dysfunctional,
students fail to learn, patients get worse, and policies backfire. Work often has so little
meaning that jobs offer nothing beyond a paycheck. If we believe mission statements and
public pronouncements, almost every organization these days aims to nurture its employees
and delight its customers. But many miss the mark. Schools are blamed for “mis-educating,”
universities are said to close more minds than they open, and government is criticized for
corruption, red tape, and rigidity.
The private sector has its own problems. Manufacturers recall faulty cars or inflammable
cellphones. Producers of food and pharmaceuticals make people sick with tainted products.
Software companies deliver bugs and “vaporware.” Industrial accidents dump chemicals,
oil, toxic gas, and radioactive materials into the air and water. Too often, corporate greed,
incompetence, and insensitivity create havoc for communities and individuals. The bottom
line: We seem hard-pressed to manage organizations so that their virtues exceed their vices.
The big question: Why?
Management’s Track Record
Year after year, the best and brightest managers maneuver or meander their way to the apex
of enterprises great and small. Then they do really dumb things. How do bright people turn
out so dim? One theory is that they’re too smart for their own good. Feinberg and Tarrant
(1995) label it the “self-destructive intelligence syndrome.” They argue that smart people act
stupid because of personality flaws—things like pride, arrogance, and an unconscious desire
to fail. It’s true that psychological flaws have been apparent in brilliant, self-destructive
individuals such as Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. But on the whole, the best
and brightest have no more psychological problems than everyone else. The primary source
of cluelessness is not personality or IQ but a failure to make sense of complex situations. If
we misread a situation, we’ll do the wrong thing. But if we don’t know we’re seeing things
inaccurately, we won’t understand why we’re not getting the results we want. So we insist
we’re right even when we’re off track.
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Vaughan (1995), in trying to unravel the causes of the 1986 disaster that destroyed the
Challenger space shuttle and its crew, underscored how hard it is for people to surrender
their entrenched conceptions of reality:
They puzzle over contradictory evidence, but usually succeed in pushing it
aside—until they come across a piece of evidence too fascinating to ignore, too
clear to misperceive, too painful to deny, which makes vivid still other signals
they do not want to see, forcing them to alter and surrender the world-view they
have so meticulously constructed (p. 235).
So when we don’t know what to do, we do more of what we know. We construct our own
psychic prisons and then lock ourselves in and throw away the key. This helps explain a
number of unsettling reports from the managerial front lines:
• Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan (1994) estimate that the skills of one half to three quarters of
American managers are inadequate for the demands of their jobs. Gallup (2015) puts the
number even higher, estimating that more than 80 percent of American managers lack
the talent they need. But most probably don’t realize it: Kruger and Dunning (1999)
found that the less competent people are, the more they overestimate their performance,
partly because they don’t know good performance when they see it.
• About half of the high-profile senior executives that companies hire fail within two years,
according to a 2006 study (Burns and Kiley, 2007).
• The annual value of corporate mergers has grown more than a hundredfold since 1980,
yet evidence suggests that 70 to 90 percent “are unsuccessful in producing any business
benefit as regards shareholder value” (KPMG, 2000; Christensen, Alton, Rising, and
Waldeck, 2011). Mergers typically benefit shareholders of the acquired firm but hurt
almost everyone else—customers, employees, and, ironically, the buyers who initiated
the deal (King et al., 2004). Stockholders in the acquiring firm typically suffer a 10
percent loss on their investment (Agrawal, Jaffe, and Mandelker, 1992), while consumers
feel that they’re paying more and getting less. Despite this dismal record, the vast
majority of the managers who engineered mergers insisted they were successful (KPMG,
2000; Graffin, Haleblian, and Kiley, 2016).
• Year after year, management miscues cause once highly successful companies to skid
into bankruptcy. In just the first quarter of 2015, for example, 26 companies went under,
including six with claimed assets of more than $1 billion. (Among the biggest were the
casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, and the venerable electronics retailer, RadioShack.)
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Small wonder that so many organizational veterans nod in assent to Scott Adams’s
admittedly unscientific “Dilbert principle”: “the most ineffective workers are systematically
moved to the place where they can do the least damage—management” (1996, p. 14).
Strategies for Improving Organizations
We have certainly made a noble effort to improve organizations despite our limited ability
to understand them. Legions of managers report to work each day with hope for a better
future in mind. Authors and consultants spin out a torrent of new answers and promising
solutions. Policymakers develop laws and regulations to guide or shove organizations on the
right path.
The most universal improvement strategy is upgrading management talent. Modern
mythology promises that organizations will work splendidly if well managed. Managers are
supposed to see the big picture and look out for their organization’s overall well-being. They
have not always been equal to the task, even when armed with the full array of modern tools
and techniques. They go forth with this rational arsenal to try to tame our wild and primitive
workplaces. Yet in the end, irrational forces too often prevail.
When managers find problems too hard to solve, they hire consultants. The number and
variety of advice givers keeps growing. Most have a specialty: strategy, technology, quality,
finance, marketing, mergers, human resource management, executive search, outplacement,
coaching, organization development, and many more. For every managerial challenge, there
is a consultant willing to offer assistance—at a price.
For all their sage advice and remarkable fees, consultants often make little dent in
persistent problems plaguing organizations, though they may blame the clients for failing to
implement their profound insights. McKinsey & Co., “the high priest of high-level
consulting” (Byrne, 2002a, p. 66), worked so closely with Enron that its managing partner
(Rajat Gupta, who eventually went to jail for insider trading) sent his chief lawyer to
Houston after Enron’s collapse to see if his firm might be in legal trouble.2 The lawyer
reported that McKinsey was safe, and a relieved Gupta insisted bravely, “We stand by all the
work we did. Beyond that, we can only empathize with the trouble they are going through.
It’s a sad thing to see” (p. 68).
When managers and consultants fail, government recurrently responds with legislation,
policies, and regulations. Constituents badger elected officials to “do something” about a
variety of ills: pollution, dangerous products, hazardous working conditions, discrimina­
tion, and low performing schools, to name a few. Governing bodies respond by making
“policy.” But policymakers don’t always understand the problem well enough to get the
solution right, and a sizable body of research records a continuing saga of perverse ways in
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which the implementation process undermines even good solutions (Bardach, 1977;
Elmore, 1978; Freudenberg and Gramling, 1994; Gottfried and Conchas, 2016; Peters,
1999; Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973). Policymakers, for example, have been trying for
decades to reform U.S. public schools. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent. The
result? About as successful as America’s switch to the metric system. In the 1950s Congress
passed legislation mandating adoption of metric standards and measures. More than six
decades later, if you know what a hectare is or can visualize the size of a 300-gram package of
crackers, you’re ahead of most Americans. Legislators did not factor into their solution what
it would take to get their decision implemented against longstanding custom and tradition.
In short, the difficulties surrounding improvement strategies are well documented.
Exemplary intentions produce more costs than benefits. Problems outlast solutions. Still,
there are reasons for optimism. Organizations have changed about as much in recent
decades as in the preceding century. To survive, they had to. Revolutionary changes in
technology, the rise of the global economy, and shortened product life cycles have spawned a
flurry of efforts to design faster, more flexible organizational forms. New organizational
models flourish in companies such as Pret à Manger (the socially conscious U.K. sandwich
shops), Google (the global search giant), Airbnb (a new concept of lodging) and Novo-
Nordisk (a Danish pharmaceutical company that includes environmental and social metrics
in its bottom line). The dispersed collection of enthusiasts and volunteers who provide
content for Wikipedia and the far-flung network of software engineers who have developed
the Linux operating system provide dramatic examples of possibilities in the digital world.
But despite such successes, failures are still too common. The nagging question: How can
leaders and managers improve the odds for themselves as well for their organizations?
Goran Carstedt, the talented executive who led the turnaround of Volvo’s French division in
the 1980s, got to the heart of a challenge managers face every day: “The world simply can’t
be made sense of, facts can’t be organized, unless you have a mental model to begin with.
That theory does not have to be the right one, because you can alter it along the way as
information comes in. But you can’t begin to learn without some concept that gives you
expectations or hypotheses” (Hampden-Turner, 1992, p. 167). Such mental models have
many labels—maps, mind-sets, schema, paradigms, heuristics, and cognitive lenses, to name
a few.3 Following the work of Goffman, Dewey, and others, we have chosen the label frames,
a term that has received increasing attention in organizational research as scholars give
greater attention to how managers make sense of a complicated and turbulent world
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(see, e.g., Foss and Webber, 2016; Gray, Purdy, and Ansari, 2015; Cornelissen and Werner,
2014; Hahn et al., 2014; Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). In describing frames, we
deliberately mix metaphors, referring to them as windows, maps, tools, lenses, orientations,
prisms, and perspectives, because all these images capture part of the idea we want to
A frame is a mental model—a set of ideas and assumptions—that you carry in your head
to help you understand and negotiate a particular “territory.” A good frame makes it easier
to know what you are up against and, ultimately, what you can do about it. Frames are vital
because organizations don’t come with computerized navigation systems to guide you turn­
by-turn to your destination. Instead, managers need to develop and carry accurate maps in
their heads.
Such maps make it possible to register and assemble key bits of perceptual data into a
coherent pattern—an image of what’s happening. When it works fluidly, the process takes
the form of “rapid cognition,” the process that Gladwell (2005) examines in his best seller
Blink. He describes it as a gift that makes it possible to read “deeply into the narrowest slivers
of experience. In basketball, the player who can take in and comprehend all that is
happening in the moment is said to have ‘court sense’” (p. 44). The military stresses
situational awareness to describe the same capacity.
Dane and Pratt (2007) describe four key characteristics of this intuitive “blink” process:
• It is nonconscious—you can do it without thinking about it and without knowing how
you did it.
• It is very fast—the process often occurs almost instantly.
• It is holistic—you see a coherent, meaningful pattern.
• It results in “affective judgments”—thought and feeling work together so you feel
confident that you know what is going on and what needs to be done.
The essence of this process is matching situational cues with a well-learned mental
framework—a “deeply held, nonconscious category or pattern” (Dane and Pratt, 2007,
p. 37). This is the key skill that Simon and Chase (1973) found in chess masters—they could
instantly recognize more than 50,000 configurations of a chessboard. This ability enables
grand masters to play 25 lesser opponents simultaneously, beating all of them while
spending only seconds on each move.
The same process of rapid cognition is at work in the diagnostic categories physicians
rely on to evaluate patients’ symptoms. The Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” requires
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physicians to be confident that they know what they’re up against before prescribing a
remedy. Their skilled judgment draws on a repertoire of categories and clues, honed by
training and experience. But sometimes they get it wrong. One source of error is anchoring:
doctors, like leaders, sometimes lock on to the first answer that seems right, even if a few
messy facts don’t quite fit. “Your mind plays tricks on you because you see only the
landmarks you expect to see and neglect those that should tell you that in fact you’re still at
sea” (Groopman, 2007, p. 65).
That problem tripped up leaders at Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and countless other
organizations. Organizations are at least as complex as the human body, and the diagnostic
categories less well defined. That means that the quality of your judgments depends on the
information you have at hand, your mental maps, and how well you have learned to use
them. Good maps align with the terrain and provide enough detail to keep you on course. If
you’re trying to find your way around Beijing, a map of Chicago won’t help. In the same
way, different circumstances require different approaches.
Even with the right map, getting around will be slow and awkward if you have to stop and
study at every intersection. The ultimate goal is fluid expertise, the sort of know-how that
lets you think on the fly and navigate organizations as easily as you drive home on a familiar
route. You can make decisions quickly and automatically because you know at a glance
where you are and what you need to do next.
There is no shortcut to developing this kind of expertise. It takes effort, time, practice,
and feedback. Some of the effort has to go into learning frames and the ideas behind them.
Equally important is putting the ideas to use. Experience, one often hears, is the best teacher,
but that is true only if one learns from it. McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison (1988, p. 122)
found that a key quality among successful executives was they were great learners,
displaying an “extraordinary tenacity in extracting something worthwhile from their
experience and in seeking experiences rich in opportunities for growth.”
Frames define the questions we ask and solutions we consider (Berger 2014). John Dewey
defined freedom as the power to choose among known alternatives. When managers’
options are limited they make mistakes but too often fail to understand the source. Take a
simple example: “What is the sum of 5 plus 5?” The only right answer is “10.” Ask a different
way, “What two numbers add up to ten? Now the number of solutions is infinite (once you
include fractions and negative numbers). The two questions differ in how they are framed.
Albert Einstein once observed: “If I had a problem to solve and my whole life depended on
the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the question to ask, for
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once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in five minutes” (Seelig, 2015, p.
19). Asking the right question enhances the ability to break frames. Why do that? A news
story from the summer of 2007 illustrates. Imagine yourself among a group of friends
enjoying dinner on the patio of a Washington, DC, home. An armed, hooded intruder
suddenly appears and points a gun at the head of a 14-year-old guest. “Give me your
money,” he says, “or I’ll start shooting.” If you’re at that table, what do you do? You could
faint. Or freeze. You could try a heroic frontal attack. You might try to run. Or you could try
to break frame by asking an unexpected question. That’s exactly what Cristina “Cha Cha”
Rowan did.
“We were just finishing dinner,” [she] told the man. “Why don’t you have a
glass of wine with us?”
The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry and said,
“Damn, that’s good wine.”
The girl’s father . . . told the intruder to take the whole glass, and Rowan
offered him the bottle.
The robber, with his hood down, took another sip and a bite of Camembert
cheese. He put the gun in his sweatpants . . .
“I think I may have come to the wrong house,” the intruder said before
apologizing. “Can I get a hug?”
Rowan . . . stood up and wrapped her arms around the would-be robber.
The other guests followed.
“Can we have a group hug?” the man asked. The five adults complied.
The man walked away a few moments later with a filled crystal wine glass,
but nothing was stolen, and no one was hurt. Police were called to the scene and
found the empty wine glass unbroken on the ground in an alley behind the
house (Hagey, 2007).
In one stroke, Cha Cha Rowan redefined the situation from a robbery— “we might all be
killed”—to a social occasion—“let’s offer our guest some wine and include him in our
party.” Like her, artistic managers frame and reframe experience fluidly, sometimes with
extraordinary results. A critic once commented to Cézanne, “That doesn’t look anything like
a sunset.” Pondering his painting, Cézanne responded, “Then you don’t see sunsets the way
I do.” Like Cézanne and Rowan, leaders have to find ways of asking the right question to
shift points of view when needed. This is not easy, which is why “most of us passively accept
decision problems as they are framed, and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover
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the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound”
(Kahneman, 2011, p. 367).
Caldicott (2014) sees reframing as vital for leadership: “One distinguishing difference
between leaders that succeed at driving collaboration and innovation versus those that fail is
their ability to grasp Complexity. This skill set involves framing difficult concepts quickly,
synthesizing data in a way that drives new insight, and building teams that can generate
future scenarios different from the world they see today.” A growing body of psychological
research shows that reframing can improve performance across a range of tasks. Autin and
Croizet (2012) gave students a difficult task on which they all struggled. Some students were
taught to reframe the struggle as a normal sign of learning. That intervention increased
confidence, working memory, and reading comprehension on subsequent tasks. Jamieson
et al. (2010) found that they could improve scores on the Graduate Record Exam by
reframing anxiety as an aid to performance. The old song lyric, “accentuate the positive and
eliminate the negative,” is powerful advice.
Like maps, frames are both windows on a terrain and tools for navigating its contours.
Every tool has distinctive strengths and limitations. The right tool makes a job easier; the
wrong one gets in the way. Tools thus become useful only when a situation is sized up
accurately. Furthermore, one or two tools may suffice for simple jobs but not for more
complex undertakings. Managers who master the hammer and expect all problems to
behave like nails find life at work confusing and frustrating. The wise manager, like a skilled
carpenter, wants at hand a diverse collection of high-quality implements. Experienced
managers also understand the difference between possessing a tool and knowing when and
how to use it. Only experience and practice foster the skill and wisdom to take stock of a
situation and use suitable tools with confidence and skill.
The Four Frames
Only in the past 100 years or so have social scientists devoted much time or attention to
developing ideas about how organizations work, how they should work, or why they often
fail. In the social sciences, several major schools of thought have evolved. Each has its own
concepts, assumptions, and evidence, espousing a particular view of how to bring social
collectives under control. Each tradition claims a scientific foundation. But a theory can
easily become a theology that preaches a single, parochial scripture. Modern managers must
sort through a cacophony of voices and visions for help.
Sifting through competing voices is one of our goals in writing this book. We are not
searching for or advocating the one best way. Rather, we consolidate major schools of
organizational thought and research into a comprehensive framework encompassing four
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perspectives. Our goal is usable knowledge. We have sought ideas powerful enough to
capture the subtlety and complexity of life in organizations yet simple enough to be useful.
Our distillation has drawn much from the social sciences—particularly sociology, psychol­
ogy, political science, and anthropology. Thousands of managers and scores of organiza­
tions have helped us sift through social science research to identify ideas that work in
practice. We have sorted insights from both research and practice into four major frames—
structural, human resource, political, and symbolic (Bolman and Deal, 1984). Each is used
by academics and practitioners alike and can be found, usually independently, on the
shelves of libraries and bookstores.
Four Frames: As Near as Your Local Bookstore
Imagine a harried executive browsing online or at her local bookseller on a brisk winter day
in 2017. She worries about her company’s flagging performance and wonders if her own job
might soon disappear. She spots the black cover of How to Measure Anything: Finding the
Value of “Intangibles” in Business. Flipping through the pages, she notes topics like
measuring the value of information and the need for better risk analysis. She is drawn
to phrases such as “A key step in the process is the calculation of the economic value of
information . . . [A] proven formula from the field of decision theory allows us to compute
a monetary value for a given amount of uncertainty reduction”4 (p. 35). “This stuff may be
good,” the executive tells herself, “but it seems a little too stiff and numbers-driven.”
Next, she finds Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success. Glancing inside,
she reads, “Many of our officers handwrite several thousand notes each year. Besides being
loving, we know this is meaningful to our People because we hear from them if we miss
something significant in their lives like the high school graduation of one of their kids. We
just believe in accentuating the positive and celebrating People’s successes”5 (p. 7). “Sounds
nice,” she mumbles, “but a little too touchy-feely. Let’s look for something more down to
Continuing her search, she looks at Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.
She reads, “You can compete and triumph in organizations of all types . . . if you
understand the principles of power and are willing to use them. Your task is to know
how to prevail in the political battles you will face”6 (p. 5). She wonders, “Does it really all
come down to politics? It seems so cynical and scheming. How about something more
She spots Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organiza­
tion. She ponders its message: “Tribal leaders focus their efforts on building the tribe, or,
more precisely, upgrading the tribal culture. If they are successful, the tribe recognizes them
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as leaders, giving them top effort, cult-like loyalty, and a track record of success”7 (p. 4).
“Fascinating,” she concludes, “but seems a little too primitive for modern organizations.”
In her book excursion, our worried executive has rediscovered the four perspectives at the
heart of this book. Four distinct metaphors capture the essence of each of the books she
examined: organizations as factories, families, jungles, and temples or carnivals. But she leaves
more confused than ever. Some titles seemed to register with her way of thinking. Others fell
outside her zone of comfort. Where should she go next? How can she put it all together?
The first book she stumbled across, How to Measure Anything, provides counsel on how to
think clearly and make rational decisions, extending a long tradition that treats an
organization as a factory. Drawing from sociology, economics, and management science,
the structural frame depicts a rational world and emphasizes organizational architecture,
including planning, strategy, goals, structure, technology, specialized roles, coordination,
formal relationships, metrics, and rubrics. Structures—commonly depicted by organization
charts—are designed to fit an organization’s environment and technology. Organizations
allocate responsibilities (“division of labor”). They then create rules, policies, procedures,
systems, and hierarchies to coordinate diverse activities into a unified effort. Objective
indicators measure progress. Problems arise when structure doesn’t line up well with
current circumstances or when performance sags. At that point, some form of
reorganization or redesign is needed to remedy the mismatch.
Our executive next encountered Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success,
with its focus on people and relationships. The human resource perspective, rooted in
psychology, sees an organization as an extended family, made up of individuals with needs,
feelings, prejudices, skills, and limitations. From a human resource view, the key challenge is
to tailor organizations to individuals—finding ways for people to get the job done while
feeling good about themselves and their work. When basic needs for security and trust are
unfulfilled, people withdraw from an organization, join unions, go on strike, sabotage, or
quit. Psychologically healthy organizations provide adequate wages and benefits and make
sure employees have the skills, support, and resources to do their jobs.
Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t is a contemporary application of the
political frame, rooted in the work of political scientists. This view sees organizations as
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arenas, contests, or jungles. Parochial interests compete for power and scarce resources.
Conflict is rampant because of enduring differences in needs, perspectives, and lifestyles
among contending individuals and groups. Bargaining, negotiation, coercion, and com­
promise are a normal part of everyday life. Coalitions form around specific interests and
change as issues come and go. Problems arise when power is concentrated in the wrong
places or is so widely dispersed that nothing gets done. Solutions arise from political skill
and acumen—as Machiavelli suggested 500 years ago in The Prince (1961).
Temples and Carnivals
Finally, our executive encountered Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a
Thriving Organization, with its emphasis on culture, symbols, and spirit as keys to
organizational success. The symbolic lens, drawing on social and cultural anthropology,
treats organizations as temples, tribes, theaters, or carnivals. It tempers the assumptions of
rationality prominent in other frames and depicts organizations as cultures, propelled by
rituals, ceremonies, stories, heroes, history, and myths rather than by rules, policies, and
managerial authority. Organization is also theater: actors play their roles in an ongoing
drama while audiences form impressions from what they see on stage. Problems arise when
actors blow their parts, symbols lose their meaning, or ceremonies and rituals lose their
potency. We rekindle the expressive or spiritual side of organizations through the use of
symbol, myth, and magic.
The FBI and the CIA: A Four-Frame Story
A saga of two squabbling agencies illustrates how the four frames provide different views of
the same situation. Riebling (2002) documents the long history of head-butting between
America’s two major intelligence agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the
Central Intelligence Agency. Both are charged with combating espionage and terrorism, but
the FBI’s authority is valid primarily within the United States, while the CIA’s mandate
covers everywhere else. Structurally, the two agencies have always been disconnected. The
FBI is housed in the Department of Justice and reports to the attorney general. The CIA
reported through the director of central intelligence to the president until 2004, when
reorganization put it under a new director of national intelligence.
At a number of major junctures in American history (including the assassination of
President John F. Kennedy, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks), each
agency held pieces of a larger puzzle, but coordination snafus made it hard for anyone to see
all the pieces, much less put them together. After 9/11, both agencies came under heavy
criticism, and each blamed the other for lapses. The FBI complained that the CIA had failed
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to tell them that two of the terrorists had entered the United States and had been living in
California since 2000 (Seper, 2005). But an internal Justice Department investigation also
concluded that the FBI didn’t do very well with the information it did have. Key signals were
never “documented by the bureau or placed in any system from which they could be
retrieved by agents investigating terrorist threats” (Seper, 2005, p. 1).
Structural barriers between the FBI and the CIA were exacerbated by the enmity between
the two agencies’ patron saints, J. Edgar Hoover and “Wild Bill” Donovan. When Hoover
first became FBI director in the 1920s, he reported to Donovan, who didn’t trust him and
tried unsuccessfully to get him fired. When World War II broke out, Hoover lobbied to get
the FBI identified as the nation’s worldwide intelligence agency. He fumed when President
Franklin D. Roosevelt instead created a new agency and made Donovan its director. As
often happens, cooperation between two units was chronically hampered by a rocky
personal relationship between two top dogs who never liked one another.
Politically, the relationship between the FBI and CIA was born in turf conflict because of
Roosevelt’s decision to give responsibility for foreign intelligence to Donovan instead of to
Hoover. The friction persisted over the decades as both agencies vied for turf and funding
from Congress and the White House.
Symbolically, different histories and missions led to very distinct cultures. The FBI,
which built its image with the dramatic capture or killing of notorious gang leaders, bank
robbers, and foreign agents, liked to generate headlines by pouncing on suspects quickly and
publicly. The CIA preferred to work in the shadows, believing that patience and secrecy
were vital to its task of collecting intelligence and rooting out foreign spies.
Senior U.S. officials have known for years that tension between the FBI and CIA damages
U.S. security. But most initiatives to improve the relationship have been partial and
ephemeral, falling well short of addressing the full range of issues.
Multiframe Thinking
The overview of the four-frame model in Exhibit 1.1 shows that each of the frames has its
own image of reality. You may be drawn to some and put off by others. Some perspectives
may seem clear and straightforward, while others seem puzzling. But learning to apply all
four deepens your appreciation and understanding of organizations. Galileo discovered this
when he devised the first telescope. Each lens he added contributed to a more accurate image
of the heavens. Successful managers take advantage of the same truth. Like physicians, they
reframe, consciously or intuitively, until they understand the situation at hand. They use
more than one lens to develop a diagnosis of what they are up against and how to move
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Exhibit 1.1.
Overview of the Four-Frame Model.
Structural Resource Political Symbolic
Factory or
Family Jungle Carnival, temple,
Psychology Political
institutional theory
Roles, goals,
Needs, skills,
Culture, myth,
meaning, metaphor,
ritual, ceremony,
stories, heroes
Image of
Empowerment Advocacy
and political
structure to
and human
agenda and
power base
Create faith, belief,
beauty, meaning
This claim about the advantages of multiple perspectives has stimulated a growing body
of research. Dunford and Palmer (1995) discovered that management courses teaching
multiple frames had significant positive effects over both the short and long term—in fact,
98 percent of their respondents rated reframing as helpful or very helpful, and about 90
percent felt it gave them a competitive advantage. Other studies have shown that the ability
to use multiple frames is associated with greater effectiveness for managers and leaders
(Bensimon, 1989, 1990; Birnbaum, 1992; Bolman and Deal, 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Heimovics,
Herman, and Jurkiewicz Coughlin, 1993, 1995; Wimpelberg, 1987). Similarly, Pitt and
Tepper (2012) found that double-majoring helped college students develop both creative
and integrative thinking. As one student put it, “I’m never stuck in one frame of mind
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because I’m always switching back and forth between the two” (p. 40). Multiframe thinking
requires moving beyond narrow, mechanical approaches for understanding organizations.
We cannot count the number of times managers have told us that they handled some
problem the “only way” it could be done. That was United Airline’s initial defense in April
2017, when video of a bloodied doctor being dragged off a plane went viral. United’s CEO
wrote that “our agents were left with no choice” because the 69-year-old physician had
refused to give up his seat. After a few days in public-relations hell, United announced that
the only choice was a bad one, and they would never do it again. It may be comforting to
think that failure was unavoidable and we did all we could. But it can be liberating to realize
there is always more than one way to respond to any problem or dilemma. Those who
master reframing report a liberating sense of choice and power. Managers are imprisoned
only to the extent that their palette of ideas is impoverished.
Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon recounts the same event through the eyes of
several witnesses. Each tells a different story. Similarly, organizations are filled with people
who have divergent interpretations of what is and should be happening. Each version
contains a glimmer of truth, but each is a product of the prejudices and blind spots of its
maker. Each frame tells a different story (Gottschall, 2012), but no single story is
comprehensive enough to make an organization fully understandable or manageable.
Effective managers need frames to generate multiple stories, the skill to sort through
the alternatives, and the wisdom to match the right story to the situation.8
Lack of imagination—Langer (1989) calls it “mindlessness”—is a major cause of the
shortfall between the reach and the grasp of so many organizations—the empty chasm
between noble aspirations and disappointing results. The gap is painfully acute in a world
where organizations dominate so much of our lives. Taleb (2007) depicts events like the 9/11
attacks as “black swans”—novel events that are unexpected because we have never seen
them before. If every swan we’ve observed is white, we expect the same in the future. But
fateful, make-or-break events are more likely to be situations we’ve never experienced
before. Imagination or mindfulness is our best chance for being ready when a black swan
sails into view, and multiframe thinking is a powerful stimulus to the broad, creative mind-
set imagination requires.
Engineering and Art
Exhibit 1.2 presents two contrasting approaches to management and leadership. One is a
rational-technical mind-set emphasizing certainty and control. The other is an expressive,
artistic conception encouraging flexibility, creativity, and interpretation. The first portrays
managers as technicians; the second sees them as artists.
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Exhibit 1.2.
Expanding Managerial Thinking.
How Managers Often Think How Managers Might Think
Oversimplify reality (for example, blame
problems on individuals’ flaws and errors).
Think holistically about a full range of
significant issues: people, power,
structure, and symbols.
Regardless of the problems at hand, rely on
facts, logic, restructuring.
Use feeling and intuition as well as logic,
bargaining as well as training, celebration
as well as reorganization.
Cling to certainty, rationality, and control
while fearing ambiguity, paradox, and
“going with the flow.”
Develop creativity, risk-taking, and
playfulness in response to life’s dilemmas
and paradoxes, and focus as much on
finding the right question as the right
answer, on finding meaning and faith
amid clutter and confusion.
Rely on the “one right answer” and the
“one best way.”
Show passionate, unwavering
commitment to principle, combined with
flexibility in understanding and
responding to events.
Artists interpret experience and express it in forms that can be felt, understood, and
appreciated by others. Art embraces emotion, subtlety, ambiguity. An artist reframes the
world so others can see new possibilities. Modern organizations often rely too much on
engineering and too little on art in searching for quality, commitment, and creativity. Art is
not a replacement for engineering but an enhancement. Many engineering schools are
currently developing design programs to stimulate creative thinking. Artistic leaders and
managers help us look and probe beyond today’s reality to new forms that release untapped
individual energies and improve collective performance. The leader as artist relies on images
as well as memos, poetry as well as policy, reflection as well as command, and reframing as
well as refitting.
As organizations have become pervasive and dominant, they have also become harder to
understand and manage. The result is that managers are often nearly as clueless as their
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subordinates (the Dilberts of the world) think they are. The consequences of myopic
management and leadership show up every day, sometimes in small and subtle ways,
sometimes in catastrophes. Our basic premise is that a primary cause of managerial failure is
faulty thinking rooted in inadequate ideas. Managers and those who try to help them too
often rely on narrow models that capture only part of organizational life.
Learning multiple perspectives, or frames, is a defense against thrashing around without
a clue about what you are doing or why. Frames serve multiple functions. They are sources
of new question, filters for sorting essence from trivia, maps that aid navigation, and tools
for solving problems and getting things done. This book is organized around four frames
rooted in both managerial wisdom and social science knowledge. The structural approach
focuses on the architecture of organization—the design of units and subunits, rules and
roles, goals and policies. The human resource lens emphasizes understanding people—their
strengths and foibles, reason and emotion, desires and fears. The political view sees
organizations as competitive arenas of scarce resources, competing interests, and struggles
for power and advantage. Finally, the symbolic frame focuses on issues of meaning and faith.
It puts ritual, ceremony, story, play, and culture at the heart of organizational life.
Each of the frames is powerful and coherent. Collectively, they make it possible to reframe,
looking at the same thing from multiple lenses or points of view. When the world seems
hopelessly confusing and nothing is working, reframing is a powerful tool for gaining clarity,
regaining balance, generating new questions, and finding options that make a difference.
1. Tabuchi, H., Ewing, J., and Apuzzo, M. 2017. “6 Volkswagen Executives Charged as Company
Pleads Guilty in Emissions Case.” New York Times, January 12. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/
2. Enron’s reign as history’s greatest corporate catastrophe was brief. An even bigger behemoth,
WorldCom, with assets of more than $100 billion, thundered into Chapter 11 seven months later,
in July 2002. Stock worth more than $45 a share two years earlier fell to nine cents.
3. Among the possible ways of talking about frames are schemata or schema theory (Fiedler, 1982;
Fiske and Dyer, 1985; Lord and Foti, 1986), representations (Frensch and Sternberg, 1991;
Lesgold and Lajoie, 1991; Voss, Wolfe, Lawrence, and Engle, 1991), cognitive maps (Weick and
Bougon, 1986), paradigms (Gregory, 1983; Kuhn, 1970), social categorizations (Cronshaw, 1987),
implicit theories (Brief and Downey, 1983), mental models (Senge, 1990), definitions of the
situation, and root metaphors.
4. Douglas W. Hubbard, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business
(New York: Wiley, 2010), p. 35.
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5. Ken Blanchard and Colleen Barrett, Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success
(Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2010), p. 7.
6. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business,
2010), p. 5.
7. Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups
to Build a Thriving Organization (New York: Harper Business, 2011), p. 4.
8. A number of scholars (including Allison, 1971; Bergquist, 1992; Birnbaum, 1988; Elmore, 1978;
Morgan, 1986; Perrow, 1986; Quinn, 1988; Quinn, Faerman, Thompson, and McGrath, 1996; and
Scott, 1981) have made similar arguments for multiframe approaches to groups and social
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c h a p t e r
Simple Ideas, Complex
Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual
evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater
—Nikola Tesla1
September 11, 2001 brought a crisp and sunny late-summer morning toAmerica’s east coast. Perfect weather offered prospects of on-time
departures and smooth flights for airline passengers in the Boston-Washing-
ton corridor. That promise was shattered for four flights bound for California
when terrorists commandeered the aircraft. Two of the hijacked aircraft
attacked and destroyed the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center.
Another slammed into the Pentagon. The fourth was deterred from its
mission by the heroic efforts of passengers. It crashed in a vacant field,
killing all aboard. Like Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 9/11 was a day that
will live in infamy, a tragedy that changed forever America’s sense of itself and
the world.
Why did no one foresee such a catastrophe? In fact, some had. As far back as 1993,
security experts had envisioned an attempt to destroy the World Trade Center using
airplanes as weapons. Such fears were reinforced when a suicidal pilot crashed a small
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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private plane onto the White House lawn in 1994. But the mind-set of principals in the
national security network was riveted on prior hijackings, which had almost always ended in
negotiations. The idea of a suicide mission, using commercial aircraft as missiles, was never
incorporated into homeland defense procedures.
In the end, 19 highly motivated young men armed only with box cutters were able to
outwit thousands of America’s best minds and dozens of organizations that make up the
country’s homeland defense system. Part of their success came from fanatical determina-
tion, meticulous planning, and painstaking preparation. We also find a dramatic version of
an old story: human error leading to tragedy. But even the human-error explanation is too
simple. In organizational life, there are almost always systemic causes upstream of human
failures, and the events of 9/11 are no exception.
The United States had a web of procedures and agencies aimed at detecting and
monitoring potential terrorists. Had those systems worked flawlessly, the terrorists would
not have made it onto commercial flights. But the procedures failed, as did those designed to
respond to aviation crises. Similar failures have marked many other well-publicized
disasters: nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the botched response
to Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in 2005, and the deliberate downing of a German jet
in 2015 by a pilot who was known to suffer from severe depression. In business, the fall of
giants like Enron and WorldCom, the collapse of the global financial system, the Great
Recession of 2008–2009, and Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal of 2015 are among
many examples of the same pattern. Each illustrates a chain of misjudgment, error,
miscommunication, and misguided action that our best efforts fail to avert.
Events like 9/11 and Katrina make headlines, but similar errors and failures happen
every day. They rarely make front-page news, but they are familiar to most people who work
in organizations. In the remainder of this chapter, we discuss how organizational com-
plexity intersects with fallacies of human thinking to obscure what’s really going on and lead
us astray. We describe some of the peculiarities of organizations that make them so difficult
to figure out and manage. Finally, we explore how our deeply held and well-guarded mental
models cause us to fail—and how to avoid that trap.
Albert Einstein once said that a thing should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
When we ask students and managers to analyze cases like 9/11, they often make things
simpler than they really are. They do this by relying on one of three misleading and
oversimplified explanations.
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The first and most common is blaming people. This approach casts every failure as a
product of individual blunders. Problems result from egotism, bad attitudes, abrasive
personalities, neurotic tendencies, stupidity, or incompetence. It’s an easy way to explain
anything that goes wrong. After scandals like the ones that hit Volkswagen and Wells Fargo
Bank in 2016, the hunt is on for someone to blame, and top executives became the prime
target of reporters, investigators, and talk-show comedians.
As children, we learned it was important to assign blame for every broken toy, stained
carpet, or wounded sibling. Pinpointing the culprit is comforting. Assigning blame resolves
ambiguity, explains mystery, and makes clear what to do next: punish the guilty. Corporate
scandals often have their share of culpable individuals, who may lose their jobs or even go to
jail. But there is usually a larger story about the organizational and social context that sets
the stage for individual malfeasance. Targeting individuals while ignoring larger system
failures oversimplifies the problem and does little to prevent its recurrence.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 8: James G. March and Herbert A. Simon, Organizations
(New York: Wiley, 1958)
March and Simon’s pioneering 1958 book Organizations sought to define an emerging field by
offering a structure and language for studying organizations. It was part of the body of work that
helped Simon earn the 1978 Nobel Prize for economics.
March and Simon offered a cognitive, social-psychological view of organizational behavior,
with an emphasis on thinking, information processing, and decision making. The book begins
with a model of behavior that presents humans as continually seeking to satisfy motives based on
their aspirations. Aspirations at any given time are a function of both individuals’ history and their
environment. When aspirations are unsatisfied, people search until they find better, more
satisfying options. Organizations influence individuals primarily by managing the information and
options, or “decision premises,” that they consider.
March and Simon followed Simon’s earlier work (1947) in critiquing the economic view of
“rational man,” who maximizes utility by considering all available options and choosing the best.
Instead, they argue that both individuals and organizations have limited information and limited
capacity to process what they have. They never know all the options. Instead, they gradually alter
their aspirations as they search for alternatives. Home buyers often start with a dream house in
mind, but gradually adapt to the realities of what’s available and what they can afford. Instead of
looking for the best option—”maximizing”—individuals and organizations instead “satisfice,”
choosing the first option that seems good enough.
Organizational decision making is additionally complicated because the environment is
complex. Resources (time, attention, money, and so on) are scarce, and conflict among
individuals and groups is constant. Organizational design happens through piecemeal bargaining
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that holds no guarantee of optimal rationality. Organizations simplify the environment to reduce
the demands on limited information-processing and decision-making capacities. They simplify by
developing “programs”—standardized routines for performing repetitive tasks. Once a program
is in place, the incentive is to stay with it as long as the results are marginally satisfactory.
Otherwise, the organization is forced to expend time and energy to innovate. Routine tends to
drive out innovation because individuals find it easier and less taxing to stick to programmed
tasks (which are automatic, well-practiced, and more certain of success). Thus, a student facing a
term-paper deadline may find it easier to “fritter”—make tea, straighten the desk, text friends,
and browse the Web—than to struggle to write a good opening paragraph. Managers may
sacrifice quality to avoid changing a familiar routine.
March and Simon’s book falls primarily within the structural and human resource views. But
their discussions of scarce resources, power, conflict, and bargaining recognize the reality of
organizational politics. Although they do not use the term framing, March and Simon affirm its
logic as an essential component of choice. Decision making, they argue, is always based on a
simplified model of the world. Organizations develop unique vocabulary and classification
schemes, which determine what people are likely to see and respond to. Things that don’t fit an
organization’s mind-set are likely to be ignored or reframed into terms the organization can
When it is hard to identify a guilty individual, a second popular option is blaming the
bureaucracy. Things go haywire because organizations are stifled by rules and red tape or by
the opposite, chaos resulting from a lack of clear goals, roles, and rules. One explanation or
the other usually applies. When things aren’t working, then the system needs either more or
fewer rules and procedures, and tighter or looser job descriptions.
By this reasoning, tighter financial controls could have prevented the subprime
mortgage meltdown of 2008. The tragedy of 9/11 could have been thwarted if agencies
had had better protocols for such a terrorist attack. But piling on rules and regulations is a
direct route to bureaucratic rigidity. Rules can inhibit freedom and flexibility, stifle
initiative, and generate reams of red tape. The Commission probing the causes of 9/11
concluded: “Imagination is not a gift associated with bureaucracy.” When things become
too tight, the solution is to “free up” the system so red tape and rigid rules don’t stifle
creativity and bog things down. An enduring storyline in popular films is the free spirit
who triumphs in the end over silly rules and mindless bureaucrats (examples include the
cult classics Office Space and The Big Lebowski). But many organizations vacillate
endlessly between being too loose and too tight.
A third fallacy attributes problems to thirsting for power. Enron collapsed, you can say,
because key executives were more interested in getting rich and expanding their turf than in
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advancing the company’s best interests. This view sees organizations as jungles teeming with
predators and prey. Victory goes to the more adroit, or the more treacherous. You need to
play the game better than your opponents—and watch your back.
Each of these three perspectives contains a kernel of truth but oversimplifies a knottier
reality. Blaming people points to the perennial importance of individual responsibility.
People who are rigid, lazy, bumbling, or greedy do contribute to some of the problems we
see in organizations. But condemning individuals often distracts us from seeing system
weaknesses and offers few workable options. If, for example, the problem is someone’s
abrasive or pathological personality, what do we do? Even psychiatrists find it hard to alter
character disorders, and firing everyone with a less-than-ideal personality is rarely a viable
option. Training can go only so far in ensuring semi-flawless individual performance.
The blame-the-bureaucracy perspective starts from a reasonable premise: Organizations
exist to achieve specific goals. They usually work better when strategies, goals, and policies are
clear (but not excessive), jobs are well defined (but not constricting), control systems are in
place (but not oppressive), and employees behave prudently (but not callously). If organiza-
tions always operated that way, they would presumably work a lot better than most do. In
practice, this perspective is better at explaining how organizations should work than why they
often don’t. Managers who cling to logic and procedures become discouraged and frustrated
when confronted by intractable irrational forces. Year after year, we witness the introduction
of new control systems, hear of new ways to reorganize, and are dazzled by emerging
management strategies, methods, and gurus. Yet old problems persist, seemingly immune to
every rational cure we devise. As March and Simon point out, rationality has limits.
The thirst-for-power view highlights enduring, below-the-surface features of organiza-
tions. Dog-eat-dog logic offers a plausible analysis of almost anything that goes wrong.
People both seek and despise power but find it a convenient way to explain problems and get
their way. Within hours of the 9/11 terror attacks, a senior FBI official called Richard Clarke,
America’s counterterrorism czar, to tell him that many of the terrorists were known
members of Al Qaeda.
“How the fuck did they get on board then?” Clarke exploded.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. CIA forgot to tell us about them.”
In the context of its chronic battles with the CIA, the FBI was happy to throw the CIA
under the bus: “We could have stopped the terrorists if CIA had done their job.”
The tendency to blame what goes wrong on people, the bureaucracy, or the thirst for
power is part of our mental wiring. But there’s much more to understanding a complex
situation than assigning blame. Certain universal peculiarities of organizations make them
especially difficult to understand or decipher.
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Human organizations can be exciting and challenging places. That’s how they are often
depicted in management texts, corporate annual reports, and fanciful managerial thinking.
But they can also be deceptive, confusing, and demoralizing. It is a big mistake to assume
that organizations are either snake pits or rose gardens (Schwartz, 1986). Managers need to
recognize characteristics of life at work that create opportunities for the wise as well as
hidden traps for the unwary. A case from the public sector provides a typical example:
When Bosses Rush In
Helen Demarco arrived in her office to discover a clipping from the local paper. The headline
read, “Osborne Announces Plan.” Paul Osborne had arrived two months earlier as Amtran’s new
chief executive. His mandate was to “revitalize, cut costs, and improve efficiency.”
After 20 years, Demarco had achieved a senior management position at the agency. She had
little contact with Osborne, but her boss reported to him. Demarco and her colleagues had been
waiting to learn what the new chief had in mind. She was startled as she read the newspaper
account. Osborne’s plan made technical assumptions directly related to her area of expertise. “He
might be a change agent,” she thought, “but he doesn’t know much about our technology.”
She immediately saw the new plan’s fatal flaws. “If he tries to implement this, it’ll be the worst
management mistake since the Edsel.”
Two days later, Demarco and her colleagues received a memo instructing them to form a
committee to work on the revitalization plan. When the group convened, everyone agreed it was
“What do we do?” someone asked.
“Why don’t we just tell him it won’t work?” said one hopeful soul.
“He’s already gone public! You want to tell him his baby is ugly?”
“Not me. Besides, he already thinks a lot of us are deadwood. If we tell him it’s no good,
he’ll just think we’re defensive.”
“Well, we can’t go ahead with it. It’ll never work and we’d be throwing away money.”
“That’s true,” said Demarco thoughtfully. “But what if we tell him we’re conducting a study
of how to implement the plan?”
Her suggestion was approved overwhelmingly. The group informed Osborne that they were
moving ahead on the “implementation study” and expected excellent results. They got a
substantial budget to support their “research.” They did not say that the real purpose was to buy
time and find a way to minimize the damage without alienating the boss.
Over time, the group assembled a lengthy technical report, filled with graphs, tables, and
impenetrable jargon. The report offered two options. Option A, Osborne’s original plan, was
presented as technically feasible but well beyond anything Amtran could afford. Option B, billed
as a “modest downscaling” of the original plan, was projected as a more cost-effective
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When Osborne pressed the group on the huge cost disparity between the two proposals, he
received a barrage of complicated cost-benefit projections and inscrutable technical terms.
Hidden in a fog was the reality that even Option B offered few benefits at a very high cost.
Osborne argued and pressed for more information. But given the apparent facts, he agreed to
proceed with Option B. The “Osborne plan” was announced with fanfare and widely heralded as
another instance of Paul Osborne’s talent for revitalizing ailing organizations. Osborne had moved
on to work his management magic on another organization by the time the plan came online,
and his successor had to defend the underwhelming results.
Helen Demarco came away with deep feelings of frustration and failure. The Osborne plan,
in her view, was a wasteful mistake, and she had knowingly participated in a charade. But, she
rationalized to herself, she had no other choice. Osborne was adamant. It would have been
career suicide to try to stop him.
You might have noticed that Helen Demarco’s case is more than a little similar to the
scandals at Volkswagen in 2015 and Wells Fargo in 2016. At the Geneva International Motor
Show in 2012, VW CEO Martin Winterkorn proclaimed that by 2015 the company would cut
its vehicles’ carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from 2006 levels. It was an ambitious goal
that would have beat the targets set by European regulators to combat global warming.
But just like Paul Osborne, Winterkorn had set the bar too high. The engineers saw no
way to meet the boss’s goals, but no one wanted to tell him it couldn’t be done. So, they
cheated instead. There was a precedent because VW’s cheating on diesel emissions had
started back in 2008, and observers reported that “an ingrained fear of delivering bad news
to superiors” (Ewing, 2015, p. B3) was a feature of VW’s culture.
Like Helen Demarco and her colleagues, the VW engineers had other options but
couldn’t see them. Paul Osborne and Martin Winterkorn both thought they were providing
bold leadership to vault their organizations forward. They were tripped up in part by human
fallibility but also by how hard it can be to know what’s really going on in any organization.
Managerial wisdom and artistry require a well-honed understanding of four key character-
istics of organizations.
First, organizations are complex. The behavior of the people who populate them is
notoriously hard to predict. Large organizations in particular include a bewildering array of
people, departments, technologies, strategies. and goals. Moreover, organizations are open
systems dealing with a changing, challenging, and erratic environment. Things can get even
messier across multiple organizations. The 9/11 disaster resulted from a chain of events that
involved several separate systems. Almost anything can affect everything else in collective
activity, generating causal knots that are hard to untangle. After an exhaustive investigation,
our picture of 9/11 is woven from sundry evidence, conflicting testimony, and conjecture.
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Second, organizations are surprising. What you expect is often not what you get. Paul
Osborne saw his plan as a bold leap forward; Helen and her group considered it an
expensive albatross. In their view, Osborne was going to make matters worse by trying to
improve them. He might have achieved better results by spending more time with his family
and letting his organization take care of itself. Martin Winterkorn was stunned when the
hidden cheating blew up in his face, costing him his job and hitting VW with devastating
financial and reputational damage.
The solution to yesterday’s problems often creates tomorrow’s obstacles. A friend of ours
headed a retail chain. In the firm’s early years, he had a problem with two sisters who
worked in the same store. To prevent this from recurring, he established a nepotism policy
prohibiting members of the same family from working for the company. Years later, two key
employees met at work, fell in love, and began to live together. The president was startled
when they asked if they could get married without being fired. Taking action in a
cooperative venture is like shooting a wobbly cue ball into a scattered array of self-directed
billiard balls. Balls bounce in so many directions that it is impossible to know how things
will eventually sort out.
Third, organizations are deceptive. They camouflage mistakes and surprises. After 9/11,
America’s homeland defense organizations tried to conceal their confusion and lack of
preparedness for fear of revealing strategic weaknesses. Volkswagen engineers developed
software whose only purpose was to cheat on emissions tests, hoping that no one would ever
see through their deception. Helen Demarco and her colleagues disguised obfuscation as
technical analysis.
It is tempting to blame deceit on individual weakness. Yet Helen Demarco disliked fraud
and regretted cheating—she simply believed it was her best option. Sophisticated managers
know that what happened to Paul Osborne happens all the time. When a quality initiative
fails or a promising product tanks, subordinates often clam up or cover up. They fear that
the boss will not listen or will kill the messenger. Internal naysayers at Volkswagen and
Wells Fargo Bank were silenced until outsiders “blew the whistle.” A friend in a senior
position in a large government agency put it simply: “Communications in organizations are
rarely candid, open, or timely.”
Fourth, organizations are ambiguous. Complexity, unpredictability, and deception
generate rampant ambiguity, a dense fog that shrouds what happens from day to day.
It is hard to get the facts and even harder to know what they mean or what to do about them.
Helen Demarco never knew how Paul Osborne really felt, how receptive he was to other
points of view, or how open he was to compromise. She and her peers piled on more mystery
by conspiring to keep him in the dark.
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Ambiguity has many sources. Sometimes available information is incomplete or vague.
Different people may interpret the same information in a variety of ways, depending on
mind-sets and organizational doctrines. At other times, ambiguity is intentionally manu-
factured as a smoke screen to conceal problems or avoid conflict. Much of the time, events
and processes are so intricate, scattered, and uncoordinated that no one can fully under-
stand—let alone control—the reality. Exhibit 2.1 lists some of the most important sources of
organizational uncertainty.
How can lessons be extracted from surroundings that are complex, surprising, deceptive,
and ambiguous? It isn’t easy. Decades ago, scholars debated whether the idea of organiza-
tional learning made sense: Could organizations actually learn, or was learning inherently
individual? That debate lapsed as experience verified instances in which individuals learned
and organizations didn’t, or vice versa. Complex firms such as Apple, Zappos, and
Southwest Airlines have “learned” capabilities far beyond individual knowledge. Lessons
are enshrined in acknowledged protocols and shared cultural codes and traditions. At the
same time, individuals often learn even when systems cannot.
Several perspectives on organizational learning are exemplified in the work of Peter
Senge (1990), Barry Oshry (1995), and Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1978, 1996). Senge
Exhibit 2.1.
Sources of Ambiguity.
• We are not sure what the problem is.
• We are not sure what is really happening.
• We are not sure what we want.
• We do not have the resources we need.
• We are not sure who is supposed to do what.
• We are not sure how to get what we want.
• We are not sure how to determine if we have succeeded.
Source: Adapted from McCaskey (1982).
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sees a core-learning dilemma: “We learn best from our experience, but we never directly
experience the consequences of many of our decisions” (p. 23). Learning is relatively easy
when the link between cause and effect is clear. But complex systems often sever that
connection: causes remote from effects, solutions detached from problems, and feedback
absent, delayed, or misleading (Cyert and March, 1963; Senge, 1990). Wells Fargo’s
aggressive push for cross-selling led to cheating from coast to coast, but that was mostly
invisible at headquarters, which kept its eyes on the financial results—until the scandal
blew up.
Senge emphasizes the value of “system maps” that clarify how a system works. Consider
the system created by Robert Nardelli at Home Depot. Nardelli had expected to win the
three-way competition to succeed management legend Jack Welch as CEO of General
Electric. He was stunned when he learned he didn’t get the job. But within a week, he was
hired as Home Depot’s new CEO. He was a big change from the company’s free-spirited
founders, who had built the wildly successful retailer on the foundation of an uninhibited,
entrepreneurial “orange” culture. Managers ran their stores using “tribal knowledge,” and
customers counted on friendly, knowledgeable staff for helpful advice.
Nardelli revamped Home Depot with a heavy dose of command-and-control, discipline,
and metrics. Almost all the top executives and many of the frontline managers were
replaced, often by ex-military hires. At first, it seemed to work—profits improved, and
management experts hailed Nardelli’s success. He was even designated Best Manager of
2004 on the cover of Business Week (Business Week, 2005). But employee morale and
customer service went steadily downhill. The founders had successfully promoted a “make
love to the customers” ethic, but Nardelli’s toe-the-line stance pummeled Home Depot to
last place in its industry for consumer satisfaction. A website, Home Depot Sucks.com, gave
customers a place to vent their rage. As criticism grew, Nardelli tried to keep naysayers at
bay, but his efforts failed to placate customers, shareholders, or his board. Nardelli abruptly
left Home Depot at the beginning of 2007.
The story is one of many examples of tactics that look good until long-term costs become
apparent. A corresponding systems model might look like Exhibit 2.2. The strategy might be
cutting training to improve short-term profitability, drinking martinis to relieve stress,
offering rebates to entice customers, or borrowing from a loan shark to cover gambling
debts. In each case, the results look good at first, and the costs only emerge much later.
Oshry (1995) agrees that system blindness is widespread but highlights causes rooted in
troubled relationships between groups that have little grasp of what’s going on outside their
own neighborhood. Top managers feel overwhelmed by complexity, responsibility, and
overwork. They are chronically dissatisfied with subordinates’ lack of initiative and
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creativity. Middle managers, meanwhile, feel trapped between contradictory signals and
pressures. The top tells them to take risks but then punishes mistakes. Their subordinates
expect them to intervene with the boss and improve working conditions. Top and bottom
tug in opposite directions, causing those in the middle to feel pulled apart, confused, and
weak. At the bottom, workers feel helpless, unacknowledged, and demoralized. “They give
us bad jobs, lousy pay, and lots of orders but never tell us what’s really going on. Then they
wonder why we don’t love our work.” Unless you can step back and see how system
dynamics create these patterns, you muddle along blindly, unaware of better options.
Both Oshry and Senge argue that our failure to read system dynamics traps us in cycles of
blaming and self-defense. Problems are always someone else’s fault. Unlike Senge, who sees
gaps between cause and effect as primary barriers to learning, Argyris and Schön emphasize
managers’ fears and defenses. As a result, “the actions we take to promote productive
organizational learning actually inhibit deeper learning” (1996, p. 281).
According to Argyris and Schön, our behavior obstructs learning because we avoid
undiscussable issues and tiptoe around organizational taboos. That often seems to work
because we avoid conflict and discomfort in the moment, but we create a double bind. We
can’t solve problems without dealing with issues we have tried to hide but discussing them
would expose our cover up. Facing that double bind, Volkswagen engineers hid their
Exhibit 2.2.
Systems Model with Delay.
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cheating until outsiders finally caught on. Desperate maneuvers to hide the truth and delay
the inevitable made the day of reckoning more catastrophic.
Organizations try to cope with a complicated and uncertain world by making it more
simple. One approach to simplification is to develop better systems and technology to collect
and process data. Another is to break complex issues into smaller chunks and assign slices to
specialized individuals or units. Still another approach is to hire or develop professionals
with sophisticated expertise in handling thorny problems. These and other methods are
helpful but not always sufficient. Despite the best efforts, as we have seen, surprising—and
sometimes appalling—events still happen. We need better ways to anticipate problems and
wrestle with them once they arrive.
Making Sense of What’s Going On
Some events are so clear and unambiguous that it is easy for people to agree on what is going
on. Determining whether a train is on schedule, a plane landed safely, or a clock is keeping
accurate time is fairly straightforward. But most of the important issues confronting leaders
are not so clear cut. Will a reorganization work? Was a meeting successful? Why did a
consensual decision backfire? In trying to make sense of complicated and ambiguous
situations, humans are often in over their heads, their brains too taxed to decode all the
complexity around them. At best managers can hope to achieve “bounded rationality,”
which Foss and Webber (2016) describe in terms of three dimensions:
1. Processing capacity: Limits of time, memory, attention, and computing speed mean
that the brain can only process a fraction of the information that might be relevant in a
given situation.
2. Cognitive economizing: Cognitive limits force human decision makers to use cognitive
short-cuts—rules of thumb, mental models, or frames—in order to cut complexity and
messiness down to manageable size.
3. Cognitive biases: Humans tend to interpret incoming information to confirm their
existing beliefs, expectations, and values. They often welcome confirming information
while ignoring or rejecting disconfirming signals (Foss and Webber, 2016).
Benson (2016) frames cognitive biases in terms of four broad tendencies that create a
self-reinforcing cycle (see Exhibit 2.3). To cope with information overload, we filter out
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most data and see only what seems important and consistent with our current mind-set.
That gives us an incomplete picture, but we fill in the gaps and make everything fit with our
current beliefs. Then, in order to act quickly instead of getting lost in thought, we favor the
easy and obvious over the complex or difficult. We then code our experience into memory
by discarding specifics and retaining generalities or by using a few specifics to represent a
larger whole. This reinforces our current mental models, which then shape how we process
experience in the future.
To a greater or lesser degree, we all use these cognitive short-cuts. In the early days of his
presidency, Donald Trump’s tweet storms and off-the-cuff communications provided
prominent examples. In March, 2017, he tweeted that his predecessor, Barack Obama,
was a “bad (or sick) guy” for tapping Trump’s phones prior to the election. Trump
apparently based this claim on an article from the right-wing website Breitbart. Since the
charge aligned with Trump’s world view, he figured it must be true and continued to insist
he was right even after investigators concluded it never happened.
Exhibit 2.3.
Cognitive Biases.
Cognitive Challenge Solution Risk
Too much data to
Filter out everything except
what we see as important and
consistent with our current
Miss things that are
important or could help us
Tough to make
sense of a
ambiguous world
Fill in gaps, make things fit with
our existing stories and mental
Create and perpetuate false
beliefs and narratives
Need to act quickly Jump to conclusions—favor the
simple and obvious over the
messy and complex
Quick decisions and actions
lead to mistakes and get us in
Memory overload Discard specifics to form
generalities or use a few
specifics to represent the whole
Error and bias in memory
reinforce current mind-sets
and biases in information-
Source: Adapted from Benson, 2016.
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Decisions, whether snap judgments or careful calculations, work only if we have
adequately sized up the situation. As one highly placed female executive reported to us,
“I thought I’d covered all the bases, but then I suddenly realized that the rest of my team
were playing football.”
Managers regularly face an unending barrage of puzzles or “messes.” To act without
creating more trouble, they must first grasp an accurate picture of what is happening. Then
they must move to a deeper level, asking, “What is really going on here?” When this step is
omitted, managers too often form superficial analyses and pounce on the solutions nearest
at hand or most in vogue. Market share declining? Try strategic planning. Customer
complaints? Put in a quality program. Profits down? Time to reengineer or downsize.
A better alternative is to think, to probe more deeply into what is really going on, and to
develop an accurate diagnosis. The process is more intuitive than analytic: “[It] is in fact a
cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the step-by-step thinking
we rely on so willingly. We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact,
intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic” (DeBecker, 1997, p. 28).
The ability to size up a situation quickly is at the heart of leadership. Admiral Carlisle
Trost, former Chief of Naval Operations, once remarked, “The first responsibility of a leader
is to figure out what is going on . . . That is never easy to do because situations are rarely
black or white, they are a pale shade of gray . . . they are seldom neatly packaged.”
It all adds up to a simple truth that is easy to overlook. The world we perceive is, for the
most part, the image we construct in our minds. Ellen Langer, the author of Mindfulness
(1989), captures this viewpoint succinctly: “What we have learned to look for in situations
determines mostly what we see” (Langer, 2009, p. 33). The ideas or theories we hold
determine whether a given situation is foggy or clear, mildly interesting or momentous, a
paralyzing disaster, or a genuine learning experience. Personal theories are essential because
of a basic fact about human perception: in any situation, there is simply too much
happening for us to attend to everything. To help us understand what is going on and
what to do next, well-grounded, deeply ingrained personal theories offer two advantages:
they tell us what is important and what is safe to ignore, and they group scattered bits of
information into manageable patterns. Mental models shape reality.
Research in neuroscience has called into question the old adage, “Seeing is believing.” It
has been challenged by its converse: “Believing is seeing.” The brain constructs its own
images of reality and then projects them onto the external world (Eagleman, 2011). “Mental
models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to
familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental
models or the effects they have on our behavior” (Senge, 1990, p. 8). Reality is therefore what
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each of us believes it to be. Shermer (2012) tells us that “beliefs come first, explanations for
beliefs follow.” Once we form beliefs, we search for ways to explain and defend them.
Today’s experience becomes tomorrow’s fortified theology.
In November, 2014, two police officers in Cleveland received a radio report of a “black
male sitting on a swing pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people” in a city park
(Holloway, 2015). Arriving at the site, one officer spotted the suspect and saw him reach for
his gun. The officer immediately shot and killed the suspect. The officer might have
responded differently if the radio report had included two additional details. The caller who
made the initial report had said that the suspect might be a juvenile, and the gun was
probably fake. The gun was a toy replica of a Colt semiautomatic pistol. The victim, Tamir
Rice, was 12 years old, but, at 195 pounds, might have looked like an adult on a quick glance.
Perception and judgment involve matching situational cues with previously learned
mental models. In this case, the perceptual data were hard to read, and expectations were
prejudiced by a key missing clue—the radio operator had never mentioned the possibility of
a child with a toy. The officer was expecting a dangerous gunman, and that is what he saw.
Impact of Mental Models
Changing old patterns and mind-sets is difficult. It is also risky; it can lead to analysis
paralysis, confusion, and erosion of confidence. This dilemma exists even if we see no flaws
in our current thinking because our theories are often self-sealing. They block us from
recognizing our errors. Extensive research documents the many ways in which individuals
spin reality to protect existing beliefs (see, for example, Garland, 1990; Kühberger, 1995;
Staw and Hoang, 1995). In one corporate disaster after another, executives insist that they
were not responsible but were the unfortunate victim of circumstances.
Extensive research on the “framing effect” (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979) shows how
powerful subtle cues can be. Relatively modest changes in how a problem or decision is
framed can have a dramatic impact on how people respond (Shu and Adams, 1995;
Gegerenzer, Hoffrage, and Kleinbölting, 1991). One study found that doctors responded
more favorably to a treatment with “a one-month survival rate of 90 percent” than one with
“a 10 percent mortality rate in the first month,” even though the two are statistically
identical (Kahneman, 2011).
Many of us sometimes recognize that our mental models or maps influence how we
interpret the world. It is less widely understood that what we expect often determines what
we get. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) studied schoolteachers who were told that certain
students in their classes were “spurters”—students who were “about to bloom.” The so-
called spurters, who had been randomly selected, achieved above-average gains on
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achievement tests. They really did spurt. Somehow, the teachers’ expectations were
communicated to and assimilated by the students. Medical science is still probing the
placebo effect—the power of sugar pills to make people better (Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche,
2010). Results are attributed to an unexplained change in the patient’s belief system. When
patients believe they will get better, they do. Similar effects have been replicated in countless
reorganizations, new product launches, and new approaches to performance appraisal. All
these examples show how hard it is to disentangle reality from the models in our minds.2
Japan has four major spiritual traditions, each with unique beliefs and assumptions:
Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Taoism. Though they differ greatly in history,
traditions, and basic tenets, many Japanese feel no need to choose only one. They use all
four, taking advantage of the strengths of each for suitable purposes or occasions.3 The four
frames can play a similar role for managers in modern organizations. Rather than
portraying the field of organizational theory as fragmented, we present it as pluralistic.
Seen this way, the field offers a rich spectrum of mental models or lenses for viewing
organizations. Each theoretical tradition is helpful. Each has blind spots. Each tells its own
story about organizations. The ability to shift nimbly from one to another helps redefine
situations so they become understandable and manageable. The ability to reframe is one of
the most powerful capacities of great artists. It can be equally powerful for managers and
Because organizations are complex, surprising, deceptive, and ambiguous, they are formi-
dably difficult to comprehend and manage. Our preconceived theories, models, and images
determine what we see, what we do, and how we judge what we accomplish. Narrow,
oversimplified mental models become fallacies that cloud rather than illuminate managerial
action. The world of most managers and administrators is a world of messes: complexity,
ambiguity, value dilemmas, political pressures, and multiple constituencies. For managers
whose images blind them to important parts of this messy reality, it is a world of frustration
and failure. For those with better theories and the intuitive capacity to use them with skill
and grace, it is a world of excitement and possibility. A mess can be defined as both a
troublesome situation and a group of people who eat together. The core challenge of
leadership is to move an organization from the former to something more like the latter.
In succeeding chapters, we look at four perspectives, or frames, that have helped
managers and leaders find clarity and meaning amid the confusion of organizational
life. The frames are grounded in both the cool rationality of management science and the
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hot fire of actual practice. You can enhance your chances of success with an artful
appreciation of how to use the four lenses to understand and influence what’s really
going on.
1. The Wonder World to Be Created by Electricity, Manufacturer’s Record, September 9, 1915.
2. These examples all show thinking influencing reality. A social constructivist perspective goes a
step further to say that our thinking constructs social reality. In this view, an organization exists
not “out there” but in the minds and actions of its constituents. This idea is illustrated in an old
story about a dispute among three baseball umpires. The first says, “Some’s balls, and some’s
strikes, and I calls ‘em like they are.” The second counters, “No, you got it wrong. Some’s balls,
and some’s strikes, and I calls ‘em the way I sees them.” The third says, “You guys don’t really get
it. Some’s balls, and some’s strikes, but they ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.” The first umpire is a
realist who believes that what he sees is exactly what is. The second recognizes that reality is
influenced by his own perception. The third is the social constructivist—his call makes them what
they are. This distinction is particularly important in the symbolic frame, which we return to in
Chapter 12.
3. A similar phenomenon occurs in other East Asian cultures. In both China and Vietnam, for
example, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and native folk religions (including ancestor
worship) live comfortably alongside of one another.
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The Structural Frame
A frame is a coherent set of ideas or beliefs forming a prism or lens that enables you to see
and understand more clearly what’s going on in the world around you. In Part II, we embark
on the first stage of a tour that will take us to four very different ways of making sense of life
at work or elsewhere. Each frame will be presented in three chapters: one that introduces the
basic concepts and two that focus on key applications and extensions. We begin with one of
the oldest and most popular ways of thinking about organizations: the structural frame.
If someone asked you to describe your organization—your workplace, your school, or
even your family—what image would come to mind? A likely possibility is a traditional
organization chart: a series of boxes and lines depicting job responsibilities and levels. The
chart might be shaped roughly like a pyramid, with a small number of bosses at the top and a
much larger number of employees at the bottom. Such a chart is only one of many images
that reflect the structural view. The frame is rooted in traditional rational images but goes
much deeper to develop versatile and powerful ways to understand social architecture and
its consequences.
We begin Chapter 3 with cases contrasting the structural features of racing crews,
Amazon, and rescue efforts in New York City’s 9/11 terrorist attacks. We then highlight the
basic assumptions of the structural view, with emphasis on two key dimensions: dividing
work and coordinating it thereafter. We emphasize how structural design depends on an
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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organization’s circumstances, including its goals, strategy, technology, and environment. In
addition, we show why tightly controlled, top-down forms may work in simple, stable
situations but fall short in more fluid and ambiguous ones.
In Chapter 4, we turn to issues of structural change and redesign. We describe basic
structural tensions, explore alternatives to consider when new circumstances require
revisions, and discuss challenges of the restructuring process. We compare traditional
organization charts with “Mintzberg’s Fives,” a more abstract rendering of structural
alternatives. We close the chapter with examples of successful structural change.
Finally, in Chapter 5, we apply structural concepts to groups and teams. When teams
work poorly, members often blame one another for problems that reflect design flaws rather
than individual failings. We begin with the SEAL Team Six operation to track down Osama
bin Laden. We examine structural options in five-person teams and then contrast the games
of baseball, American football, and basketball to show how optimal structure depends on
what a team is trying to do and under what conditions. We close by examining the
architectural design of high-performance teams.
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c h a p t e r
Getting Organized
Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that
when you do it, it is not all mixed up.
—A. A. Milne
Watching an eight-oar racing crew skim along the Charles River is likewatching a highly choreographed ballet group perform Swan Lake. To
a coxswain’s cadence, eight oars at exactly 90 degrees enter the water in
unison. A collective pull “in swing” propels the shell smoothly forward as
eight oars leave the water at a precise perpendicular angle. If any oarsman
muffs just one of these strokes or “catches a crab,” the shell is thrown off kilter.
Close coordination welds eight rowers into a harmonious crew.
It looks straightforward to an outside observer, an effortless ballet in motion. But
structurally it is more complicated. All members of a crew are expected to row smoothly
and quickly. But expectations for individuals vary depending on the seat they occupy.
Bow seats one, two, and three have the greatest potential to disrupt the boat’s direction, so
they must be able to pull a perfect oar one stroke after another. Rowers in seats four, five,
and six are the boat’s biggest and strongest. They are often referred to as the “engine,”
providing the boat’s raw power. Seat seven’s rower provides a conduit between the engine
room and the “stroke oar” in seat eight. The “stroke oar” sits directly facing the coxswain
and rows at the requested rate of speed and power, setting the pace and intensity for the
other rowers.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC03 05/25/2017 14:36:0 Page 46
The coxswain is responsible for steering the shell, but also serves as captain. Coxswains
vocally determine both the rate and degree of power of the oar strokes. They know their
rowers physically and psychologically and how to inspire their best efforts. They also know
opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Before a race, the coxswain develops a strategy but
must be ready to alter it as a situation demands. A good coxswain is “a quarterback, a
cheerleader, and a coach all in one. He or she is a deep thinker, canny like a fox,
inspirational, and in many cases the toughest person in the boat” (Brown, 2014, p. 232).
The individual efforts are also integrated by shared agreement that the team effort
transcends the individual. All rowers have to optimize their strokes for the benefit of the
boat. Coordination and cooperation among individuals of different statures and strengths
assures the unified and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes. In crew racing
competition, structure is vital to top performance.
Structure is equally critical in larger organizations. Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s most
admired CEOs, is passionate about structure and process at the company he founded,
Internet giant Amazon. He makes the company’s strategy crystal clear. Embracing the
familiar credo that the “customer is always right,” Bezos is riveted on figuring out what the
customer wants and delivering it with speed and precision. His “culture of metrics” coddles
Amazon’s 250 million shoppers, not its quarter million employees.
Amazon tracks its performance against some 500 measurable goals; almost 80 percent
relate directly to customer service. Even the smallest delay in loading a Web page is carefully
scrutinized, because Amazon has found that “. . . a .01 second delay in page rendering can
translate into a 1 percent drop in customer activity” (Anders, 2012). Supervisors measure
and monitor employees’ performance, observing behavior closely to see where steps or
movements can be streamlined to improve efficiency.
Amazon is a classic example of a highly developed organizational structure—clear
strategy, focus on the mission, well-defined roles, and top-down coordination. Some
employees grumble about the working conditions and the fast pace, but many others
find the tempo exhilarating. Bezos makes it clear: The customer is number one. Period.
Amazon began as an online bookstore, but now it sells almost anything that can be shipped
or downloaded. The company lost money for many years after its founding in 1995. But in
recent years, it has been consistently profitable, and its 2015 annual report noted that it had
achieved $100 billion in sales faster than any company in history (Amazon, 2015).
The benefits of getting structure right are obvious under normal conditions and even
more so when organizational architecture meets unexpected crises. Recall the horror of 9/11
and the breakdown in coordination between New York City’s fire and police departments as
they confronted the aftermath of terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center. That day saw
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countless inspiring examples of individual heroism and personal sacrifice. At the risk of
their own lives, emergency personnel rescued thousands of people. Many died in the effort.
But extraordinary individual efforts were hindered or thwarted by breakdowns in com­
munication, command, and control. Police helicopters near the north tower radioed that it
was near collapse more than twenty minutes before it fell. Police officers got the warning,
and most escaped. But there was no link between fire and police radios, and the
commanders in the two departments could not communicate because their command
posts were three blocks apart. It might not have helped even if they had talked, because the
fire department’s radios were notoriously unreliable in high-rise buildings.
The breakdown of communication and coordination magnified the death toll—
including 121 firefighters who died when the north tower collapsed. The absence of a
workable structure undermined the heroic efforts of highly dedicated, skilled professionals
who gave their all in an unprecedented catastrophe (Dwyer, Flynn, and Fessenden, 2002).
The contrast between Amazon’s operations and the rescue efforts at the World Trade
Center highlights a core premise of the structural lens. The right combination of goals, roles,
relationships, and coordination is essential to organizational performance. This is true of all
organizations: families, clubs, hospitals, military units, businesses, schools, churches, and
public agencies. The right structure combats the risk that individuals, however talented, will
become confused, ineffective, apathetic, or hostile. The purpose of this chapter and the next
two is to identify the basic ideas and inner workings of a perspective that is fundamental to
collective human endeavors.
We begin our examination of the structural frame by highlighting its core assumptions,
origins, and basic forms. The possibilities for designing an organization’s social architecture
are almost limitless, but any option must address two key questions: How do we allocate
responsibilities across different units and roles? And, once we’ve done that, how do we
integrate diverse efforts in pursuit of common goals? In this chapter, we explain these basic
issues, describe the major options, and discuss imperatives to consider when designing a
structure to fit the challenges of a unique situation.
The central beliefs of the structural frame reflect confidence in rationality and faith that a
suitable array of roles and responsibilities will minimize distracting personal static and
maximize people’s performance on the job. Where the human resource approach (to be
discussed in Chapters 6 through 8) emphasizes dealing with issues by changing people
(through coaching, training, rotation, promotion, or dismissal), the structural perspective
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argues for putting people in the right roles and relationships. Properly designed, these
formal arrangements support and accommodate both collective goals and individual
Six assumptions undergird the structural frame:
1. Organizations exist to achieve established goals and objectives and devise strategies to
reach those goals.
2. Organizations increase efficiency and enhance performance through specialization
and appropriate division of labor.
3. Suitable forms of coordination and control ensure that diverse efforts of individuals
and units mesh.
4. Organizations work best when rationality prevails over personal agendas and extra­
neous pressures.
5. Effective structure fits an organization’s current circumstances (including its strategy,
technology, workforce, and environment).
6. When performance suffers from structural flaws, the remedy is problem solving and
The structural view has two principal intellectual roots. The first is the work of industrial
analysts bent on designing organizations for maximum efficiency. The most prominent of
these, Frederick W. Taylor (1911), was the father of time-and-motion studies; he founded an
approach that he labeled “scientific management.” Taylor broke tasks into minute parts and
retrained workers to get the most from each motion and moment spent at work. Other
theorists who contributed to the scientific management approach (Fayol, [1919] 1949;
Urwick, 1937; Gulick and Urwick, 1937) developed principles focused on specialization,
span of control, authority, and delegation of responsibility.
A second pioneer of structural ideas was the German economist and sociologist Max
Weber, who wrote around the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time, formal
organization was a relatively new phenomenon. Patriarchy rather than rationality was still
the primary organizing principle. A father figure—who ruled with almost unlimited
authority and power—dominated patriarchal organizations. He could reward, punish,
promote, or fire on personal whim. Seeing an evolution of new structural models in
late-nineteenth-century Europe, Weber described “monocratic bureaucracy” as an ideal
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form that maximized efficiency and norms of rationality. His model outlined several major
features that were relatively novel at the time, although they are commonplace now:
• A fixed division of labor
• A hierarchy of offices
• A set of rules governing performance
• A separation of personal from official property and rights
• The use of technical qualifications (not family ties or friendship) for selecting personnel
• Employment as primary occupation and long-term career (Weber, 1947)
After World War II, Blau and Scott (1962), Perrow (1986), Thompson (1967), Lawrence
and Lorsch (1967), Hall (1963), and others rediscovered Weber’s ideas. Their work inspired
a substantial body of theory and research amplifying the bureaucratic model. They
examined relationships among the elements of structure, looked closely at why organiza­
tions develop one structure over another, and analyzed the effects of structure on morale,
productivity, and effectiveness.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 5: James D. Thompson, Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases
of Administrative Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967)
“Organizations act, but what determines how and when they will act?” (p. 1). That guiding question
opens Thompson’s compact, tightly reasoned book. He answers that “organizations do some of the
basic things they do because they must—or else! Because they are expected to produce results, their
actions are expected to be reasonable, or rational” (p. 1). As Thompson sees them, organizations
operate under “norms of rationality,” but uncertainty makes rationality hard to achieve.
“Uncertainties pose major challenges to rationality, and we will argue that technologies and
environments are basic sources of uncertainty for organizations. How these facts of organizational
life lead organizations to design and structure themselves needs to be explored” (p. 1).
Thompson looked for a way to meld two distinct ways of thinking about organizations. One
was to see them as closed, rational systems (as in Taylor’s scientific management and Weber’s
theory of bureaucracy). The second viewed them as open, natural systems in which “survival of
the system is taken to be the goal, and the parts and their relationships are presumably
determined through evolutionary processes” (p. 6). Thompson tried to build on a “newer
tradition” emerging from the work of March and Simon (1958, number 8 of our greatest hits in
organization studies) and Cyert and March (1963, number 3). This tradition viewed organizations
as “problem facing and problem solving” in a context of limited information and capacities.
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(continued )
With these premises, Thompson developed a series of propositions about how organizations
design and manage themselves as they seek rationality in an uncertain world. The two primary
sources of uncertainty, in his view, are technology and the environment. He distinguished three
kinds of technology—pooled, sequential, and reciprocal—each making different demands on
communication and coordination. Because demands and intrusions from the environment
threaten efficiency, organizations try to increase their ability to anticipate and control the
environment and attempt to insulate their technical core from environmental fluctuations. Still
another source of uncertainty is the “variable human.” The more uncertainty an organization
faces, the more discretion individuals need to cope with it, but there is the risk that discretion will
run amok. “Paradoxically, the administrative process must reduce uncertainty but at the same
time search for flexibility” (Thompson, pp. 157–158).
Strategy comes from a Greek word that originally referred to the art of military leaders. It
was imported into the business context in the twentieth century as a way to talk about an
organization’s overall approach to goals and methods. Strategy has been defined in many
ways. Mintzberg (1987), for example, offers five of them, all beginning with the letter P:
1. Plan: a conscious and intentional course of action.
2. Perspective: an organization’s way of framing where it wants to go and how it intends
to get there.
3. Pattern: a consistent pattern of decisions.
4. Position: the way an organization positions itself in relationship to its environment.
5. Ploy: a plan or decision whose purpose is to provoke a reaction from competitors.
Some of Mintzberg’s Ps focus on thinking while others are more about action. All are
elements of a coherent strategy. Roberts (2004) argues that the job of the general manager is
to define a strategy that includes objectives, a statement of scope, a specification of the
organization’s competitive advantage, and the logic for how the organization will succeed.
Structural logic dictates that an organization’s success requires alignment of strategy,
structure, and environment. But, as Chandler noted in 1962, “structure follows strategy.” A
good strategy needs to be specific enough to provide direction but elastic enough to adapt to
changing circumstances.
Eastman Kodak provides a classic case in point. Kodak developed a strategy that made it
a dominant player in the film industry for many decades, but stayed with its approach too
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long and finally ended in bankruptcy. In 1880, George Eastman developed a formula for
gelatin-based dry plates, the basis for the then nascent field of photography. For the next 125
years the company’s strategy sought to capitalize on this technology by introducing
products such as the Kodak Brownie camera, Kodachrome, the Kodak Instamatic camera,
and gold standard motion picture film—as well as producing thousands of patents in related
fields. Pursuing this strategy the company’s performance soared. At its zenith, Kodak
employed over 145,000 people and earned billions of dollars in sales (Brachmann, 2014). It
was one of America’s best-known and most-admired companies.
Threats to Kodak’s film-based strategy surfaced as early as 1950 with the introduction of
instant photography and the Polaroid camera. In the 1980s, Fujifilm, an upstart Japanese
competitor, was able to mass produce film and sell it at a cheaper price to discount retailers like
Walmart. Kodak couldn’t compete and lost a large share of the film market (Brachmann, 2014).
The death knell for Kodak came in the midseventies with the invention of the digital
camera. Ironically, it was invented in one of the company’s labs by one of its own engineers.
Upper management’s reaction: “It’s cute but don’t tell anyone about it” (Chunka, 2012).
Kodak’s protection of its film-based strategy and inability to see that digital would capture
the market led to its decline and eventual bankruptcy filing in January, 2012.
What kept Kodak from adapting to a changing world? The strategy led to an
organizational structure that channeled the activities and thinking of top management
in one primary direction: film! In that context, any effort to promote digital cameras
required swimming upstream against a strong current.
A similar thing happened at Xerox. Xerox researchers had developed the concepts for the
graphical user interface and mouse, but the company’s structure and business model were
built around photocopying, not computers. Steve Jobs at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft
immediately saw the market potential that Xerox executives missed. Kodak and Xerox, like
many other companies, were never able to capitalize on their own inventions because they
fell outside the corporate strategy. Christensen (1997) calls it “the innovator’s dilemma,”
and notes that one reason firms get stuck in the past is that standard cost-benefit analysis
usually tells them that they will get a better return by investing in the tried and true instead
of something new and unproven. As at Kodak and Xerox, the game is usually lost before the
numbers tell a different story.
Structure provides the architecture for pursuing an organization’s strategic goals. It is a
blueprint for expectations and exchanges among internal players (executives, managers,
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employees) and external constituencies (such as customers, competitors, regulators, and
clients). Like an animal’s skeleton or a building’s framework, structure both enhances and
constrains what an organization can do. The alternative design possibilities are virtually
infinite, limited only by human preferences and capacities, technological limits, and
constraints in the surroundings.
We often assume that people prefer structures with more choices and latitude (Leavitt,
1978), but this is not always the case. A study by Moeller (1968), for example, explored the
effects of structure on teacher morale in two school systems. One was loosely structured and
encouraged wide participation in decision making. Centralized authority and a clear chain
of command characterized the other. Moeller was surprised to find the opposite of what he
expected: Faculty morale was higher in the district with a tighter structure. Teachers seemed
to prefer clarity of expectations, roles, and lines of authority.
United Parcel Service, “Big Brown,” provides a contemporary example of the benefits of
structural certainty and clarity. In the company’s early days, UPS delivery employees were
“scampering messenger boys” (Niemann, 2007). Since then, computer technology has
curtailed employee discretion, and every step from pickup to delivery is highly pro­
grammed. Detailed instructions specify placement of packages on delivery trucks. Drivers
follow computer-generated routes (which minimize mileage and left turns to save time and
gas). Newly scheduled pickups automatically download into the nearest driver’s route plan.
UPS calculates in advance the numbers of steps to your door. If a driver sees you while
walking briskly to your door, you’ll receive a friendly greeting. Look carefully and you’ll
probably notice the automated van lock the driver carries. Given such a tight leash, you might
expect demoralized employees. But, the technology makes the jobeasier and enablesdrivers to
be more productive. As one driver remarked to us with a smile, “We’re happy robots.”
Do these examples prove that a tighter structure is better? Sometimes the opposite is true.
Adler and Borys (1996) argue that the type of structure is as important as the amount or
rigidity. There are good rules and bad ones. Formal structure enhances morale if it helps us
get our work done. It has a negative impact if it gets in our way, buries us in red tape, or
makes it too easy for management to control us. Equating structure to rigid bureaucracy
confuses “two very different kinds of machines, those designed to de-skill work and those
designed to leverage users’ skills” (p. 69).
Structure, then, need not be machinelike or inflexible. Structures in stable environments
are often hierarchical and rules oriented. But recent years have witnessed remarkable
inventiveness in designing structures emphasizing flexibility, participation, and quality. A
prime example is BMW, the luxury automaker whose success formula relies on a
combination of stellar quality and rapid innovation. “Just about everyone working for
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the Bavarian automaker—from the factory floor to the design studios to the marketing
department—is encouraged to speak out. Ideas bubble up freely and there is never a penalty
for proposing a new way of doing things, no matter how outlandish. The company has
become an industry benchmark for high-performance premium cars, customized produc­
tion, and savvy brand management” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 72. Copyright  2006 McGraw-
Hill Companies, Inc.).
Dramatic changes in technology and the business environment have rendered old
structures obsolete at an unprecedented rate, spawning a new interest in organizational
design (Nadler, Gerstein, and Shaw, 1992; Bryan and Joyce, 2007; Roberts, 2004). Pressures
of globalization, competition, technology, customer expectations, and workforce dynamics
have prompted organizations worldwide to rethink and redesign structural prototypes. A
swarm of items compete for managers’ attention—money, markets, people, and techno­
logical competencies, to name a few. But a significant amount of time and attention must be
devoted to social architecture—designing structures that allow people to do their best:
CEOs often opt for the ad hoc structural change, the big acquisition, or a focus on
where and how to compete. They would be better off focusing on organizational
design. Our research convinces us that in the digital age, there is no better use of a
CEO’s time and energy than making organizations work better. Most companies
resource, interaction costs were high and hierarchical authority and vertically
integrated structures were the keys to efficient operation. Today superior per­
formance flows from the ability to fit these structures into the present century’s
very different sources of wealth creation (Bryan and Joyce, 2007, p. 1).

Two issues are central to structural design: how to allocate work (differentiation) and how to
coordinate diverse efforts after parceling out responsibilities (integration). Even in a group as
small and intimate as a family, it is important to settle issues concerning who does what, when
the “what” gets done, and how individual efforts mesh to ensure harmony. Every family will
find an arrangement of roles and synchronization that works—or suffer the fallout.
Division of labor—or allocating tasks—is the keystone of structure. Every living system
creates specialized roles to get important work done. Consider an ant colony: “Small
workers . . . spend most of their time in the nest feeding the larval broods; intermediate-
sized workers constitute most of the population, going out on raids as well as doing other
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jobs. The largest workers . . . have a huge head and large powerful jaws. These individuals
are . . . soldiers; they carry no food but constantly run along the flanks of the raiding and
emigration columns” (Topoff, 1972, p. 72).
Like ants, humans long ago discovered the virtues of specialization. A job (or position)
channels behavior by prescribing what someone is to do—or not do—to accomplish a task.
Prescriptions take the form of job descriptions, procedures, routines, protocols, or rules
(Mintzberg, 1979). On one hand, these formal constraints can be burdensome, leading to
apathy, absenteeism, and resistance (Argyris, 1957, 1964). On the other, they help to ensure
predictability, uniformity, and reliability. If manufacturing standards, aircraft maintenance,
hotel housekeeping, or prison sentences were left solely to individual discretion, problems of
quality and equity would abound.
Once an organization spells out positions or roles, managers face a second set of key
decisions: how to group people into working units. They have several basic options
(Mintzberg, 1979):
• Function: Groups based on knowledge or skill, as in the case of a university’s academic
departments or the classic industrial units of research, engineering, manufacturing,
marketing, and finance.
• Time: Units defined by when they do their work, as by shift (day, swing, or graveyard
• Product: Groups organized by what they produce, such as detergent versus bar soap,
wide-body versus narrow-body aircraft.
• Customer: Groups established around customers or clients, as in hospital wards created
around patient type (pediatrics, intensive care, or maternity), computer sales depart­
ments organized by customer (corporate, government, education, individual), or schools
targeting students in particular age groups.
• Place: Groupings around geography, such as regional or international offices in
corporations and government agencies or neighborhood schools in different parts of
a city.
• Process: Grouping by a complete flow of work, as with “the order fulfillment process.
This process flows from initiation by a customer order, through the functions, to delivery
to the customer” (Galbraith, 2001, p. 34).
Creating roles and units yields the benefits of specialization but creates challenges of
coordination and control—how to ensure that diverse efforts mesh. Units tend to focus on
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their separate priorities and strike out on their own, as New York’s police and fire
departments did on 9/11. The result is suboptimization—individual units may perform
splendidly in terms of their own goals, but the whole may add up to much less than the sum
of the parts. This problem plagued Tom Ridge, who was named by President George W.
Bush as the director of homeland security in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His
job was to resolve coordination failures among the government’s many different units that
dealt with security. But he was more salesman and preacher than boss, and he lacked the
authority to compel compliance. Ridge’s slow progress led President Bush to create a
cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The goal was to cluster independent
security agencies under one central authority.
As often happens, the new structure created its own problems. Folding the Federal
Emergency Management Agency into the mix reduced FEMA’s autonomy and shifted its
priorities toward security and away from its core mission of disaster relief. The same agency
that had responded nimbly to hurricanes and earthquakes in the 1990s was slow and
ponderous in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and lacked authority and budget to move
without a formal okay from the new Secretary of Homeland Security (Cooper and Block,
Successful organizations employ a variety of methods to coordinate individual and group
efforts and to link local initiatives with system-wide goals. They do this in two primary ways:
vertically, through the formal chain of command, and laterally, through meetings, com­
mittees, coordinating roles, or network structures. We next look at each of these strategies in
With vertical coordination, higher levels coordinate and control the work of subordinates
through authority, rules and policies, and planning and control systems.
The most basic and ubiquitous way to harmonize the efforts of individuals, units, or
divisions is to designate a boss with formal authority. Authorities—executives, managers,
and supervisors—are charged with keeping action aligned with strategy and objectives. They
do this by making decisions, resolving conflicts, solving problems, evaluating performance
and output, and distributing rewards and sanctions. A chain of command is a hierarchy of
managerial and supervisory strata, each with legitimate power to shape and direct the
behavior of those at lower levels. It works best when authority is both endorsed by
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subordinates and authorized by superiors (Dornbusch and Scott, 1975). In military
organizations such as an aircraft carrier or a commando team, for example, the chain
of command is usually clear and universally accepted. In schools and human service
organizations authority relations are often fuzzier or more contested.
Rules and Policies
Rules, policies, standards, and standard operating procedures are developed to ensure that
individual behavior is predictable and consistent. Rules and policies govern conditions of
work and specify standard ways of completing tasks, handling personnel issues, and relating
to customers and others. The goal is to ensure the handling of similar situations in
comparable ways and to avoid “particularism” (Perrow, 1986)—responding to specific
issues based on personal whims or political pressures. Two citizens’ complaints about a tax
bill are supposed to be treated similarly, even if one citizen is a prominent politician and the
other a shoe clerk. Once a situation is defined as fitting a particular rule, the course of action
is clear, straightforward and, in an ideal world, almost automatic.
A standard is a benchmark to ensure that goods and services maintain a specified level of
quality. Measurement against the standard makes it possible to identify and fix problems.
During the 1970s and 1980s, American manufacturing standards lagged, while Japanese
manufacturers were scrupulous in ensuring that high standards were widely known and
universally accepted. In one case, an American company ordered ball bearings from a
Japanese plant. The Americans insisted on what they saw as a daunting standard—no more
than 20 defective parts per thousand. The order arrived with a separate bag of 20 defective
bearings and a note: “We were not sure why you wanted these, but here they are.” More
recently, pressure for world-class quality has spawned growing interest in “Six Sigma,” a
statistical standard of near perfection (Pyzdek, 2003). Although Six Sigma has raised quality
standards in many companies around the world, its laser focus on measurable aspects of
work processes and outcomes has sometimes hampered creativity in innovative companies
such as 3M (Hindo, 2007, pp. 8–12). Safe and measurable may crowd out the elusive
breakthroughs a firm needs.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) reduce variance in routine tasks that have little
margin for error. Commercial airline pilots typically fly with a different crew every month.
Cockpit actions are tightly intertwined, the need for coordination is high, and mistakes can
kill. SOPs consequently govern much of the work of flying a plane. Pilots are trained
extensively in the procedures and seldom violate them. But a significant percentage of
aviation accidents occur in the rare case in which someone does. More than one airplane has
crashed on takeoff after the crew missed a required checklist item.
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SOPs can fall short, however, in the face of “black swans” (Taleb, 2007)—freak surprises
that the SOPs were never designed to handle. In the 9/11 terrorist attacks, pilots followed
standard procedures for dealing with hijackers: cooperate with their demands and try to get
the plane on the ground quickly. These SOPs were based on a long history of hijackers who
wanted to make a statement, not wreak destruction on a suicide mission. Passengers on
United Airlines flight 93, who had learned via cell phones that hijackers were using aircraft
as bombs rather than bully pulpits, abandoned this approach. They lost their lives fighting to
regain control of the plane, but theirs was the only one of four hijacked jets that failed to
devastate a high-profile building.
Planning and Control Systems
Reliance on planning and control systems—forecasting and measuring—has mushroomed
since the dawn of the computer era. Retailers, for example, need to know what’s selling and
what isn’t. Point-of-sale terminals now yield that information instantly. Data flow freely up
and down the hierarchy, greatly enhancing management’s ability to oversee performance
and respond in real time.
Mintzberg (1979) distinguishes two major approaches to control and planning: per­
formance control and action planning. Performance control specifies results (for example,
“increase sales by 10 percent this year”) without specifying how to achieve them.
Performance control measures and motivates individual efforts, particularly when targets
are reasonably clear and calculable. Locke and Latham (2002) make the case that clear and
challenging goals are a powerful incentive to high performance. Performance control is less
successful when goals are ambiguous, hard to measure, or of dubious relevance. A notorious
example was the use of enemy body counts by the U.S. military to measure combat
effectiveness in Vietnam. Field commanders became obsessed with “getting the numbers
up,” and were often successful. The numbers painted a picture of progress, even as the war
was being lost. Meanwhile, as an unintended consequence, American troops had an
incentive to kill unarmed civilians in order to raise the count (Turse, 2013).
Action planning specifies how to do something—methods and time frames as in
“increase this month’s sales by using a companywide sales pitch” (Mintzberg, 1979, pp.
153–154). Action planning works best when it is easier to assess how a job is done than to
measure its outcome. This is often true of service jobs. McDonald’s has clear specifications
for how counter employees are to greet customers (for example, with a smile and a cheerful
welcome). United Parcel Service has a detailed policy manual that specifies how a package
should be delivered. The objective is customer satisfaction, but it is easier to monitor
employees’ behavior than customers’ reactions. An inevitable risk in action planning is that
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the link between action and outcome may fail. When that happens, employees may get bad
results by doing just what they’re supposed to do. Unions sometimes use this as a bargaining
chip by telling employees to “work to rule”—scrupulously observing every detail in every
procedure—because it is often an effective way to slow work to a crawl.
Behavior in organizations is often remarkably untouched by commands, rules, and systems.
Lateral techniques—formal and informal meetings, task forces, coordinating roles, matrix
structures, and networks—pop up to fill the gaps. Lateral forms are typically less formal and
Formal gatherings and informal exchanges are the cornerstone of lateral coordination. All
organizations have regular meetings. Boards confer to make policy. Executive committees
gather to make strategic decisions. In some government agencies, review committees
(sometimes known as “murder boards”) convene to examine proposals from lower levels.
Formal meetings provide the lion’s share of lateral harmonization in relatively simple, stable
organizations—for example, a railroad with a predictable market, a manufacturer with a
stable product, or a life insurance company selling standard policies.
But in fast-paced, turbulent environments, more spontaneous and informal contacts and
exchanges are vital to take up slack and help glue things together. Pixar, the animation
studio whose series of hits includes Toy Story (1, 2, and 3); Finding Nemo (and Dory);
Monsters, Inc.; WALL-E; and Up, relies on a constant stream of informal connections among
managers, artists, and engineers in its three major groups. Technologists develop graphics
tools, artists create stories and pictures, and production experts knit the pieces together in
the final film. “What makes it all work is [Pixar’s] insistence that these groups constantly
talk to each other. So a producer of a scene can deal with the animator without having to
navigate through higher-ups” (Schlender, 2004, p. 212).
Task Forces
When organizations face complex and fast-changing environments, demand for lateral
communication mushrooms. Additional face-to-face coordination devices are needed. Task
forces assemble when new problems or opportunities require collaboration of diverse
specialties or functions. High-technology firms and consulting firms rely heavily on project
teams or task forces to synchronize the development of new products or services.
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Coordinating Roles
Coordinating roles or groups use persuasion and negotiation to help dovetail the efforts of
different units. They are boundary-spanners with diplomatic status who are artful in dealing
across specialized turfs. For example, a product manager in a consumer goods company,
responsible for the performance of a laundry detergent or low-fat snack, spends much of the
day pulling together functions essential to the product’s success such as R&D, manufactur­
ing, marketing, and sales.
Matrix Structures
Until the mid-twentieth century, most companies were functionally organized. Responding
to strategic complexity during the late 1950s and early 1960s, many companies shed their
functional structures in favor of divisional forms pioneered by DuPont and General Motors
in the 1920s. Beginning in the mid-1960s, many organizations in unwieldy environments
began to develop matrix structures, even though they are often cumbersome (Peters, 1979;
Davis and Lawrence, 1978.) When organizations figure out how to make matrix structures
work, they solve many problems (Vantrappen and Wirtz, 2016). By the mid-1990s, Asea
Brown Boveri (ABB), the Swiss-based electrical engineering giant, had grown to encompass
some 1,300 separate companies and more than 200,000 employees worldwide. To hold this
complex collection together, ABB developed a matrix structure crisscrossing approximately
100 countries with about 65 business sectors (Rappaport, 1992). Each subsidiary reported to
both a country manager (Sweden, Germany, and so on) and a sector manager (power
transformers, transportation, and the like).
The design carried the inevitable risk of confusion, tension, and conflict between sector
and country managers. ABB aimed for structural cohesion at the top with a small executive
coordinating committee (11 individuals from seven countries in 2016), an elite cadre of
some 500 global managers, and a policy of communicating in English, even though it was a
second language for most employees. Variations on ABB’s structure—a matrix with
business or product lines on one axis and countries or regions on another—are common
in global corporations. Familiar brands like Starbucks and Whole Foods rely on matrix
structures to support their successful international operations (Business Management,
Networks have always been around, more so in some places than others. Cochran (2000)
describes how both Western and Japanese firms doing business in China in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries had to adapt their hierarchical structures to accommodate powerful
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social networks deeply embedded in Chinese culture. One British firm tried for years, with
little success, to limit the control of “Number Ones” (powerful informal leaders who headed
local networks based on kinship and village) over the hiring and wages of its workforce. The
proliferation of information technology beginning in the 1980s led to an explosive growth of
digital networks—everything from small local grids to the global Internet. These powerful
new lateral communication devices often supplanted vertical strategies and spurred the
development of network structures within and between organizations (Steward, 1994).
Powell, Koput, and Smith-Doerr (1996) describe the mushrooming of “interorganizational
networks” in fast-moving fields like biotechnology, where knowledge is so complex and
widely dispersed that no organization can go it alone. They give an example of research on
Alzheimer’s disease that was carried out by thirty-four scientists from three corporations, a
university, a government laboratory, and a private research institute.
Many large global corporations have evolved into interorganizational networks (Ghoshal
and Bartlett, 1990; Gulati and Gargiulo, 1999). Horizontal linkages supplement and some­
times supplant vertical coordination. Such a firm is multicentric: initiatives and strategy
emerge from many places, taking shape through a variety of partnerships and joint ventures.
Designing a Structure That Works
In designing a structure that works, managers have a set of options for dividing the work
and coordinating multiple efforts. Structure needs to be designed with an eye toward
strategy, the nature of the environment, the talents of the workforce, and the available
resources (such as time, budget, and other contingencies). The options are summarized in
Exhibit 3.1.
Vertical or Lateral?
Vertical coordination is often efficient but not always effective and depends on employees’
willingness to follow directives from above. More decentralized and interactive lateral forms
of coordination are often needed to keep top-down control from stifling initiative and
creativity. Lateral coordination is often more effective but costlier than its vertical counter­
parts. A meeting, for example, provides an opportunity for face-to-face dialogue and
decision making but may squander time and energy. Personal and political agendas may
undermine the meeting’s purpose.
Ad hoc groups such as task forces can foster creativity and integration around pressing
problems but may divert attention from ongoing operating issues. The effectiveness of
coordinators who span boundaries depends on their credibility and skills in handling others.
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Exhibit 3.1.
Basic Structural Options.
Division of labor: Options for differentiation
Customers or clients
Place (geography)
Coordination: Options for integration
Vertical Authority
Rules and policies
Planning and control systems
Lateral Meetings
Task forces
Coordinating roles
Matrix structures
Coordinators are also likely to schedule meetings that take still more time from actual work
(Hannaway and Sproull, 1979). Matrix structures provide lateral linkage and integration but
are notorious for creating conflict and confusion. Multiple players and decision nodes make
networks inherently difficult to manage. Organizations have to use both vertical and
horizontal procedures for coordination. The optimal blend of the two depends on the
unique challenges in a given situation. Vertical coordination is generally superior if an
environment is stable, tasks are well understood and predictable, and uniformity is essential.
Lateral communications work best for complex tasks performed in a turbulent environ­
ment. Every organization must find a design that works for its circumstances, and inherent
structural tradeoffs rarely yield easy answers or perfect solutions.
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Consider the contrasting structures of McDonald’s and Harvard University (highly
regarded organizations in two very different industries), and Amazon and Zappos (two
successful Internet retailers with very different structures).
McDonald’s and Harvard: A Structural Odd Couple
McDonald’s, the company that made the Big Mac a household word, has been enormously
successful. For 40 years after its founding in the 1950s, the company was an unstoppable growth
engine that came to dominate the worldwide fast-food business. McDonald’s has a relatively
small staff at its world headquarters near Chicago; the vast majority of its employees are salted
across the world in more than 36,000 local outlets. But despite its size and geographic reach,
McDonald’s is a highly centralized, tightly controlled organization. Most big decisions are made at
Managers and employees of McDonald’s restaurants have limited discretion about how to
do their jobs. Their work is controlled by technology; machines time the preparation of French
fries and measure soft drinks. The parent company uses powerful systems to ensure that
customers get what they expect and a Big Mac tastes about the same whether purchased in New
York, Beijing, or Moscow. Cooks are not expected to develop creative new versions of the Big
Mac or Quarter Pounder. Creative departures from standard product lines are neither encouraged
nor tolerated on a day-to-day basis, though the company has adapted to growth and
globalization with a mantra of “freedom within a framework,” increasing its receptivity to new
ideas from the field. The Big Mac and Egg McMuffin were both created by local franchisees, and
burgers-on-wheels home delivery was pioneered in traffic-choked cities like Cairo and Taipei
(Arndt, 2007b).
All that structure might sound oppressive, but a major McDonald’s miscue in the 1990s
resulted from trying to loosen up. Responding to pressure from some frustrated franchisees,
McDonald’s in 1993 stopped sending out inspectors to grade restaurants on service, food, and
ambience. When left to police themselves, some restaurants slipped badly. Customers noticed,
and the company’s image sagged. Ten years later, a new CEO brought the inspectors back to
correct lagging standards (David, 2003).
Year after year, Harvard University appears at or near the top of lists of the world’s best
universities. Like McDonald’s, it has a small administrative group at the top, but in most other
respects the two organizations diverge. Even though Harvard is more geographically concentrated
than McDonald’s, it is significantly more decentralized. Nearly all of Harvard’s activities occur
within a few square miles of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most employees are housed
in the university’s several schools: Harvard College (the undergraduate school), the graduate
faculty of arts and sciences, and various professional schools. Each school has its own dean and
its own endowment and, in accordance with Harvard’s philosophy of “every tub on its own
bottom,” largely controls its own destiny. Schools have fiscal autonomy, and individual professors
have enormous discretion. They have substantial control over what courses they teach, what
research they do, and which university activities they pursue, if any. Faculty meetings are typically
sparsely attended. If a dean or a department head wants a faculty member to chair a committee
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or offer a new course, the request is more often a humble entreaty than an authoritative
The contrast between McDonald’s and Harvard is particularly strong at the level of
service delivery. Individual personality is not supposed to influence the quality of McDonald’s
hamburgers, but Harvard courses are the unique creations of individual professors. Two
schools might offer courses with the same title but different content and widely divergent
teaching styles. Efforts to develop standardized core curricula founder on the autonomy of
individual professors.
Structural Differences in the Same Industry
Harvard and McDonald’s operate in very different industries, but you will sometimes find very
different structures among enterprises operating in a similar business environment. Take Amazon
and Zappos.
Both companies are online retailers who ship a variety of goods to customers across America.
Both are successful and known for their customer service. We have noted that Amazon gets it
done with a tight structure that relies on sophisticated technology, precise measurement, close
supervision, and zealous focus on customers, often to the exclusion of employees’ satisfaction
and welfare.
Contrast this with the Zappos structure, erected on a “culture of happiness” rather than a
“culture of metrics.” Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, is just as focused on the customer as Amazon CEO
Jeff Bezos, but he has chosen a very different structure to get there. Structurally, Amazon and
Zappos are mirror images of one another. Amazon steers customers toward interaction with its
website rather than its employees. Zappos wants highly motivated, happy employees, immersed
in an environment of “weirdness and fun,” who will create a personal, emotional contact with
Zappos fulfillment operations take place in two large warehouses in Kentucky where goods
are received and merchandise is shelved, picked, packed, and shipped. Work is fast paced,
intense, and often strenuous. Amazon workers have been known to say they are “treated like a
piece of crap” (Soper, 2011, p. 1), but Zappos makes working conditions a primary concern. The
warehouses are air-conditioned, and lunch breaks are embellished with free food, video games,
and karaoke—the equivalent of adding several dollars to the hourly rate. One employee summed
it up: “It’s a hot boring job, and we may not get paid top dollar, but with our benefits and free
food, it really makes a difference.”
In 2013, Hsieh concluded that Zappos was developing too much bureaucracy and
proposed a “holocratic” form that eliminated jobs and the organization chart. Managers
were replaced by “lead links” of self-managing teams, and individuals were charged to use
the “Role Marketplace” (Bernstein et al., 2016, p. 10) to look for work that interested them
and needed to be done. The new system turned off some employees, and Zappos lost almost
a fifth of its workforce. The transition to holocracy required major investments of time and
energy as everyone struggled to figure out how the new system was supposed to work.
Things got worse before they got better, as is typical of structural change. But, working
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(continued )
within the holocracy framework in 2015, Zappos achieved a 75 percent year-over-year
increase in profits (Bernstein et al., 2016). The long-term impact on Zappos’ free-wheeling
culture remains to be seen, but, despite a rocky start, there are signs that this experiment
may not be as crazy as it seems.
Zappos and Amazon achieve customer satisfaction through entirely different structural
arrangements. What makes the story even more interesting is that Amazon paid over $1
billion to buy Zappos in November 2009. More than a year later, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh
sent a memo to employees saying the culture was still intact, Zappos was still in charge of its
own destiny, and business was better than ever (Zappos Blogs, 2011). That was still true five
years later in 2016.
Structural Imperatives
Why do McDonald’s and Harvard or Zappos and Amazon have such different structures? Is
one more effective than the other? Or has each evolved to fit its unique circumstances? In
fact, there is no such thing as an ideal structure. Every organization needs to respond to a
universal set of internal and external parameters (outlined in Exhibit 3.2). These parameters,
or contingencies, include the organization’s size, age, core process, environment, strategy
and goals, information technology, and workforce characteristics. All these combine to
point toward an optimal social architecture.
Exhibit 3.2.
Structural Imperatives.
Dimension Structural Implications
Size and age Complexity and formality typically increase with size and age.
Core process Structure must align with core processes or technologies.
Environment Stable environment rewards simpler structure; uncertain, turbulent
environment requires a more complex, flexible structure.
Strategy and goals Variation in clarity, suitability, and consistency of strategy requires
appropriate structural adaptations.
Information Information technology permits flatter, more flexible, and more
technology decentralized structures.
Nature of the More educated and professional workers need and want greater
workforce autonomy and discretion.
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Size and Age
Size and age affect structural shape and character. Problems crop up if growth (or
downsizing) occurs without fine-tuning roles and relationships. A small, entrepreneurial
organization typically has simple, informal architecture. Growth spawns formality and
complexity (Greiner, 1972; Quinn and Cameron, 1983). If carried too far, this leads to the
suffocating bureaucratic rigidity often seen in large, mature enterprises.
In the beginning, McDonald’s was not the tightly controlled company it is today. It began
as a single hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, owned and managed by the
McDonald brothers. They virtually invented the concept of fast food, and their stand was
phenomenally successful. The two tried to expand by selling franchise rights, with little
success. They were making more than enough money, disliked travel, and had no heirs. If
they were richer, said one brother, “we’d be leaving it to a church or something, and we
didn’t go to church” (Love, 1986, p. 23).
The concept took off when Ray Kroc arrived on the scene. He had achieved modest
success selling milk shake machines to restaurants. When many of his customers began to
ask for the McDonald’s milk shake mixer, he decided to visit the brothers. Seeing the
original stand, Kroc realized the potential: “Unlike the homebound McDonalds, Kroc had
traveled extensively, and he could envision hundreds of large and small markets where a
McDonald’s could be located. He understood the existing food services businesses, and
understood how a McDonald’s unit could be a formidable competitor” (Love, 1986, pp.
39–40). Kroc persuaded the McDonald brothers to let him take over the franchising effort.
The rest is history (or Hollywood, which tells its version of this story in the 2016 film, The
Core Process
Structure forms around an organization’s basic method of transforming raw materials into
finished products. Every organization has at least one core technology that includes raw
materials, activities that turn inputs into outputs, and underlying beliefs about the links
among inputs, activities, and outcomes (Dornbusch and Scott, 1975).
Core technologies vary in clarity, predictability, and effectiveness. Assembling a Big Mac
is relatively routine and programmable. The task is clear, most potential problems are
known in advance, and the probability of success is high. Its relatively simple core
technology allows McDonald’s to rely mostly on vertical coordination.
In contrast, Harvard’s two core processes—research and teaching—are far more
complex and less predictable. Teaching objectives are knotty and amorphous. Unlike
hamburger buns, students are active agents. Which teaching strategies best yield desired
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results is more a matter of faith than of fact. Even if students could be molded predictably,
mystery surrounds the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in life. This uncertain
technology, greatly dependent on the skills and knowledge of highly educated professionals,
is a key source of Harvard’s loosely coordinated structure.
Core technologies often evolve, and significant technical innovation calls for corre­
sponding structural alterations (Barley, 1990). In recent decades, struggles to integrate new
technologies have become a fateful reality for many firms (Henderson and Clark, 1990;
Christensen, 1997). Existing arrangements often get in the way. Companies are tempted to
shoehorn innovative technologies into a box that fits their existing operations. As we saw
with the decline and fall of Kodak, a change from film to digital photography, slide rules to
calculators, or “snail mail” to e-mail gives an advantage to new players less committed to the
old ways. In his study of the disk drive industry from 1975 to 1994, Christensen (1997)
found that innovation in established firms was often blocked less by technical challenges
than by marketers who argued, “Our customers don’t want it.” By the time the customers
did want it, someone else had grabbed the market.
Some organizations are more susceptible than others to outside influences. Public
schools, for example, are highly vulnerable to external pressures because they have limited
capacity to claim the resources they need or to shape the results they are supposed to
produce. In contrast, an institution like Harvard is insulated from such intrusions by its size,
elite status, and large endowment. It can afford to offer low teaching loads, generous salaries,
and substantial autonomy to its faculty. A Harvard diploma is taken as sufficient evidence
that instruction is having its desired effect.
Strategy and Goals
Strategic decisions are future oriented, concerned with long-term direction (Chandler, 1962;
Mintzberg, 1994; Roberts, 2004). Across sectors, a major task of organizational leadership is
“the determination of long-range goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of
courses of action and allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals”
(Chandler, p. 13).
A variety of goals are embedded in strategy. In business firms, goals such as profitability,
growth, and market share are relatively specific and easy to measure. Goals of educational or
human services organizations are typically more diffuse: “producing educated men and
women” or “improving individual well-being.” This is another reason Harvard adopts a
more decentralized, loosely integrated system of roles and relationships.
Historically, McDonald’s had fewer, more quantifiable, and less controversial goals than
those of Harvard. This aligned well with the centralized, top-down McDonald’s structure.
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But that structure has become more complex as the company’s size and global reach have
fostered levels of decentralization that allowed outlets in India to offer vegetarian cuisine
and those in France to run ads attacking Americans and American beef (Tagliabue, 1999;
Stires, 2002; Arndt, 2007).
Understanding linkages among goals, structure, and strategy requires a look beyond
formal statements of purpose. Schools, for example, are often criticized if structure does not
coincide with the official goal of scholastic achievement. But schools have other, less visible
goals. One is character development, often espoused with little follow-through. Another is
the taboo goal of certification and selection, as schools channel students into tracks and sort
them into careers. Still a third goal is custody and control—keeping kids off the streets, out
from underfoot and temporarily away from the job market. Finally, schools often herald
honorific goals such as excellence. Strategy and goals shape structure, but the process is
often complex and subtle (Dornbusch and Scott, 1975).
Information Technology
New technologies continue to revolutionize the amount of information available and the
speed at which it travels. Once accessible exclusively to top-level or middle managers,
information is now easy to get and widely shared. New media have made communica­
tion immediate and far reaching. With the press of a key, anyone can reach another
person—or an entire network. All this makes it easier to move decisions closer to the
In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, U.S. and British forces had an obvious
advantage in military hardware. They also had a powerful structural advantage because
their superior information technology let them deploy a much more flexible and
decentralized command structure. Commanders in the field could change their plans
immediately in response to new developments. Iraqi forces, meanwhile, had a much
slower, more vertical structure that relied on decisions from the top. A major reason that
Iraqi resistance was lighter than expected in the early weeks was that commanders had no
idea what to do when they were cut off from their chain of command (Broder and
Schmitt, 2003).
Later, however, the structure and technology so effective against Iraq’s military had more
difficulty with an emerging resistance movement that evolved into a loosely connected
structure of entrepreneurial local units that could adapt quickly to U.S. tactics. New
technologies like the Internet and cell phones enabled the resistance to structure itself
as a network of loosely connected units, each pursuing its own agenda in response to local
conditions. The absence of strong central control in such networks can be a virtue because
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local units can adapt quickly to new developments and the loss of any one outpost does little
damage to the whole.
Nature of the Workforce
Human resource requirements have also changed dramatically in recent decades. Many
lower-level jobs now require higher levels of skill. A better-educated workforce expects and
often demands more discretion in daily work routines. “Millennials” typically ask for higher
salaries and more favorable working conditions than their predecessors. Increasing
specialization has professionalized many functions. Professionals typically know more
than their supervisors about technical aspects of their work. They expect autonomy and
prefer reporting to professional colleagues. Trying to tell a Harvard professor what to teach
is an exercise in futility. In contrast, giving too much discretion to a low-skilled McDonald’s
worker could become a disaster for both employee and customers.
Dramatically different structural forms are emerging as a result of changes in workforce
demographics. Deal and Kennedy (1982) predicted early on the emergence of the atomized
or network organization, made up of small, autonomous, often geographically dispersed
work groups tied together by information systems and organizational symbols. Drucker
makes a similar observation in noting that businesses increasingly “move work to where the
people are, rather than people to where the work is” (1989, p. 20).
Challenges of Global Organization
In sum, numerous forces affecting structural design create a knotty mix of challenges and
tensions. It is not simply a matter of deciding whether we should be centralized like
McDonald’s or Amazon or decentralized like Harvard or Zappos. Many organizations find
that they have to do both and somehow accommodate the competing structural tensions.
Two electronics giants, Panasonic (formerly Matsushita) in Japan and Philips in the
Netherlands, have competed with one another around the globe for more than half a
century. Historically, Panasonic developed a strong headquarters, while Philips was more
decentralized, with strong units in different countries. The pressures of global competi­
tion pushed both to become more alike. Philips struggled to gain the efficiencies that come
from selling the same products around the world. Meanwhile, as Panasonic gradually
discovered, “No company can operate effectively on a global scale by centralizing all key
decisions and then farming them out for implementation. It doesn’t work . . . No matter
how good they are, no matter how well supported analytically, the decision-makers at the
center are too far removed from individual markets and the needs of local customers”
(Ohmae, 1990, p. 87).
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The structural frame looks beyond individuals to examine the social architecture of work.
Though sometimes equated with red tape, mindless memos, and rigid bureaucrats, the
approach is much broader and more subtle. It encompasses the freewheeling, loosely
structured entrepreneurial task force as well as the more tightly controlled railway company
or postal department. If structure is overlooked, an organization often misdirects energy and
resources. It may, for example, waste time and money on massive training programs in a
vain effort to solve problems that have much more to do with social architecture than with
people’s skills or attitudes. It may fire managers and bring in new ones, who then fall victim
to the same structural flaws that doomed their predecessors.
At the heart of organizational design are the twin issues of differentiation and integra­
tion. Organizations divide work by creating a variety of specialized roles, functions, and
units. They must then use both vertical and horizontal procedures to mesh the many
elements together. There is no one best way to organize. The right structure depends on
prevailing circumstances and considers an organization’s goals, strategies, technology,
people, and environment. Understanding the complexity and variety of design possibilities
can help create formal prototypes that work for, rather than against, both people and
collective purposes.
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c h a p t e r
Structure and Restructuring
When society requires to be rebuilt, there is no use in
attempting to rebuild it on the old plan.
—John Stuart Mill
In 2004, a crisis over journalistic standards ensnared the British Broad­casting Corporation (BBC) in a flurry of parliamentary hearings, resigna­
tions, and public recrimination. The controversy so tarnished the respected
institution’s reputation that top officials took steps to ensure that it would
never happen again.
They initiated a number of structural changes: a journalism board to monitor
editorial policy, guidelines on journalistic procedures, forms to flag trouble spots that
managers were required to complete, and a 300-page volume of editorial guidelines. The
cumulative effect of the changes was a multilayered bureaucracy that limited managerial
discretion and fostered a hierarchy of approve-disapprove boxes. These were to be passed
up the chain of command as an alternative to probing questions at lower levels in the
Some cures make the patient worse, and this newly restructured system resulted in
two crises more damaging than the one in 2004. In October 2012, the BBC came under
heavy fire when it became known that it had broadcast a glowing tribute to a well-known
former BBC TV host, Jimmy Savile, but killed an investigative report detailing evidence
that Savile had been a serial child molester. The following month, the BBC aired a report
wrongly accusing a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government of being a pedophile.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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Postmortem investigations attributed both errors directly to BBC’s restructured, highly
bureaucratized system.
In another case, when Larry Summers, an economist and former treasury secretary,
became president of Harvard University in 2001, he soon concluded that the venerable
university needed a structural overhaul, and he subsequently issued a series of presidential
directives. He attacked the undergraduate grading system, in which half of the students
received As and 90 percent graduated with honors. He stiffened standards for awarding
tenure, encouraged more foreign study, and directed faculty (especially senior professors) to
spend more time with students. He stepped across curricular boundaries to call for an
emphasis on educational reform and more interdisciplinary courses. He proposed a center
for medicine and science to encourage more applied research. Finally, he announced a bold
move to build an additional campus across the Charles River to house new growth and
development. Summers’s initiatives aimed to tighten Harvard’s famously decentralized
structure and to imbue the president’s office with more clout.
Restructuring worked about as well for Summers as it had for the BBC—he was forced
out after serving the shortest term for a Harvard president in more than a century.
Reorganizing or restructuring is a powerful but high-risk approach to improvement. Major
initiatives to redesign structure and processes often prove neither durable nor beneficial.
Designing a structure, putting all the parts in place, and satisfying every interested party is
difficult and hazardous. Although restructuring is a manager’s strategy of choice to improve
performance, a Boston Group Study estimates 50 percent of the efforts fail (BSG, 2012).
Other estimates put the misfire rate even higher (HBR, 2000).
But it is also true that, over the past 100 years, management innovations such as
decentralization, capital budgeting techniques, and self-governing teams have done more
than any other kind of innovation to allow companies to cross new performance thresholds
(Hamel, 2006). American automakers scratched their heads for 20 years trying to figure out
what made Toyota so successful. They tried all kinds of process innovations but finally
reached the conclusion that Toyota had simply given their employees more authority to
make decisions and solve problems (Hamel, 2006).
An organization’s structure at any moment represents its resolution of an enduring
set of basic tensions or dilemmas, which we discuss in opening this chapter. Then,
drawing on the work of Henry Mintzberg and Sally Helgesen, we describe two views of the
alternatives organizations may consider in aligning structure with mission and environ­
ment. We conclude with case examples illustrating both opportunities and challenges that
managers encounter when attempting to create more workable and successful structural
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Finding an apt system of authority, roles, and relationships is an ongoing, universal struggle.
Managers rarely face well-defined problems with clear-cut solutions. Instead, they confront
enduring structural dilemmas, tough trade-offs without easy answers.
Differentiation versus Integration
as seen in Chapter 3. The more complex a role structure (lots of people doing many different
Larry Summers as he tried to bring a higher level of coordination to a highly decentralized
university. As complexity grows, organizations need more sophisticated—and more costly—
coordination strategies. Lateral strategies need to supplement top-down rules, policies, and
Gap versus Overlap
If key responsibilities are not clearly assigned, important tasks fall through the cracks.
Conversely, roles and activities can overlap, creating conflict, wasted effort, and unintended
redundancy. A patient in a prestigious teaching hospital, for example, called her husband
and pleaded with him to rescue her. She couldn’t sleep at night because hospital staff,
especially nurses’ aides and interns, kept waking her, often to repeat a procedure or
administer a medication that someone else had done a short time before. Conversely, when
she wanted something, pressing her nurses’ call button rarely produced any response.
The new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, created in the wake of the 9/11
terrorist attacks, was intended to reduce gaps and overlaps among the many agencies
responsible for responding to domestic threats. Activities incorporated into the new
department included immigration, border protection, emergency management, and intel­
ligence analysis. Yet the two most prominent antiterrorism agencies, the FBI and the CIA—
with their long history of mutual gaps, overlaps, and bureaucratic squabbling—remained
separate and outside the new agency (Firestone, 2002).
Underuse versus Overload
If employees have too little work, they become bored and get in other people’s way.
Members of the clerical staff in a physician’s office were able to complete most of their tasks
during the morning. After lunch, they filled their time talking to family and friends. As a
result, the office’s telephone lines were constantly busy, making it difficult for patients to ask
questions and schedule appointments. Meanwhile, clients and routine paperwork swamped
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the nurses, who were often brusque and curt because they were so busy. Patients complained
about impersonal care. Reassigning many of the nurses’ clerical duties to office staff created
a better structural balance.
Lack of Clarity versus Lack of Creativity
If employees are unclear about what they are supposed to do, they often tailor their roles to
fit personal preferences instead of shaping them to meet system-wide goals. This frequently
leads to trouble. Most McDonald’s customers are not seeking novelty and surprise in their
burgers and fries. But when responsibilities are over-defined, people conform to prescribed
roles and protocols in “bureaupathic” ways. They rigidly follow job descriptions, regardless
of how much the service or product suffers.
“You lost my bag!” an angry passenger shouted, confronting an airline manager.
The manager responded, “How was the flight?”
“I asked about my bag,” said the passenger.
“That’s not my job,” the manager replied. “Check with baggage claim.”
The passenger did not leave as a satisfied customer.

Excessive Autonomy versus Excessive Interdependence
If the efforts of individuals or groups are too autonomous, people often feel isolated. School­
teachers may feel lonely and unsupported because they work in self-contained classrooms and
of teachers’ difficulties in working together. In contrast, if too tightly connected, people in roles
lead in the personal computer business in part because new initiatives required so many
approvals—from levels and divisions alike—that new products were overdesigned and late to
market. The same problem hindered Hewlett-Packard’s ability to innovate in the late 1990s.
Too Loose versus Too Tight
One critical structural challenge is how to hold an organization together without holding it
back. If structure is too loose, people go astray, with little sense of what others are doing. But
rigid structures stifle flexibility and encourage people to waste time trying to beat the system.
We can see some of the perils of a loose structure in the former accounting firm
Andersen Worldwide, indicted in 2002 for its role in the Enron scandal. Efforts to shred
documents and alter memos at Andersen’s Houston office went well beyond questionable
accounting procedures. At its Chicago headquarters, Andersen had an internal audit team,
the Professional Standards Group, charged with reviewing the work of regional offices.
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Unlike other large accounting firms, Andersen let frontline partners closest to the clients
overrule the internal audit team. This fostered local discretion that was a selling point to
customers but came back to haunt the firm. As a result of the lax controls, “the rainmakers
were given the power to overrule the accounting nerds” (McNamee and Borrus, 2002, p. 33).
The opposite problem is common in managed health care. Insurance companies give
clerks far from the patient’s bedside the authority to approve or deny treatment or to review
medical decisions, often frustrating physicians and patients. Doctors lament spending time
talking to insurance representatives that would be better spent seeing patients. Insurance
providers sometimes deny treatments that physicians see as urgent. In one case, a hospital-
based psychologist diagnosed an adolescent as likely to commit sexual assault. The insurer
questioned the diagnosis and denied hospitalization. The next day, the teenager raped a five­
year-old girl.
Goal-less versus Goal-bound
In some situations, few people know what the goals are; in others, people cling closely to
goals long after they have become irrelevant or outmoded. In the 1960s, for example, the
Salk vaccine virtually eradicated polio. This medical breakthrough also brought to an end
the existing goal of the March of Dimes organization, which for years had championed
finding a cure for the crippling disease. The organization rebounded by shifting its strategy
to focus on preventing birth defects.
Irresponsible versus Unresponsive
If people abdicate their responsibilities, performance suffers. However, adhering too
rigidly to policies or procedures can be equally harmful. In public agencies, “street-level
bureaucrats” (Lipsky, 1980) who deal with the public are often asked, “Could you do me
this favor?” or “Couldn’t you bend the rules a little bit in this case?” Turning down every
request, no matter how reasonable, alienates the public and perpetuates images of
bureaucratic rigidity and red tape. But agency workers who are too accommodating
create problems of inconsistency and favoritism.
Structural design rarely starts from scratch. Managers search for options among the array of
possibilities drawn from their accumulated wisdom and the experiences of others. Tem­
plates and frameworks can offer options to stimulate thinking. Henry Mintzberg and Sally
Helgesen offer two abstract conceptions of structural possibilities.
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Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 7: Michael C. Jensen and William H. Meckling, “Theory of the Firm:
Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs, and Ownership Structure,” Journal of Financial
Economics 1976, 3, 305–360
This classic article, seventh on our list of works most often cited by scholars, focuses on two
central questions:
• What are the implications of the “agency problem”—that is, the conflicts of interest
between principals and their agents?
• Given those conflicts, why do corporations even exist?
An agency relationship is a structural arrangement created whenever one party engages
another to perform a task. Jensen and Meckling’s particular focus is the relationship between a
corporation’s owners (shareholders) and their agents, the managers. Principals and agents both
seek to maximize utility, but their interests often diverge. If you are a sole proprietor, a dollar of
the firm’s money is a dollar of yours as well. But if you are an employee with no ownership
interest, you’re spending someone else’s money when you pad your expense account or schedule
a business meeting at an expensive resort.
One rationale for linking executive compensation to the price of the company’s stock is that
it may reduce the agency problem, but the impact is often marginal at best. A notorious example
is Tyco’s chief executive, Dennis Kozlowski, who reportedly spent more than $30 million of
company money to buy, furnish, and decorate his palatial apartment in New York City (Sorkin,
2002). Nonexecutive shareholders hate this kind of thing, but it is difficult for them to stay
abreast of everything management does, and they can’t do it without incurring “monitoring
costs”—time and money spent on things like supervision and auditing.
One implication the authors draw is that the primary value of stock analysts is the sentinel
function they perform. Analysts’ ability to pick stocks is notoriously poor, but their oversight puts
more heat on managers to serve shareholder interests. The article also concludes that, despite the
agency conflicts, the corporate form still makes economic sense for the parties involved—
managers cost more than owners wish, but they still earn their keep.
The authors see the agency problem as a pervasive feature of cooperative activity. The
relationship between a team and individual members, or between a boss and a subordinate, is
like that between principal and agent. If members of a team share rewards equally, for example,
there is an incentive for “free riders” to let someone else do most of the work. Principals face a
perennial problem of keeping agents in line and on task.
Mintzberg’s Fives
As the two-dimensional lines and boxes of a traditional organization chart have become
increasingly archaic, students of organizational design have developed a variety of new
structural images. One influential example is Mintzberg’s five-sector “logo,” depicted in
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Exhibit 4.1.
Mintzberg’s Model.
Source: Mintzberg (1979, p. 20). Copyright 1979. Reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Exhibit 4.1. Mintzberg’s model clusters various functions into groupings and shows their
relative size and influence in response to different strategies and external challenges. His schema
in sizing up the lay of the land before assembling a structure that conforms to the prevailing
dimensional view of structure into a more comprehensive portrayal. In doing this, he is able to
capture more of the complexity and issues in formal dealings.
At the base of Mintzberg’s image is the operating core, consisting of workers who produce
or provide products or services to customers or clients: teachers in schools, assembly-line
workers in factories, physicians and nurses in hospitals, and flight crews in airlines.
Directly above the operating core is the administrative component: managers who
supervise, coordinate, control, and provide resources for the operators. School principals,
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factory supervisors, and echelons of middle management fulfill this role. At the top of
Mintzberg’s figure, senior managers in the strategic apex track developments in the
environment, determine the strategy, and shape the grand design. In school systems,
the strategic apex includes superintendents and school boards. In corporations, the apex
houses the board of directors and senior executives.
Two more components sit alongside the administrative component. The technostructure
houses specialists, technicians, and analysts who standardize, measure, and inspect outputs
and procedures. Accounting and quality control departments in industry, audit depart­
ments in government agencies, and flight standards departments in airlines perform such
The support staff performs tasks that support or facilitate the work of others throughout
the organization. In schools, for example, the support staff includes nurses, secretaries,
custodians, food service workers, and bus drivers. These people often wield influence far
greater than their station might suggest.
From this basic blueprint, Mintzberg (1979) derived five structural configurations:
simple structure, machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy, divisionalized, and
adhocracy. Each creates a unique set of management challenges.
Simple Structure
New businesses typically begin as simple structures with only two levels: the strategic apex
and an operating level. Coordination is accomplished primarily through direct supervision
and oversight, as in a small mom-and-pop operation. Mom or pop constantly monitors
what is going on and exercises complete authority over daily operations. William Hewlett
and David Packard began their business in a garage, as did Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs and
Steve Wozniak. Simple structure has the virtues of flexibility and adaptability. One or two
people control the operation and can turn on a dime when needed. But virtues can become
vices. Authorities can block as well as initiate change, and they can punish capriciously as
well as reward handsomely. A boss too close to day-to-day operations is easily distracted by
immediate problems, neglecting long-range strategic issues. A notable exception was
Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, who promulgated his 250-year plan for the
future of the business when his young company still had less than 200 employees.
Machine Bureaucracy
McDonald’s is a classic machine bureaucracy. Members of the strategic apex make the big
decisions. Managers and standardized procedures govern day-to-day operations. Like other
machine bureaucracies, McDonald’s has large support staffs and a sizable techno-structure
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that sets standards for the cooking time of French fries or the assembly of a Big Mac or
Quarter Pounder.
For routine tasks, such as making hamburgers and manufacturing automotive parts, a
machine-like operation is both efficient and effective. A key challenge is how to motivate
and satisfy workers in the operating core. People quickly tire of repetitive work and
standardized procedures. Yet offering too much creativity and personal challenge in, say, a
McDonald’s outlet could undermine consistency and uniformity—two keys to the com­
pany’s success.
Like other machine bureaucracies, McDonald’s deals constantly with tension between
local managers and headquarters. Local concerns and tastes weigh heavily on decisions of
middle managers. Top executives, aided by analysts armed with reams of data, rely more on
generic and abstract information. Their decisions are influenced by corporation-wide
concerns. As a result, a solution from the top may not always match the needs of individual
units. Faced with declining sales and market share, McDonald’s introduced a new food
preparation system in 1998 under the marketing banner “Made for you.” CEO Jack
Greenberg was convinced the new cook-to-order system would produce the fresher, tastier
burgers needed to get the company back on the fast track. However, franchisees soon
complained that the new system led to long lines and frustrated customers. Unfazed by the
criticism, Greenberg invited a couple of skeptical financial analysts to flip burgers at a
McDonald’s outlet in New Jersey so they could see firsthand that the concerns were
unfounded. The experiment backfired. The analysts agreed with local managers that the
system was too slow and decided to pass on the stock (Stires, 2002). The board replaced
Greenberg at the end of 2002.
Professional Bureaucracy
Harvard University affords a glimpse into the inner workings of a professional bureaucracy.
As in other organizations that employ large numbers of highly educated professionals to
perform core activities, Harvard’s operating core is large relative to other structural parts,
although the technostructure has grown in recent years to accommodate mandated
programs such as racial equity or gender sensitivity. At the operating sphere, each individual
school, for example, has its own local approach to teaching evaluations; there is no
university-wide profile developed by analysts. Few managerial levels exist between the
strategic apex and the professors, creating a flat and decentralized profile.
Control relies heavily on professional training and indoctrination. Insulated from formal
interference, professors have almost unlimited academic freedom to apply their expertise as
they choose. Freeing highly trained experts to do what they do best produces many benefits
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but leads to challenges of coordination and quality control. Tenured professors, for example,
are largely immune from formal sanctions. As a result, universities have to find other ways
to deal with incompetence and irresponsibility. Faced with a professor whose teaching
performance was moving from erratic to bizarre, a Harvard dean did the one thing he felt he
could do—he relieved the professor of teaching responsibilities while continuing to pay his
full salary. The dean was not very disappointed when the professor quit in anger (Rosovsky,
A professional bureaucracy responds slowly to external change. Waves of reform
typically produce little impact because professionals often view any change in their
surroundings as an annoying distraction. The result is a paradox: Individual professionals
may strive to be at the forefront of their specialty, whereas the institution as a whole changes
at a glacial pace. Professional bureaucracies regularly stumble when they try to exercise
greater control over the operating core; requiring Harvard professors to follow standard
teaching methods might do more harm than good.
Harvard president Larry Summers tripped over this challenge in a famous case when he
suggested that superstar African American studies professor Cornel West redirect his
scholarly efforts. Summers gave his advice to West in private, but West’s pique made the
front page of the New York Times (Belluck and Steinberg, 2002). Summers’s profuse public
apologies failed to deter the offended professor from decamping to Princeton, where he
stayed for 14 years before returning to Harvard in 2016. In professional bureaucracies,
professionals often win struggles between the strategic apex and the operating core. Hospital
administrators learn this lesson quickly, and often painfully, in their dealings with
Divisionalized Form
In a divisionalized organization (see Exhibit 4.2), the bulk of the work is done in
quasiautonomous units, such as freestanding campuses in a multi-campus university, areas
of expertise in a large multispecialty hospital, or independent business units in a Fortune
500 firm (Mintzberg, 1979). Johnson and Johnson, for example, is among the largest
companies in the world (#39 on the Fortune 500 in 2016). It has 250 operating companies
lodged in virtually every country. Its medical device division is the world’s largest. Its
pharmaceutical division is even bigger. Its consumer products division produces a wide
assortment of well-known brands, such as Neutrogena, Tylenol, Band-Aids, and Rogaine. It
also makes contact lenses and tuberculosis medicines.
Although J&J’s divisions often have little in common, the company’s executives argue
that there is a level of shared synergy and stability that have paid off over time. Despite
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Exhibit 4.2.
Divisionalized Form.
Source: Mintzberg (1979, p. 393). Copyright  1979. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York,
New York.
setbacks in the Tylenol crisis of 1982 and a series of product recalls in 2010 and 2012, J&J
had raised its dividend for 53 consecutive years and was one of only two U.S. companies
with an AAA credit rating.
One of the oldest businesses in the United States, Berwind Corporation began in coal-
mining in 1886. It now houses divisions in business sectors as diverse as manufacturing,
financial services, real estate, and land management. Each division serves a distinct market
and supports its own functional units. Division presidents are accountable to the corporate
office in Philadelphia for specific results: profits, sales growth, and return on investment. As
long as they deliver, divisions have relatively free rein. Philadelphia manages the strategic
portfolio and allocates resources based on its assessment of market opportunities.
Divisionalized structure offers economies of scale, resources, and responsiveness while
controlling economic risks, but it creates other tensions. One is a cat-and-mouse game
between headquarters and divisions. Headquarters wants oversight, while divisional
managers try to evade corporate control:
Our top management likes to make all the major decisions. They think they do, but
I’ve seen one case where a division beat them. I received . . . a request from the
division for a chimney. I couldn’t see what anyone would do with a chimney . . .
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is the only indivisible item that exceeded the $50,000 limit we put on plant expense
orders. Apparently they learned that a new plant wouldn’t be formally received, so
they built the damn thing (Bower, 1970, p. 189).
Another risk in the divisionalized form is that headquarters may lose touch with
operations. As one manager put it, “Headquarters is where the rubber meets the air.”
Divisionalized enterprises become unwieldy unless goals are measurable and reliable
information systems are in place (Mintzberg, 1979).
Adhocracy is a loose, flexible, self-renewing organic form tied together primarily through lateral
means. Usually found in a diverse, freewheeling environment, adhocracy functions as an
“organizational tent,” exploiting benefits that structural designers traditionally regarded as
responsibility can legitimize controversies and challenge traditions. Incoherence and indecision
can foster exploration, self-evaluation, and learning” (Hedberg, Nystrom, and Starbuck, 1976, p.
45). Inconsistencies and contradictions in an adhocracy become paradoxes whereby a balance
between opposites protects an organization from falling into an either-or trap.
Ad hoc structures thrive in conditions of turbulence and rapid change. Examples are
advertising agencies, think-tank consulting firms, and the recording industry. A successful
and durable example of an adhocracy is W. L. Gore, producer of Gore-Tex, vascular stents,
dental floss, and many other products based on its pioneering development of advanced
polymer materials. When he founded the company in 1958, Bill Gore conceived it as an
organization where “there would be no layers of management, information would flow
freely in all directions, and personal communications would be the norm. And individuals
and self-managed teams would go directly to anyone in the organization to get what they
needed to be successful” (Hamel, 2010).
Half a century later, Gore has more than 10,000 employees (Gore calls them “associates”)
and some $3 billion in annual sales but still adheres to Bill Gore’s principles. In Gore’s
“lattice” structure, people don’t have bosses. Instead, the company relies on “natural
leaders”—individuals who can attract talent, build teams, and get things done. One test:
If you call a meeting and no one comes, you’re probably not a leader. When Gore’s CEO
retired in 2005, the board polled associates to find out whom they would be willing to follow.
They weren’t given a slate—they could nominate anyone. No one was more surprised than
Terri Kelly when she became the people’s choice. She acknowledges that Gore’s approach
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carries a continuing risk of chaos. It helps, she says, that the culture has clear norms and
values, but “Our leaders have to do an incredible job of internal selling to get the
organization to move. The process is sometimes frustrating, but we believe that if you
spend more time up front, you’ll have associates who are not only fully bought-in, but
committed to achieving the outcome. Along the way, they’ll also help to refine the idea and
make the decision better” (Hamel, 2010).
Helgesen’s Web of Inclusion
Mintzberg’s five-sector imagery adds a new dimension to the conventional line-staff
organization chart but retains some of the traditional image of structure as a top-down
pyramid. Helgesen argues that the idea of hierarchy is primarily a male-driven depiction,
quite different from structures created by female executives:
The women I studied had built profoundly integrated and organic organizations
in which the focus was on nurturing good relationships; in which the niceties of
hierarchical rank and distinction played little part; and in which lines of
communication were multiplicitous, open, and diffuse. I noted that women
tended to put themselves at the center of their organizations rather than at the
top, thus emphasizing both accessibility and equality, and that they labored
constantly to include people in their decision making (Helgesen, 1995, p. 10).

Helgesen coined the expression “web of inclusion” to depict an organic social architec­
tural form more circular than hierarchical. The web builds from the center out. Its architect
works much like a spider, spinning new threads of connection and reinforcing existing
strands. The web’s center and periphery are interconnected; action in one place ripples
across the entire configuration, forming “an interconnected cosmic web in which the
threads of all forces and events form an inseparable net of endlessly, mutually conditioned
relations” (Fritjof Capra, quoted in Helgesen, 1995, p. 16). Consequently, weaknesses in
either the center or the periphery of the web undermine the strength of the natural network.
A famous example of web organization is “Linux, Inc.,” the loose organization of
individuals and organizations that has formed around Linus Torvalds, the creator of the
open-source operating system Linux, whose many variants power most of the world’s
supercomputers, cell phones, stock markets, and Web domains. “Linux, Inc.” is anything
but a traditional company: “There’s no headquarters, no CEO, and no annual report. It’s not
a single company, but a cooperative venture. More than 13,000 developers from more than
1,300 companies along with thousands of individual volunteers have contributed to the
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Linux code. The Linux community, Torvalds says, is like a huge spider web, or better yet,
multiple spider webs representing dozens of related open-source projects. His office is ‘near
where those webs intersect’” (Hamm, 2005).
Freewheeling web or lattice structures may encounter increasing challenges as an
organization gets bigger. When Meg Whitman became CEO of Internet phenomenon
eBay in 1998, she joined an organization of fewer than 50 employees configured in an
informal web around founder Pierre Omidyar. When she tried to set up appointments with
her new staff, she was surprised to learn that scheduled meetings were a foreign concept in a
company where no one kept a calendar. Omidyar had built a company with a strong culture
and powerful sense of community but no explicit strategy, no regular meetings, no
marketing department, and almost no other identifiable structural elements. Despite the
company’s phenomenal growth and profitability, Whitman concluded that it was in danger
of imploding without more structure and discipline. Omidyar agreed. He had worked hard
to recruit Whitman because he believed she brought the big-company management
experience that eBay needed to keep growing (Hill and Farkas, 2000).
Eventually, internal or external changes force every structure to adjust, but structural change
is rarely easy, When the Roman Catholic Church elevated a new pope, Francis, in March,
2013, many hoped that he would represent a breath of fresh air after the troubled reign of his
predecessor. But a well-placed insider noted how difficult this would be, even for a
supposedly absolute ruler: “There have been a number of Popes in succession with different
personalities, but the structure remains the same. Whoever is appointed, they get absorbed
by the structure. Instead of you transforming the structure, the structure transforms you”
(Donadio and Yardley, 2013).
When the time for restructuring comes, managers need to take account of tensions
specific to each structural configuration. Consultants and managers often apply general
principles and specific answers without recognizing key differences across architectural
forms. Reshaping an adhocracy, for example, is different from restructuring a machine
bureaucracy, and reweaving a web is very different from nudging a professional bureauc­
racy. Falling victim to the one-best-system or one-size-fits-all mentality is a route to disaster.
But the comfort of a well-defined prescription lulls too many managers into a temporary
comfort zone. They don’t see the iceberg looming ahead until they crash into it.
Mintzberg’s depiction suggests general principles to guide restructuring across a range of
circumstances. Each major component of his model exerts its own pressures. Restructuring
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triggers a multidirectional tug-of-war that eventually determines the shape of the emerging
configuration. The result may be a catastrophe unless leaders acknowledge and manage
various pushes and pulls.
The strategic apex—top management—tends to exert centralizing pressures. Through
commands, rules, or less obtrusive means, top managers continually try to develop a unified
mission or strategy. Deep down, they long for a simple structure they can control. By
contrast, middle managers resist control from the top and tend to pull the organization
toward balkanization. Navy captains, school principals, plant managers, department heads,
and bureau chiefs become committed to their own domain and seek to protect and enhance
their unit’s parochial interests. Tensions between centripetal forces from the top and
centrifugal forces from middle management are especially prominent in divisional struc­
tures but are critical issues in any restructuring effort.
The technostructure exerts pressures to standardize; analysts want to measure and
monitor the organization’s progress against well-defined criteria. Depending on the
circumstances, they counterbalance (or complement) top administrators, who want to
centralize, and middle managers, who seek greater autonomy. A college professor who
wants to use a Web-based simulation game, for example, may find that it takes weeks or
months to negotiate the rules and procedures that the university’s information technology
units have put in place. Issues that seem critical to IT may seem like trivial annoyances to the
professor and vice-versa. Technocrats feel most at home in a machine bureaucracy.
The support staff pulls in the direction of greater collaboration. Its members usually feel
happiest when authority is dispersed to small work units. There they can influence, directly
and personally, the shape and flow of everyday work and decisions. In one university, a new
president created a new governance structure that, for the first time, included support staff
along with faculty and administrators. The staff loved it, but when they came up with a
proposal for improvements to the promotion and tenure process, the faculty was not
amused. Meanwhile, the operating core seeks to control its own destiny and minimize
influence from the other components. Its members often look outside—to a union or to
their professional colleagues—for support.
Attempts to restructure must acknowledge the natural tensions among these competing
interests. Depending ontheconfiguration, anycomponent mayhavemoreorless influenceon
the final outcome. In a simple structure, the boss has the edge. In machine bureaucracies, the
techno structure and strategic apex possess the most clout. In professional bureaucracies,
chronic conflict between administrators and professionals is the dominant tension, while
members of the techno structure play an important role in the wings. In the adhocracy, a
variety of actors can play a pivotal role in shaping the emerging structural patterns.
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Beyond internal negotiations a more crucial issue lurks. A structure’s effectiveness
ultimately depends on its fit with the organization’s strategy, environment, and technology.
Natural selection weeds out the field, determining survivors and victims. The major players
must negotiate a structure that meets the needs of each component and still enables the
organization to survive, if not thrive.
Why Restructure?
Restructuring is a challenging process that consumes time and resources with no guarantee
of success, as the BBC and Harvard cases at the beginning of the chapter illustrate.
Organizations typically embark on that path when they feel compelled to respond to major
problems or opportunities. Various pressures can lead to that conclusion:
• The environment shifts. At American Telephone & Telegraph, once the telephone
company for most of the United States, a mandated shift from regulated monopoly
to a market with multiple competitors required a massive reorganization of the Bell
System that played out over decades. When AT&T split off its local telephone companies
into regional “Baby Bells,” few anticipated that eventually one of the children (Southwest
Bell) would swallow up the parent and appropriate its identity.
• Technology changes. The aircraft industry’s shift from piston to jet engines profoundly
affected the relationship between engine and airframe. Some established firms faltered
because they underestimated the complexities; Boeing rose to lead the industry because it
understood the issues (Henderson and Clark, 1990).
• Organizations grow. Digital Equipment thrived with a very informal and flexible
structure during the company’s early years, but the same structure produced major
problems when it grew into a multibillion-dollar corporation.
• Leadership changes. Reorganization is often the first initiative of new leaders. It is a way for
Miller and Friesen (1984) studied a sample of successful as well as troubled firms
undergoing structural change and found that those in trouble typically fell into one of three
• The impulsive firm: A fast-growing organization, controlled by one individual or a few
top people, in which structure and controls have become too primitive and the firm is
increasingly out of control. Profits may fall precipitously, and survival may be at stake.
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Many once-successful entrepreneurial organizations stumble at this stage because they
have failed to evolve beyond their simple structure.

• The stagnant bureaucracy: An older, tradition-dominated organization with an obsolete
product line. A predictable and placid environment has lulled everyone to sleep, and top
management is slavishly committed to old ways. Management thinking is too rigid or
information systems are too primitive to detect the need for change, and lower-level
managers feel ignored and alienated. Many old-line corporations and public agencies fit
into this group of faltering machine bureaucracies.

• The headless giant: A loosely coupled, divisional organization that has turned into a
collection of feudal baronies. The strategic apex is weak, and most of the initiative and
powerresidesinautonomousdivisions.Withlittlestrategyorleadershipatthetop,the firm
is adrift. Collaboration is minimal because departments compete for resources. Decision
making is reactive and crisis-oriented. WorldCom is an example of how bad things can get
in this situation. CEO Bernie Ebbers built the company rapidly from a tiny start-up in
Mississippi to a global telecommunications giant through some 65 acquisitions. But “for all
its talent in buying competitors, the company was not up to the task of merging them.
Dozens of conflicting computer systems remained, local network systems were repetitive
and failed to work together properly, and billing systems were not coordinated. ‘Don’t
think of WorldCom the way you would of other corporations,’ said one person who has
worked with the company at a high level for many years. ‘It’s not a company, it’s just a
bunch of disparate pieces. It’s simply dysfunctional’” (Eichenwald, 2002, p. C-6).

Miller and Friesen (1984) found that even in troubled organizations, structural change is
episodic: Long periods of little change are followed by brief episodes of major restructuring.
Organizations are reluctant to make major changes because a stable structure reduces
confusion and uncertainty, maintains internal consistency, and protects the existing
equilibrium. The price of stability is a structure that grows increasingly misaligned with
the environment. Eventually, the gap gets so big that a major overhaul is inevitable.
Restructuring, in this view, is like spring cleaning: We accumulate debris over months or
years until we are finally forced to face up to the mess.
Making Restructuring Work: Three Case Examples
In this section, we look at three case examples of restructuring. Some represent examples of
reengineering, which rose to prominence in the 1990s as an umbrella concept for emerging
trends in structural thinking. Hammer and Champy promised a revolution in how
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organizations were structured: “When a process is reengineered, jobs evolve from narrow
and task oriented to multidimensional. People who once did as they were instructed now
make choices and decisions on their own instead. Assembly-line work disappears. Func­
tional departments lose their reason for being. Managers stop acting like supervisors and
behave more like coaches. Workers focus more on customers’ needs and less on their bosses’
whims. Attitudes and values change in response to new incentives. Practically every aspect
of the organization is transformed, often beyond recognition” (1993, p. 65).
More than half of all Fortune 500 companies jumped on the reengineering bandwagon in
the mid-1990s, but only about a third of those efforts were successful. Champy admitted in a
follow-up book, Reengineering Management (1995), that reengineering was in trouble, and
attributed the shortfall to flaws in senior management thinking.
Some reengineering initiatives have indeed been catastrophic, a notorious example being
the long-haul bus company Greyhound Lines. As the company came out of bankruptcy in
the early 1990s, a new management team announced a major reorganization, with sizable
cuts in staffing and routes and development of a new, computerized reservation system. The
initiative played well on Wall Street, where the company’s stock soared, but poorly on Main
Street as customer service and the new reservations system collapsed. Rushed, underfunded,
and insensitive to both employees and customers, it was a textbook example of how not to
restructure. Eventually, Greyhound’s stock crashed, and management was forced out. One
observer noted wryly, “They reengineered that business to hell” (Tomsho, 1994, p. A1).
Across many organizations, reengineering was a cover for downsizing the workforce, often
with disappointing results.
Nevertheless, despite the many disasters, there have also been examples of notable
restructuring success. Here we discuss three of them, drawn from different eras and
Citibank’s Back Room
The “back room” at Citibank—charged with processing checks and other financial
instruments—was in trouble when John Reed took charge in 1970 (Seeger, Lorsch, and
Gibson, 1975). Productivity was down, errors were frequent, and expenses were rising almost
20 percent every year. Reed soon determined that the area needed dramatic structural
change. Traditionally, the department was a service for the bank’s customer-contact offices,
structured as a machine bureaucracy. Reed decided to think of it as an independent factory—
a free-standing, high-volume production facility. He imported high-level executives from the
automobile industry. One was Robert White, who came from Ford to become the primary
architect of the new structure for the back room.
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White began by cutting costs, putting in new computer systems, and developing a financial
control system to forecast and measure performance. In effect, the strategy tightened the
machine bureaucracy. Later on, White concluded that “we hadn’t gone back to the basics
enough. We found that we did not really understand the present processes completely” (Seeger,
Lorsch, and Gibson, 1975, p. 8).
They embarked on a detailed study of how the back room’s processes worked and
developed a detailed flowchart. This helped them realize that the current structure was, in effect,
one very large functional pipeline. Everything flowed into “preprocessing” at the front end of the
pipe, then to “encoding,” and on through a series of functional areas until it eventually came out
at the other end. Reed and White decided to break the pipe into several smaller lines, each
carrying a different “product” and supervised by a single manager with responsibility for an end­
to-end process. The key insight was to change the structure from machine bureaucracy to a
divisionalized form. Along with the change, White instituted extensive performance measures and
tight accountability procedures—69 quality indicators and 129 different standards for time lines.
As Mintzberg’s model predicts, the operating core strongly resisted this intrusion. Reed and
White implemented the new structure virtually overnight, and the short-term result was chaos
and a major breakdown in the system. It took two weeks to get things working again, and five
months to recover from the problems generated by the transition. Once past that crisis, the new
system dramatically improved operating results: Production was up; costs and errors were down.
The back room became a major source of competitive advantage.
The Citibank restructuring was strongly driven from the top down and focused primarily
on internal efficiencies. This has been true of many, but by no means all, restructuring efforts.
Beth Israel Hospital
Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital illustrates a health care restructuring effort that sought to move
toward greater autonomy and teamwork. When Joyce Clifford became Beth Israel’s director of
nursing, she found a top-down pyramid common in many hospitals:
The nursing aides, who had the least preparation, had the most contact with the patients.
But they had no authority of any kind. They had to go to their supervisor to ask if a patient
could have an aspirin. The supervisor would then ask the head nurse, who would then ask
a doctor. The doctor would ask how long the patient had been in pain. Of course, the head
nurse had absolutely no idea, so she’d have to track down the aide to ask her, and then
relay that information back to the doctor. It was ridiculous, a ludicrous and dissatisfying
situation, and one in which it was impossible for the nurse to feel any satisfaction at all.
The system was hierarchical, fragmented, impersonal, and [overmanaged] (Helgesen, 1995,
p. 134).
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(continued )
Within units, responsibilities of nurses were highly specialized: some were assigned to
handling medications, others to monitoring vital signs, still others to taking blood pressure
readings. Add to the list specialized housekeeping roles—bedpan, bed making, and food services.
A patient received repeated interruptions from virtual strangers. No one really knew what was
going on with any individual patient.
Clifford instituted a major structural revamp, changing a pyramid with nurses at the
bottom to an inclusive web with nurses at the center. The concept, called primary nursing,
places each patient in the charge of a primary nurse. The nurse takes information upon
admission, develops a comprehensive care plan, assembles a team to provide round-the-clock
care, and lets the family know what to expect. A nurse manager sets goals for the unit, deals
with budget and administrative matters, and makes sure that primary nurses have ample
resources to provide quality care.
As the primary nurses assumed more responsibility, connections with physicians and other
hospital workers needed reworking. Instead of simply carrying out physicians’ orders, primary
nurses became professional partners, attending rounds and participating as equals in treatment
decisions. Housekeepers reported to primary nurses rather than to housekeeping supervisors.
Housekeepers assigned to specific patients made the patient’s bed, attended to the patient’s
hygiene, and delivered food trays. Laundry workers brought in clean items on demand rather
than making a once-a-day delivery. Sophisticated technology gave all personnel easy access to
patient information and administrative data.
Primary nurses learned from performing a variety of heretofore menial tasks. Bed making, for
example, became an opportunity to evaluate a patient’s condition and assess how well a treat­
ment plan was working. Joyce Clifford’s role also transformed, from top-down supervisor to web-
centered coordinator:
A big part of my job is to keep nurses informed on a regular basis of what’s going on out
there—what the board is doing, what decisions are confronting the hospital as a whole,
what the issues are in health care in this country. I also let them know that I’m trying to
represent what the nurses here are doing—to our vice-presidents, to our board, and people
in the outside world . . . to the nursing profession and the health care field as a whole
(Helgesen, 1995, p. 158).
Beth Israel’s primary nursing concept, initiated in the mid-1970s, produced significant
improvement in both patient care and nursing morale. Nursing turnover declined dramatically
(Springarn, 1982), and the model’s success made it highly influential and widely copied both in
the United States and abroad. But even successful change won’t work forever. Over the years,
changes in the health care system put Beth Israel’s model under increasing pressure. More
patients with more problems but shorter hospital stays made nurses’ jobs much harder at the
same time that cost pressures forced reductions in nursing staff. Beth Israel chose to update its
approach by creating interdisciplinary “care teams.” Instead of assembling an ad hoc collection of
care providers for each new patient, ongoing teams of nurses, physicians, and support staff
provided interdisciplinary support to primary nurses (Rundall, Starkweather, and Norrish, 1998).
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Ford Motor Company
In 2006, after Ford Motor Company chalked up a $13 billion loss, Chairman William Ford III
concluded that the way to save the company his great-grandfather had founded was to hire a
strong and experienced outsider who could take on the entrenched mind-sets and infighting
among executives and divisions at Ford. He took a gamble on a noncar guy, Alan Mulally, an
engineer with a long career at Boeing and a reputation for turning around struggling businesses.
Arriving at Ford, Mulally encountered many surprises. Bureaucracy was so entrenched and
top-down that it was considered bad form for a subordinate to invite a superior to lunch. Ford
was struggling, but no one wanted to admit it, so executives brought thick books of minutiae to
meetings, using a flurry of details to obfuscate problems or shift blame to someone else. They
resorted to doublespeak to avoid admitting that they didn’t know the answers to questions.
Mulally soon concluded that Ford needed a major overhaul of a “convoluted management
structure riddled with overlapping responsibilities and tangled chains of command” (Hoffman,
2012, p. 142). He flattened the hierarchy, cut out two layers of senior management, and
increased his number of direct reports. He sold off secondary brands like Volvo and Land Rover
and streamlined Ford’s product line to aim for fewer models with higher quality. He implemented
what had worked at Boeing: a matrix structure that crisscrossed the already-strong regional
organizations with upgraded global functional units. So, for example, the head of communi­
cations or purchasing in Ford Europe would report to both the regional president in Europe and
to a corporate vice-president back at headquarters in the United States.
Mulally believed this structure would bring the balance Ford needed: “It made each business
unit fully accountable, but also made sure that each key function, from purchasing to product
development, was managed globally in order to maximize efficiencies and economies of scale”
(Hoffman, 2012, p. 143). He emphasized teamwork, collaboration across divisions, and an end to
blaming, hiding mistakes, and hoarding cost figures. Division presidents were instructed to act as
one company, not as airtight silos.
It worked. After losing market share for 13 straight years, Ford gained share in 2009, turned
a profit in 2010, and achieved its highest profits in more than a decade in 2011. Mulally turned
65 in 2011 amid speculation about when he would retire. Board chair William Ford III expressed
the hope that he would stay forever, but Mulally chose to retire two years later in 2014.
Principles of Successful Structural Change
initiatives succeeded by following several basic principles of successful structural change:
• They did the hard work of carefully studying the existing structure and process so that
they fully understood how things worked—and what wasn’t working. (Many efforts at
structural change fail because they start from an inadequate picture of current roles,
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• The change architects developed a new conception of the organization’s goals and
strategies attuned to the challenges and circumstances of the time.
• They designed the new structure in response to changes in strategy, technology, and
• Finally, they experimented as they moved along, retaining things that worked and
discarding those that did not.
At any given moment, an organization’s structure represents its best effort to align internal
activities with outside pressures and opportunities. Managers work to juggle and resolve
enduring organizational dilemmas: Are we too loose or too tight? Are employees under­
worked or overwhelmed? Are we too rigid, or do we lack standards? Do people spend too
much or too little time harmonizing with one another? Structure represents a resolution of
contending claims from various groups.
Mintzberg differentiates five major components in organizational structure: strategic
apex, middle management, operating core, techno structure, and support staff. These
components configure in unique designs: machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy,
simple structure, divisionalized form, and adhocracy. Helgesen adds a less hierarchical
model, the web of inclusion.
Changes, whether driven from inside or outside, eventually require some form of
structural adaptation. Restructuring is a sensible but high-risk move. In the short term,
structural change invariably produces confusion and resistance; things get worse before they
get better. In the end, success depends on how well the new model aligns with environment,
task, and technology. It also hinges on the route taken in putting the new structure in place.
Effective restructuring requires both a fine-grained, microscopic assessment of typical
problems and an overall, topographical sense of structural options.
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c h a p t e r
Organizing Groups
and Teams
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
—Helen Keller
On May 2, 2011, Stealth Hawk helicopters carried two units of SEALTeam Six Red Squadron for Operation Neptune Spear—the assault on
Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The outcome of their
mission “to interdict a high value target in a nonpermissive environment”
has taken its place in history, though there are conflicting accounts of the
actual combat. The fog of war invites many interpretations.
Red Squadron’s success owed much to awesome weaponry and the unsurpassed
courage and pluck of its highly trained operators. But many after-the-fact commentators
agree that the real secret of its success is the astonishing teamwork built into a SEAL’s
experience from the beginning.
Teamwork is an integral part of Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD/S) training, the
toughest school in the military. Classes begin with 200 recruits, but few make it to the end of
the program. Sometimes no one from a class graduates. Applicants endure extreme, if not
inhuman, physical and mental challenges. Teams of eight are assigned 200-pound inflatable
rubber boats that they must carry with them at all times. During chow time or bathroom
breaks, a team member must guard the boat. The team gets punished for any individual
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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infractions. When anyone drops out, other members of the team have to fill in. Sometimes a
crew of two or three is responsible for the heavy vessel.
Survivors of the initial BUD/S ordeal move on to SEAL Teams. Those who seek a place
on legendary Team Six apply for the Green Team. Past training intensifies during the year of
Green Team rigor. In addition to tougher physical challenges, candidates for SEAL Team Six
train in intense, close-quarters combat in a simulated terrorist “kill house,” using live
ammunition. An inch or two between men under combat conditions may mean the
difference between life and death. Candidates sometimes wound or kill teammates during
this phase of training. During Green Team exercises, members of the three Team Six
squadrons—Gold, Blue, and Red—choose new men for their units.
The squadrons exist in a relatively simple structure. The Admiral who heads Joint Secret
Operations Command (JSOC) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, who in turn
answers to the President. Those relations follow strict protocol. The Team Six commander
reports to the head of JSOC and has authority over the leaders who command the three
squadrons; “The heart of each Squadron are the teams, each led by a senior enlisted SEAL
and made up of half a dozen operators apiece . . . Assault squadrons are accompanied by
intelligence analysts and support personnel” (Owen and Maurer, 2012, p. 37). Teams consist
of snipers, shooters, explosive experts, and other operators required for a specific mission.
In the case of Operation Neptune Spear these included a translator, a CIA agent, and a
dog named Cairo. The chain of command from the JSOC Admiral to the operators is clear
but very informal: casual civilian dress, first names, very little protocol. But in battle, Team
Six operational units are highly regimented: “Every assaulter knew both his place in the
chain of command and what to do if communications were lost to operations center”
(Pfarrer, 2011, p. 181). The mission’s detailed plan relied on highly sophisticated intelli­
gence. When the two helicopters landed in bin Laden’s compound, every operator knew his
role and relation to others. Lateral coordination was precise, achieved mainly through terse
“SEAL Talk” and nonverbal hand signals. When one helicopter crashed, the teams quickly
modified their plans and team structure. From BUD/S training on, a focus on teamwork
returned a huge dividend for the operatives of Red Squadron, Team Six, and the nation.
When the team assembled for recognition at the White House, President Barack Obama
asked, “Which of you fired the final round?” In unison, the members of Red Squadron
responded, “We all did!”
Teams that work well regularly make an enormous difference in the business world as
well. Consider “six teams that changed the world” (Fortune, 2006). There was the
remarkable group that Thomas Edison pulled together, including an English machinist,
a Swiss clockmaker, a German glass blower, and a Princeton-trained mathematician. They
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worked in concert with Edison’s inventive genius to produce an astonishing array of novel
products, including the phonograph and the lightbulb.
Or how about Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works, a team that built a series of
breakthrough aircraft: the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2, and SR-71 spy planes? The name
came from the team’s initial quarters—a circus tent with bad odors. It was World War II,
and space was tight. Designers were quartered away from the main offices and worked side
by side with metal workers to help assure that breakthrough designs were practical.
Cumbersome bureaucratic procedures were streamlined by team leader Kelly Johnson’s
“14 rules and practices.” In addition to Skunk Works’ own innovations, the concept of its
team structure has spawned thousands of corporate imitators.
Then, of course, there’s the well-known team of four driven malcontents, later expanded
to dozens, who believed you could build a personal computer easy enough to use and
inexpensive enough to be affordable. Their ultimate goal was to unleash personal creativity.
Steve Jobs of Apple headed up the super-stealth project, housed in a two-story building near
a gas station. Competition with other projects and with Apple’s leadership was fierce, but,
despite the quarreling, the Macintosh was born in 1983, marking a turning point in the
history of personal computing.
MasterCard was struggling in 1997. Six major advertising campaigns had failed to close
the gap with Visa. In desperation the company hired McCann Erickson, who assigned a
creative team of three to the case. The trio’s breakthrough came with the tagline “some
things money can’t buy.” The first ad was set at a baseball game featuring everyday
transactions with the setup, “priceless.” The ad and its successors helped MasterCard turn
the tables on Visa.
Ford faced a difficult challenge in the 1980s. The Japanese were making serious inroads
in the American automobile market. Taurus, Ford’s best-selling car, needed a major
redesign, but executives knew too well of past problems with the design process. Every
function had a different view. Designers initially presented a new concept. Engineering very
often maintained the design was not feasible, finance typically argued it was too costly, and
manufacturing was sure to argue that it couldn’t be built. Competing voices typically slowed
down or shut down the smooth transition from concept to finished product.
This time, Ford decided too much was at stake and put 700 people, representatives from
each group, in the same place, under a tough manager, to work it out. The concept was Team
Taurus. The result was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1986.
In all these cases, teams of diverse individuals, typically working at a distance from the
existing hierarchy, sparked major breakthroughs. Well-organized small teams have the
ability to produce results that often elude the grasp of large organizations.
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Around the globe, much of the work in organizations gets done in groups or teams.
When these units work well, they elevate the performance of ordinary individuals to
extraordinary heights. When teams malfunction, as too often happens, they erode the
potential contributions of even the most talented members. What determines how well
groups perform? As the examples illustrate, the performance of a small group depends
heavily on structural design and clarity. A key ingredient of a top-notch team is an
appropriate blueprint of roles and relationships aligned with common goals or missions.
In this chapter, we explore the structural features of small groups and teams to show how
restructuring can improve group performance. We begin by describing various design options
for teams, accenting the relationship between design and task. Next, using sports as an
analogy, we discuss patterns of team configuration, coordination, and interdependence suited
to different situations. Then we describe the characteristics of high-performing teams. Finally,
we discuss the pros and cons of self-managing teams—a hot topic in recent years.
Groups choose among a range of options to develop a structure that maximizes individuals’
contributions while minimizing the chronic problems that plague small groups. The nature
of the work or task provides a key to shaping group structure. Tasks vary in complexity,
clarity, predictability, and volatility (Hærem, Pentland, and Miller, 2015). The task-structure
relationship in small groups is parallel to that in larger organizations.
Contextual Variables
As we saw in Chapter 4, simple tasks align with basic structures—clearly defined roles,
elementary forms of interdependence, and coordination by plan or command. Projects that
are more complex or volatile generally require more complicated structural forms: flexible
roles, reciprocal give-and-take, and synchronization through lateral dealings and communal
feedback. If a situation becomes exceptionally ambiguous and fast paced, particularly when
time is a factor, groups may be unable to make decisions quickly enough without centralized
authority and tight scripts. Planning a SEAL Team Six mission or transplanting a kidney is
not the same as painting a house or setting up a family outing. Performance and morale
suffer, and troubles multiply when groups lack an appropriate structure.
Getting structure right requires careful consideration of pertinent contextual variables,
some of which are vague or tough to assess:
• What is our mission?
• What actions are required?
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• Who should do what?
• Who is in charge?
• How should we make decisions?
• How do we coordinate efforts?
• What do individual members care about most: time, quality, participation?
• What are the special skills and talents of each group member?
• How does this group relate to others?
• How will we determine success?
Some Fundamental Team Configurations
A high percentage of employees’ and managers’ time is spent in meetings and working
groups of three to twelve people. To illustrate design options, we examine several
fundamental structural configurations from studies of five-member teams. These basic
patterns are too simple to apply to larger, more complex systems, but they help to illustrate
how different structural forms respond to a variety of challenges.
The first is a one-boss arrangement; one person has authority over others (see
Exhibit 5.1). Information and decisions flow from the top. Group members offer
Exhibit 5.1.
One Boss.
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information to and communicate primarily with the official leader rather than with one
another. This array is efficient and fast and works best in relatively simple and straightfor­
ward situations when it is easy for the boss to stay on top of things. Circumstances that are
more complicated or volatile can overload the boss, producing delays or bad decisions,
unless the person in charge has an unusual level of skill, expertise, and energy. Subordinates
quickly become frustrated with directives that are late or out of touch.
A second alternative creates a management level below the boss (see Exhibit 5.2). Two
individuals have authority over specific areas of the group’s work. Information and
decisions flow through them. This arrangement works when a task is divisible; it reduces
the boss’s span of control, freeing up time to concentrate on mission, strategy, or
relationships with higher-ups. But adding a new layer limits access from the lower levels
to the boss. Communication becomes slower and more cumbersome, and may eventually
erode morale and performance.
Exhibit 5.2.
Dual Authority.
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Exhibit 5.3.
Simple Hierarchy.
Another option is a simple hierarchy with a middle manager who reports to the boss and,
in turn, supervises and communicates with others (see Exhibit 5.3). A similar arrangement
at the White House frees the President to focus on mission and external relations while
leaving operational details to the chief of staff. Although this type of hierarchy further limits
access to the top, it can be more efficient than a dual-manager arrangement. At the same
time, friction between operational and top-level managers is commonplace, and number
two may be tempted to usurp number one’s position.
A fourth option is a circle network, where information and decisions flow sequentially
from one group member to another (see Exhibit 5.4). Each can add to or modify whatever
comes around. This design relies solely on lateral coordination and simplifies communica­
tion. Each person has to deal directly with only two others; transactions are therefore easier
to manage. However, one weak link in the chain can undermine the entire enterprise. The
circle can bog down with complex tasks that require more reciprocity.
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Exhibit 5.4.
Circle Network.
A final possibility sets up what small group researchers call the all-channel, or star,
network (see Exhibit 5.5). This design, familiar to Team Six operators, is similar to
Helgesen’s web of inclusion. It creates multiple connections so that everyone can talk to
anyone else. Information flows freely; decisions sometimes require touching multiple bases.
Morale in an all-channel network is usually high. The arrangement works well if a task is
amorphous or complicated, requiring substantial mutual adjustment, particularly if each
member brings distinct knowledge or skill. But this structure can be time consuming, and
decision making may slow to a crawl, making it cumbersome and inefficient for simpler
undertakings or for groups that have difficulty coming to agreement. It works best when
team members bring well-developed communication skills, enjoy participation, tolerate
ambiguity, embrace diversity, are able to manage conflict, and agree on how the team will
make decisions.
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Exhibit 5.5.
All-Channel Network.
Even in the relatively simple case of five-person groups, the formal network is critical to
team functioning. In the give-and-take of larger organizations, things get more complicated.
We can get a fresh perspective and sharpen our thinking about structure in groups by
looking beyond typical work organizations. Making the familiar strange often helps the
strange become familiar.
Team sports, among the world’s most popular pastimes, offer a helpful analog to clarify
how teamwork varies depending on the nature of the game. Every competition calls for its
own unique patterns of interaction. Because of this, distinctive structures are required for
different sports. Social architecture is thus remarkably different for baseball, football, and
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Baseball player Pete Rose once noted, “Baseball is a team game, but nine men who meet their
individual goals make a nice team” (Keidel, 1984, p. 8). In baseball, as in cricket and other
bat-and-ball games, a loosely integrated confederacy makes a team. Individual efforts are
mostly autonomous, seldom involving more than two or three players at a time. Significant
distances, particularly on defense, separate players. Loose connections reduce the need for
synchronization among the various positions. The pitcher and catcher need to coordinate,
as do infielders dealing with a ground ball or outfielders playing a high fly. But batters are
alone at the plate, and fielders are often on their own to make a play.
Managers’ decisions are mostly tactical, normally involving individual substitutions or
actions. Managers come and go without seriously disrupting the team’s play. Players can
transfer from one team to another with relative ease. John Updike summed it up well: “Of all
the team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittence of action, its immense and tranquil
field sparsely salted with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seemed to be
best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game”
(Keidel, 1984, pp. 14–15).
American football and other chess-like sports such as rugby and curling create a structural
configuration very different from baseball. These games proceed through a series of moves,
or plays. Between plays, teams plan strategy for the next move. Unlike baseball players,
football players perform in close proximity. Linemen and offensive backs hear, see, and
often touch one another. Each play involves every player on the field. A prearranged plan
links efforts sequentially. The actions of linemen pave the way for the movement of backs; a
defensive team’s field position becomes the starting point for the offense, and vice versa. In
the transition from offense to defense, specialty platoons play a pivotal role.
Efforts of individual players are tightly synchronized. George Allen, former coach of the
Washington Redskins, put it this way: “A football team is a lot like a machine. It’s made up
of parts. If one part doesn’t work, one player pulling against you and not doing his job, the
whole machine fails” (Keidel, 1984, p. 9).
Tight connections among parts require a football team to be well integrated, mainly
through planning and top-down control. The primary units are the offensive, defensive, and
specialty platoons, each with its own coordinator. Under the direction of the head coach, the
team uses scouting reports and other surveillance to develop a strategy or game plan in
advance. During the game, the head coach typically makes strategic decisions. Assistants or
designated players on either offense or defense make tactical decisions (Keidel, 1984).
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A football team’s tight-knit character makes it tougher to swap players from one team to
another. Irv Cross, of the Philadelphia Eagles, once remarked, “An Eagles player could never
make an easy transition to the Dallas Cowboys; the system and philosophies are just too
different” (Keidel, 1984, p. 15). Unlike baseball, football requires intricate strategy and
tightly meshed execution.
In basketball and similar games, like soccer (football everywhere but North America),
hockey, and lacrosse, players perform in even closer proximity to one another than football
players do. In quick, rapidly moving transitions, offense becomes defense—with the same
players. Efforts of individuals are reciprocal; each player depends on the performance of
others. Each may be involved with any of the others. Anyone can handle the ball or attempt
to score.
Basketball is much like improvisational jazz. Teams require a high level of spontaneous,
mutual adjustment. Everyone is on the move, often in an emerging pattern rather than a
predetermined course. A successful basketball season depends heavily on a flowing
relationship among team members who read and anticipate one another’s moves. Players
who play together a long time develop a sense of what their teammates will do. A team of
newcomers has trouble adjusting to individual predispositions or quirks. Unlike football,
basketball has no platoons. It is wholly a harmonized group effort.
Coaches, who sit or roam the sidelines, serve as integrators. Their periodic interventions
reinforce team cohesion, helping players coordinate laterally on the move. Unlike baseball
teams, basketball teams cannot function as a collection of individual stars. During the 2016
basketball season, the rather dismal performance of the Los Angeles Lakers was attributed to
it being a loose array of individual stars rather than a well-knit unified team. Conversely, the
San Antonio Spurs became one of the most consistently successful teams in professional
basketball by emphasizing teamwork. According to LeBron James, that’s how the Spurs beat
his team in the 2014 NBA championships: “It’s all for the team and it’s never about the
individual. That’s the brand of basketball, and that’s how team basketball should be played”
(Ginsburg, 2014).
Duke University’s women’s basketball success in 2000 documented the importance of
group interdependence and cohesion. The team won because players could anticipate the
actions of others. The individual “I” deferred to the collective “we.” Passing to a teammate
was valued as highly as making the shot. Basketball is “fast, physically close, and crowded, 20
arms and legs in motion, up, down, across, in the air. The better the team, the more precise
the passing into lanes that appear blocked with bodies” (Lubans, 2001, p. 1).
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In sports and elsewhere, structural profiles of successful teams depend on the game—what a
team is trying to do. Keidel (1984) suggests several important questions in designing an
appropriate structure:
• What is the nature and degree of dealings among individuals?
• What is the spatial distribution of unit members?
• Where does authority reside?
• How are efforts integrated?
• Which word best describes the required structure: conglomerate, mechanistic, or organic?
• What sports metaphor captures the task of management: filling out the line-up card,
preparing the game plan, or influencing the game’s flow?
Appropriate team structures can vary, even within the same organization. For example, a
senior research manager in a pharmaceutical firm observed a structural progression in
discovering and developing a new drug: “The process moves through three distinct stages.
It’s like going from baseball to football to basketball” (Keidel, 1984, p. 11).
In basic research, individual scientists work independently to develop a body of
knowledge. As in baseball, individual labors are the norm. Once a promising drug is
identified, it passes from developmental chemists to pharmacy researchers to toxicologists.
If the drug receives preliminary federal approval, it moves to clinical researchers for
experimental tests. These sequential relationships are reminiscent of play sequences in
football. In the final stage (“new drug application”), physicians, statisticians, pharmacists,
pharmacologists, toxicologists, and chemists work closely and reciprocally to win final
approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Their efforts resemble the closely linked
and flowing patterns of a basketball team (Keidel, 1984).
Jan Haynes, former executive vice president of FzioMed, a California developer of new
biomedical approaches to preventing scar tissue following surgical procedures, echoes the
pharmaceutical executive’s observations. She adds, “In sports a game lasts only a short
period of time. In our business, each game goes on for months, even years. It more closely
resembles cricket. A single game can go on for days and still end in a draw. Our product has
been in the trial stage for several years and we still don’t have final approval.”
Ron Haynes, the firm’s chairman, points out the challenge of adapting his leadership
style as the rules of the game change: “I moved from manager to owner of an expansion team
where we have several games being played simultaneously in the same stadium. If our
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leadership can’t shift quickly from one to another, our operation won’t get the job done
right.” Doing the right job requires a structure that evolves to fit what FzioMed is trying to
In developing their book The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith (1993) interviewed
hundreds of participants on more than fifty teams. Their sample encompassed thirty
enterprises in settings as diverse as Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Operation Desert Storm,
and the Girl Scouts. They drew a clear distinction between undifferentiated “groups” and
sharply focused teams: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills, who
are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they
hold themselves mutually accountable” (p. 112).
Katzenbach and Smith’s research highlights six distinguishing characteristics of high-
quality teams:
• High-performing teams shape purpose in response to a demand or an opportunity placed
in their path, usually by higher management. Top managers clarify the team’s charter,
rationale, and challenge while giving the team flexibility to work out goals and plans of
operation. By giving a team clear authority and then staying out of the way, management
releases collective energy and creativity.
• High-performing teams translate common purpose into specific, measurable performance
goals. “If a team fails to establish specific performance goals or if those goals do not relate
directly to the team’s overall purpose, team members become confused, pull apart, and
revert to mediocre performance. By contrast, when purpose and goals are built on one
another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine of
performance” (p. 113).
• High-performing teams are of manageable size. Katzenbach and Smith fix the optimal size
for an effective team somewhere between two and twenty-five people: “Ten people are far
more likely than fifty to work through their individual, functional, and hierarchical
differences toward a common plan and to hold themselves jointly accountable for the
results” (p. 114). More members mean more structural complexity, so teams should aim
for the smallest size that can get the job done.
• High-performing teams develop the right mix of expertise. The structural frame stresses
the critical link between specialization and expertise. Effective teams seek out the full
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range of necessary technical fluency; “product development teams that include only
marketers or engineers are less likely to succeed than those with the complementary skills
of both” (p. 115). In addition, exemplary teams find and reward expertise in problem
solving, decision making, and interpersonal skills to keep the group focused, on task, and
free of debilitating personal squabbles.
• High-performing teams develop a common commitment to working relationships. “Team
members must agree on who will do particular jobs, how schedules will be set and adhered
to, what skills need to be developed, how continuing membership in the team is to be
earned, and how the group will make and modify decisions” (p. 115). Effective teams take
time to explore who is best suited for a particular task as well as how individual roles come
together. Achieving structural clarity varies from team to team, but it takes more than an
organization chart to identify roles and pinpoint one’s place in the official pecking order
and layout of responsibilities. Most teams require a clear understanding of who is going to
do what and how people relate to each other in carrying out diversetasks. Aneffective team
“establishes a social contract among members that relates to their purpose and guides and
obligates how they will work together” (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, p. 116).
• Members of high-performing teams hold themselves collectively accountable. Pinpointing
individual responsibility is crucial to a well-coordinated effort, but effective teams find
ways to hold the collective accountable: “Teams enjoying a common purpose and
approach inevitably hold themselves responsible, both as individuals and as a team, for
the team’s performance” (p. 116). Recall the members of SEAL Team Six Red Squadron
when President Obama asked who fired the shot that killed bin Laden: “We all did!”
In an influential article, Brian Dumaine (1994) highlights a common error in creating
teams: “Teams often get launched in a vacuum, with little or no training or support, no
changes in the design of their work, and no new systems like e-mail to help communication
between teams. Frustrations mount, and people wind up in endless meetings trying to figure
out why they are a team and what they are expected to do.” A focused, cohesive structure is a
fundamental underpinning for high-performing teams. Even highly skilled people zealously
pursuing a shared mission will falter and fail if group structure constantly generates
inequity, confusion, and frustration.
The sports team analogy discussed earlier assumed some role for a manager or coach. But
what about teams that manage themselves organically from the bottom up? Self-managing
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work teams are groups of employees with the following characteristics (Wellins et al., 1990,
cited in Kirkman and Shapiro, 1997):
• They manage themselves (plan, organize, control, staff, and monitor).
• They assign jobs to members (decide who works on what, where, and when).
• They plan and schedule work (control start-up and ending times, the pace of work, and
goal setting).
• They make production- or service-related decisions (take responsibility for inventory,
quality control decisions, and work stoppage).
• They take action to remedy problems (address quality issues, customer service needs,
and member discipline and rewards).
Self-directed teams typically produce better results and higher morale than groups
operating under more traditional top-down control (Cohen and Ledford, 1994; Emery
and Fredendall, 2002). However, getting such teams started and giving them the resources
they need to be effective is a complex undertaking. Many well-known firms—such as
Microsoft, Boeing, Google, W. L. Gore, Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, and
Goldman Sachs—have found ways to reap the benefits of self-directed teams without
being overwhelmed by logistical snafus or reverting to the traditional command-and­
control structure.
General Motors’s launch of Saturn in 1983 was one of the most ambitious experiments ever
in the creation of self-managed teams. The goal was to create a different kind of company to
build a different kind of car. Companywide, Saturn employees had authority to make team
decisions within a few flexible guidelines. Restrictive rules and ironclad top-down work
procedures were left behind as the company moved away from what employees called the
“old world” of General Motors.
Saturn teams designated their own working relationships. Prior to a shift, team members
conferred in a team center for 5 to 10 minutes. They determined the day’s rotations. A team
of ten would have ten jobs to do and typically rotated through them, except rotation was
more frequent for jobs involving heavy lifting or stress. Every week the plant shut down to
let teams review quality standards, budget, safety and the ergonomics of assembly. Not only
did the team have dominion over its own operation, any member had the authority to stop
the entire assembly line if some irregularity was spotted.
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The team concept was a major factor in what made Saturn tick and a widely publicized
feature of its initial success. The hoopla overlooked the fact that self-managing teams were
not invented by Saturn. Other companies, such as Whole Foods, had been perfecting the
idea for a long time.
Whole Foods
Whole Foods Markets offer more than a typical shopping trip. They are also a culinary and
gourmet experience. Fruit and vegetables are artistically displayed with neatly arranged
stems and leaves pointing in the same direction. Fresh meat and seafood are attractively
arrayed. Table-ready prepared items look homemade and hard to resist. Health-conscious
customers know that, as much as possible, the produce is organic, the meat is free of
hormones and chemicals, and the seafood is from sustainable sources. Whole Foods’s focus
on a mission of helping people eat well and improving the quality of their lives has made it
the largest natural and organic food company in the United States—and still growing.
Whole Foods began in 1980 with a merger between two small natural foods stores in
Austin, Texas. By 2016, the company had grown to more than 450 stores in the United
States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, producing $15 billion in sales.
Whole Foods’s team structure plays an essential role in the company’s success. From top
to bottom, everyone at Whole Foods is a team member.
Teams and team members—not positions, stores or regions—are central to the
operational core of Whole Foods and the building blocks of the organization.
Each Whole Foods location is built around eight to 10 teams, grouped from
departments like produce, meat, prepared foods and checkout. The teams have a
remarkable degree of autonomy, helping to decide what to order, how to price
items and how to run promotions. Even outside the store, a team focus continues
up the chain of command all the way to the top. Store leaders in the region are
considered a team. Even the regional presidents form a team (Burkus, 2016).
At the top, Whole Foods’s founder, John Mackey, and his co-CEO are part of the five-
person “E Team” which has been together for years and makes decisions by consensus
(Gaar, 2010).
Teams at the operating level have significant decision making authority. They control
what is stocked, how merchandise is displayed, pricing, and labor expenditures. The
attention to detail, customer service, and candor in team meetings is noteworthy, as an
example from a store in Massachusetts illustrates (Fishman, 1996a):
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The meeting of the bakery team is convened at 9:15 PM after the store closed. Aimee
Morgida, the store manager, chairs the meeting because the first item on the agenda is the
introduction of Debbie Singer, the new team leader. She’s the fourth new leader in four
years. Morgida admits the team has been through a lot, but adds that she’s convinced that
the right person is now in place. Singer says that she loves bakery, merchandising, and
fast-pace retail but “this is your meeting, I want to hear from you. The ensuing
conversation suggests that team members are concerned more about service issues
than the new leader:
Louise speaks first. “A lot of customers want a breakdown on the calories in the
muffins and the scones”—something the bakery has been promising for a while.
“A lot of people have voiced concern that everything has sugar. A few more
nonfat items would definitely be welcomed.”
Carmen speaks next. She worries that the bakery’s ordering has become
sloppy, that the team is requesting too much product, paying full price for
perishables that it marks down at the end of night or donates to charity. “Are we
losing too much merchandise?” she asks. “Just putting it at ‘a dollar off’ and
bagging it?” There is general agreement (Fishman, 1996a).
Morgida, the store manager, used the second half of the meeting to emphasize customer
service and boost team spirits. Usually at Whole Foods a team deals with such issues on its
own, but Morgida knows that the leadership changes may have taken a toll and she wants to
give Singer a running start. She also knows that the holidays are approaching, a time when
everyone in the retail business needs a boost:
“Has everybody tried the pastries? You need to try them because people will ask,
what do you recommend? What do you think? If you don’t like something, you
can tell them, but you need to tell them why. Try everything.
“Around most holidays, customers are really tense. Just let it roll off; do
whatever it takes to make people happy. If something’s wrong, the question to
ask is, ‘What can I do to make it right?’ Because customers always have
something in their minds that would make it right” (Fishman, 1996a).
She told the story of a misplaced birthday-cake order—a scramble for another cake, her
own decorating job, and the final personal touch: the face-to-face delivery to the customer’s
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“I don’t care if we’re giving things away,” she stresses. “Because God forbid we
screw up someone’s holiday. If we screw it up, they’ll tell all their friends at
dinner. If we screw it up and fix it, they’ll tell their friends that, too.” (Fishman,
Shortly before the meeting adjourned, team members brought up holiday staffing.
Several wanted to give more hours to Hadja, a part-timer from India with spotty English.
Morgida is initially skeptical but she listens.
“I know her English is not very good,” says Sylvia, “but she’s great to have
“She knows how to take care of customers,” adds Patty. “I’m not sure how
she does it, but she really communicates with them.”
Morgida shrugs. “Okay, go ahead and put her on” (Fishman, 1996a).
A new hire needs a two-thirds vote from the team to stay on. Team members are tough
on new hires because bonuses are tied to team performance. Teams are measured against
sales, growth, and productivity against other teams in their store and against similar teams
in other stores and regions (Quenllas, 2013). Bonuses are awarded to teams, not individuals.
Team decisions benefit from an information-rich, unusually transparent environ­
ment. In most stores, daily sales figures are posted by team, including figures for the
previous year. Once a month stores get detailed financial numbers including sales,
product costs, wages, and salaries for all stores. A yearly morale survey assesses
employee confidence in team, store, and regional leaders as well as their fears and
frustrations (Fishman, 1996a).
Any team member has access to sensitive data such as store sales, team sales, profit
margins, and salaries, including fellow team members, individuals in other stores, and even
the CEO. Such access to information is so unusual that the SEC has designated all Whole
Foods employees as insiders in terms of stock trading (Fishman, 1996a). All that informa­
tion spurs competition. Teams, stores, and regions compete intensely to outdo each other in
quality, service, and profitability (Fishman, 1996b).
Stores also benchmark themselves against two peer review systems. The most intense
is the periodic Store Tour. During this choreographed assessment, a group of as many as
forty visitors from another region spends two days scrutinizing every aspect of a local
Whole Foods operation. The group includes leaders from the region, store teams, and
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operation teams. Reviews and performance audits become a matter of record (Fishman,
The Customer Snapshot (TCS) review is a surprise inspection every Whole Foods
experiences ten times a year. A representative from headquarters or a region spends a day
rating a store on 300 measures. TCS results from each store are shared with every other store
once a month. Both the Store Tour and TCS review results are keen points of competition
(Fishman, 1996b).
Whole Foods’s team approach is remarkably consistent with ideas advanced by Rensis
Likert in 1961: that every member of an organization should be part of an effective work
group characterized by commitment to the team, interaction skills, and high performance
goals, and that the leader of each group should be a “linking pin” who is also a member of
a group at the next higher level (Likert, 1961). That’s how it works at Whole Foods.
Autonomous, self-managing teams have both the knowledge and the motivation to solve
problems and find opportunities. Information transparency and periodic reviews ensure
that teams have benchmarks to assess how well they’re doing and where they could or
should be able to improve. Contrast that with typical top-down approaches that train
employees to hide problems and wait for orders from above, and it’s easy to see how
strong, self-managing teams can produce many benefits for customer service and business
Every group evolves a structure that may help or hinder effectiveness. Conscious attention
to lines of authority, communication, responsibilities, and relationships can make a huge
difference in group performance. A team structure emphasizing hierarchy and top-down
control tends to work well for simple, stable tasks. As work becomes more complex or the
environment gets more turbulent, structure must also develop more multifaceted and lateral
forms of communication and coordination.
Sports analogies can help clarify teamwork options. It helps to understand whether the
game you are playing is more like baseball, football, basketball, or some other game. Many
teams never learn a key to getting structure right: Vary the structure in response to changes
in task and circumstance. Make sure you know the game you’re in and the field you’re
playing on. Organization and team structures can be complex but can be understood and
adjusted. Leaders must recognize when the rules of the game change and redesign the
structure accordingly.
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Effective teams typically have a clear purpose, measurable goals, the right mix of
expertise, a common commitment to working relationships, collective accountability,
and manageable size.
An increasing number of progressive organizations are emphasizing self-managing
teams that run themselves, assign jobs to members, plan and schedule work, and solve
problems. With the right structure and the necessary information and autonomy, such
teams can develop levels of collaboration and motivation that lead to high performance.
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The Human Resource Frame
“Our most important asset is our people.”
“Organizations exploit people—chew them up and spit them out.”
Which of these two views of the relationship between people and organizations seems
more accurate? How you answer affects everything you do at work.
The human resource frame centers on what organizations and people do to and for one
another. We begin in Chapter 6 by laying out basic assumptions, focusing on the fit between
human needs and organizational requirements. Organizations generally hope for a cadre of
talented, highly motivated employees who give their best. Often though, these same
organizations rely on outdated assumptions and counterproductive practices that cause
workers to give less and demand more.
After examining how organizations err in Chapter 6, we turn in Chapter 7 to a discussion
of how smart managers and progressive organizations find better ways to manage people.
We describe “high-involvement” or “high-commitment” practices that build and retain a
talented and motivated workforce.
In Chapter 8, we examine issues in interpersonal relations and small groups. We describe
competing strategies for managing relationships and look at how personal and interpersonal
dynamics can make or break a group or team.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
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c h a p t e r
People and Organizations
Who first invented work and tied the free and holy-day
rejoicing spirit down to the ever-haunting importunity of
business and, oh, most sad, to this dry drudgery of the desk’s
dead wood?
—Charles Lamb
Is it all dry drugery? Schwartz and Porath (2014) say that’s the reality forwhite collar workers, who aren’t eager to go to work, don’t feel they get
much appreciation while they’re there, have trouble getting everything done,
and doubt that their work makes much of a contribution. They arrive home
deflated and haunted by round-the-clock demands.
Schwartz and Porath could have been writing about Amazon where “workers are
encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive
past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to
standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high’ . . . [Amazon] is conducting a
little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the
boundaries of what is acceptable” (Kantor and Streitfeld, 2015).
Amazon is tough on the white-collar employees at its Seattle headquarters, and even
tougher on the blue-collar workers who move its goods.
Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania
warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside,
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
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WEBC06 05/26/2017 1:39:4 Page 116
taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper,
the company installed air-conditioning (Kantor and Streitfeld, 2015).
Amazon is not alone. Apple’s design and technological savvy have captured the
affection and loyalty of consumers around the globe, but the company has earned lower
marks for treatment of the offshore workers who make its products. In 2012, the huge
success of products like the iPad and iPhone was great news for Apple but not so good for
the Chinese employees who made them. Long hours, low pay, and intense pressure to ramp
up production triggered strikes and a worker riot that shut one plant down for a day. Apple’s
products were cutting edge, but its people management evoked centuries-old images of
sacrificing people for profits and reinforced popular stereotypes of bosses as heartless and
insensitive (Amar, 2004; Duhigg and Barboza, 2012).
But not all companies view employees as merely a means to the greater end of profits, as
a contrasting case illustrates:
Early one March afternoon, three electricians who worked for Nucor Corporation
got bad news. In Hickman, Arkansas, the company’s steel mill was dead in the water
because its electric grid had failed. All three employees dropped what they were doing to
head for Arkansas. One drove from Indiana, arriving at 9 PM that night. The other two
flew from North Carolina to Memphis, then drove 2 more hours, arriving after
midnight. All three camped out at the plant and worked 20-hour shifts with local
staff to get the grid back up.
The electricians volunteered—they didn’t need a boss to tell them that Nucor had to get
the mill back on line. Their herculean effort was a big help to the company but brought them
no immediate financial reward, even though their initiative helped Hickman post a
quarterly record for tons of steel shipped (Byrnes and Arndt, 2006).
At Nucor, this story is not particularly unusual:
In an industry as Rust Belt as they come, Nucor has nurtured one of the most
dynamic and engaged workforces around. Its nonunion employees don’t see
themselves as worker bees waiting for instructions from above. Nucor’s flattened
hierarchy and emphasis on pushing power to the front line have given its
employees the mindset of owner-operators. It’s a profitable formula: Nucor’s
387% return to shareholders over the past five years soundly bests almost all
other companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index (Byrnes and Arndt,
2006, p. 58).
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What’s in it for the workers? Their base pay is nothing special—it’s below the industry
average. But when Nucor has a good year, as it often does, they get big bonuses, based on their
own output and the company’s success. That’s one reason electricians would grab a plane to help
calls from experienced colleagues who want to help out. At Nucor, work is more than a job. It’s
about pride. Employees enjoy seeing their names listed on the covers of corporate publications,
including the annual report. They’re proud that their company, which turns scrap metal into
steel, is the world’s largest recycler. And they’re exhilarated when they can draw on their
intelligence and creativity to demonstrate that American workers can still compete.
Companies like Nucor are too rare. In the context of strikes and boycotts across China
protesting “inhumane” management practices at Walmart in late 2016, a company
spokesperson offered the usual boilerplate, “Our employees are our most valuable asset”
(Hernández, 2016). Most companies claim to value their people, but fewer live up to those
words. In practice, employees are often treated as pawns to be moved where needed and
sacrificed when necessary.
In this chapter, we focus on the human side of organizations. We start by summarizing
the assumptions underlying the human resource view. Next, we examine how people’s needs
are either satisfied or frustrated at work. Then we look at today’s changing employment
contract and its impact on both people and organizations.
Amazon and Nucor represent different stances in a perennial debate about the relationship
between people and organizations. One side sees individuals as objects or tools, important
not so much in themselves as in what they can do for the organization. The opposing camp
holds that the needs of individuals and organizations can be aligned, engaging people’s
talent and energy while profiting the enterprise. This debate has intensified with globaliza­
tion and the growth in size and power of modern institutions. Can people find freedom and
dignity in a world dominated by economic fluctuations and a push for cost reduction and
short-term results? Answers are not easy. They require a sensitive understanding of people
and their symbiotic relationship with organizations.
The human resource frame evolved from early work of pioneers like Mary Parker Follett
(1918) and Elton Mayo (1933, 1945), who questioned a deeply held managerial assumption
that employees had no right beyond a paycheck, and their duty was to work hard and follow
orders. Pioneers of the human resource frame criticized this view on two grounds: It was
unjust, and it was bad psychology. They argued that people’s skills, attitudes, energy, and
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commitment are vital resources that can make or break an enterprise. The human resource
frame is built on core assumptions that highlight this linkage:
• Organizations exist to serve human needs rather than the converse.
• People and organizations need each other. Organizations need ideas, energy, and talent;
people need careers, salaries, and opportunities.
• When the fit between individual and system is poor, one or both suffer. Individuals are
exploited or exploit the organization—or both become victims.
• A good fit benefits both. Individuals find meaningful and satisfying work, and organi­
zations get the talent and energy they need to succeed.
Organizations ask, “How do we find and retain people with the skills and attitudes to do
the work?” Workers want to know, “How well will this place work for me?” These two
questions are closely related, because “fit” is a function of at least three things: how well an
organization responds to individual desires for useful work; how well jobs let employees
express their skills and sense of self; and how well work fulfills individual financial and
lifestyle needs (Cable and DeRue, 2002).
Human Needs
their surroundings that the concept offers little help in explaining behavior (Salancik and Pfeffer,
1977). Goal-setting theory (Locke and Latham, 2002, 2004) suggests that managers do better to
emphasize specific performance goals than to worry about employees’ psychic needs. Econ­
omists like Jensen and Meckling (1994) argue that people’s willingness to trade off one thing for
another (time for money or sleep for entertainment) disproves the idea of need.
Despite this academic skepticism, needs are a central element in everyday psychology.
Parents worry about the needs of their children, politicians promise to meet the needs of
constituents, and managers make an effort to understand the needs of workers. That’s how
Wegmans, a grocery chain that perennially ranks high on Fortune magazine’s list of best
places to work (number two in 2017), states its philosophy: “We set our goal to be the very
best at serving the needs of our customers. Every action we take should be made with this in
mind. We also believe that we can achieve our goal only if we fulfill the needs of our own
people” (Wegmans, 2016).
Common sense tells us that needs are important because we all have them. But
identifying what needs we have—long term or at any given time—is more elusive. A
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horticultural analogy may help clarify. A gardener knows that every plant has specific
requirements. The right combination of temperature, moisture, soil, and sunlight allows a
plant to grow and flourish. Plants do their best to get what they need. They orient leaves
sunward to get more light and sink roots deeper in search of water. A plant’s capabilities
generally increase with maturity. Highly vulnerable seedlings become more self-sufficient as
they grow (better able to fend off insects and competition from other plants). These
capabilities decline as a plant nears the end of its life cycle.
Human needs are similar. Conditions or elements in the environment allow people to
survive and grow. Basic needs for oxygen, water, and food are clear; the idea of universal
psychic needs is more controversial. A genetic, or “nature,” perspective posits that certain
psychological needs are essential to being human (Lawrence and Nohria, 2001; Maslow,
1954; McClelland, 1985; Pink, 2009; White, 1960). A “nurture” view, in contrast, suggests
that people are so shaped by environment, socialization, and culture that it is fruitless to talk
about common psychic needs.
In extreme forms, both nature and nurture arguments are misleading. You don’t need an
advanced degree in psychology to recognize that people are capable of enormous amounts
of learning and adaptation. Just about any parent with more than one child knows that
many psychological characteristics, such as temperament, are present at birth.
Most scholars see human behavior as resulting from the interplay between heredity and
environment. Genes initially determine potential and predispositions. Research has identi­
fied connections between genetic patterns and behavioral tendencies such as antisocial
behavior. But learning profoundly modifies innate directives, and research in behavioral
genetics regularly concludes that genes and environment interact in complex ways to
determine how people act (Baker, 2004).
The nature-nurture seesaw suggests a more useful way to think about human needs. A
need can be defined as a genetic predisposition to prefer some experiences over others.
Needs energize and guide behavior and vary in potency at different times. We enjoy the
company of others, for example, yet we sometimes want to be alone. Because genetic
instructions cannot anticipate all situations, both the form and the expression of each
person’s inborn needs are significantly tailored by experiences after birth.
Why do people do one thing rather than another? Why, for example, do they work hard, or
not hard, or not at all? Despite decades of research, answers remain contested and elusive,
but we can briefly summarize some of the major ideas in an ongoing dialogue.
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An old formula (Maier, 1967) tells us that Performance = Ability × Motivation. If you
have both talent and desire, you’ll do well. Theories of motivation seek to explain the desire
part of that formula. One of the oldest views, still popular among many managers and
economists, is that the primary thing people care about is money: they do what they believe
will get them more of it. Playing a hit man in the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt
summarizes this view with the observation, “America isn’t a country. It’s a business. Now
give me my money.” Money is a powerful incentive, and focusing on financial rewards
simplifies the motivation problem—just offer people money for doing what you want. But
the classic highwayman’s demand—“Your money or your life!”—reminds us that money
isn’t the only thing people care about and is not always the most important thing. Managers
and organizations that focus only on money will miss other opportunities to motivate. But
what else is important beyond money?
A number of theorists have developed models of workplace motivation, and some of the
better-known examples are summarized in Exhibit 6.1. Each model develops its own list of
the things that people want, and no item appears on every list. But there is broad agreement
that people want things that go beyond money, such as doing good work, getting better at
what they do, bonding with other people, and finding meaning and purpose. There is also
alignment with a distinction that was central to Herzberg’s (1966) “two-factor” theory.
Herzberg argued that extrinsic factors, like working conditions and company policies, can
make people unhappy but don’t really motivate them to be more productive. He insisted
that the things that motivate are intrinsic to the work itself—things like achievement,
responsibility, and recognition for work well done. All these theories converge on the view
that motivating people requires understanding and responding to the range of needs they
bring to the workplace.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
One of the oldest and most influential of the models in Exhibit 6.1 was developed by the
existential psychologist Abraham Maslow (1954). He started with the notion that people are
motivated by a variety of wants, some more fundamental than others. The desire for food
dominates the lives of the chronically hungry, but people move on to other things when they
have enough to eat. Maslow grouped human needs into five basic categories, arrayed in a
hierarchy from lowest to highest (Exhibit 6.2).
In Maslow’s view, basic needs for physical well-being and safety are “prepotent”; they
have to be satisfied first. Once lower needs are fulfilled, individuals move up to social needs
(for belongingness, love, and inclusion) and ego needs (for esteem, respect, and
recognition). At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization—developing to one’s fullest
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Exhibit 6.1.
Models of Motivation at Work.
Author(s) Needs/Motives at Work
Maslow (1943, 1954) Hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, love/
belonging, esteem, self-actualization)
Herzberg, Mausner, and
Snyderman (1959); Herzberg
Two-factor theory:
Motivators/satisfiers: achievement, recognition,
work itself, responsibility, advancement, pay
McClelland (1961)
Hygiene factors/dissatisfiers: company policies,
supervision, interpersonal relationships, working
conditions, pay
Three needs: achievement, power, affiliation
Hackman and Oldham (1980) Three critical psychological states: meaningfulness
of work, responsibility for outcomes, knowledge of
Lawrence and Nohria (2002) Four drives: D1 (acquire objects and experiences
that improve our status relative to others); D2
(bond with others in mutually beneficial, long-term
relationships); D3 (learn about and make sense of
ourselves and the world around us); D4 (defend
ourselves, our loved ones, our beliefs, and our
Pink (2009) Three drives: autonomy (people want to have
control over their work); mastery (people want to
get better at what they do); purpose (people want
to be part of something bigger than themselves)
and actualizing one’s ultimate potential. The order is not ironclad. Parents may sacrifice
themselves for their children, and martyrs sometimes give their lives for a cause. Maslow
believed that such reversals occur when lower needs are so well satisfied early in life that they
recede into the background later on.
Attempts to validate Maslow’s theory have produced mixed results, partly because the
theory is hard to test (Alderfer, 1972; Latham and Pinder, 2005; Lawler and Shuttle, 1973;
Schneider and Alderfer, 1973; Wahba and Bridwell, 1976). Some research suggests that
the theory is valid across cultures (Ajila, 1997; Rao and Kulkarni, 1998), but the many
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Exhibit 6.2.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Source: Conley, 2007. Copyright  1979. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York.
theories of motivation developed since Maslow attest that the jury is still out on whether
people have the needs Maslow posited or that the satisfaction of one need leads to
activation of another.
Despite the modest evidence, Maslow’s view has been widely accepted and enormously
influential in managerial practice. Take, for example, the advice that the Manager’s Guide at
Federal Express offers employees: “Modern behavioral scientists such as Abraham Maslow
. . . have shown that virtually every person has a hierarchy of emotional needs, from basic
safety, shelter, and sustenance to the desire for respect, satisfaction, and a sense of
accomplishment. Slowly these values have appeared as the centerpiece of progressive
company policies, always with remarkable results” (Waterman, 1994, p. 92). Chip Conley,
founder of a California hotel chain, put it simply: “I came to realize my climb to the top
wasn’t going to be on a traditional corporate ladder; instead it was going to be on Maslow’s
Hierarchy of Needs pyramid” (Conley, 2007). Academic skepticism didn’t prevent him,
FedEx, Joie de Vivre hotels, or Airbnb from building a highly successful management
philosophy based on Maslow’s theory, because the ideas carry a powerful message. If you
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manage solely by carrot and stick, you’ll get only a part of the energy and talent that people
have to offer.
Theory X and Theory Y
Douglas McGregor (1960) built on Maslow’s theory by adding another important idea: that
managers’ assumptions about people tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. McGregor
argued that most managers harbor “Theory X” assumptions that subordinates are passive
and lazy, have little ambition, prefer to be led, and resist change. Most conventional
management practices, in his view, had been built on either “hard” or “soft” versions of
Theory X. The hard version emphasizes coercion, tight controls, threats, and punishments.
Over time, it generates low productivity, antagonism, militant unions, and subtle sabotage—
conditions that were turning up in workplaces across the United States at the time. Soft
versions of Theory X try to avoid conflict and keep everyone happy. The usual result is
superficial harmony with undercurrents of apathy, indifference, and smoldering
McGregor’s key point was that a hard or soft Theory X approach is self-fulfilling: If you
treat people as if they’re lazy and need to be directed, they live down to your expectations.
Managers who say they know from experience that Theory X is the only way to get
anything done are missing a key insight: The fact that people respond to you in a certain
way may say more about you than about them. McGregor advocated a different way to
think about people that he called Theory Y. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was the
The man whose needs for safety, association, independence, or status are
thwarted is sick as surely as the man who has rickets. And his sickness will
have behavioral consequences. We will be mistaken if we attribute his resultant
passivity, hostility, and refusal to accept responsibility to his inherent human
nature. These forms of behavior are symptoms of illness—of deprivation of his
social and egoistic needs (McGregor, 1960, pp. 35–36).
Theory Y’s key proposition is that “the essential task of management is to arrange
conditions so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing efforts toward
organizational rewards” (McGregor, 1960, p. 61). If individuals find no satisfaction in their
work, management has little choice but to rely on Theory X and external control.
Conversely, the more managers align organizational requirements with employee self-
interest, the more they can rely on Theory Y’s principle of self-direction.
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Personality and Organization
Like his contemporary McGregor, Chris Argyris (1957, 1964) saw a basic conflict
between human personality and prevailing management practice. Argyris argued that
people have basic “self-actualization trends”—akin to the efforts of a plant to reach its
biological potential. From infancy into adulthood, people advance from dependence to
independence, from a narrow to a broader range of skills and interests. They move from
a short time perspective (interests quickly developed and forgotten, with little ability to
anticipate the future) to a much longer-term horizon. The child’s impulsivity and
limited self-knowledge are replaced by a more mature level of self-awareness and self-
Like McGregor, Argyris believed that organizations often treated workers like children
rather than adults—a view eloquently expressed in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern
Times. In a classic scene, Chaplin’s character works furiously on an assembly line, trying to
tighten bolts on every piece that slides past. Skill requirements are minimal, and he has no
control over the pace of his work. An efficiency expert uses Chaplin as the guinea pig for a
new machine designed to feed him lunch while he continues to tighten bolts. It goes haywire
and begins to assault Chaplin with food—pouring soup on his lap and shoving bolts into his
mouth. The film’s message is clear: Industrial organizations abuse workers and treat them
like infants.
Argyris and McGregor saw person-structure conflict built into traditional principles of
organizational design and management. The structural concept of task specialization
defines jobs as narrowly as possible to improve efficiency. But the rational logic often
backfires. Consider the experience of autoworker Ben Hamper. His observations mirror a
story many other U.S. workers could tell:
I was seven years old the first time I ever set foot inside an automobile factory.
The occasion was Family Night at the old Fisher Body plant in Flint where my
father worked the second shift. If nothing else, this annual peepshow lent a whole
world of credence to our father’s daily grumble. The assembly line did indeed
stink. The noise was very close to intolerable. The heat was one complete bastard.
After a hundred wrong turns and dead ends, we found my old man down on
the trim line. His job was to install windshields using this goofy apparatus with
large suction cups that resembled an octopus being crucified. A car would nuzzle
up to the old man’s work area and he would be waiting for it, a cigarette dangling
from his lip, his arms wrapped around the windshield contraption as if it might
suddenly rebel and bolt off for the ocean. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Car,
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windshield. No wonder my father preferred playin’ hopscotch with barmaids
(Hamper, 1992, pp. 1–2).
Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, Ben Hamper became an auto­
worker—the pay was good, and he didn’t know anything else. He soon discovered a familiar
pattern. His career began decades after Argyris and McGregor questioned the fallacies of
traditional management, but little had changed. Hamper held down a variety of jobs, each as
mindless as the next: “The one thing that was impossible to escape was the monotony. Every
minute, every hour, every truck, and every movement was a plodding replica of the one that
had gone before” (1992, p. 41).
The specialization Ben Hamper experienced in the auto plant calls for a clear chain of
command to coordinate discrete jobs. Bosses direct and control subordinates, thus
encouraging passivity and dependence. The conflict worsens at lower levels of the hierar­
chy—narrower, more mechanized jobs, more directives, and tighter controls. As people
mature, conflict intensifies. Leann Bies was 44 with a bachelor’s degree in business when she
started work as a licensed electrician at a Ford truck plant in 2003, and “for two years they
treated me as if I were dumber than a box of rocks. You get an attitude if you are treated that
way” (Uchitelle, 2007, p. 10).
Argyris argued that employees try to stay sane by looking for ways to escape these
frustrations. He identified six options:
1. They withdraw—through chronic absenteeism or simply by quitting. Ben Hamper
chronicled many examples of absenteeism and quitting, including a friend who lasted
only a couple of months:
My pal Roy was beginning to unravel in a real rush. His enthusiasm about all the
money we were makin’ had dissipated and he was having major difficulty coping
with the drudgery of factory labor. His job, like mine, wasn’t difficult. It was just
plain monotonous . . .
The day before he quit, he approached me with a box-cutter knife sticking
out of his glove and requested that I give him a slice across the back of the hand.
He felt sure this ploy would land him a few days off. Since slicing Roy didn’t seem
like a solid career move, I refused. Roy went down the line to the other workers
where he received a couple of charitable offers to cut his throat, but no dice on
the hand. He wound up sulking back to his job. After that night, I never saw Roy
again (1992, pp. 40, 43).
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2. They stay on the job but withdraw psychologically, becoming indifferent, passive, and
apathetic. Like many other workers, Ben Hamper didn’t want to quit, so he looked for
ways to cope with the tedium. His favorite was to “double up” by making a deal with
another worker to take turns covering each other’s job. This made it possible to get full
pay for half a day’s work:
What a setup. Dale and I would both report to work before the 4:30 horn. We’d
spend a half hour preparing all the stock we’d need for the evening. At 5:00, I
would take over the two jobs while Dale went to sleep in a makeshift cardboard
bed behind our bench . . . I’d work the jobs from 5:00 until 9:24, the official
lunch period. When the line stopped, I’d give Dale’s cardboard coffin a good
kick. It was time for the handoff. I would give my ID badge to Dale so that he
could punch me out at quitting time, (1992, p. 61).
If doubling up didn’t work, workers invented other diversions, like Rivet Hockey
(sailing rivets into a coworker’s foot or leg) and Dumpster Ball (kicking cardboard
boxes high enough to clear a dumpster).
3. They resist by restricting output, deception, featherbedding, or sabotage.1 Hamper
reports what happened when the company removed a popular foreman because he
was “too close to his work force” (1992, p. 205):
With a tight grip on the whip, the new bossman started riding the crew. No music.
No Rivet Hockey. No horseplay. No drinking. No card playing. No working up the
line. No leaving the department. No doubling-up. No this, no that. No questions
No way. After three nights of this imported bullyism, the boys had had their
fill. Frames began sliding down the line minus parts. Rivets became cross-eyed.
Guns mysteriously broke down. The repairmen began shipping the majority of
the defects, unable to keep up with the repair load.
Sabotage was drastic, but it got the point across and brought the new foreman into
line. To survive, the foreman had to fall into step. Otherwise, he would be replaced, and
the cycle would start anew.
4. They try to climb the hierarchy to better jobs. Moving up works for some, but there are
rarely enough “better” jobs to go around, and many workers are reluctant to take
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promotions. Hamper reports what happened to a coworker who tried to crack down
after he was promoted to foreman:
For the next eight days, we made Calvin Moza’s short-lived career switch sheer
hell. Every time he’d walk the aisle, someone would pepper his steps with raining
rivets. He couldn’t make a move without the hammers banging and loud chants
of “suckass” and “brown snout” ringin’ in his ears. He got everything he deserved
(1992, p. 208).
Hamper found his own escape: he started to moonlight as a writer during one of
automaking’s periodic layoffs. Styling himself “The Rivethead,” he wrote a column
about factory life from the inside. His writing eventually led to a best-selling book, as
well as film and radio gigs. Most of his buddies weren’t as fortunate.
5. They form alliances (such as labor unions) to redress the power imbalance. Union
movements grow out of workers’ desire for a more equal footing with management.
Argyris cautioned, however, that union “bosses” might run their operations much like
factories, because they knew no other way to manage. In the long run, employees’ sense
of powerlessness would change little. Ben Hamper, like most autoworkers, was a union
member, yet the union is largely invisible in his accounts of life on the assembly line.
He rarely sought union help and even less often got any. He appreciated wages and
benefits earned at the bargaining table, but nothing in the labor agreement protected
workers from boredom, frustration, or the feeling of powerlessness.
6. They teach their children to believe that work is unrewarding and hopes for advance­
ment are slim. Researchers in the 1960s began to note that children of farmers grew up
believing hard work paid off, while the offspring of urban blue-collar workers did not.
As a result, many U.S. companies began to move facilities away from old industrial
states like Michigan (where Ben Hamper worked) to more rural states like North
Carolina and Tennessee, in search of employees who still embodied the work ethic.
Argyris predicted, however, that industry would eventually demotivate even the most
committed workforce unless management practices changed. In recent decades,
manufacturing and service jobs have been moving offshore to low-wage enclaves
around the world, continuing the search for employees who will work hard without
asking for too much in return.
Hamper’s account of life on the line is a vivid illustration of Argyris’s contention that
organizations treat adults like children. The company assigned an employee to wander
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through the plant dressed in costume as “Howie Makem, the Quality Cat.” (Howie was
mostly greeted with groans, insults, and an occasional flying rivet.) Message boards were
plastered with inspirational phrases like “Riveting is fun.” A plant manager would emerge
from his usual invisibility to give an annual speech promising to talk more with workers. All
this hypocrisy took its toll: “Working the Rivet Line was like being paid to flunk high school
the rest of your life. An adolescent time warp in which the duties of the day were just an
underlying annoyance” (Hamper, 1992, p. 185).
The powerlessness and frustration that Hamper experienced are by no means unique to
factory work. Bosses who treat office workers like children are a pop culture staple—including
the pointy-haired martinet in Dilbert and the pathetically clueless boss in the television series
The Office. In public education, many teachers and parents lament that increasing emphasis
on high-stakes standardized tests alienates teachers and turns them into “deskilled clerks”
(Giroux, 1998). Batstone sees frustration as pervasive among workers at every level:
“Corporate workers from the mailroom to the highest executive office express dissatisfaction
with their work. They feel crushed by widespread greed, selfishness, and quest for profit at any
cost. Apart from their homes, people spend more time on the job than anywhere else. With
that kind of personal stake, they want to be part of something that matters and contribute to a
greater good. Sadly, those aspirations often go unmet” (2003, p. 1).
Argyris and McGregor formed their views on the basis of observations of U.S.
organizations in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, investigators have documented similar
conflicts between people and organizations around the world. Orgogozo (1991), for
example, contended that typical French management practices caused workers to feel
humiliation, boredom, anger, and exhaustion “because they have no hope of being
recognized and valued for what they do” (p. 101). She depicted relations between superiors
and subordinates in France as tense and distant because “bosses do everything possible to
protect themselves from the resentment that they generate” (p. 73).
Early on, human-resource ideas were often ignored by scholars and managers. The
dominant “assembly-line” mentality enjoyed enough economic success to persist. The
frame’s influence has grown with the realization that misuse of human resources depresses
profits as well as people. Legions of consultants, managers, and researchers now pursue
answers to the vexing human problems of organizations.
In recent years, global trends have pushed organizations in two conflicting directions. On
one hand, global competition, rapid change, shorter product life cycles and the rise of
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mobile apps have produced a turbulent, intensely competitive world, placing an enormous
premium on the ability to adapt quickly to shifts in the environment. One way to adapt is to
minimize fixed human assets. Beginning in the late twentieth century, more and more
organizations turned to downsizing, outsourcing, and using part-time and temporary
employees to cope with business fluctuations. In the United States, public universities
have coped with a decline in state funding by shifting to more part-time adjunct instructors
and fewer full-time faculty. Uber, emblematic of the “gig economy,” has fought doggedly to
keep its drivers classified as “independent contractors” rather than employees. Volkswagen
opened a manufacturing plant in Brazil in which subcontractors employed 80 percent of the
workforce. Even in Japan, traditional notions of lifetime careers have eroded in the face of “a
bloated work force, particularly in the white collar sector, which proved to be an economic
drag” (WuDunn, 1996, p. 8). Around the world, employees looking for career advice have
been told to count on themselves rather than employers. Give up on job security, the advice
often goes, and focus instead on developing skills and flexibility that will make you
On the other hand, some of the same global forces push in another direction—
toward growing dependence on well-trained, loyal human capital. That was why the
online real estate firm Redfin chose to run counter to the usual pattern for both tech
start-ups and the real estate business. Employing more than 1,000 agents in 2016, Redfin
“gives its agents salaries, health benefits, 401(k) contributions and, for the most
productive ones, Redfin stock, none of which is standard for contractors” (Wingfield,
2016), because CEO Glenn Kelman believes that full-time employees provide better
customer service.
Organizations have become more complex as a consequence of globalization and a
more information-intensive economy. More decentralized structures, like the networks
discussed in Chapter 3, have proliferated in response to greater complexity and turbu­
lence. These new configurations depend on a higher level of skill, intelligence, and
commitment across a broader spectrum of employees. A network of decentralized
decision nodes is a blueprint for disaster if the dispersed decision makers lack the
capacity or desire to make sensible choices. Skill requirements have been changing so fast
that individuals are hard pressed to keep up. The result is a troubling gap: organizations
struggle to find people who bring the skills and qualities needed, while individuals with
yesterday’s skills face dismal job prospects.
The shift from a production-intensive to an information-intensive economy is not
helping to close the gap. There used to be more jobs that involved making things. In the first
three decades after World War II, high-paying jobs in developed nations were heavily
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concentrated in blue-collar work (Drucker, 1993). These jobs generally required little formal
training and few specialized skills, but they afforded pay and benefits to sustain a
comfortable and stable lifestyle. No more. Whereas workers in manufacturing jobs
accounted for more than a third of U.S. workers in the 1950s, by 2010 they were less
than a tenth of the workforce (Matthews, 2012), dropping to a low of around 11.5 million
jobs in early 2010. During the next five years, there were signs of a rebound (U. S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics, 2016), and manufacturing jobs began to come back to traditional factory
states like Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio (Baily and Katz, 2012). But the growth was
concentrated in high-skill jobs in industries like aerospace, medical equipment, and
automobiles. When U.S. automobile manufacturers began to replace retiring workers in
the mid-1990s, they emphasized quick minds more than strong bodies and put applicants
“through a grueling selection process that emphasized mental acuity and communication
skills” (Meredith, 1996, p. 1).
This skill gap is even greater in many developing nations. Until late in the twentieth
century, China’s population of 1.3 billion people consisted largely of farmers and workers
with old-economy skills. Beginning in the 1980s, China began a gradual shift to a market
economy, reducing regulations, encouraging foreign investment, and selling off fading
state-owned enterprises. Results were dramatic: China’s economy shifted from almost
entirely state-owned in 1980 to 70 percent private by 2005. China became one of the
world’s fastest-growing economies, with compound growth at 7 to 8 percent a year in the
early twenty-first century, but unemployment mushroomed as state-owned enterprises
succumbed to nimbler—and leaner—domestic and foreign competitors. China’s reported
unemployment rate was low by comparison to many western nations, but it still meant
millions of Chinese were looking for work, and many observers suspected that the official
numbers understated the problem.
Simultaneous pressures to increase flexibility and employee skills create a vexing human
resource dilemma. Should an organization seek adaptability (through a downsized, out­
sourced, part-time workforce) or loyalty (through a long-term commitment to people)?
Should it seek high skills (by hiring the best and training them well) or low costs (by hiring
the cheapest and investing no more than necessary)?
Lean and Mean: More Benefits Than Costs?
The advantages of a smaller, more flexible workforce seem compelling: lower costs, higher
efficiency, and greater ability to respond to business fluctuations. After the recession in
2008, the U.S. economy shed roughly 5 million jobs (Coy, Conlin, and Herbst, 2010), albeit
just a fraction of the some 50 million lost worldwide (Schwartz, 2009).
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Downsizing works best when new technology and smart management combine to
enable fewer people to do more. In recent decades, manufacturing jobs have been
shrinking around the globe because of changes in technology (Kenny, 2014). Yet even
when it works, shedding staff risks trading short-term gains for long-term decay.
“Chainsaw Al” Dunlap became a hero of the downsizing movement as chief executive
of Scott Paper, where he more than doubled profits and market value. His strategy? Cut
people—half of management, half of research and development, and a fifth of blue-collar
workers. Financial outcomes were impressive at first, but employee morale sank, and
Scott lost market share in every major product line. Dunlap did not stay around long
enough to find out if he had sacrificed Scott’s future for short-term gains. After less than
two years on the job, he sold the company to its biggest competitor and walked away with
almost $100 million for his efforts (Byrne, 1996).
Despite eliminating millions of jobs, many firms have found benefits elusive. Markels
and Murray (1996) reported that downsizing often turned into “dumbsizing”: “Many firms
continue to make flawed decisions—hasty, across-the-board cuts—that come back to haunt,
on the bottom line, in public relationships, in strained relationships with customers and
suppliers, and in demoralized employees.” In shedding staff, firms often found that they also
sacrificed knowledge, skill, innovation, and loyalty (Reichheld, 1993, 1996). Multiple studies
have found that cutting people hurts more often than it helps performance (Cascio, Young,
and Morris, 1997; Gertz and Baptista, 1995; Love and Kraatz, 2005; Mellahi and Wilkinson,
2006). Nevertheless, more than half of the companies in a 2003 survey admitted that they
would make cuts that hurt in the long term if that’s what it took to meet short-term earnings
targets (Berenson, 2004).
Downsizing and outsourcing often have a corrosive effect on employee motivation
and commitment. A 2009 Conference Board survey found that “only 45% of workers
surveyed were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling” (Coy, Conlin,
and Herbst, 2010, p. 1). Workers reported that the mood in the workplace was angrier
and colleagues were more competitive, and a 2012 survey found employee loyalty at a
seven-year low.
Investing in People
Employers often fail to invest the time and resources necessary to develop a cadre of
committed, talented employees. Precisely for that reason, a number of authors (including
Cascio and Boudreau, 2008; Lawler, 1996; Lawler and Worley, 2006; Pfeffer, 1994, 1998,
2007; and Waterman, 1994) have made the case that a skilled and motivated workforce is a
powerful source of competitive advantage. Consistent with core human resource
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assumptions, high-performing companies do a better job of understanding and responding
to the needs of both employees and customers. As a result, they attract better people who are
motivated to do a superior job.
The most successful company in the U.S. airline industry for many decades, Southwest
Airlines, paid employees a competitive wage but had an enormous cost advantage because
its highly committed workforce was so productive. Competitors tried to imitate Southwest’s
approach but rarely succeeded because “the real difference is in the effort Southwest gets out
of its people. That is very, very hard to duplicate” (Labich, 1994, p. 52).
Ewing Kauffman started a pharmaceutical business in a Kansas City basement that he
grew into a multibillion-dollar company (Morgan, 1995). His approach was heavily
influenced by his personal experiences as a young pharmaceutical salesman:
I worked on straight commission, receiving no salary, no expenses, no car, and no
benefits in any way, shape, or form—just straight commission. By the end of the
second year, my commission amounted to more than the president’s salary. He
didn’t think that was right, so he cut my commission. By then I was Midwest sales
manager and had other salesmen working for me under an arrangement whereby
my commission was 3 percent of everything they sold. In spite of the cut in my
commission, that year I still managed to make more than the president thought a
salesmanager should make. So this time he cut the territory, which was the same as
taking away some of my income. I quit and started Marion Laboratories.
I based the company on a vision of what it would be. When we hired
employees, they were referred to as “associates,” and they shared in the success of
the company. Once again, the two principles that have guided my entire career,
which were based on my experience working for that very first pharmaceutical
company, are these: “Those who produce should share in the profits,” and “Treat
others as you would be treated” (Kauffman, 1996, p. 40).
Few managers in the 1950s shared Kauffman’s faith, and many are still skeptics. An
urgent debate is under way about the future of the relationship between people and
organizations. The battle of lean-and-mean versus invest-in-people continues. In pipe
manufacturing, two of the dominant players are crosstown rivals in Birmingham, Alabama.
One is McWane, which compiled an abysmal record on safety and environmental
protection—9 deaths, 400 safety violations, and 450 environmental violations between
1995 and 2002 (Barstow and Bergman, 2003b) that “culminated in an $8 million fine
imposed in April 2009. Four former plant managers were sentenced to federal prison for
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what authorities said was wrongdoing at the plant, including the cover-up of evidence in the
2000 death of Alfred ‘Alfie’ Coxe in a forklift accident” (Salamone, 2016).
The other is American Cast Iron Pipe (Acipco), which was the first firm in its industry to
appear on Fortune’s list of the best places to work in America and was named one of
Birmingham’s most admired companies in 2012. Barstow and Bergman write that “several
statistical measures show how different Acipco is from McWane. At some McWane plants,
turnover rates approach 100 percent a year. Acipco—with a work force of about 3,000,
three-fifths the size of McWane—has annual turnover of less than half a percent; 10,000
people recently applied for 100 openings” (2003c, p. A15).
Which of these two competing visions works better? Financially, it is difficult to judge,
because both companies are privately held. Both have achieved business success for roughly
a century. But in January 2003, at the same time that Fortune was lauding Acipco for its
progressive human resource practices, the New York Times and a television documentary
pilloried McWane for its callous disregard of both people and the law. By 2012, a chastened
McWane was describing itself as an industry leader in employee safety and offered data
suggesting that safety problems in its plants had declined steadily.
The human resource frame highlights the relationship between people and organizations.
Organizations need people (for their energy, effort, and talent), and people need organiza­
tions (for the many intrinsic and extrinsic rewards they offer), but their respective needs are
not always well aligned. When the fit between people and organizations is poor, one or both
suffer: individuals may feel neglected or oppressed, and organizations sputter because
individuals withdraw their efforts or even work against organizational purposes. Con­
versely, a good fit benefits both: individuals find meaningful and satisfying work, and
organizations get the talent and energy they need to succeed.
Global competition, turbulence, and rapid change have heightened an enduring
organizational dilemma: Is it better to be lean and mean or to invest in people? A variety
of strategies to reduce the workforce—downsizing, outsourcing, use of temporary, part-
time, or contract workers—have been widely applied to reduce costs and increase flexibility.
But they risk a loss of talent and loyalty that leads to organizations that are mediocre, even if
flexible. Emerging evidence suggests that downsizing has often produced disappointing
results. Many highly successful organizations have gone in another direction: investing in
people on the premise that a highly motivated and skilled workforce is a powerful
competitive advantage.
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1. Featherbedding is a colloquial term for giving people jobs that involve little or no work. This can
occur for a variety of reasons: union pressures, nepotism (employing family members), or
“kicking someone upstairs” (moving an underperformer into a job with no significant
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c h a p t e r
Improving Human
Resource Management
Far and away the best prize that life offers is
the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
—Theodore Roosevelt
Google, with more than 500 applicants for every job opening in recentyears, is harder to get into than Harvard. In 2017 it was once again
number one on Fortune’s list of the best places to work (Fortune, 2017). Its
king-of-the-Internet image helps, but the search giant knows it takes more to
hire and retain the brainy, high-energy geeks who keep the place going and
growing. As one Googler put it, “The company culture truly makes workers
feel they’re valued and respected as a human being, not as a cog in a machine.
The perks are phenomenal. From three prepared organic meals a day to
unlimited snacks, artisan coffee and tea to free personal-fitness classes, health
clinics, on-site oil changes, haircuts, spa truck, bike-repair truck, nap pods,
free on-site laundry rooms, and subsidized wash and fold. The list is endless”
(Fortune, 2016).
Few go as far as Google, but a growing number of enlightened companies are finding
their own ways to attract and develop human capital. They see talent and motivation as
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC07 05/25/2017 14:30:14 Page 136
business essentials. That idea has taken a couple of centuries to gain traction, and many
companies still don’t get it. They adhere to the old view that anything you give to employees
siphons money from the bottom line—like having your pocket picked or your bank account
A pioneer of a more progressive approach was a Welshman, Robert Owen, who ran into
fierce opposition. Born in 1771, Owen became a wildly successful entrepreneur before the
age of 30 by exploiting the day’s hot technology—textile mills. Owen was heavily attacked
because he was the only capitalist of his time who believed it was bad for business to work
eight-year-olds in 13-hour factory shifts. At his New Lanark (Scotland) knitting mill, bought
in 1799, Owen took a new approach:
Owen provided clean, decent housing for his workers and their families in a
community free of contagious disease, crime, and gin shops. He took young
children out of the factory and enrolled them in a school he founded. There he
provided preschool, day care, and a brand of progressive education that stresses
learning as a pleasurable experience (along with the first adult night school).
The entire business world was shocked when he prohibited corporal punish­
ment in his factory and dumbfounded when he retrained his supervisors in
humane disciplinary practices. While offering his workers an extremely high
standard of living compared to other workers of the era, Owen was making a
fortune at New Lanark. This conundrum drew twenty thousand visitors
between 1815 and 1820 (O’Toole, 1995, pp. 201, 206).
Owen tried to convince fellow capitalists that investing in people could produce a
greater return than investments in machinery. But the business world dismissed him as a
wild radical whose ideas would harm the people he wanted to help (O’Toole, 1995).
Owen was at least 100 years ahead of his time. A century later, when Henry Ford
announced in 1914 that he was going to shorten the workday to 8 hours and double the
wages of his blue-collar workers from $2.50 to $5.00 per day, he also came under heavy fire
from the business community. The Wall Street Journal opined that he was “committing
economic blunders, if not crimes” (Harnish et al., 2012). The Journal got it wrong. Ford’s
profits doubled over the next two years as productivity soared and employee turnover
plunged. Ford later said the five dollars per day was the best cost-cutting move he ever made.
Only in the late twentieth century did more business leaders begin to believe that
investing in people is a way to make money. In recent years, periodic waves of restructuring
and downsizing have raised age-old questions about the relationship between the individual
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and the organization. A number of persuasive reports suggest Owen was right: An excellent
route to long-term success is investing in employees and responding to their needs
(Applebaum et al., 2000; Barrick et al., 2015; Collins and Porras, 1994; Deal and Jenkins,
1994; Farkas and De Backer, 1996; Becker and Huselid, 1998; Lawler, 1996; Levering and
Moskowitz, 1993; Pfeffer, 1994, 1998, 2007; Schwartz and Porath, 2014; Waterman, 1994).
Changes in the business environment have made human resource management more
critical than ever. “A skilled and motivated work force providing the speed and flexibility
required by new market imperatives has increased the importance of human resource
management issues at a time when traditional sources of competitive advantage (quality,
technology, economies of scale, etc.) have become easier to imitate” (Becker and Huselid,
1998, p. 54). Yet many organizations still don’t believe it, and others only flirt with the
Something very strange is occurring in organizational management. Over the
past decade or so, numerous rigorous studies conducted both within specific
industries and in samples across industries have demonstrated the enormous
economic returns obtained through the execution of what are variously labeled
as high involvement, high performance, or high commitment management
practices . . . But even as positive results pile up, trends in actual management
practice are often moving exactly opposite to what the evidence advocates
(Pfeffer, 1998, p. xv).
Why would managers resist better ways of managing people? One reason is that Theory
X managers fear losing control or indulging workers. A second is that investing in people
requires time and persistence to yield a payoff. Faced with relentless pressure for immediate
results, executives often conclude that slashing costs, changing strategy, or reorganizing is
more likely to produce a quick hit. A third factor is the dominance of a “financial”
perspective that sees the organization as simply a portfolio of financial assets (Pfeffer, 1998).
In this view, human resources are subjective, soft, and suspect in comparison to hard
financial numbers.
Despite such barriers, many organizations get it right. They understand the need to develop
an approach to people that flows from the organization’s strategy and human capital needs
(Barrick et al., 2015; Becker and Huselid, 1998). Their practices are not perfect but good
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Exhibit 7.1.
Basic Human Resource Strategies.
Human Resource Principle Specific Practices
Build and implement an HR
Develop and share a clear philosophy for managing
Build systems and practices to implement the philosophy.
Hire the right people. Know what you want.
Be selective.
Keep them. Reward well.
Protect jobs.
Promote from within.
Share the wealth.
Invest in them. Invest in learning.
Create development opportunities.
Empower them. Provide information and support.
Encourage autonomy and participation.
Redesign work.
Foster self-managing teams.
Promote egalitarianism.
Promote diversity. Be explicit and consistent about the organization’s
diversity philosophy.
Hold managers accountable.
enough. The organization benefits from a talented, motivated, loyal, and free-spirited
workforce. Employees in turn are more productive, innovative, and willing to go out of their
way to get the job done. They are less likely to make costly blunders or to jump ship when
someone offers them a better deal. That’s a potent edge—in sports, business, or elsewhere.
Every organization with productive people management has its own distinct approach, but
most include variations on strategies summarized in Exhibit 7.1 and examined in depth in
the remainder of the chapter.
Develop and Implement an HR Philosophy
“Systematic and interrelated human resource management practices” provide a sustainable
competitive advantage. The key is a philosophy or credo that makes explicit an organization’s
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core beliefs about managing people (Becker and Huselid, 1998, p. 55). The credo then has
to be translated into specific management practices. Most organizations lack a philosophy,
or they ignore the one they claim to have. A philosophy provides direction; practices make
it real.
Wegmans, a supermarket chain in the northeastern United States that consistently gets
top marks for both customer satisfaction and employee well-being, has been on Fortune’s
list of the 100 Best Companies to Work every year since 1998. It offers a succinct statement
of “What We Believe:”
At Wegmans, we believe that good people, working toward a common goal, can
accomplish anything they set out to do.
In this spirit, we set our goal to be the very best at serving the needs of our
customers. Every action we take should be made with this in mind.
We also believe that we can achieve our goal only if we fulfill the needs of
our own people (Wegmans, 2016).
Hire the Right People
Strong companies know the kinds of people they want and hire those who fit the mold.
Southwest Airlines became the most successful carrier in the U.S. airline industry by hiring
people with positive attitudes and well-honed interpersonal skills, including a sense of
humor (Farkas and De Backer, 1996; Labich, 1994; Levering and Moskowitz, 1993). In one
case, interviewers asked a group of pilots applying for jobs at Southwest to change into
Bermuda shorts for the interviews. Two declined. They weren’t hired (Freiberg and Freiberg,
Even though Hertz had a 40-year head start, Enterprise overtook them in the 1990s to
become the biggest firm in the car rental business. Enterprise wooed its midmarket clientele
by deliberately hiring “from the half of the class that makes the top half possible”—college
graduates more successful in sports and socializing than the classroom. Recruiting for
people skills more than “book smarts” helped Enterprise build exceptional levels of
customer service (Pfeffer, 1998, p. 71). In contrast, Microsoft’s formidably bright CEO,
Bill Gates, insisted on “intelligence or smartness over anything else, even, in many cases,
experience” (Stross, 1996, p. 162). Google wants smarts, too, but believes teamwork is
equally important—one reason that its hiring is team-based (Schmidt and Varian, 2005).
The principle seems to apply globally, as illustrated by a study of successful midsized
companies in Germany (Simon, 1996). Turnover was rare in these firms except among new
hires: “Many new employees leave, or are terminated, shortly after joining the work force,
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both sides having learned that a worker does not fit into the firm’s culture and cannot stand
its pace” (p. 199). Zappos tries to accelerate the process by offering new hires a cash bonus to
quit after they complete the company’s orientation program. Few take the money and run,
but Zappos wants to keep only people who love the company’s idiosyncratic culture.
Keep Employees
To get people they want, companies like Google, Southwest Airlines, and Wegmans offer
attractive pay and benefits. To keep them, they protect jobs, promote from within, and give
people a piece of the action. They recognize the high cost of turnover—which for some jobs
and industries can run well over 100 percent a year. Beyond the cost of hiring and training
replacements, turnover hurts performance because newcomers’ lack of experience, skills,
and local knowledge increases errors and reduces efficiency (Kacmar et al., 2006). This is
true even at the CEO level. CEOs who move from one organization to another perform less
well on average than those who are hired from inside (Elson and Ferrere, 2012).
Reward Well
In a cavernous, no-frills retail warehouse setting, where bulk sales determine stockholder
profits, knowledgeable, dependable service usually isn’t part of the low-cost package. Don’t
try to tell that to Costco Wholesale Corp., where employee longevity and high morale are as
commonplace as overloaded shopping carts. “We like to turn over our inventory faster than
our people,” says Jim Sinegal, Costco founder and CEO until he retired in 2012. Costco, a
membership warehouse store headquartered in Washington State, by 2016 had become the
world’s second largest retailer (after Walmart) with more than 700 stores across the United
States and beyond.
Costco has a counterintuitive success formula: Pay employees more and charge customers
less than its biggest competitor, Sam’s Club (a Walmart subsidiary). A great way to lose
money? Costco has been the industry’s most profitable firm in recent years. How? In Sinegal’s
view, the answer is easy: “If you pay the best wages, you get the highest productivity. By our
industry standards, we think we’ve got the best people and the best productivity when we do
that.”Costcopaiditsemployeesabout70percentmorethanSam’sClubbutgenerated twiceas
much profit per worker (Cascio, 2006). Compared with competitors, Costco achieved higher
sales volumes, faster inventory turnover, lower shrinkage, and higher customer satisfaction
(RetailSails 2012; American Customer Satisfaction Index, 2016). Costco illustrates a general
principle: Pay should reflect value added. Paying people more than they contribute is a losing
proposition. But the reverse is also true: It makes sense to pay top dollar for exemplary
contributions of skilled, motivated, and involved employees (Lawler, 1996).
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“This is the lesson Costco teaches,” says retailing guru Doug Stephens. “You
don’t have to be Nordstrom selling $1,200 suits in order to pay people a living
wage. That is what Walmart has lost sight of. A lot of people working at
Walmart go home and live below the poverty line. You expect that person to
come in and develop a rapport with customers who may be spending more than
that person is making in a week? You expect them to be civil and happy about
that?” (Stone, 2013).
To get and keep good people, selective organizations also offer attractive benefits. Firms
with “high-commitment” human resource practices are more likely to offer work and family
benefits, such as daycare and flexible hours (Osterman, 1995). Take software powerhouse
Just about every benefit known to corporate America—on-site child care,
swimming pools, medical clinics, fitness centers, car detailings, nail salons,
shoe repairs—are on offer at this software company based in Research Triangle
Park, North Carolina. Said one employee: “I get massages, pick up prescriptions,
get my hair done, take photography classes, get physical therapy. The list is
endless.” But the employee quickly added: “It’s not just about the ‘what.’ It’s
about the place itself. The campus is beautiful and quite tranquil. I can take a
walk during lunch and find myself far away. I know it sounds corny, but I enjoy
just driving into campus in the morning” (Fortune: SAS Institute, 2016).
Why spend that much? In an industry where turnover rates hover around 20 percent,
SAS maintains a level below 4 percent, which results in about $50 million a year in HR-
related savings, according to a Harvard Business School study. “The well-being of our
company is linked to the well-being of our employees,” says SAS CEO Jim Goodnight (Stein,
2000, p. 133).
Protect Jobs
Job security might seem anachronistic today, a relic of more leisurely, paternalistic
times. In a turbulent, highly competitive world, is long-term commitment to employees
possible? Yes, but it’s not easy. Companies (and even countries) historically offering
long-term security have abandoned their commitment in the face of severe economic
pressures. During the first year of the recession of 2008–2009, American businesses laid
off close to 2.5 million workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). In China, a
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government report counted more than 25 million layoffs from 1998 to 2001, many of
them unskilled older workers (“China Says ‘No’ . . . ,” 2002; Lingle, 2002; Smith, 2002).
Many state-owned enterprises foundered when economic reforms forced them to sink or
swim in a competitive market.
Yet many firms continue to honor job security as a cornerstone of their human resource
philosophy. Publix, an employee-owned, Fortune 500 supermarket chain in the southeastern
United States, has never had a layoff since its founding in 1930. Similarly, Lincoln Electric, the
world’s largest manufacturer of arc welding equipment, has honored since 1914 a policy that
noemployeewithmore thanthree yearsof servicewillbelaid off.Thiscommitment was tested
when the company experienced a 40-percentyear-to-year dropin demand for its products. To
avoid layoffs, production workers became salespeople. They canvassed businesses rarely
reached by the company’s regular distribution channels. “Not only did these people sell arc
welding equipment in new places to new users, but since much of the profit of this equipment
comes from the sale of replacement parts, Lincoln subsequently enjoyed greater market
penetration and greater sales as a consequence” (Pfeffer, 1994, p. 47).
Japan’s Mazda, facing similar circumstances, had a parallel experience: “At the end of the
year, when awards were presented to the best salespeople, the company discovered that the
top 10 were all former factory workers. They could explain the product effectively, and when
business picked up, the fact that factory workers had experience talking to customers yielded
useful ideas about product characteristics” (Pfeffer, 1994, p. 47).
Promote from Within
Costco promotes more than 80 percent of its managers from inside the company, and 90
percent of managers at FedEx started in a nonmanagerial job. Promoting from within offers
several advantages (Pfeffer, 1998):
• It encourages both management and employees to invest time and resources in
upgrading skills.
• It is a powerful performance incentive.
• It fosters trust and loyalty.
• It capitalizes on knowledge and skills of veteran employees.
• It avoids errors by newcomers unfamiliar with the company’s history and proven ways.
• It increasesthelikelihoodthatemployeeswillthinkforthelongertermandavoidimpetuous,
shortsighted decisions. Highly successful corporations rarely hire a chief executive from the
outside; less effective companies do so regularly (Collins and Porras, 1994).
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Share the Wealth
Employees often feel little responsibility for an organization’s performance because they
expect gains in efficiency and profitability to benefit only executives and shareholders. People-
oriented organizations have devised a variety of ways to align employee rewards more directly
with business success. These include gain-sharing, profit-sharing, and employee stock
ownership plans (ESOPs). Scanlon plans, first introduced in the 1930s, give workers an
incentive to reduce costs and improve efficiency by offering them a share of gains. Profit-
sharing plans at companies like Nucor give employees a bonus tied to overallprofitability orto
the performance of their local unit.
Both gain-sharing and profit-sharing plans usually have a positive impact on performance
and profitability,although some have worked better than others. Success depends on how well
these plans are integrated into a coherent human resource philosophy. Kanter (1989a)
suggests that gain-sharing plans have spread slowly because they require broader changes in
managing people: cross-unit teams, suggestion systems, and more open communication of
financial information (Kanter, 1989a). Similar barriers have slowed the progress of ESOPs:
To be effective, ownership has to be combined with ground-floor efforts to involve
employees in decisions through schemes such as work teams and quality-
improvement groups. Many companies have been doing this, of course, including
plenty without ESOPs. But employee-owners often begin to expect rights that
other groups of shareholders have: a voice in broad corporate decisions, board
seats, and voting rights. And that’s where thetroublecan start,since few executives
are comfortable with this level of power-sharing (Bernstein, 1996, p. 101).
Nevertheless, there have been many successful ESOPs. Thousands of firms participate
(Rosen, Case, and Staubus, 2005), and most of the plans have been successful (Blasi, Kruse,
and Bernstein, 2003; Blair, Kruse, and Blasi, 2000; Kruse, Blasi, and Park, 2010). Employee
ownership tends to be a durable arrangement and to make the company more stable—less
likely to fail, be sold, or to lay off employees (Blair, Kruse, and Blasi, 2000). When first
introduced, employee ownership tends to produce productivity gains that persist over time
(Kruse, 1993). A plan’s success depends on effective implementation of three elements of the
“equity model” (Rosen et al., 2005, p. 19):
• Employees must have a significant ownership share in the company.
• The organization needs to build an “ownership culture” (p. 34).
• It is important that “employees both learn and drive the business disciplines that help
their company do well” (p. 38).
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All those characteristics can be found at Publix, America’s largest employee-owned
business. Publix has become a fixture on Fortune’s list of most admired companies and its
list of best places to work, while achieving the highest customer satisfaction ratings in its
industry (American Customer Satisfaction Index, 2016).
Bonus and profit-sharing plans spread rapidly in the boom years of the 1990s. The
benefits often went mostly to top managers, but many successful firms shared benefits
more widely. Skeptics noted a significant downside risk to profit-sharing plans: They
work when there are rewards but breed disappointment and anger if the company
experiences a financial downturn. A famous example is United Airlines, whose employ­
ees took a 15-percent pay cut in return for 55-percent ownership of the company in
1994. Initially, it was a huge success. Employees were enthusiastic when the stock soared
to almost $100 a share. But, like most airlines, United experienced a financial crunch
after 9/11. Employees were crushed when bankruptcy left their shares worthless and
their pensions underfunded.
Invest in Employees
Undertrained workers harm organizations in many ways: shoddy quality, poor service,
higher costs, and costly mistakes. A high proportion of petrochemical industry accidents
involve contract employees (Pfeffer, 1994), and in postinvasion Iraq some of America’s
more damaging mistakes were the work of private security contractors, who often had less
training and discipline than their military counterparts.
Many organizations are reluctant to invest in developing human capital. The costs of
training are immediate and easy to measure; the benefits are long term and less certain.
Training temporary or contract workers carries added disincentives. Yet many companies
report a sizable return on their training investment. An internal study at Motorola, for
instance, found a gain of $29 for every dollar invested in sales training (Waterman, 1994),
and an analysis of the effects of training programs over the period 1960 to 2000 found
consistently positive effects, “comparable to or larger than other organizational interven­
tions designed to improve performance” (Pfeffer, 2007, p. 30).
Empower Employees
Progressive organizations give power to employees as well as invest in their development.
Empowerment includes keeping employees informed, but it doesn’t stop there. It also
involves encouraging autonomy and participation, redesigning work, fostering teams,
promoting egalitarianism, and infusing work with meaning.
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Provide Information and Support
A key factor in Enron’s dizzying collapse was that few people fully understood its financial
picture. Eight months before the crash, Fortune reporter Bethany McLean asked CEO
Jeffrey Skilling, “How, exactly, does Enron make money?” Her March 2001 article in
Fortune pointed out that the company’s financial reports were almost impenetrable and the
stock price could implode if the company missed its earnings forecasts.
Over the last few decades, a philosophy sometimes called “open-book management” has
begun to take root in progressive companies. The movement was inspired by the near-death
experience of an obscure plant in Missouri, Springfield Remanufacturing (now SRC
Holdings). SRC was created in 1983 when a group of managers and employees purchased
it from International Harvester for about $100,000 in cash and $9 million in debt. It was one
of history’s most highly leveraged buyouts (Pfeffer, 1998; Stack and Burlingham, 1994). Less
debt had strangled many companies, and CEO Jack Stack figured the business could make it
only with everyone’s best efforts. He developed the open-book philosophy as a way to
survive. The system was built around three basic principles (Case, 1995):
• All employees at every level should see and learn to understand financial and perform­
ance measures.
• Employees are encouraged to think like owners, doing whatever they can to improve the
• Everyone gets a piece of the action—a stake in the company’s financial success.
Open-book management works for several reasons. First, it sends a clear signal that
management trusts people. Second, it creates a powerful incentive for employees to
contribute. They can see the big picture—how their work affects the bottom line and
how the bottom line affects them. Finally, it furnishes information they need to do a better
job. If efficiency is dropping, scrap is increasing, or a certain product has stopped selling,
employees can pinpoint the problem and correct it.
Open-book strategies have been applied mostly in relatively small companies, but they’ve
also worked for Whole Foods, the natural foods supermarket chain, and Hilcorp, the largest
privately owned U.S. business in the oil and gas industry. Whole Foods “collects and
distributes information to an extent that would be unimaginable almost anywhere else.
Sensitive figures on store sales, team sales, profit margins, even salaries, are available to every
person in every location” (Fishman, 1996a). Hilcorp attained notoriety in December, 2015,
when CEO Jeffrey Hildebrand came through on his promise to give every employee
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$100,000 if the company met its five-year goals to “to double Hilcorp’s oilfield production
rate, net oil and gas reserves, and equity value.” The bonuses cost Hildebrand more than
$100 million, but he could afford it—the company’s success had made him a very wealthy
man. The checks went out in time for Christmas.
Encourage Autonomy and Participation
Information is necessary but not sufficient to fully engage employees. The work itself
needs to offer opportunities for autonomy, influence, and intrinsic rewards. The Theory X
approach assumes that managers make decisions and employees follow orders. Treated
like children, employees behave accordingly. As companies have faced up to the costs
of this downward spiral in motivation and productivity, they have developed
programs under the generic label of participation to give workers more opportunity
to influence decisions about work and working conditions. The results have often been
A classic illustration comes from a group of women who painted dolls in a toy factory
(Whyte, 1955). In a newly reengineered process, each woman took a toy from a tray, painted
it, and put it on a passing hook. The women received an hourly rate, a group bonus, and a
learning bonus. Although management expected little difficulty, production was disap­
pointing and morale took a dive. Workers complained that the room was too hot and the
hooks moved too fast.
Reluctantly, the foreman followed a consultant’s advice and met face to face with the
employees. After hearing the women’s complaints, he agreed to bring in fans. Though he
and the engineer who designed the manufacturing process expected no benefit, morale
improved. Discussions continued, and the employees came up with a radical suggestion: let
them control the belt’s speed. The engineer was vehemently opposed; he had carefully
calculated the optimal speed. The foreman was skeptical but agreed to give the suggestion a
try. The employees developed a complicated production schedule: start slow at the
beginning of the day, increase the speed once they had warmed up, slow it down before
lunch, and so on.
Results were stunning. Morale skyrocketed. Production increased far beyond the most
optimistic calculations. That became a problem when the women’s bonuses escalated to the
point that they were earning more than workers with more skill and experience. The
experiment ended unhappily. The women’s high pay created dissension in the ranks.
Instead of trying to expand a concept that had worked so well, management chose to restore
harmony by reverting to a fixed speed for the belt. Production plunged, morale plummeted,
and most of the women quit.
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Successful examples of participative experiments have multiplied across sectors and
around the globe. A Venezuelan example is illustrative. Historically, the nation’s health care
was provided by a two-tier system: small-scale, high-quality private care for the affluent and
a large public health care system for others. The public system, operated by the ministry of
health, was in a state of perpetual crisis. It suffered from overcentralization, chronic deficits,
poor hygiene, decaying facilities, and constant theft of everything from cotton balls to X-ray
machines (Palumbo, 1991). A small group of health care providers founded Ascardio to
provide cardiac care in a rural area (Palumbo, 1991; Malavé, 1995). Participation was a key
to remarkably high standards of patient care. A key innovation was the General Assembly,
which brought together doctors, technical staff, workers, board members, and community
representatives where they discussed everything from individual performance issues to the
system-wide implications of salary increases ordered by the President of Venezuela (Malavé,
1995, p. 16). Arteta (2006) argued that Ascardio’s skill at learning has helped it to survive
and grow in a very turbulent environment as Venezuela lurched from one economic and
political crisis to another.
Studies of participation show it to be a powerful tool to increase both morale and
productivity (Appelbaum et al., 2000; Blumberg, 1968; Katzell and Yankelovich, 1975;
Levine and Tyson, 1990). A study of three industries—steel, apparel, and medical instru­
ments—found participation consistently associated with higher performance (Appelbaum
et al., 2000). Workers in high-performance plants had more confidence in management,
liked their jobs better, and received higher pay. The authors suggested that participation
improves productivity through two mechanisms: increasing effectiveness of individual
workers and enhancing organizational learning (Appelbaum et al., 2000).
Lam, Huang, and Chan (2015) found that participation only works when it rises above
a threshold level—managers need to be fully committed, and to include information
sharing and effective leadership in the package. Efforts at fostering participation have
sometimes failed because of managers’ ambivalence—even if they like the idea, they often
fear subordinates will abuse it. When managers are conflicted, participation is often more
rhetoric than reality (Argyris, 1998; Argyris and Schön, 1996) and turns into “bogus
empowerment” (Ciulla, 1998, p. 63; Heller, 2003). Without realizing it, managers often
mandate participation in a controlling, top-down fashion, sending mixed messages—“It’s
your decision, but do what I want.” Such contradictions virtually guarantee failure. Fast,
Burris, and Bartel (2014) report that the less confidence managers had in their own
effectiveness, the less likely they were to welcome employee input. That suggests that
insecure, defensive managers set up a self-destructive spiral: They need help but avoid
getting it.
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Redesign Work
In the name of efficiency, many organizations spent much of the twentieth century trying to
oust the human element by designing jobs to be simple, repetitive, and low skill. The
analogue in education is “teacher-proof” curricula and prescribed teaching techniques.
When such approaches dampen motivation and enthusiasm, managers and reformers
habitually blame workers or teachers for being uncooperative and resistant to change. Only
in the late twentieth century did opinion shift toward the view that problems might have
more to do with jobs than with workers. A key moment occurred when a young English
social scientist took a trip to a coal mine:
In 1949 trade unionist and former coal miner Ken Bamforth, a postgraduate
fellow training for industrial fieldwork in London, was encouraged to return to
his former industry to report on work organization. At a newly opened coal
seam, Bamforth noticed an interesting development. Technical improvements
in roof control had made it possible to mine “shortwall,” and the men in the pits,
with the support of their union, proposed to reorganize the work process.
Instead of each miner being responsible for a separate task, as was the custom,
workers organized relatively autonomous groups. Small groups rotated tasks
and shifts among themselves with a minimum of supervision. To take advantage
of new technical opportunities, they revived a tradition of small group
autonomy and responsibility dominant in the days before mechanization
(Sirianni, 1995, p. 1).
Bamforth’s observations helped to spur the “sociotechnical systems” movement (Rice,
1953; Trist and Bamforth, 1951), which sought to integrate structural and human resource
considerations. Trist and Bamforth noted that the old method isolated individual workers
and disrupted informal groupings that offered potent social support in a difficult and
dangerous environment. They argued for the creation of “composite” work groups, in which
individuals would be cross-trained in multiple jobs so each group could work relatively
autonomously. Their approach made only modest headway in England in the 1950s but got
a boost when two Tavistock researchers, Eric Trist and Fred Emery, were invited to Norway.
Their ideas were welcomed, and Norway became a pioneer in work redesign.
At about the same time, in a pioneering American study, Frederick Herzberg (1966)
asked employees about their best and worst work experiences. “Good feelings” stories
featured achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, and learning; Herzberg
called these motivators. “Bad feelings” stories clustered around company policy and
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administration, supervision, and working conditions; Herzberg labeled these hygiene
factors. Motivators dealt mostly with work itself; hygiene factors bunched up around
the work context. Herzberg concluded that attempts to motivate workers with better pay
and fringe benefits, communications programs, or human relations training missed the
point. Instead, he saw “job enrichment” as central to motivation. Enrichment meant giving
workers more freedom and authority, more feedback, and greater challenges.
Hackman and his colleagues extended Herzberg’s ideas by identifying three critical
factors in job redesign: “Individuals need (1) to see their work as meaningful and
worthwhile, more likely when jobs produce a visible and useful ‘whole,’ (2) to use discretion
and judgment so they can feel personally accountable for results, and (3) to receive feedback
about their efforts so they can improve” (Hackman et al., 1987, p. 320).
Experiments with job redesign have grown significantly in recent decades. Many efforts
have been successful, some resoundingly so (Kopelman, 1985; Lawler, 1986; Yorks and
Whitsett, 1989; Pfeffer, 1994; Parker and Wall, 1998; Mohr and Zoghi, 2006). Typically, job
enrichment has a stronger impact on quality than on productivity. Workers find more
satisfaction in doing good work than in simply working harder (Lawler, 1986). Most
workers prefer redesigned jobs, although some still favor old ways. Hackman emphasized
that employees with “high growth needs” would welcome job enrichment, while others with
“low growth needs” would not. Organizational context also makes a difference. Job redesign
produced greater benefit in situations where working conditions were poor to begin with
(Morgeson et al., 2006).
Recent decades have witnessed a gradual reduction in dreary, unchallenging jobs.
Routine work has been increasingly redesigned or turned over to machines, robots, and
computers. But significant obstacles block the progress of job enrichment, and monotonous
jobs will not soon disappear. One barrier is the lingering belief that technical imperatives
make simple, repetitive work efficient and cheap. Another is the belief that workers produce
more in a Theory X environment. A third barrier is economic; many jobs cannot be altered
without major investments in redesigning physical plant and machinery. A fourth barrier is
illustrated in the doll-manufacturing experiment: When it works, job enrichment leads to
pressures for system-wide change. Workers with enriched jobs often develop higher
opinions of themselves. They may demand more—sometimes increased benefits, other
times career opportunities or training for new tasks (Lawler, 1986).
Foster Self-Managing Teams
From the beginning, the sociotechnical systems perspective emphasized a close connection
between work design and teamwork. Another influential early advocate of teaming was
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Rensis Likert, who argued in 1961 that an organization chart should depict not a hierarchy
of individual jobs but a set of interconnected teams.1 Each team would be highly effective in
its own right and linked to other teams via individuals who served as “linking pins.” It took
decades for such ideas to take hold, but an increasing number of firms now embrace the
idea. One is Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain discussed in Chapter 5. The firm cites
“featured team members” on its website, and its “Declaration of Interdependence” pledges,
“We Support Team Member Excellence and Happiness.”
The central idea in the autonomous team approach is giving groups responsibility for a
meaningful whole—a product, subassembly, or complete service—with ample autonomy
and resources and with collective accountability for results. Teams meet regularly to
determine work assignments, scheduling, and current production. Supervision typically
rests with a team leader, who may be appointed or may emerge from the group. Levels of
authority and discretion vary across situations. Some teams have authority to hire, fire,
determine pay rates, specify work methods, and manage inventory. In other cases, the
team’s scope of decision making is narrower, focusing on issues of production, quality, and
work methods.
The human resource concept of teams overlaps with the structural approach to teams
(Chapter 5) but emphasizes that teams rarely work without ample training. Workers need
group skills and a broader range of technical skills so that each member understands and
can perform someone else’s job. “Pay for skills” gives team members an incentive to keep
expanding their range of competencies (Manz and Sims, 1995).
Promote Egalitarianism
Egalitarianism implies a democratic workplace where employees are an integral part of the
decision-making process. This idea goes beyond participation, often viewed as a matter of
style and climate rather than shared authority. Even in participative systems, managers still
make key decisions. Broader, more egalitarian sharing of power is resisted worldwide
(Heller, 2003). Managers have often resisted organizational democracy—the idea of
building worker participation into the formal structure to protect it from management
interference. Most U.S. firms report some form of employee involvement, but the
approaches (such as a suggestion box or quality circle) “do not fundamentally change
the level of decision-making authority extended to the lowest levels of the organization”
(Ledford, 1993, p. 148). American organizations make less use of workforce involvement
than evidence of effectiveness warrants (Pfeffer, 1998; Ledford, 1993).
Formal efforts to democratize the workplace are more common in some parts of
Europe. Norway, for example, legally mandated worker participation in decision making
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in 1977 (Elden, 1983, 1986). Major corporations pioneered efforts to democratize and
improve the quality of work life. Three decades later, the results of the “Norwegian
model” look impressive—Norway came in at number one on the 2017 World Happiness
Report (Worldhappiness.report, 2017) and is regularly at or near the top of rankings for
“best country to live in,” with a strong economy, broad prosperity, low unemployment,
and excellent health care (Barstad, Ellingsen, and Hellevik, 2005; Garfield, 2015).
The Brazilian manufacturer Semco offers another dramatic illustration of organizational
democracy in action (Killian, Perez, and Siehl, 1998; Semler, 1993). Ricardo Semler took over
the company from his father in the 1980s and gradually evolved an unorthodox philosophy of
management. At Semco, workers hire new employees, evaluate bosses, and vote on major
decisions. In one instance, employees voted to purchase an abandoned factory that Semler
didn’t want and then proceeded to turn it into a big success. “In a 10-year recessionary period
in Brazil, Semco’s revenues still grew 600 percent, profits were up 500 percent, productivity
was up700 percent,and for the last 20+ years, employeeturnoverremains at anincredibly low
1–2 percent per year. They have no managers, no HR department, no written policies (just a
few written beliefs) and no office hours. Everyone works in small, self-motivated, self-
managed work teams who make their own decisions regarding salary, hiring, firing, and who
leads the team for the next six months” (Blakeman, 2014).
Is organizational democracy worth the effort? Harrison and Freeman (2004) conclude
that the answer is yes. Even if it does not produce economic gains, it produces other
benefits such as reduced stress (Kalleberg, Nesheim, and Olsen, 2009). Still, many
managers and union leaders oppose the idea because they fear losing prerogatives they
see as essential to success. Union leaders and critical management theorists sometimes
argue that democracy is a management ploy to get workers to accept gimmicks in place of
gains in wages and benefits or as a wedge that might come between workers and their
Organizations that stop short of formal democracy can still become more egalitarian by
reducing both real and symbolic status differences (Pfeffer, 1994, 1998). In most organiza­
tions, it is easy to discern an individual’s place in the pecking order from such cues as office
size and access to perks like limousines and corporate jets. Organizations that invest in
people, by contrast, often reinforce participation and job redesign by replacing symbols of
hierarchy with symbols of cooperation and equality. Semco, for example, has no organiza­
tion chart, secretaries, or personal assistants. Top executives type letters and make their own
photocopies. Nucor has no executive dining rooms, and the chief executive “flies commer­
cial, manages without an executive parking space, and really does make the coffee in the
office when he takes the last cup” (Byrnes and Arndt, 2006, p. 60).
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Reducing symbolic differences is helpful, but reducing material disparities is important
as well. A controversial issue is the pay differential between workers and management. In
the 1980s, Peter Drucker suggested that no leader should earn more than 20 times the pay of
the lowest-paid worker. He reasoned that outsized gaps undermine trust and devalue
workers. Corporate America paid little heed. In 1980, big-company CEOs earned about 40
times as much as the average worker. By 2015, with an average annual compensation of
$13.8 million, they were earning more than 200 times as much (Chamberlain, 2015). In the
year it went bankrupt, Enron was a pioneer in the golden paycheck movement, handing out
a total of $283 million to its five top executives (Ackman, 2002). The controversial drug
company, Mylan, which came under fire in 2016 for stunning price increases on its most
profitable product, the EpiPen, paid its top five managers a total of $300 million over five-
year period—significantly more generous than much bigger and more profitable competi­
tors like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer (Maremont, 2016).
In contrast, a number of progressive companies, such as Costco, Whole Foods, and
Southwest Airlines, have traditionally underpaid their CEOs by comparison with their
competitors. Whole Foods Markets limits executives’ pay to 19 times the average
employee salary, and CEO John Mackey asked the board in 2007 to set his salary at
$1/year (Gaar, 2010). It was newsworthy that Southwest’s CEO received “less than $1
million in 2006 even as the carrier posted its 34th straight year of profits” (Roberts, 2007).
In the same year, United Airlines, fresh out of bankruptcy, unintentionally united all five
of its unions in protest against the estimated take-home pay of $39 million for its CEO
(Moyers, 2007).
Promote Diversity
A good workplace is serious about treating everyone well—workers as well as executives;
women as well as men; Asians, African Americans, and Hispanics as well as whites; gay as
well as straight employees. Sometimes companies support diversity because they think it’s
the right thing to do. Others do it more grudgingly because of bad publicity, a lawsuit, or
government pressure.
In 1994, Denny’s Restaurants suffered a public relations disaster and paid $54 million to
settle discrimination lawsuits. The bill was even higher for Shoney’s, at $134 million. Both
restaurant chains got religion as a result (Colvin, 1999). So did Coca-Cola, which settled a
class action suit by African American employees for $192 million in November 2000 (Kahn,
2001), and Texaco, after the company’s stock value dropped by half a billion dollars in the
wake of a controversy over racism (Colvin, 1999).
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Denny’s transformation was so thorough that the company has frequently appeared on
lists of best companies for minorities (Esposito et al., 2002; Daniels et al., 2004).
In the end, it makes good business sense for companies to promote diversity. If a
company devalues certain groups, word tends to get out and customers become alienated. In
the United States, more than half of consumers and workers are female, and about one
fourth are Asian, African American, or Latino. California, New Mexico, and Texas are the
first states in which non-Hispanic whites are no longer a majority—except for multiethnic
Hawaii, in which whites have never been a majority. The same will eventually be true of the
United States as a whole. When talent matters, it is tough to build a workforce if your
business practices write off a sizable portion of potential employees. That’s one reason so
many public agencies in the United States have long-standing commitments to diversity.
One of the most successful is the U.S. Army, as exemplified in Colin Powell’s ability to rise
through the ranks to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff and subsequently to become the nation’s
secretary of state.
In industries where talent is a vital competitive edge, private employers have moved
aggressively to accommodate gay employees:
As a high-profile supporter of gay rights, Raytheon of course provides health-
care benefits to the domestic partners of its gay employees. It does a lot more,
too. The company supports a wide array of gay-rights groups, including the
Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-advocacy group. Its
employees march under the Raytheon banner at gay-pride celebrations
and AIDS walks. And it belongs to gay chambers of commerce in communi­
ties where it has big plants. Why? Because the competition to hire and retain
engineers and other skilled workers is so brutal that Raytheon doesn’t want to
overlook anyone. To attract openly gay workers, who worry about discrimi­
nation, a company like Raytheon needs to hang out a big welcome sign.
“Over the next ten years we’re going to need anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000
new employees,” explains Heyward Bell, Raytheon’s chief diversity officer.
“We can’t afford to turn our back on anyone in the talent pool” (Gunther,
2006, p. 94).
Promoting diversity comes down to focus and persistence. Forward-looking organiza­
tions take it seriously and build it into day-to-day management. They tailor recruiting
practices to diversify the candidate pool. They develop a variety of internal diversity
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initiatives, such as mentoring programs to help people learn the ropes and get ahead. They
tie executive bonuses to success in diversifying the workforce. They work hard at
eliminating the glass ceiling. They diversify their board of directors. They buy from
minority vendors. It takes more than lip service, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Many
organizations still don’t get the picture, but others have made impressive strides.
Noble human resource practices are more often espoused than implemented. Why? One
problem is managerial ambivalence. Progressive practices cost money and alter the
relationship between superiors and subordinates. Managers are skeptical about a getting
a positive return on the investment and fearful of losing control. Moreover, execution
requires levels of skill and understanding that are often in short supply. Beginning as far
back as the 1950s, chronic difficulties in improving life at work spurred the rise of the field of
organization development (OD), an array of ideas and techniques designed to help
managers convert intention to reality.
Group Interventions
Working in the 1930s and 1940s, social psychologist Kurt Lewin pioneered the idea that
change efforts should emphasize the group rather than the individual (Burnes, 2006). His
work was instrumental in the development of a provocative and historically influential
group intervention: sensitivity training in “T-groups.” The T-group (T for training) was a
serendipitous discovery. At a conference on race relations in the late 1940s, participants met
in groups, and researchers in each group observed and took notes. In the evening,
researchers reported their observations to program staff. Participants got wind of it, and
asked to be included in these evening sessions. They were fascinated to hear new and
surprising things about themselves and their behavior. Researchers recognized that they had
discovered something important and developed a program of “human relations laborato­
ries.” Trainers and participants joined in small groups, working together and learning from
their work at the same time.
As word spread, T-groups began to supplant lectures as a way to develop human
relations skills. But research indicated that T-groups were better at changing individuals
than organizations (Gibb, 1975; Campbell and Dunnette, 1968), and practitioners
experimented with a variety of new methods, including “conflict laboratories” for
situations involving friction among organizational units and “team-building” programs
to help groups work more effectively. “Future search” (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995), “open
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space” (Owen, 1993, 1995), and other large-group designs (Bunker and Alban, 1996,
2006) brought sizable numbers of people to work on key challenges together. Mirvis
(2006, 2014) observes that even though the T-group itself may have become passé, it gave
birth to an enormous range of workshops and training activities that are now a standard
part of organizational life.
One famous example of a large-group intervention is the “Work-Out” conferences
initiated by Jack Welch when he was CEO of General Electric. Frustrated by the slow pace of
change in his organization, Welch convened a series of town hall meetings, typically with
100 to 200 employees, to identify and resolve issues “that participants thought were dumb, a
waste of time, or needed to be changed” (Bunker and Alban, 1996, p. 170). Decisions had to
be reached on the spot. The conferences were generally viewed as highly successful and
spread throughout the company.
Survey Feedback
In the late 1940s, researchers at the University of Michigan began to develop surveys to
measure patterns in organizational behavior. They focused on motivation, communication,
leadership, and organizational climate (Burke, 2006). Rensis Likert helped found the Survey
Research Center at the University of Michigan and produced a 1961 book, New Patterns of
Management, that became a classic in the human resource tradition. Likert’s survey data
confirmed earlier research showing that “employee-centered” supervisors, who focused
more on people and relationships, typically managed higher-producing units than “job­
centered” supervisors, who ignored human issues, made decisions themselves, and dictated
to subordinates.
The research paved the way for survey feedback as an approach to organizational
improvement. The process begins with questionnaires aimed at people issues. The results
are tabulated, then shared with managers. The data might show, for example, that
information within a unit flows well but that decisions are made in the wrong place
and employees don’t feel that management listens. Members of the work unit, perhaps with
the help of a consultant, discuss the results and explore how to improve effectiveness. A
variant on the survey feedback model, increasingly standard in organizations, is 360-degree
feedback, in which managers get survey feedback about how they are seen by subordinates,
peers, and superiors.
Evolution of OD
T-groups and survey research spawned the field of organizational development (OD) in the
1950s and 1960s. Since then, OD has continued to evolve as a discipline (Burke, 2006;
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Gallos, 2006; Mirvis, 1988, 2006). In 1965, few managers had heard of OD; 30 years later,
few had not. Most major organizations (particularly in the United States) have experi­
mented with OD: General Motors, the U.S. Postal Service, IBM, the Internal Revenue
Service, Texas Instruments, Exxon, and the U.S. Navy have all developed their own versions.
Surveying the field in 2006, Mirvis saw significant innovation and ferment emanating
from both academic visionaries and passionate “disciples” (Mirvis, 2006, p. 87). He also saw
“exciting possibilities in the spread of OD to emerging markets and countries; its broader
applications to peace making, social justice, and community building, and its deeper
penetration into the mission of organizations” (p. 88). Returning to the same question in
2014, Mirvis found a similar answer: “[S]omething more—concepts extending beyond
conventional behavioral science—has led to revolutionary advances in the practice of
change in the past two decades” (Mirvis, 2014, p. 371). Among those advances, he mentions
appreciative inquiry and ideas from the arts, spirituality, and chaos-and-complexity science.
When individuals find satisfaction and meaning in work, organizations profit from the
effective use of their talent and energy. But when satisfaction and meaning are lacking,
individuals withdraw, resist, or rebel. In the end, everyone loses. Progressive organizations
implement a variety of “high-involvement” strategies for improving human resource
management. Some approaches strengthen the bond between individual and organization
by paying well, offering job security, promoting from within, training the workforce, and
sharing the fruits of organizational success. Others empower workers and give work more
significance through participation, job enrichment, teaming, egalitarianism, and diversity.
No single method is likely to be effective by itself. Success typically requires a comprehensive
strategy undergirded by a long-term human resource management philosophy. Ideas and
practices from organization development often play a significant role in supporting the
evolution of more comprehensive and effective human resource practices.
1. Likert pronounced his last name Lick-ert.
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c h a p t e r
Interpersonal and
Group Dynamics
Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together
is progress. Working together is success.
—Henry Ford
Anne Barreta
Anne Barreta was excited but scared when she became the first woman and the first Hispanic
American ever promoted to district marketing manager at the Hillcrest Corporation. She knew
she could do the job, but she expected to be under a microscope. Her boss, Steve Carter, was
very supportive. Others were less enthusiastic—like the coworker who smiled as he patted her on
the shoulder and said, “Congratulations! I just wish I was an affirmative action candidate.”
Anne was responsible for one of two districts in the same city. Her counterpart in the other
district, Harry Reynolds, was 25 years older and had been with Hillcrest 20 years longer. Some
said that the term “good old boy” could have been invented to describe Harry. Usually genial, he
had a temper that flared quickly when someone got in his way. Anne tried to maintain a positive
and professional relationship but often found Harry to be condescending and arrogant.
Things came to a head one afternoon as Anne, Harry, and their immediate subordinates
were discussing marketing plans. Anne and Harry were disagreeing politely. Mark, one of Anne’s
subordinates, tried to support her views, but Harry kept cutting him off. Anne saw Mark’s
frustration building, but she was still surprised when he angrily told Harry, “If you’d listen to
anyone besides yourself and think a little before you open your mouth, we’d make a lot more
progress.” With barely controlled fury, Harry declared that “this meeting is adjourned” and
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(continued )
A day later, Harry phoned to demand that Anne fire Mark. Anne tried to reason with him,
but Harry was adamant. Worried about the fallout, Anne talked to Steve, their mutual boss. He
agreed that firing Mark was too drastic but suggested a reprimand. Anne agreed and informed
Harry. He again became angry and shouted, “If you want to get along in this company, you’d
better fire that guy!” Anne calmly replied that Mark reported to her. Harry’s final words were,
“You’ll regret this!”
Three months later, Steve called Anne to a private meeting. “I just learned,” he said, “that
someone’s been spreading a rumor that I promoted you because you and I are having an affair.”
Anne was stunned by a jumble of feelings—confusion, rage, surprise, shame. She groped for
words, but none came.
“It’s crazy, I know,” Steve continued. “But the company hired a private detective to check it
out. Of course, they didn’t find anything. So they’re dropping it. But some of the damage is
already done. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure who’s behind it.”
“Harry?” Anne asked.
“Who else?”
Managers spend most of their time relating to other people—in conversations
and meetings, in groups and committees, over coffee or lunch, on the phone, or
on the net (Kanter, 1989b; Kotter, 1982; Mintzberg, 1973; Watson, 2000). The
quality of their relationships figures prominently in how satisfied and how
effective they are at work. But people bring patterns of behavior to the
workplace that have roots in early life. These patterns do not change quickly
or easily on the job. Thompson (1967) and others have argued that the
socializing effects of family and society shape people to mesh with the work­
place. Schools, for example, teach students to be punctual, complete assign­
ments on time, and follow rules. But schools are not always fully successful, and
future employees are shaped initially by family—a decentralized cottage
People can become imperfect cogs in the bureaucratic machinery. They form relation­
ships to fit individual styles and preferences, often ignoring what the organization requires.
They may work but never only on their official assignments. They also express personal and
social needs that often diverge from formal rules and requirements. A project falters, for
example, because no one likes the manager’s style. A committee bogs down because of
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interpersonal tensions that everyone notices but no one mentions. A school principal
spends most days dealing with a handful of abrasive and vocal teachers who generate far
more than their share of discipline problems and parent complaints. Protracted warfare
arises because of personal friction between two department heads.
This chapter begins by looking at basic sources of effective (or ineffective) interpersonal
relations at work. We examine why individuals are often blind to self-defeating personal
actions. We describe theories of interpersonal competence and emotional intelligence,
explaining how they influence office relationships. We explore different ways of under­
standing individual style preferences. Finally, we discuss key human-resource issues in the
functioning of groups and teams: informal roles, norms, conflict, and leadership.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 6: M. S. Granovetter, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of
Social Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology, 1985, 91(3), 481–510
The central question in Granovetter’s influential article is a very broad one: “How behavior and
institutions are affected by social relations.” Much of his approach is captured in a quip from
James Duesenberry that “economics is all about how people make choices; sociology is all about
how they don’t have any choices to make” (1960, p. 233). Classical economic perspectives,
Granovetter argues, assume that economic actors are atomized individuals whose decisions are
little affected by their relationships with others. “In classical and neoclassical economics,
therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at
all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets” (Granovetter, 1985, p. 484).
Conversely, Granovetter maintains that sociological models are often “oversocialized” because
they depict “processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed
mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice” (p. 485). The
truth, in Granovetter’s view, lies between these two extremes: “Actors do not behave or decide
as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the
particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at
purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations” (p. 487).
Granovetter’s argument may sound familiar, since it aligns with a central theme in our book:
Actors make choices, but their choices are inevitably shaped by social context.
To illustrate his argument, Granovetter critiques another influential perspective: Oliver
Williamson’s analysis of why some decisions get made in organizational hierarchies and others are
made in markets (Williamson, 1975, number 12 on our list of scholars’ hits). Williamson proposed
that repetitive decisions involving high uncertainty were more likely to be made in hierarchies
because organizations had advantages of information and control—people knew and had
leverage over one another. Granovetter counters that Williamson underestimates the power of
relationships in cross-firm transaction and overemphasizes the advantages of hierarchy. A central
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(continued )
point in Granovetter’s argument is that relationships often trump structure: “The empirical
evidence that I cite shows . . . that even with complex transactions, a high level of order can
often be found in the market—that is, across firm boundaries—and a correspondingly high level
of disorder within the firm. Whether these occur, instead of what Williamson expects, depends
on the nature of personal relations and networks of relations between and within firms” (p. 502).
In organizations, as elsewhere in life, many of the greatest highs and lows stem from relations
with other people. Three recurrent questions about relationships regularly haunt managers:
• What is really happening in this relationship?
• What motives are behind other peoples’ behavior?
• What can I do about it?
All were key questions for Anne Barreta. What was happening between her and Harry
Reynolds? Did he really start the rumor? If so, why? How should she deal with someone who
seemed so difficult and devious? Should she talk to him? What options did she have?
To some observers, what’s happening might seem obvious: Harry resents a young
minority woman who has become his peer. He becomes even more bitter when she rejects
his demand to fire Mark and then seeks revenge through a sneak attack. The case resembles
many others in which men dominate or victimize women. What should Anne, or any
woman in similar circumstances, do? Confront the larger issues? That might help in the long
run, but a woman who initiates confrontation risks being branded a troublemaker
(Collinson and Collinson, 1989). Should Anne try to sabotage Harry before he gets her?
If she does, will she kindle a mêlée in which everyone loses?
Human resource theorists maintain that constructive personal responses are possible
even in highly politicized situations. Argyris (1962), for example, emphasizes the impor­
tance of “interpersonal competence” as a basic managerial skill. He shows that managers’
effectiveness is often impaired because they overcontrol, ignore feelings, and are blind to
their impact on others.
Argyris and Schön’s Theories for Action
Argyris and Schön (1974, 1996) carry the issue of interpersonal effectiveness a step further.
They argue that individual behavior is controlled by personal theories for action—
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assumptions that inform and guide behavior. Argyris and Schön distinguish two kinds of
theory. Espoused theories are accounts individuals provide whenever they try to describe,
explain, or predict their behavior. Theories-in-use guide what people actually do. A theory-
in-use is an implicit program or set of rules that specifies how to behave.
Argyris and Schön discovered significant discrepancies between espoused theories and
theories-in-use, which means that people aren’t doing what they think they are. Managers
typically see themselves as more rational, open, concerned for others, and democratic than
others see them. Such blindness is persistent because people learn little from their
experience. A major block to learning is a self-protective model of interpersonal behavior
that Argyris and Schön refer to as Model I (see Exhibit 8.1).
Exhibit 8.1.
Model I Theory-in-Use.
Source: Adapted from Argyris and Schön (1996), p. 93.
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Model I
Lurking in Model I is the core assumption that an organization is a dangerous place where
you have to look out for yourself or someone else may do you in. This assumption leads
individuals to follow a predictable set of steps in their attempts to influence others. We can
see the progression in the exchanges between Harry and Anne:
1. Assume that the problem is caused by the other side. Harry seems to think that Mark
and Anne cause his problems; Mark is insulting, and Anne protects him. Anne, for her
part, blames Harry for being biased, unreasonable, and devious. Both are employing a
basic assumption at the core of Model I: “I’m okay, you’re not.” So long as problems are
someone else’s fault, the other, not you, needs to change.
2. Develop a private, unilateral diagnosis and solution. Harry defines the problem and
tells Anne how to solve it: fire Mark. When she declines, he apparently develops
another, sneakier strategy: covertly undermine Anne.
3. Since the other person is the cause of the problem, get that person to change. Use one or
more of three basic strategies: (1) facts, logic, and rational persuasion (tell others why
you’re right); (2) indirect influence (ease in, ask leading questions, manipulate the
other person); or (3) direct critique (tell the other person directly what they are doing
wrong and how they should change). Harry starts out logically, moves quickly to direct
critique, and, if Steve’s diagnosis is correct, finally resorts to subterfuge and sabotage.
4. If the other person resists or becomes defensive, that confirms that the other person is at
fault. Anne’s refusal to fire Mark presumably verifies Harry’s perception of her as an
ineffective troublemaker. Harry confirms Anne’s perception that he’s unreasonable by
stubbornly insisting that firing is the only sufficient punishment for Mark.
5. Respond to resistance through some combination of intensifying pressure and protecting
or rejecting the other person. When Anne resists, Harry intensifies the pressure. Anne
tries to soothe him without firing Mark. Harry apparently concludes that Anne is
impossible to deal with and that the best tactic is sabotage. He may even believe his
rumor is true because, in his mind, it’s the best explanation of why Anne got promoted.
6. If your efforts are less successful than hoped, it is the other person’s fault. You need feel
no personal responsibility. Harry does not succeed in getting rid of Mark or Anne. He
stains Anne’s reputation but damages his own in the process. Everyone is hurt. But
Harry is unlikely to see the error of his ways. The incident may confirm to Harry’s
colleagues that he is temperamental and devious. Such perceptions will probably block
Harry’s promotion to a more senior position. But Harry may persist in believing that
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he is right and Anne is wrong, because no one wants to confront someone as defensive
and cranky as Harry.
The result of Model I assumptions is minimal learning, strained relationships, and
deterioration in decision making. Organizations that rely too much on this model are rarely
happy places to work.
Model II
How else can a situation like Anne’s be handled? Argyris and Schön’s Model II offers basic
1. Emphasize common goals and mutual influence. Even in a situation as difficult as
Anne’s, developing shared goals is possible. Deep down, Anne and Harry both want to
be successful. Neither benefits from mutual destruction. At times, each needs help and
might learn and profit from the other. To emphasize common goals, Anne might ask
Harry, “Do we really want an ongoing no-win battle? Wouldn’t we both be better off if
we worked together to develop a better outcome?”
2. Communicate openly; publicly test assumptions and beliefs. Model II suggests that Anne
talk directly to Harry and test her assumptions. She believes Harry deliberately started
the rumor, but she is not certain. She suspects Harry will lie if she confronts him,
another untested assumption. Anne might say, for example, “Harry, someone started a
rumor about me and Steve. Do you know anything about how that story might have
been started?” The question might seem dangerous or naive, but Model II suggests that
Anne has little to lose and much to gain. Even if she does not get the truth, she lets
Harry know she is aware of his game and is not afraid to call him on it.
3. Combine advocacy with inquiry. Advocacy includes statements that communicate
what an individual actually thinks, knows, wants, or feels. Inquiry seeks to learn what
others think, know, want, or feel. Exhibit 8.2 presents a simple model of the
relationship between advocacy and inquiry.
Model II emphasizes integration of advocacy and inquiry. It asks managers to express
openly what they think and feel and to actively seek understanding of others’ thoughts and
feelings. Harry’s demand that Anne fire Mark combines high advocacy with low inquiry. He
tells her what he wants while showing no interest in her point of view. Such behavior tends
to be seen as assertive at best, dominating or arrogant at worst. Anne’s response is low in
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Exhibit 8.2.
Advocacy and Inquiry.
both advocacy and inquiry. In her discomfort, she tries to get out of the meeting without
making concessions. Harry might see her as unresponsive, apathetic, or weak.
Model II counsels Anne to combine advocacy and inquiry in an open dialogue. She can
tell Harry what she thinks and feels while testing her assumptions and trying to learn from
him. This is difficult to learn and practice. Openness carries risks, and it is hard to be
effective when you are ambivalent, uncomfortable, or frightened. It gets easier as you
become more confident that you can handle others’ honest responses. Anne’s ability to
confront Harry depends a lot on her self-confidence and interpersonal skills. Beliefs can be
self-fulfilling. If you tell yourself that it’s too dangerous to be open and that you do not know
how to deal with difficult people, you will probably be right. But tell yourself the opposite,
and you may also be right.
The Perils of Self-Protection
When managers feel vulnerable, they revert to self-defense. They skirt issues or attack others
and escalate games of camouflage and deception (Argyris and Schön, 1978). Feeling
inadequate, they try to hide their inadequacy. To avoid detection, they pile subterfuge
on top of camouflage. This generates even more uncertainty and ambiguity and makes it
difficult or impossible to detect errors. As a result, an organization often persists in following
a course everyone privately thinks is a path to disaster. No one wants to be the one to speak
the truth. Who wants to be the messenger bearing bad news?
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The result is often catastrophe, because critical information never reaches decision
makers. You might think it difficult to ignore a major gap between what we’re doing and
what we think we’re doing, but it’s not, because we get so much help from others. You can
see this happening in the following conversation between Susan, a cubicle-dwelling
supervisor in an insurance company, and one of her subordinates, Dale. Dale has been
complaining that he’s underpaid and overqualified for his mail clerk job. As he regularly
reminds everyone, he is a college graduate. Susan has summoned Dale to offer him a new
position as an underwriting trainee.
What Susan is thinking: What Susan and Dale say:
I wonder if his education makes
him feel that society owes him a
living without any relationship to
his abilities or productivity.
How can he be so opinionated
when he doesn’t know anything
about underwriting? How’s he
going to come across to the
people he’ll have to work with?
The job requires judgment and
willingness to listen.
That’s the first positive response
I’ve heard.
We owe him a chance, but I doubt
he’ll succeed. He’s got some basic
Susan: We’re creating a new trainee position and want to
offer it to you. The job will carry a salary increase, but let
me tell you something about the job first.
Dale: Okay. But the salary increase has to be substantial
so I can improve my standard of living. I can’t afford a
car. I can’t even afford to go out on a date.
Susan: You’ll start as a trainee working with an
experienced underwriter. It’s important work, because
selecting the right risks is critical to our results. You’ll deal
directly with our agents. How you handle them affects
their willingness to place their business with us.
Dale: I’m highly educated. I can do anything I set my mind
to. I could do the job of a supervisor right now. I don’t
see how risk selection is that difficult.
Susan: Dale, we believe you’re highly intelligent. You’ll
find you can learn many new skills working with an
experienced underwriter. I’m sure many of the things you
know today came from talented professors and teachers.
Remember, one of the key elements in this job is your
willingness to work closely with other people and to
listen to their opinions.
Dale: I’m looking for something that will move me ahead.
I’d like to move into the new job as soon as possible.
Susan: Our thought is to move you into this position
immediately. We’ll outline a training schedule for you.
On-the-job and classroom, with testing at the end of each
Dale: Testing is no problem. I think you’ll find I score
extremely high in anything I do.
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Dale is puzzled that no one seems to appreciate his talents. He has no clue that his actions
continually backfire. He tries to impress Susan, but almost everything he says confirms his
shortcomings and makes things worse. His constant self-promotion reinforces his public
persona: opinionated, defensive, and a candidate for failure. But Dale doesn’t know this
because Susan doesn’t tell him. At the moment that Susan is worrying that Dale will offend
colleagues by not listening to them, she tells him, “We think you’re intelligent.” Susan has
good reason to doubt Dale’s ability to listen: He doesn’t seem to hear her very well. If he can’t
listen to his boss, what’s the chance he’ll hear anyone else? But Susan ends the meeting still
planning to move Dale into a new position in which she expects that he’ll fail. She colludes in
the likely disaster by skirting the topic of Dale’s self-defeating behavior. In protecting herself
and Dale from a potentially uncomfortable encounter, Susan helps to ensure that no one
learns anything.
There’s nothing unusual about the encounter between Susan and Dale—similar things
happen every day in workplaces around the world. The Dales of the world dig themselves
into deep holes. The Susans help them to remain oblivious as they dig. Argyris calls it
“skilled incompetence”—using well-practiced skills to produce the opposite of what you
intend. Dale wants Susan to recognize his talents. Instead, he strengthens her belief that he’s
arrogant and naive. Susan would like Dale to recognize his limitations but unintentionally
reassures him that he’s fine as he is.
Salovey and Mayer’s Emotional Intelligence
The capacity that Argyris (1962) labeled interpersonal competence harked back to
Thorndike’s definition of social intelligence as “the ability to understand and manage
men and women, boys and girls—to act wisely in human relations” (1920, p. 228). Salovey
and Mayer (1990) updated Thorndike by coining the term emotional intelligence as a
label for skills that include awareness of self and others and the ability to handle emotions
and relationships. Salovey and Mayer discovered that individuals who scored relatively
high in the ability to perceive accurately, understand, and appraise others’ emotions could
respond more flexibly to changes in their social environments and were better able to
build supportive social networks (Cherniss, 2000; Salovey et al., 1999). In the early 1990s,
Daniel Goleman popularized Salovey and Mayer’s work in his best-selling book Emo­
tional Intelligence.
Interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are vital, because personal relationships
are a central element of daily life. Many improvement efforts fail not because managers’
intentions are incorrect or insincere but because they are unable to handle the social
challenges of change. Take the case of a manufacturing organization that proudly
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announced its “Put Quality First” program. A young manager was assigned to chair a
quality team where she worked. Excited about an opportunity to demonstrate leadership,
she and her team began eagerly. But her plant manager dropped in and out of team
meetings, staying long enough to dismiss any new ideas as impractical or unworkable.
The team’s enthusiasm quickly faded. The plant manager hoped to demonstrate accessi­
bility and “management by walking around.” No one had the courage to tell him he was
killing the initiative.
Management Best Sellers
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995)
Daniel Goleman didn’t invent the idea of emotional intelligence but he made it famous. His best­
selling Emotional Intelligence focused more on children and education than on work, but it was
still a hit with the business community. It was followed by articles in the Harvard Business Review
and a small industry producing books, exercises, and training programs aimed at helping people
improve their emotional intelligence (EI). Goleman’s basic argument is that EI, rather than
intellectual abilities (or intelligence quotient, IQ), accounts for most of the variance in
effectiveness among managers, particularly at the senior level.
In a sequel, Primal Leadership, Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2002) define four dimensions
of emotional intelligence. Two are internal (self-awareness and self-management), and two are
external (social awareness and relationship management). Self-awareness includes awareness of
one’s feelings and one’s impact on others. Self-management includes a number of positive
psychological characteristics, among them emotional self-control, authenticity, adaptability, drive
for achievement, initiative, and optimism. Social awareness includes empathy (attunement to the
thoughts and feelings of others), organizational awareness (sensitivity to the importance of
relationships and networks), and commitment to service. The fourth characteristic, relationship
management, includes inspiration, influence, developing others, catalyzing change, managing
conflict, and teamwork.
Critics have two main complaints about Goleman’s work: They say there’s nothing new, just
an updating of old ideas and common sense, and they maintain that Goleman is better at
explaining why EI is important than at suggesting practical ideas for enhancing it. It is true that
Goleman borrowed the EI label from Salovey and Mayer, and the idea of multiple forms of
intelligence was developed earlier by Howard Gardner (1993) at Harvard and Robert J. Sternberg
(1985) at Yale. The dimensions of EI in Primal Leadership (inspiration, teamwork, and so forth)
could have been culled from the leadership literature of recent decades. But even if Goleman is
offering old wine in new bottles, his work has found a large and receptive audience because of
the way he has packaged and framed the issue. He has offered a way to think about the relative
importance of intellectual and social skills, arguing that managers with high IQ but low EI are a
danger to themselves and others. A growing body of research supports this proposition (Druskat,
Sala and Mount, 2005).
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Argyris and Schön’s work on theories for action and Salovey and Mayer’s work on emotional
intelligence emphasizes universal competencies—qualities useful to anyone. A contrasting
research stream focuses on how individuals diverge in personality and behavior. A classic
experiment (Lewin, Lippitt, and White, 1939) compared autocratic, democratic, and laissez­
faire leadership in a study of boys’ clubs. Leadership style had a powerful impact on both
productivity and morale. Under autocratic leadership, the boys were productive but joyless.
Laissez-faire leadership led to aimlessness and confusion. The boys strongly preferred
democratic leadership, which produced a more productive and positive group climate.
Countless theories, books, workshops, and tests have been devoted to helping managers
identify their own and others’ personal or interpersonal styles. Are leaders introverts or
extroverts? Are they friendly helpers, tough battlers, or objective thinkers? Are they higher
in dominance, influence, stability, or conscientiousness? Do they behave more like parents
or like children? Are they superstars concerned for both people and production, “country
club” managers who indulge employees, or hard-driving taskmasters who ignore human
needs and feelings (Blake and Mouton, 1969)?
In the 1980s, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1980) became (and has remained)
a popular tool for examining management styles. Built on principles from Jungian
psychology, the inventory assesses four dimensions: introversion versus extroversion,
sensing versus intuition, thinking versus feeling, and perceiving versus judging. Based
on scores on those dimensions, it categorizes an individual into one of sixteen types. The
Myers-Briggs approach suggests that each style has its strengths and weaknesses and none is
universally better than the rest. It also makes the case that interpersonal relationships are
less confusing and frustrating if individuals understand and appreciate both their own style
and those of coworkers.
One or both of the authors of this book, for example, are ENFPs (extroverted, intuitive,
feeling, perceiving). ENFPs tend to be warmly enthusiastic, high-spirited, ingenious, and
imaginative. But they dislike rules and bureaucracy, their desks are usually messy, and they
tend to be disorganized, impatient with details, and uninterested in planning. One of us was
once paired with an ISTJ (introverted, sensing, thinking, judging), who was true to her
type—serious, quiet, thorough, practical, and dependable. The task was managing an
educational program, but the relationship got off to a rocky start. The ISTJ arrived at
meetings with a detailed agenda and a trusty notepad. Her ENFP counterpart arrived with
enthusiasm and a few vague ideas. As decisions were reached, the ISTJ carefully wrote down
both her assignments and his on a to-do list. Her counterpart made brief, semilegible notes
on random scraps of paper. She followed through on all her tasks in a timely manner. He
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often lost the notes and did only the assignments that he remembered. She became
distraught at his lack of organization. He got annoyed at her bureaucratic rigidity. The
relationship might have collapsed had not the two discussed their respective Myers-Briggs
styles and recognized that they needed one other; each brought something different but
essential to the relationship and the undertaking.
A number of other measures of personality or style, in addition to the Myers-Briggs, are
widely used in management development, but none is popular with academic psychologists.
They prefer the “Big 5” model of personality, on the ground that it has stronger research
support (Goldberg, 1992; John, 1990; Judge et al., 2002; Organ and Ryan, 1995). As its name
implies, the model interprets personality in terms of five major dimensions. The labels for
these dimensions vary from one author to another, but a typical list includes extroversion
(displaying energy, sociability, and assertiveness), agreeableness (getting along with others),
conscientiousness (a tendency to be orderly, planning oriented, and hard-working),
neuroticism (difficulty in controlling negative feelings), and openness to experience
(preference for creativity and new experience). For popular use, though, the Big 5 has
its disadvantages. Compared with the Myers-Briggs, it conveys stronger value judgments. It
is hard to argue, for example, that being disagreeable and neurotic are desirable leadership
qualities. Moreover, some of the labels (such as neuroticism) make more sense to
psychologists than to laypeople.
Despite the risk of turning managers into amateur psychologists, it helps to have shared
language and concepts to make sense of the elusive, complex world of individual differences.
When managers are blind to their own preferences and personal style, they usually need
help from others to learn about it. Their friends and colleagues may be more ready to lend a
hand if they have some way to talk about the issues. Tests like the Myers-Briggs provide a
shared framework and language.
Groups can be wonderful or terrible, conformist or creative, productive or stagnant.
Whether paradise or wasteland, groups are indispensable in the workplace. They solve
problems, make decisions, coordinate work, promote information sharing, build commit­
ment, and negotiate disputes (Handy, 1993). As modern organizations rely less on
hierarchical coordination, groups have become even more important in forms such as
self-managing teams, quality circles, and virtual groups whose members are linked by
technology. In Chapter 5, we discussed the structural issues that are vital to group
functioning. Here we turn our attention to equally important human issues.
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Groups have both assets and liabilities (Collins and Guetzkow, 1964; Hackman, 1989;
McGrath, 1984; Cohen and Bailey, 1997). They have more knowledge, diversity of
perspective, time, and energy than individuals working alone. Groups often improve
communication and increase acceptance of decisions. On the downside, groups may
overrespond to social pressure or individual domination, bog down in inefficiency, waste
time, or let personal agendas smother collective purposes (Maier, 1967).
Groups operate on two levels: an overt, conscious level focused on task and a more
implicit level of process, involving group maintenance and interpersonal dynamics (Bales,
1970; Bion, 1961; Leavitt, 1978; Maier, 1967; Schein, 1969). Many people see only confusion
in groups. The practiced eye sees much more. Groups, like modern art, are complex and
subtle. A few basic dimensions offer a map for bringing clarity and order out of apparent
chaos and confusion. Our map emphasizes four human elements in group process: informal
roles, informal norms, interpersonal conflict, and leadership in decision making.
Informal Roles
In groups, as in organizations, the fit between the individual and the larger system is a
central human resource concern. The structural frame emphasizes the importance of formal
roles, traditionally defined by a title (one’s position in the hierarchy) or a formal job
description. In groups and teams, individual roles are often much more informal and
implicit on both task and personal dimensions. The right set of task roles helps get work
done and makes optimal use of each member’s resources. But without a corresponding set of
informal roles, individuals feel frustrated and dissatisfied, which may foster unproductive or
disruptive behaviors.
Parker (2008) conceptualizes four different informal roles that group members can
take in order to contribute to group success. His roles align loosely with our four-frame
1. Contributors: task-oriented, structural-frame individuals who help a group develop
plans and tactics for moving ahead on the task at hand.
2. Collaborators: big picture, more symbolic types who help a group clarify long-term
3. Communicators: process-oriented, human resource–frame individuals who serve as
facilitators and consensus builders.
4. Challengers: political-frame individuals who ask tough questions and push the group
to take risks and achieve higher standards.
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As Parker’s model suggests, every work group has a range of roles that need to be filled.
The roles are often fluid, evolving over time as the group moves through phases of its work.
Groups do better when task roles align with characteristics of individuals, who bring
different interests (some love research but hate writing), skills (some are better at writing,
others are better presenters), and varying degrees of enthusiasm (some may be highly
committed to the project, while others drag their feet). It is risky, for example, to assign the
writing of a final report to a poor writer or to put the most nervous member on stage in front
of a demanding audience.
Anyone who joins a group hopes to find a comfortable and satisfying personal role.
Imagine a three-person task force. One member, Karen, is happiest when she feels
influential and visible. Bob prefers to be quiet and inconspicuous. Teresa finds it hard
to participate unless she feels liked and valued. In the early going in any new group,
members send implicit signals about roles they prefer, usually without realizing they are
doing it. In their first group meeting, Karen jumps in, takes the initiative, and pushes for her
ideas. Teresa smiles, compliments other people, asks questions, and says she hopes everyone
will get along. Bob mostly just watches.
If the three individuals’ preferred roles dovetail, things may go well. Karen is happy to
have Bob as a listener, and Bob is pleased that Karen lets him be inconspicuous. Teresa is
content if she feels that Karen and Bob like her. Now suppose that Tony, who likes to be in
charge, joins the group. Karen and Tony may collide—two alphas who want the same role.
The prognosis looks bleaker. But suppose that another member, Susan, signs on. Susan’s
mission in life is to help other people get along. If Susan can help Karen feel visible, Teresa
feel loved, and Tony feel powerful while Bob is left alone, everyone will be happy—and the
group should be productive.
Some groups are blessed with a rich set of resources and highly compatible individuals,
but many are less fortunate. They have a limited supply of talent, skill, and motivation. They
have areas of both compatibility and potential conflict. The challenge is to capitalize on their
assets while minimizing liabilities. Unfortunately, many groups fail to identify or discuss the
hurdles they face. Avoidance often backfires. Neglected challenges come back to haunt team
performance, often at the worst possible moment, when a deadline looms and everyone feels
the heat.
It usually works better to deal with issues early on. A major consulting firm produced a
dramatic improvement in effectiveness and morale by conducting a team-building process
when new “engagement teams” formed to work on client projects. Members discussed the
roles they preferred, the resources each individual brought and thoughts about how the
group might operate. Initially, many skeptics viewed the team building as a waste of time
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with doubtful benefits. But the investment in group process at the front end more than paid
for itself in effectiveness down the road.
Informal Group Norms
Every group develops informal rules to live by—norms that govern how the group functions
and how members conduct themselves. We once observed two families in adjacent sites in
the same campground. At first glance, both were alike: two adults, two small children,
California license plates. Further observation made it clear that the families had very
different unwritten rules.
Family A practiced a strong form of “do your own thing.” Everyone did what he or she
wanted, and no one paid much attention to anyone else. Their two-year-old wandered
around the campground until he fell down a 15-foot embankment. He lay there wailing
while a professor of leadership pondered the risks and rewards of intervening in someone
else’s family. Finally, he rescued the child and returned him to his parents, who seemed
oblivious and indifferent to their son’s mishap.
Family B, in contrast, was a model of interdependence and efficiency, operating like a
well-oiled machine. Everything was done collectively; each member had a role. A drill
sergeant would have admired the speed and precision with which they packed for departure.
Even their three-year-old approached her assigned tasks with purpose and enthusiasm.
Like these two families, groups evolve informal norms for “how we operate” (The
cultural implications of this idea will be elaborated in Part Five, The Symbolic Frame.)
Eventually, such rules are taken for granted as a fixed social reality. The parents in Family A
envied Family B. They were plainly puzzled as they asked, “How did they ever get those kids
to help out like that? Our kids would never do that!”
Google, like most contemporary organizations, depends a lot on teams, so much so that
they started a research project to try to find the secret sauce that made some teams work better
thanothers(Duhigg, 2016).Googlestudiedresearch byWooley et al. (2010), which found that
teams have a kind of collective IQ—some teams do better than others across a range of
different tasks. Team IQ was not related to the intelligence of individual members nor to
intuitively plausible factors like cohesion or satisfaction. But more effective groups had higher
sensitivity—members were better at reading one another’s feelings. They were also more
egalitarian—no one dominated, and everyone got a turn. The study also found that the more
women on a team the better, maybe because women tend to have higher social sensitivity.
The Google team connected this work to Edmondson’s (1999) study of psychological
safety: “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-
taking.” Teams with more psychological safety learned better, and teams that learned better
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performed better. The Google researchers concluded that teams would perform better if
they developed norms of shared participation, emotional attunement, and psychological
safety (Duhigg, 2016).
With norms, as with roles, early intervention helps. Do we want to be task oriented, no
nonsense, and get on with the job? Or would we prefer to be more relaxed and playful? Do
we insist on full attendance at every meeting, or should we be more flexible? Must people be
unerringly punctual, or would that cramp our style? If individuals miss a deadline, do we
stone them or gently encourage them to do better? Do we prize boisterous debate or
courtesy and restraint? Groups develop norms to answer such questions.
Informal Networks in Groups
Like informal norms, informal networks—patterns of who relates to whom—help to shape
groups. Remember the Titans, a feel-good Hollywood film, tells a story of two football teams
whose black and white players were suddenly thrust together as a result of school
desegregation. Their coach took them off-site for a week of team building where black
and white players roomed together and soon developed bonds. Those relationships became
a critical feature of the team’s ability to win a state championship.
The Titans, like any team, can be viewed as an informal social network—a series of
connections that link members to one another. When the team was first formed, it consisted
of two different networks separated by suspicion and antagonism across racial boundaries.
The coach intuitively understood something that research has confirmed—informal bonds
among members make a big difference. Teams with more informal ties are more effective
and more likely to stay together than teams in which members have fewer connections
(Balkundi and Harrison, 2006).
Interpersonal Conflict in Groups
Many of the worst horror stories about group life center on personal conflict. Interpersonal
strife can block progress and waste time. It can make things unpleasant at best, painful at
worst. Some groups experience little conflict, but most encounter predictable differences in
goals, perceptions, preferences, and beliefs. The larger and more diverse the group, the
greater the likelihood of conflict.
A subtle but powerful source of conflict in groups is two distinct levels of cognition
(Healey, Vuori, and Hodgkinson, 2015). One level is conscious and verbal and is reflected in
the conversations that members have about what the group is here to do and how it should
go about doing it. Another is an unconscious level of “hot” cognition—emotionally charged
attitudes, goals, and stereotypes that operate outside of awareness. Conflict between those
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two levels of cognition can occur both within and between individuals but is hard to
recognize and decode because unconscious processes are at work. A team might agree, for
example, that “we’ll share leadership and work collaboratively.” But suppose that one
member has an unconscious goal of being in charge, and another member holds
unconscious stereotypes that lead him or her to doubt the capabilities of certain teammates.
Both might do things that seem to violate the group’s verbal contract while believing that
they are just trying to help move things along. They may be puzzled and feel misunderstood
if anyone questions their actions.
How can a group cope with interpersonal conflict? The Model I manager typically relies
on two strategies: “pour oil on troubled waters” and “might makes right.” As a result, things
usually get worse instead of better. The oil-on-troubled-waters strategy views conflict as
something to avoid: minimize it, deny it exists, smooth it over, bury it, or circumvent it.
Suppose, for example, that Tony in our hypothetical group says that the group needs a
leader, and Karen counters that a leader would selfishly dominate the group. Teresa,
dreading conflict, might try to bypass it by saying, “I think we’re all basically saying the same
thing” or “We can talk about leadership later; right now, why don’t we find out a little more
about each other?”
Smoothing tactics may work if the issue is temporary or peripheral. In such cases,
conflict may disappear on its own, much to everyone’s relief. But conflict suppressed early in
a group’s life tends to resurface later—again and again. If smoothing tactics fail and conflict
persists, another option is might-makes-right. If Tony senses conflict between Karen and
himself, he may employ Model I thinking: Because we disagree, and I am right, she is the
problem; I need to get her to shape up. Tony may try any of several strategies to change
Karen. He may try to convince her he’s right. He may push others in the group to side with
him and put pressure on Karen. He may subtly, or not so subtly, criticize or attack her. If
Karen thinks she is right and Tony is the problem, the two are headed for a collision that
may be painful for everyone.
If Model I is a costly approach to conflict, what else might a group do? Here are some
guidelines that often prove helpful.
Develop skills. More organizations are recognizing that group effectiveness depends on
members’ ability to understand what is happening and contribute effectively. Skills like
listening, communicating, managing conflict, and building consensus are critical building
blocks in a high-performing group.
Agree on the basics. Groups too often plunge ahead without taking the time to agree on
goals and procedures. Down the road, people continue to stumble over unresolved issues.
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Shared understanding and commitment around the basics are a powerful glue to hold
things together in the face of the inevitable stress of group life.
Express conflict productively. Weingart et al. (2015) argue that how conflict is expressed
makes a big difference in whether it turns productive or destructive. They focus on two
dimensions of conflict expression. One is directness. “I think your statement is wrong” is
direct. “Maybe,” is indirect. The other dimension is “intensity of opposition” (Weingart
et al., 2015, p. 235). Intensity is high when people become entrenched and start attacking
each other. An example: “No way you can change my mind, because your idea is stupid.”
Low intensity of opposition is expressed through indications of interest in dialogue and
willingness to be influenced. For example: “We disagree, but I’d like to understand your
thinking better.” Weingart et al. suggest that groups handle conflict best when they
express it directly but minimize oppositional intensity. In other words, they are tough and
direct on substance but gentle on one another.
Search for common interests. How does a group reach agreement if it starts out divided? It
helps to keep asking, “What do we have in common? If we disagree on the issue at hand,
how can we put it in a more inclusive framework where we can all agree?” If Tony and
Karen clash on the need for a leader, where do they agree? Perhaps both want to do the
task well. Recognizing commonalities makes it easier to confront differences. It also helps
to remember that common ground is often rooted in complementary differences (Lax
and Sebenius, 1986). Karen’s desire to be visible is compatible with Bob’s preference to be
in the background. Conversely, similarity (as when Karen and Tony both want to lead) is
often a source of conflict.
Experiment. If Tony is sure the group needs a leader (namely, him) and Karen is equally
convinced it does not, the group could bog down in endless debate. Susan, the group’s
social specialist, might propose an experiment: Because Karen sees it one way and Tony
sees it another, could we try one meeting with a leader and one without to see what
happens? Experiments can be a powerful response to conflict. They offer a way to move
beyond stalemate without forcing either party to lose face or admit defeat. Parties may
agree on a test even if they can’t agree on anything else. Equally important, they may learn
something that moves the conversation to a more productive plane.
Doubt your infallibility. This was the advice that Benjamin Franklin offered his fellow
delegates to the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787: “Having lived long, I have
experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consid­
eration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right,
but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to
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doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others”
(Rossiter, 1966).
Groups typically possess diverse resources, ideas, and outlooks. A group that sees
diversity as an asset and a source of learning has a good chance for a productive
discussion and resolution of differences. Conflict can be a good thing—conflict about
ideas promotes effectiveness, even though personal conflict gets in the way (Cohen and
Bailey, 1997). In the heat of the moment, though, a five-person group can easily turn into
five teachers in search of a learner or a lynch mob in search of a victim. At such times, it
helps if at least one person asks, “Are we all sure we’re infallible? Are we really hearing
one another?”
Treat differences as a group responsibility. If Tony and Karen are on a collision course, it is
tempting for others to stand aside. But all will suffer if the team fails. The debate between
Karen and Tony reflects personal feelings and preferences but also addresses leadership as
an issue of shared importance.
Leadership and Decision Making in Groups
A final problem that every group must resolve is the question of navigation: “How will we set
a course and steer the ship, particularly in stormy weather?” Groups often get lost. Meetings
are punctuated with statements like “I’m not sure where we’re going” or “Does anyone know
what we’re talking about?”
Leadership helps groups develop a shared sense of direction and commitment. Other­
wise, a group becomes rudderless or moves in directions that no one supports. Noting that
teams are capable of very good and very bad performance, Hackman emphasizes that a key
function of leadership is setting a compelling direction for the team’s work that “is
challenging, energizes team members and generates strong collective motivation to perform
well” (2002, p. 72). Another key function of leadership in groups, as in organizations, is
managing relationships with external constituents. Druskat and Wheeler found that
effective leaders of self-managing teams “move back and forth across boundaries to build
relationships, scout necessary information, persuade their teams and outside constituents to
support one another, and empower their teams to achieve success” (2003, p. 435).
Still a third key leadership function is helping the group manage time. Maruping et al.
(2015) found that time pressure hurts team performance when it is badly managed and leads
to last-minute chaos and panic. But time pressure improves performance when leadership
helps the group organize to deal with it through “scheduling of interim milestones,
synchronization of tasks, and restructuring of priorities. These efforts result in higher
team performance” (Maruping et al., 2015, p. 2014).
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Though leadership is essential, it need not come from only one person. A single leader
focuses responsibility and clarifies accountability. But the same individual may not be
equally effective for all tasks and circumstances. Groups sometimes do better with a shared
and fluid approach, regularly asking, “Who can best take charge in this situation?”
Katzenbach and Smith (1993) discovered that a key characteristic of high-performance
teams was mutual accountability, fostered when leaders were willing to step back and team
members were prepared to share the leadership.
Leadership, whether shared or individual, plays a critical role in group effectiveness and
individual satisfaction. Leaders who overcontrol or understructure tend to produce
frustration and ineffectiveness (Maier, 1967). Good leaders are sensitive to both task
and process. They enlist others actively in managing both. Effective leaders help group
members communicate, work together, and do what they are there to do. Less-effective
leaders try to dominate and get their own ideas accepted.
Employees hire on to do a job but always bring social and personal baggage with them. At
work, they spend much of their time interacting with others, one to one and in groups. Both
individual satisfaction and organizational effectiveness depend heavily on the quality of
interpersonal relationships and team dynamics.
Individuals’ social skills are a critical element in the effectiveness of relationships at work.
Interpersonal dynamics are counterproductive as often as not. People frequently employ
theories-in-use (behavioral programs) that emphasize self-protection and the control of
others. Argyris and Schön developed an alternative model built on values of mutuality and
learning. Salovey and Mayer, as well as Goleman, underscore the importance of emotional
intelligence—social skills that include awareness of self and others and the ability to handle
emotions and relationships.
Small groups are often condemned for wasting time while producing little, but groups
can be both satisfying and efficient. In any event, organizations cannot function without
them. Managers need to understand that groups always operate at two levels: task and
process. Both levels need to be considered if groups are to be effective. Among the significant
process issues that groups have to manage are informal roles, group norms, interpersonal
conflict, and leadership.
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The Political Frame
When you ponder the word politics, what images come to mind? Are any of them positive or
helpful? For many people, the answer is no. Around the globe, politics and politicians are
widely despised and viewed as an unavoidable evil. In organizations, phrases like “they’re
playing politics” or “it was all political” are invariably terms of disapproval.
Similar attitudes surround the idea of power, a concept that is central in political
thinking. In her last interview, only days before she was assassinated in December 2007,
Benazir Bhutto was asked whether she liked power. Her response captured the mixed
feelings many of us harbor: “Power has made me suffer too much. In reality I’m ambivalent
about it. It interests me because it makes it possible to change things. But it’s left me with a
bitter taste” (Lagarde, 2008, p. 13).
A jaundiced view of politics constitutes a serious threat to individual and organizational
effectiveness. Viewed from the political frame, politics is the realistic process of making
decisions and allocating resources in a context of scarcity and divergent interests. This view
puts politics at the heart of decision making.
We introduce the elements of the political frame in Chapter 9. We begin by examining
the dynamics lurking behind the tragic losses of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger.
We also lay out the perspective’s key assumptions and discuss basic issues of power, conflict,
and ethics.
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In Chapter 10, we look at the constructive side of politics. The chapter is organized
around basic skills of the effective organizational politician: setting agendas, mapping the
political terrain, networking, building coalitions, and negotiating. We also offer four
principles of moral judgment to guide in dealing with ethically slippery political issues.
Chapter 11 moves from the individual to the organization. We look at organizations as
both arenas for political contests and active political players or actors. As arenas,
organizations play an important role in shaping the rules of the game. As players or
actors, organizations are powerful tools for achieving the agenda of whoever controls them.
We close with a discussion of the relative power of organizations and society. Will giant
corporations take over the world? Or will other institutions channel and constrain their
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c h a p t e r
Power, Conflict, and
Politics [is] a strife of interests masquerading
as a contest of principles.
—Ambrose Bierce
Early in the morning of February 1, 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbiawas returning to earth from a smooth and successful mission. Suddenly
something went terribly wrong. The crew was flooded with emergency
signals—the noise of alarms and the glare of indicator lights signaling massive
system failure. The craft tumbled out of control and was finally blown apart.
Cabin and crew were destroyed (Wald and Schwartz, 2003a, 2003b).
After months of investigation, a blue-ribbon commission concluded that Columbia’s
loss resulted as much from organizational as technical failures. Breakdowns included: “the
original compromises that were required to gain approval for the shuttle, subsequent years
of resource-constraints, fluctuating priorities, schedule pressures, mischaracterization of the
shuttle as operational rather than developmental, and lack of an agreed national vision for
human space flight” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 9).
In short, politics brought down the shuttle. It all sounded sadly familiar, and the
investigation board emphasized that there were many “echoes” of the loss of the space
shuttle Challenger 17 years earlier. Then, too, Congressional committees and a distinguished
panel had spent months studying what happened and developing recommendations to keep
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it from happening again. But as the Columbia board said bluntly: “The causes of the
institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed” (Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, 2003, p. 195).
Flash back to 1986. After a series of delays, Challenger was set to launch on January 28.
At sunrise, it was clear but very cold at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The weather was more like
New Hampshire, where Christa McAuliffe was a high school teacher. Curtains of ice greeted
ground crews as they inspected the shuttle. The temperature had plunged overnight to a
record low of 24 degrees Fahrenheit (–4 degrees Celsius). Temperatures gradually warmed,
but it was still brisk at 8:30 AM. Challenger’s crew of seven astronauts noted the ice as they
climbed into the capsule. As McAuliffe, the first teacher to venture into space, entered the
ship, a technician offered her an apple. She beamed and asked him to save it until she
returned. At 11:38 AM, Challenger lifted off. A minute later, there was a massive explosion in
the booster rockets. Millions watched their television screens in horror as the shuttle and its
crew were destroyed.
On the eve of the launch, an emergency teleconference had been called between NASA
and the Morton Thiokol Corporation, the contractor for the shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket motor.
During the teleconference, Thiokol engineers pleaded with superiors and NASA to delay the
launch. They feared cold temperatures would cause a failure in synthetic rubber O-rings
sealing the rocket motor’s joints. If the rings failed, the motor could blow up. The problem was
simple and familiar: Rubber loses elasticity at cold temperatures. Freeze a rubber ball and it
won’t bounce; freeze an O-ring and it might not seal. Engineers recommended strongly that
NASA wait for warmer weather. They tried to produce a persuasive engineering rationale, but
their report was hastily thrown together, and the data seemed equivocal (Vaughan, 1995).
Meanwhile, Thiokol and NASA both faced strong pressure to get the shuttle in the air:
Thiokol had gained the lucrative sole source contract for the solid rocket
boosters thirteen years earlier, during a bitterly disputed award process. Some
veteran observers called it a low point in squalid political intrigue. At the time of
the award, a relatively small Thiokol Chemical Company in Brigham City, Utah,
had considerable political clout. Both the newly appointed chairman of the
Senate Aeronautics and Space Science Committee, Democratic Senator Frank
Moss, and the new NASA administrator, Dr. James Fletcher, were insiders in
the tightly knit Utah political hierarchy. By summer 1985, however, Thiokol’s
monopoly was under attack, and the corporation’s executives were reluctant to
risk their billion-dollar contract by halting shuttle flight operations long enough
to correct flaws in the booster joint design (McConnell, 1987, p. 7).
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Meanwhile, NASA managers were experiencing their own political pressures. As part of
the effort to build congressional support for the space program, NASA had promised that
the shuttle would eventually pay for itself in cargo fees, like a boxcar in space. Projections of
profitability were based on an ambitious plan: 12 flights in 1984, 14 in 1985, and 17 in 1986.
NASA had fallen well behind schedule—only five launches in 1984 and eight in 1985. The
promise of “routine access to space” and self-supporting flights looked more and more
dubious. With every flight costing taxpayers about $100 million, NASA needed a lot of cash
from Congress, but prospects were not bright. NASA’s credibility was eroding as the U.S.
budget deficit soared.
Such was the highly charged context in which Thiokol’s engineers recommended
canceling the next morning’s launch. The response from NASA officials was swift and
pointed. One NASA manager said he was “appalled” at the proposal, and another said,
“My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch? Next April?” (McConnell, 1987,
p. 196). Senior managers at Thiokol huddled and decided, against the advice of engineers,
to recommend the launch. NASA accepted the recommendation and launched Flight 51-L
the next morning. The O-rings failed almost immediately, and the flight was destroyed
(Bell and Esch, 1987; Jensen, 1995; McConnell, 1987; Marx et al., 1987; Vaughan, 1990,
It is deeply disturbing to see political agendas corrupting technical decisions, particu­
larly when lives are at stake. We might be tempted to explain Challenger by blaming
individual selfishness and questionable motives. But such explanations are little help in
understanding what really happened or in avoiding a future catastrophe. Individual errors
typically occur downstream from powerful forces channeling decision makers over a
precipice no one sees until too late. With Columbia and Challenger, key decision makers
were experienced, highly trained, and intelligent. If we tried to get better people, where
would we find them? Even if we could, how could we ensure that parochial interests and
political gaming would not ensnare them? The Columbia investigating board recognized
this reality, concluding, “NASA’s problems cannot be solved simply by retirements,
resignations, or transferring personnel” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003,
p. 195).
Both Columbia and Challenger were extraordinary tragedies, but they illustrate political
dynamics that are everyday features of organizational life. The political frame does not
blame politics on individual foibles such as selfishness, myopia, or incompetence. Instead, it
proposes that interdependence, divergent interests, scarcity, and power relations inevitably
spawn political activity. It is naive and romantic to hope organizational politics can be
eliminated, regardless of individual players. Managers can, however, learn to acknowledge,
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understand, and manage political dynamics, rather than shy away from them. In govern­
ment, politics is a way of life rather than dirty pool. Chris Matthews calls it hardball:
“Hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and
holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and
unashamedly in the world of public affairs” (1999, p. 13).
This chapter seeks to explain why political processes are universal, why they won’t go
away, and how they can be handled adroitly. We first describe the political frame’s basic
assumptions and explain how they work. Next, we depict organizations as freewheeling
coalitions rather than as formal hierarchies. Coalitions are tools for exercising power, and
we contrast power with authority and highlight tensions between authorities (who try to
keep things under control) and partisans (who try to influence a system to get what they
want). We also delineate multiple sources of power. Because conflict is normal among
members of a coalition, we underscore the role it plays across organizations. Finally, we
discuss an issue at the heart of organizational politics: Do political dynamics inevitably
undermine moral principles and ethics?
The political frame views organizations as roiling arenas, hosting ongoing contests arising
from individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:
• Organizations are coalitions of different individuals and interest groups.
• Coalition members have enduring differences in values, beliefs, information, interests,
and perceptions of reality.
• Most important decisions involve allocating scarce resources—deciding who gets what.
• Scarce resources and enduring differences put conflict at the center of day-to-day
dynamics and make power the most important asset.
• Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining and negotiation among competing stake­
holders jockeying for their own interests.
Political Propositions and the Challenger
All five propositions of the political frame came into play in the Challenger incident:
Organizations are coalitions. NASA did not run the space shuttle program in isolation.
The agency was part of a complex coalition of contractors, Congress, the White House,
the military, the media—even the American public. Consider, for example, why Christa
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McAuliffe was aboard. Her expertise as a teacher was not critical to the mission.
But the American public was getting bored with white male pilots in space. Moreover,
as a teacher, McAuliffe represented a national commitment to universal education.
Human interest was good for NASA and Congress; it built public support for the space
program. McAuliffe’s participation was a media magnet because it was a great human-
interest story. Symbolically, Christa McAuliffe represented all Americans; everyone flew
with her.
Coalition members have enduring differences. NASA’s hunger for funding competed with
the public’s interest in lower taxes. Astronauts’ concerns about safety were at odds with
pressures on NASA and its contractors to maintain an ambitious flight schedule.
Important decisions involve allocating scarce resources. Time and money were both in
short supply. Delay carried a high price—not just in dollars but also in further erosion of
support from key constituents. On the eve of the Challenger launch, key officials at NASA
and Morton Thiokol struggled to balance these conflicting pressures. Everyone from
President Ronald Reagan to the average citizen was clamoring for the first teacher to fly
in space. No one wanted to tell the audience the show was off.
Scarce resources and enduring differences make conflict central and power the most
important asset. The teleconference on the eve of the launch began as a debate between the
contractor and NASA. As sole customer, NASA was in the driver’s seat. When managers at
Morton Thiokol sensed NASA’s level of disappointment and frustration, the scene shifted to
a tense standoff between engineers and managers. Managers relied on their authority to
override the engineers’ technical expertise and recommended the launch.
Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position
among competing stakeholders. Political bargaining and powerful allies had propelled
Morton Thiokol into the rocket motor business. Thiokol’s engineers had been attempting
to focus management’s attention on the booster joint problem for many months. But
management feared that acknowledging a problem, in addition to costing time and money,
would erode the company’s credibility. A large and profitable contract was at stake.
Implications of the Political Propositions
The assumptions of the political frame explain that organizations are inevitably political. A
coalition forms because its members need each other, even though their interests may only
partly overlap. The assumption of enduring differences implies that political activity is more
visible and dominant under conditions of diversity than of homogeneity. Agreement and
harmony are easier to achieve when everyone shares similar values, beliefs, and cultural
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The concept of scarce resources suggests that politics will be more salient and intense in
difficult times. Schools and colleges, for example, have lived through alternating eras of feast
and famine related to peaks and valleys in economic and demographic trends. When money
and students are plentiful (as they were in the 1960s and again in the 1990s), administrators
spend time designing new buildings and initiating innovative programs. Work is fun when
you’re delivering good news and constituents applaud. Conversely, when resources dry up,
you may have to shutter buildings, close programs, and lay off staff. Conflict mushrooms,
and administrators often succumb to political forces they struggle to understand and
Differences and scarce resources make power a key resource. Power in organizations is
basically the capacity to make things happen. Pfeffer defines power as “the potential ability
to influence behavior, to change the course of events, to overcome resistance, and to get
people to do things they would not otherwise do” (1992, p. 30). Social scientists often
emphasize a tight linkage between power and dependency: If A has something B wants, A
has leverage. In much of organizational life, individuals and groups are interdependent; they
need things from one another, and power relationships are multidirectional. From the view
of the political frame, power is a “daily mechanism of our social existence” (Crozier and
Friedberg, 1977, p. 32).
The final proposition of the political frame emphasizes that goals are not set by edict at
the top but evolve through an ongoing process of negotiation and bargaining. Few
organizations have a unitary apex. Who, for example, is at the head of a public company?
The CEO? This is the structural view, but the CEO reports to the board. The board, in turn,
is elected by and accountable to shareholders. And the shareholders are typically a large and
scattered group of absentee owners. They have little time, interest, or capacity to influence
the organization in which each has a sliver of ownership. But if a corporate raider or a hedge
fund acquires a major ownership stake, the stage is set for a contest for control of the
This political view of organization might seem strange in light of traditional assumptions
of control from the top. Yet the same dynamics of conflict, coalitions, and power are found
at every level of human affairs. Mann (1986, 2013) tells us that’s how society works. Society
is not a cohesive unit but is “constituted of multiple, overlapping and intersecting networks
of power” (1986, p. 1). David Eagleman says that the same is true of the human brain. He
presents data from psychology and neuroscience to show that almost all of our mental
activity takes place outside awareness. Here’s what he says is going on politically inside your
brain: “Small groups are constantly making decisions and sending out messages to other
groups. Out of these local interactions, emerge larger coalitions. By the time you read a
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mental headline, the important action has already transpired, the deals are done. You have
surprisingly little access to what happened behind the scenes. Entire political movements
gain ground-up support and become unstoppable movements before you ever catch wind of
them as a feeling or intuition or thought that strikes you. You’re the last one on the chain of
command to hear the information” (Eagleman, 2011, p. 6).
Multiple constituents jockey for influence at every level, from the individual brain to
global society. This is especially apparent in the public sector. When Xi Jinping came to
power as head of China’s Communist Party in November 2012, his first public speech made
no mention of Marx or Mao but emphasized the need to solve the problem of “corruption
[and] being out of touch with the people” (Demick, 2012). Xi understood that corruption
represented a potentially fatal threat to the party’s continued dominance. But the party elite
he hoped to influence included more than 80 billionaires (Anderlini, 2013; van Kerckhove,
2013), perhaps the largest concentration of wealth the world has ever seen.
Those superrich included both successful entrepreneurs and members of the so-called
black collar class, Communist officials whose sway over business created opportunities to
trade power for cash. Xi knew that something had to be done about rampant corruption, but
he was up against formidable opposition from party and government officials who were in
no hurry to change a system that was making them and their families rich. When Xi
launched a new austerity campaign in 2013, ordering the elite to cut back on lavish banquets
and similar luxuries, a new catchphrase became popular in Chinese officialdom, “Eat
quietly, take gently and play secretly” (Jacobs, 2013).
The challenges Xi faced in fighting corruption mirrored those that had hindered
China’s efforts for more than a decade to protect intellectual property. When it joined the
World Trade Organization in 2001, the Chinese government promised to get serious
about protecting intellectual property, ensuring that products carrying brands such as
Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Sony, and Rolex were authentic. The central government passed
laws, threw the book at the occasional unlucky offender, blustered in the media, and put
pressure on local governments. Yet 15 years later, name-brand knockoffs and pirated
music continued to be sold all over China and Western tourists in Beijing still
encountered a steady stream of vendors offering “Rolex” watches at amazing prices
(Powell, 2007).
Why have the antipiracy efforts had limited impact? The Chinese government is far from
monolithic and is only one of many players in a complex power game. Newly affluent
Chinese consumers want foreign brands. Businesses understand that a homemade carbon­
ated fluid can fetch a better price if it carries an American brand name. The problem has
been so widespread that Coca-Cola’s Chinese affiliate found itself not only raiding factories
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but also chasing pirates who slapped Coke labels on bottles in delivery trucks while on route
to retail outlets.
Pirates are often local businesses with plenty of guanxi (connections) who share the loot
with local government and police officials. As one New York Times reporter discovered
when he was imprisoned for several hours in a toy factory, “Factory bosses can overrule the
police, and Chinese government officials are not as powerful as you might suspect”
(Barboza, 2007, p. 4–3). Moreover, the concept of intellectual property rights is new to
many Chinese. They find it hard to see the merit of punishing a hard-working Chinese
entrepreneur in order to protect a foreign corporation. In short, multiple power centers and
continuing divisions have limited officials’ ability to translate intention into action.
Academics and managers alike have usually assumed that organizations have, or ought to
have, clear and consistent goals set at the top. In a business, the owners or top managers set
goals such as growth and profitability. Goals in a government agency are presumably set by
the legislature and elected executives. The political frame challenges such views. Cyert and
March articulate the difference between structural and political views of goals:
To what extent is it arbitrary, in conventional accounting, that we call wage
payments “costs” and dividend payments “profit” rather than the other way
around? Why is it that in our quasigenetic moments we are inclined to say
that in the beginning there was a manager, and he recruited workers and
capital? . . . The emphasis on the asymmetry has seriously confused the under­
standing of organizational goals. The confusion arises because ultimately it
makes only slightly more sense to say that the goal of a business enterprise is
to maximize profit than to say that its goal is to maximize the salary of Sam
Smith, assistant to the janitor (1963, p. 30).
Cyert and March are saying something like this: Sam Smith, the assistant janitor; Jim
Ford, the foreman; and Celestine Cohen-Peters, the company president are all members of a
grand coalition, Cohen-Peters Enterprises. All make demands on resources and bargain to
get what they care about. Cohen-Peters has more authority than Jones or Ford and, in case
of disagreement, she will often win—but not always. Her influence depends on how much
power she mobilizes in comparison with that of Smith, Ford, and other members of the
coalition. Xerox had a close brush with bankruptcy in 2001 under a CEO who had come
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from the outside and never mastered the politics at the top of the organization. The firm was
adrift, and the captain lost control of his ship. His successor, Anne Mulcahy, was a canny
insider who built the relationships and alliances she needed to get Xerox back on course.
If political pressures on goals are visible in the private sector, they are blatant in the
public arena. As in the Challenger incident, public agencies operate amid a welter of
constituencies, each making demands and trying to get its way. The result is a confusing
multiplicity of goals, many in conflict. Consider Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company and the
world’s largest producer of natural gas. Gazprom supplies most of the natural gas in Eastern
Europe and 25 percent or more in France, Germany, and Italy. It began as a state ministry
under Mikhail Gorbachev, became a public stock company under Boris Yeltsin, and then
turned semipublic under Vladimir Putin, with the Russian government the majority
Many observers felt that Gazprom functioned as an extension of government policy.
Prices for gas exports seemed to correlate with how friendly a government was to Moscow.
“If people take us for the state, that doesn’t make us unhappy,” said Sergey Kouprianov, a
company spokesman. “We identify with the state” (Pasquier and Chevelkina, 2007, p. 43).
Russian President Vladimir Putin returned the sentiment. Gazprom produced a quarter of
Russia’s government revenues, and Putin saw hydrocarbons substituting for the Red Army
as a lever to project Russian power. At the same time, Russian consumers got their gas at
about 20 percent of market price. When the company tried for a domestic price increase in
2006, it was blocked by a government that was thinking ahead to the next presidential
election. Was this giant in business to benefit customers, management, stockholders, the
Kremlin, or Russian citizens? All of the above and more, because all were participants in the
grand and messy Gazprom coalition.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 3: Richard M. Cyert and James G. March, A Behavioral Theory of the
Firm (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963)
Coming in at number three on the scholars’ lists of greatest hits is a 40-year-old book by an
economist, Richard Cyert, and a political scientist, James G. March. Cyert and March defined their
basic purpose as developing a predictive theory of organizational decision making rooted in a
realistic understanding of how decisions actually get made. They rejected as unrealistic the
traditional economic view of a firm as a unitary entity (a corporate “person”) with a singular goal
of maximizing profits. Cyert and March chose instead to view organizations as coalitions made up
of individuals and subcoalitions. This view implied a central idea of the political frame: goals
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(continued )
emerge out of a bargaining process among coalition members. Cyert and March also insisted that
“side payments” are critical, because preferences are only partly compatible and decisions rarely
satisfy everyone. A coalition can survive only if it offers sufficient inducements to keep essential
members on board. This is not easy, because resources—money, time, information, and decision-
making capacity—are limited.
In analyzing decision making, Cyert and March developed four “relational concepts,” implicit
rules that firms use to make decisions more manageable:
1. Quasiresolution of conflict. Instead of resolving conflict, organizations break problems into
pieces and farm pieces out to different units. Units make locally rational decisions (for
example, marketers do what they think is best for marketing). Decisions are never fully
consistent but need only be aligned well enough to keep the coalition functioning.
2. Uncertainty avoidance. Organizations employ a range of simplifying mechanisms—such as
standard operating procedures, traditions, and contracts—that enable them to act as if the
environment is more predictable than it is.
3. Problemistic search. Organizations look for solutions in the neighborhood of the presenting
problem and grab the first acceptable solution.
4. Organizational learning. Over time, organizations evolve their goals and aspiration levels,
altering what they attend to and what they ignore, and changing search rules.
At every level in organizations, alliances form because members have interests in common
and believe they can do more together than apart. To accomplish their aims, they need
power. Power can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Structural theorists typically
emphasize authority, the legitimate prerogative to make binding decisions. In this view,
managers make rational decisions (optimal and consistent with purpose), monitor to ensure
that decisions are implemented, and assess how well subordinates carry out directives. In
contrast, human resource theorists place less emphasis on power and more on empower­
ment (Bennis and Nanus, 1985; Block, 1987). More than structuralists, they emphasize limits
of authority and tend to focus on influence that enhances mutuality and collaboration. The
implicit hope is that participation, openness, and collaboration substitute for sheer power.
The political frame views authority as only one among many forms of power. It
recognizes the importance of individual (and group) needs but emphasizes that scarce
resources and incompatible preferences cause needs to collide. Politically, the issue is how
competing groups articulate preferences and mobilize power to get what they want. Power,
in this view, is not evil: “We have to stop describing power always in negative terms: [as in] it
excludes, it represses. In fact, power produces; it produces reality” (Foucault, 1975, p. 12).
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Authorities and Partisans
Gamson (1968) describes the relationship between two antagonists—partisans and author-
ities—that are often central to the politics of both organizations and society. By virtue of the
office they hold, authorities are entitled to make decisions binding on their subordinates.
Any member of the coalition who wants to exert bottom-up pressure is a potential partisan.
Gamson describes the relationship in this way: “Authorities are the recipients or targets of
influence, and the agents or initiators of social control. Potential partisans have the opposite
roles—as agents or initiators of influence, and targets or recipients of social control” (p. 76).
In a family, parents function as authorities and children as partisans. Parents make
binding decisions about bedtime, television viewing, or which child uses a particular toy.
Parents initiate social control, and children are the recipients of parental decisions. Children
in turn try to influence the decision makers. They argue for a later bedtime or point out the
injustice of giving one child something another wants. They try to split authorities by
lobbying one parent after the other has refused. They may form a coalition (with siblings,
grandparents, and so on) in an attempt to strengthen their bargaining position.
Authority is essential to anyone in a formal position because social control depends on it.
Officeholders can exert control only so long as partisans respect or fear them enough that
their authority or power remains intact. If partisans are convinced that existing authorities
are too evil or incompetent to continue, they will risk trying to wrest control—unless they
regard the authorities as too formidable. Conversely, if partisans trust authority and see it as
legitimate, they will accept and support it in the event of an attack (Gamson, 1968;
Baldridge, 1971). In almost any instance of unrest or revolution, there is a sharp cleavage
between rebels and loyalists.
If partisan opposition becomes too powerful, authority systems may collapse. The process
can be very swift, as illustrated by events in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab Spring of
2011–2013. In both cases, established regimes had lost legitimacy years earlier but held on
through coercion and control of access to decision making. When massive demonstrations
erupted, authorities faced an unnerving choice: activate the police and army in the hope of
preserving power or watch their authority fade away. Authorities in China and Romania in
1989, Libya in 2011, and Egypt and Syria in 2012, chose the first course. It led to bloodshed in
every case, but only the Chinese were able to quash their opposition quickly. Elsewhere,
authorities’ attempts to quell dissent with force were futile, and their legitimacy evaporated.
The period of evaporation is typically heady but always hazardous. When the old regime
collapses, the question is whether new authority can reconstitute itself quickly enough to
avoid chaos. Authorities and partisans both have reason to fear a specter such as Bosnia and
Liberia in the 1990s, Somalia for the last 25 years, Iraq in the aftermath of U.S. intervention
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or Syria since the Arab Spring of 2011. All are tragic examples of chronic turmoil and
misery, with no authority strong enough to bring partisan strife under control.
Sources of Power
Authorities and partisans both have many potential sources of power. A number of social
scientists (Baldridge, 1971; French and Raven, 1959; Kanter, 1977; Mann, 1986; Pfeffer, 1981,
1992; Russ, 1994) have tried to identify the various wellsprings of power. The list includes:
• Position power (authority). Positions confer certain levels of legitimate authority.
Professors assign grades; judges settle disputes. Positions also place incumbents in
more or less powerful locations in communications and power networks. It is as helpful
to be in the right unit as it is to hold the right job. A lofty title in a backwater department
may not carry much weight, but junior members of a powerful unit may have substantial
clout (Pfeffer, 1992).
• Control of rewards. The ability to deliver jobs, money, political support, or other rewards
brings power. Political bosses and tribal chiefs, among others, cement their power base
by delivering services and jobs to loyal supporters (Mihalopoulos and Kimberly, 2006).
• Coercive power. Coercive power rests on the ability to constrain, block, interfere, or
punish. A union’s ability to walk out, students’ capacity to sit in, and an army’s ability to
clamp down exemplify coercive power. A chilling example is the rise of suicide attacks in
recent decades from about three a year worldwide in the 1980s to about one a day in 2016
(Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, 2016). They were only about 3 percent of
terror incidents but accounted for almost half the fatalities (Pape, 2006, p. 4).
• Information and expertise. Power flows to those with the information and know-how to
the faculty in elite universities, and to political consultants who help politicians get elected.
• Reputation. Reputation builds on expertise. In almost any field, people develop records of
accomplishment based on their prior performance. Opportunities and influence flow to
people with strong reputations, like the Hollywood superstars whose presence in a film
sells tickets. Boivie, Graffin, and Gentry (2016) found that the reputation of the analyst,
the CEO, and the firm all influenced how a firm’s stock price changed in response to a
buy or sell recommendation from a Wall Street analyst.
• Alliances and networks. Getting things done in an organization involves working
through a complex network of individuals and groups. Friends and allies make things
a lot easier. Kotter (1982) found that a key difference between more and less successful
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senior managers was attentiveness to building and cultivating ties with friends and allies.
Managers who spent too little time building networks had much more difficulty getting
things done.

• Access and control of agendas. Organizations and political systems typically give some
individuals and groups more access than others to decision arenas. When decisions are
made, the interests of those with “a seat at the table” are well represented, while the
concerns of absentees are often distorted or ignored (Lukes, 1974; Brown, 1986). Access
often comes at a price. Shani and Westphal (2016) found that journalists who wrote
negative stories about a firm’s leadership soon found that CEOs from other firms
stopped taking their calls. Because the journalists needed access to do their jobs, they
tilted toward more flattering articles about corporate leaders.

• Framing. Control of meaning and symbols is what Mann (1986, 2013) refers to as
ideological power. “Establishing the framework within which issues will be viewed and
decided is often tantamount to determining the result” (Pfeffer, 1992, p. 203). Elites and
opinion leaders often have substantial ability to shape meaning and articulate myths that
express identity, beliefs, and values. Viewed positively, this fosters meaning and hope.
Viewed cynically, elites can convince others to accept and support things not in their best
interests (Brown, 1986; Lakoff, 2004). Lakoff argued that Republican electoral success in
2000 and 2004 owed much to skill in framing issues—recasting, for example, the “estate
tax” (which sounds like a tax on the rich) into the “death tax” (which sounds like adding
insult to injury).

• Personal power. Individuals who are attractive and socially adept—because of charisma,
energy, stamina, political smarts, gift of gab, vision, or other characteristics—are imbued
with power independent of other sources. French and Raven (1959) used the term
referent power to describe influence that comes when people like you or want to be like
you. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan expanded their influence because they brought
levels of charm, humor, and ease that Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush lacked.

A significant form of personal power is skill in the application of influence tactics. After
reviewing research on persuasion, Cialdini (2008, 2016) developed a list of six techniques
that skilled practitioners use to influence others, often without the targets realizing how they
have been hooked:
1. Reciprocation: If I do something for you (send you a card, give you a small gift, or make
some effort on your behalf), you’re likely to feel you should do something for me as well.

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2. Commitment and consistency: If I can get you to take a small step in my direction
(maybe getting you to agree that you see at least some positive features in the product
or idea I’m selling), I can leverage your desire to be consistent and to live up to your
3. Social proof: If I offer evidence that everyone (at least everyone you like) is doing it,
you’re more likely to do it as well. (Bars and cafes often salt the tip jar with cash to cue
you that tipping is what people do. Sport and film stars might have no more product
knowledge than you do, but you may still want the shoes they wear or the cosmetic
they use.)
4. Liking: The more you like me (perhaps because I tell you how much I like you, or how
well you’ll do on this task, or how much we have in common), the better the chance
you’ll do what I ask.
5. Authority: If the boss, or someone with a badge or a fancy title, asks you to do it, you
probably will.
6. Scarcity: We put a higher value on something that is scarce or about to become
unavailable. (If I can convince you that the price is going up, there are only a few
items left, what you want is very rare, or this is your last chance, you’re more likely
to buy.)
Partisans’ multiple sources of power are always a constraint on authorities’ capacity to
make binding decisions. Officeholders who rely solely on position power generate resistance
and get outflanked, outmaneuvered, or overrun by others more versatile in exercising
multiple forms of power. Kotter (1985) argues that managerial jobs come with a built-in
“power gap” because position power is rarely enough to get the job done. Expertise, rewards,
coercion, allies, access, reputation, framing, and personal power help close the gap.
Power can be volatile, rising and falling with changes in circumstances. An organization
that sets new profit records each year is rarely besieged by complaints and demands for
change. As many corporate leaders have learned, however, the first bad quarter triggers a
stream of calls and letters from board members, stockholders, and financial analysts. In the
boom of the late 1990s, “everyone” was getting rich in the stock market, and charismatic
CEOs such as Jack Welch of General Electric and Jean-Marie Messier of France’s Vivendi
became popular heroes. But when the economy, the market, and the image of business
crashed in the first years of the new century, so did these heroic images. In 2002, Welch
found himself deeply embarrassed by public revelation of the generous postretirement
payouts his old company was bestowing on him. In the same year, Messier was booted out
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by board members dissatisfied with the company’s stock price and his arrogant “American”
leadership style.
Clark Kerr once remarked ruefully that his primary tasks as chancellor of the University of
football for the alumni.” The remark was half-facetious, but it reflects an important grain of
truth: A president’s power lies particularly in zones of indifference—areas only a few people
care much about. The zone of indifference can expand or contract markedly, depending on
how anorganization isperformingintheeyesofits major constituents.Inthelate 1960s,many
college presidents lost their jobs because they were blamed for student unrest. Among them
was Kerr, who remarked that he left the job just as he entered it, “fired with enthusiasm.”
Managers need to track shifting boundaries of zones of indifference so as not to blunder into
decisions that stir up unanticipated firestorms of criticism and resistance.
Distribution of Power: Overbounded and Underbounded Systems
Organizations and societies differ markedly in how power is distributed. Alderfer (1979)
and Brown (1983) distinguish between overbounded and underbounded systems. In an
overbounded system, power is highly concentrated and everything is tightly regulated. In an
underbounded system, power is diffuse and the system is very loosely controlled. An
overbounded system regulates politics with a firm hand; an underbounded system
encourages conflict and power games.
If power is highly regulated, political activity is often forced under wraps. Before the
emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost (“openness”) in the 1980s, it was common
for Westerners to view the Soviets as a vast, amorphous mass of like-minded people,
brainwashed by decades of government propaganda. It was not true, but even so-called
experts on Soviet affairs misread the underlying reality (Alterman, 1989). Ethnic, political,
philosophical, and religious differences simmered quietly underground so long as the
Kremlin maintained a tightly regulated society. Glasnost took the lid off, leading to an
outpouring of debate and dissent that rapidly caused the collapse of the old order in the
Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe. Almost overnight, much of Eastern Europe
went from overbounded to underbounded. Most nations in Eastern Europe have since
evolved into stable democracies, but many other countries have been less fortunate.
The war in Iraq, beginning in 2003, brought down the overbounded Saddam Hussein
regime and created a power vacuum that attracted a host of contenders vying for supremacy.
By 2006, Iraq had the formal elements of a new government, including a constitution and an
elected parliament, but Iraq has struggled ever since to bring conflict and chaos under
control. The Arab Spring, which began with unrest in Tunisia in 2010, brought unrest and
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revolt to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya, Egypt, Syria,
Bahrain, and Yemen. Fear of a similar fate drives the leaders of China’s ruling Communist
party to mount an ongoing, massive effort to stem the tides of criticism and dissent welling
up from China’s more than 700 million Internet users.
The political frame stresses that the combination of scarce resources and divergent interests
produces conflict as surely as night follows day. Conflict is not something that can or should
be stamped out. Other frames view conflict differently. The structural frame, in particular,
views conflict as an impediment to effectiveness. Hierarchical conflict raises the possibility
that lower levels will ignore or subvert management directives. Conflict among major
partisan groups can undermine leadership’s ability to function. Such dangers are precisely
why the structural perspective finds virtue in a well-defined, authoritative chain of
command, and why those in authority so often work to keep conflict under control.
From a political perspective, conflict is not necessarily a problem or a sign that
something is amiss. Organizational resources are in short supply; there is rarely enough
to give everyone everything they want. Individuals compete for jobs, titles, and prestige.
Departments compete for resources and power. Interest groups vie for policy concessions. If
one group controls the policy process, others may be frozen out. Conflict is normal and
inevitable. It’s a natural byproduct of collective life.
The political prism puts more emphasis on strategy and tactics than on resolution of
conflict. Conflict has benefits as well as costs: “a tranquil, harmonious organization may
very well be an apathetic, uncreative, stagnant, inflexible, and unresponsive organization.
Conflict challenges the status quo [and] stimulates interest and curiosity. It is the root of
personal and social change, creativity, and innovation. Conflict encourages new ideas and
approaches to problems, stimulating innovation” (Heffron, 1989, p. 185).
An organization can experience too much or too little conflict (Brown, 1983; Heffron,
1989; Jehn, 1995). Leaders may need to tamp down or stoke up the intensity, depending on
the situation (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002). More important than the amount of conflict is how
it is managed. Poorly managed conflict leads to infighting and destructive power struggles
like those in the Challenger and Columbia cases. Well-handled conflict, on the other hand,
can stimulate creativity and innovation that make an organization a livelier, more adaptive,
and more effective place (Kotter, 1985).
Conflict is particularly likely to occur at boundaries, or interfaces, between groups and
units. Horizontal conflict occurs in the boundary between departments or divisions; vertical
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conflict occurs at the border between levels. Cultural conflict crops up between groups with
differing values, traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles. Cultural quarrels in the larger society often
seep into the workplace, generating tension around gender, ethnic, racial, and other
But organizations also house their own value disputes. The world of management is
different from that of frontline employees. Workers who move up the ladder sometimes
struggle with elusive adjustments required by their new role. A classic article described
foremen as both “master and victim of doubletalk” (Roethlisberger, 1945) because of the
pressures they felt from above to side with management, and from below to think and talk
like a worker.
The management challenge is to recognize and manage interface conflict. Like other
forms, it can be productive or debilitating. One of the most important tasks of unit managers
or union representatives is to be a persuasive advocate for their group on a political field
with many players representing competing interests. They need negotiation skills to develop
alliances and cement deals that enable their group to move forward “without physical or
psychological bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace” (Peck, 1998, p. 71).
Does a world of power, self-interest, conflict, and political games inevitably develop into a
dog-eat-dog jungle in which the strong devour the weak and selfishness trumps everything
else? Is an unregulated organization invariably a nasty, brutish place where values and ethics
are irrelevant? The corporate ethics scandals of recent years reinforced a recurrent suspicion
that the morals of the marketplace amount to no morals at all.
Jackall (1988) views the corporation as a world of cabals and alliances, dominance and
submission, conflict and self-interest, and “moral mazes.” He suggests that “wise and
ambitious managers resist the lulling platitudes of unity, though they invoke them with
fervor, and look for the inevitable clash of interests beneath the bouncy, cheerful surface of
corporate life” (p. 37). Moving up the ladder inevitably involves competition for the scarce
resource of status. The favored myth is that free and fair competition ensures that, at least in
the long run, better performers win.
But assessing performance in managerial work is fraught with ambiguity. There are
multiple criteria, some of which can be assessed only through subjective judgment by the boss
and others. It is often hard to separate individual performance from group performance or a
host of other factors, including good or bad luck. It may make a difference who is judging. Did
Thiokol engineers who fought to stop the launch of Challenger deserve high grades for their
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persistence and integrity or low grades because they did not do a better job of persuading their
bosses? When some of those same engineers went public with their criticism, were they
demonstrating courage or disloyalty? Whistleblowers are regularly lauded by the press yet
pilloriedor banished by employers. This is exemplified by Time magazine’s 2002Person of the
Year award, given to three women who blew the whistle on their employers: Enron,
WorldCom, and the FBI. By the time they received the award, all had moved on from
workplaces that viewed them more as traitors than as exemplars of courage and integrity.
Managers frequently learn that getting ahead is a matter of personal “credibility,” which
comes from doing what is socially and politically correct. Definitions of political correctness
reflect tacit forms of power deeply embedded in organizational patterns and structure
(Frost, 1986). Because getting ahead and making it to the top dominate the attention of
many managers (Dalton, 1959; Jackall, 1988; Ritti and Funkhouser, 1982), both organiza­
tions and individuals need to develop constructive and positive ways to engage in the
political game. The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what
kind of politics they will have.
Jackall’s view is bleak:
Bureaucracy breaks apart the ownership of property from its control, social
independence from occupation, substance from appearances, action from
responsibility, obligation from guilt, language from meaning, and notions of
truth from reality. Most important, and at the bottom of all these fractures, it
breaks apart the traditional connection between the meaning of work and
salvation. In the bureaucratic world, one’s success, one’s sign of election, no
longer depends on an inscrutable God, but on the capriciousness of one’s
superiors and the market; and one achieves economic salvation to the extent
that one pleases and submits to new gods, that is, one’s bosses and the exigencies
of an impersonal market (1988, pp. 191–192).
This is not a pretty picture, but it captures the experience of many managers. Productive
politics is a possible alternative, although hard to achieve. In the next chapter, we explore
ways that a manager can become a constructive politician.
Traditional views see organizations as created and controlled by legitimate authorities who set
goals, design structure, hire and manage employees, and ensure pursuit of the right objectives.
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The political view frames a different world. Organizations are coalitions composed of
individuals and groups with enduring differences who live in a world of scarce resources.
That puts power and conflict at the center of organizational decision making.
Authorities have position power, but they must vie with many other contenders for other
forms of leverage. Different contenders bring distinct beliefs, values, and interests. They seek
access to various forms of power and compete for their share of scarce resources in a finite
organizational pie.
From a political perspective, goals, structure, and policies emerge from an ongoing
process of bargaining and negotiation among major interest groups. Sometimes legitimate
authorities are the dominant members of the coalition, as is often true in small, owner-
managed organizations. Large corporations are often controlled by senior management
rather than by stockholders or the board of directors. Government agencies may be
controlled more by the permanent civil servants than by the political leaders at the top.
The dominant group in a school district may be the teachers’ union instead of the school
board or the superintendent. In such cases, rationalists recoil because they see the wrong
people setting the agenda. But the political view suggests that exercising power is a natural
part of ongoing contests. Those who get and use power to their advantage will be winners.
There is no guarantee that those who gain power will use it wisely or justly. But power
and politics are not inevitably demeaning and destructive. Constructive politics is a
possibility—indeed, a necessary option if we are to create institutions and societies that
are both just and efficient.
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c h a p t e r
The Manager as Politician
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could do only a little.
—Edmund Burke
Born to a wealthy but unorthodox family, Aruna Roy decided early in lifethat her mission was to do something for India’s poor. After getting a
master’s degree from the University of Delhi, she became one of the few
women who passed the national test to join India’s elite civil service. Thrilled
at first, she gradually became disillusioned with the rigid, top-down Indian
bureaucracy and concluded she could do more out of government.
She joined a nonprofit her husband had founded in a poor rural village. It was not an
easy transition. She had to walk miles to get there, the village lacked electricity and running
water, and the women she hoped to work with were initially suspicious. But Roy persisted,
adapted to village life, made friends, and worked on issues of incomes and children’s
education. Through several years of travel and discussion, she came to a clearer sense of
what rural women needed and built a support network of individuals and agencies willing to
help on her goal of systemic change.
Roy then took another, even more radical step. She recruited a few allies who shared her
vision, and together they moved into a two-room hut in a remote village. They began by
building relationships, listening, learning, and looking for opportunities. One came when
they helped a nearby village reclaim 1,500 acres previously misappropriated by a well-
connected landowner. Over time, Roy and her group built a support base. In May, 1990,
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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they were able to bring a thousand people together to form a new organization, Mazdoor
Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), or Worker and Peasant Empowerment Union.
As they continued to press for better village conditions, they realized that money
intended for workers’ pay or village improvements was often disappearing. On the rare
occasions that they could get access to government records, they found that officials were
generating reams of falsified documents to hide corruption. Roy and her allies began a
campaign for more government transparency and drew support from the middle class as
well as the poor—both suffered when money to repair roads or put a roof on the local
school disappeared into someone’s pocket. Roy and her allies began to hold public
hearings, with little more than a tent and an open mike for people to voice grievances. The
government tried to shut down the hearings, which only intensified support for the
campaign. Trade unions got on board, national media covered the story, and approxi­
mately 400 organizations joined the cause. It took years of hard work, but in 2005 India
enacted the National Right to Information Act (Krishnamurthy and Winston, 2010).
Aruna Roy’s ability to mobilize power, assemble coalitions, and champion a noble cause
paid off.
It may not be obvious that political skill is as vital in business as in community
organizing, but a case from Microsoft provides an example. Bill Gates and his tiny software
business got their big break in the early 1980s when they obtained the contract to supply an
operating system, DOS, for IBM’s new line of personal computers. IBM PC’s and clones
soon dominated the PC business, and Microsoft began a meteoric rise.
Ten years later, everyone knew that DOS was obsolete and woefully deficient. The
replacement was supposed to be OS/2, a new operating system developed jointly by
Microsoft and IBM, but it was a tense partnership. IBMers saw “Microsofties” as
undisciplined adolescents. Microsoft folks moaned that “Big Blue” was a hopelessly
bureaucratic producer of “poor code, poor design, and poor process” (Manes and Andrews,
1994, p. 425). Increasingly pessimistic about the viability of OS/2, Gates decided to hedge his
bets by developing his own new operating system to be called Windows NT. Gates recruited
the brilliant but crotchety Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment to head the effort.
Gates recognized that Cutler was known “more for his code than his charm” (Zachary,
1993, p. A1). Things started well, but Cutler insisted on keeping his team small and wanted
no responsibility beyond the “kernel” of the operating system. He figured someone else
could worry about details like the user interface. Gates began to see a potential disaster
looming, but issuing orders to the temperamental Cutler was as promising as telling Picasso
how to paint. So Gates put the calm, understated Paul Maritz on the case. Born in South
Africa, Maritz had studied mathematics and economics in Cape Town before deciding that
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software was his destiny. He joined Microsoft in 1986 and became the leader of its OS/2
effort. When he was assigned informal oversight of Windows NT, he got a frosty welcome:
As he began meeting regularly with Cutler on NT matters, Maritz often found
himself the victim of slights. Once Maritz innocently suggested to Cutler that
“We should—” Cutler interrupted, “We! Who’s we? You mean you and the
mouse in your pocket?” Maritz brushed off such retorts, even finding humor
in Cutler’s apparently inexhaustible supply of epithets. He refused to allow
Cutler to draw him into a brawl. Instead, he hoped Cutler would “volunteer”
for greater responsibility as the shortcomings of the status quo became more
apparent (Zachary, 1994, p. 76).
Maritz enticed Cutler with tempting challenges. In early 1990, he asked Cutler if he
could put together a demonstration of NT for COMDEX, the industry’s biggest trade show.
Cutler took the bait. Maritz knew that the effort would expose NT’s weaknesses (Zachary,
1994). When Gates subsequently seethed that NT was too late, too big, and too slow, Maritz
scrambled to “filter that stuff from Dave” (p. 208). Maritz’s patience eventually paid off
when he was promoted to head all operating systems development:
The promotion gave Maritz formal and actual authority over Cutler and the
entire NT project. Still, he avoided confrontations, preferring to wait until
Cutler came to see the benefits of Maritz’s views. Increasingly Cutler and his
inner circle viewed Maritz as a powerhouse, not an empty suit. “He’s critical to
the project,” said [one of Cutler’s most loyal lieutenants]. “He got into it a little
bit at a time. Slowly he blended his way in until it was obvious who was running
the show. Him” (Zachary, 1994, p. 204).
Chapter 9’s account of the Columbia and Challenger cases drives home a chilling lesson
about political pressures sidetracking momentous decisions. The implosion of firms such as
Enron, WorldCom, and Portugal’s oldest bank, Banco Espírito Santo, shows how the
unfettered pursuit of self-interest by powerful executives can bring even a huge corporation
to its knees. Many believe that the antidote is to get politics out of management. But this is
unrealistic. Enduring differences lead to multiple interpretations of what’s true and what’s
important. Scarce resources trigger contests about who gets what. Interdependence
means that people cannot ignore one another; they need each other’s assistance, support,
and resources. Under such conditions, efforts to eliminate politics are futile and
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counterproductive. Aruna Roy’s passion and persistence and Paul Maritz’s deft combina­
tion of patience and diplomacy offer hope—positive examples of the manager as construc­
tive politician.
Kotter (1985) contends that too many managers are either naive or cynical about
organizational politics. Pollyannas view the world through rose-colored glasses, assuming
that most people are good, kind, and trustworthy. Cynics believe the opposite: Everyone is
selfish, things are always cutthroat, and “get them before they get you” is the best survival
tactic. Brown and Hesketh (2004) documented parallel stances among college job seekers.
The naive “purists” believed hiring was fair and they’d be rewarded on their merits if they
presented themselves honestly. The more cynical “players” gamed the system and tried to
present themselves as whatever they thought employers wanted. In Kotter’s view, neither
extreme is realistic or effective: “Organizational excellence . . . demands a sophisticated
type of social skill: a leadership skill that can mobilize people and accomplish important
objectives despite dozens of obstacles; a skill that can pull people together for meaningful
purposes despite the thousands of forces that push us apart; a skill that can keep our
corporations and public institutions from descending into a mediocrity characterized by
bureaucratic infighting, parochial politics, and vicious power struggles” (p. 11).
In a world of chronic scarcity, diversity, and conflict, the nimble manager walks a
tightrope: developing a direction, building a base of support, and cobbling together working
relations with both allies and opponents. In this chapter, we discuss why this is vital and
then lay out the basic skills of the manager as politician. Finally, we tackle ethical issues, the
soft underbelly of organizational politics. Is it possible to play politics and still do the right
thing? We discuss four instrumental values to guide ethical choice.
The manager as politician exercises four key skills: agenda-setting (Kanter, 1983; Kotter,
1988; Pfeffer, 1992; Smith, 1988), mapping the political terrain (DeLuca, 1999; Pfeffer, 1992;
Pichault, 1993), networking and building coalitions (Brass and Krackhardt, 2012; Burt,
1992; DeLuca, 1999; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1982, 1985, 1988; Kurchner-Hawkins and Miller,
2006; Pfeffer, 1992; Smith, 1988), and bargaining and negotiating (Bellow and Moulton,
1978; Fisher and Ury, 1981; Lax and Sebenius, 1986).
Agenda Setting
Structurally, an agenda outlines a goal and a schedule of activities. Politically, an agenda is a
statement of interests and a scenario for getting the goods. In reflecting on his experience as
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a university president, Warren Bennis arrived at a deceptively simple observation: “It struck
me that I was most effective when I knew what I wanted” (1989, p. 20). Kanter’s study of
internal entrepreneurs in American corporations (1983), Kotter’s analysis of effective
corporate leaders (1988), and Smith’s examination of effective U.S. presidents (1988) all
reached a similar conclusion: Regardless of the role you’re in, the first step in effective
political leadership is setting an agenda.
The effective leader creates an “agenda for change” with two major elements: a vision
balancing the long-term interests of key parties, and a strategy for achieving the vision while
recognizing competing internal and external forces (Kotter, 1988). Aruna Roy always knew
she wanted to do something for the poor, but she had to live and work with them over time
to develop an agenda rooted in their needs and concerns. Her effectiveness increased
dramatically when she seized on information transparency. The agenda must convey
direction while addressing concerns of major stakeholders. Kanter (1983) and Pfeffer (1992)
underscore the intimate tie between gathering information and developing a vision. Pfeffer’s
list of key political attributes includes “sensitivity”—knowing how others think and what
they care about so that your agenda responds to their concerns: “Many people think of
politicians as arm-twisters, and that is, in part, true. But in order to be a successful arm-
twister, one needs to know which arm to twist, and how” (p. 172).
Kanter adds: “While gathering information, entrepreneurs can also be ‘planting seeds’—
leaving the kernel of an idea behind and letting it germinate and blossom so that it begins to
float around the system from many sources other than the innovator” (1983, p. 218). Paul
Maritz did just that. Ignoring Dave Cutler’s barbs and insults, he focused on getting
information, building relationships, and formulating an agenda. He quickly concluded that
the NT project was in disarray and that Cutler had to take on more responsibility. Maritz’s
strategy was attuned to his quarry: “He protected Cutler from undue criticism and resisted
the urge to reform him. [He] kept the peace by exacting from Cutler no ritual expressions of
obedience” (Zachary, 1994, pp. 281–282).
A vision without a strategy remains an illusion. A strategy has to recognize major forces
working for and against the agenda. Smith’s point about U.S. presidents captures the
importance of focus for managers at every level:
The paramount task and power of the president is to articulate the national
purpose: to fix the nation’s agenda. Of all the big games at the summit of
American politics, the agenda game must be won first. The effectiveness of the
presidency and the capacity of any president to lead depend on focusing the
nation’s political attention and its energies on two or three top priorities. From
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the standpoint of history, the flow of events seems to have immutable logic, but
political reality is inherently chaotic: it contains no automatic agenda. Order
must be imposed (1988, p. 333).
Agendas never come neatly packaged. The bigger the job, the harder it is to wade through
the clutter and find order amid chaos. Contrary to Woody Allen’s dictum, success requires
more than just showing up. High office, even if the incumbent enjoys great personal
popularity, is no guarantee. In his first year as president, Ronald Reagan was remarkably
successful following a classic strategy for winning the agenda game: “First impressions are
critical. Inthe agenda game, a swiftbeginningis crucialfor a new president toestablishhimself
as leader—to show the nation that he will make a difference in people’s lives. The first 100 days
are the vital test; in those weeks, the political community and the public measure a new
president—to see whether he is active, dominant, sure, purposeful” (Smith, 1988, p. 334).
Reagan began with a vision but without a strategy. He was not a gifted manager or
strategist, despite extraordinary ability to portray complex issues in broad, symbolic
brushstrokes. Reagan’s staff painstakingly studied the first 100 days of four predecessors.
They concluded that it was essential to move with speed and focus. Pushing competing
issues aside, they focused on two: cutting taxes and reducing the federal budget. They also
discovered a secret weapon in David Stockman, the one person in the Reagan White House
who understood the federal budget process. “Stockman got a jump on everyone else for two
reasons: he had an agenda and a legislative blueprint already prepared, and he understood
the real levers of power. Two terms as a Michigan congressman plus a network of key
Republican and Democratic connections had taught Stockman how to play the power
game” (Smith, 1988, p. 351). Reagan and his advisers had the vision; Stockman provided
strategic direction.
Mapping the Political Terrain
It is foolhardy to plunge into a minefield without knowing where explosives are buried, yet
managers unwittingly do it all the time. They launch a new initiative with little or no effort to
scout and master the political turf. Pichault (1993) suggests four steps for developing a
political map:
1. Determine channels of informal communication.
2. Identify principal agents of political influence.
3. Analyze possibilities for mobilizing internal and external players.
4. Anticipate counterstrategies that others are likely to employ.
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Pichault offers an example of planned change in a large government agency in Belgium.
The agency wanted to replace antiquated manual records with a fully automated paperless
computer network. Proponents of the new system had little understanding of how work got
done. Nor did they anticipate the interests and power of key middle managers and frontline
bureaucrats. It seemed obvious to the techies that better data meant higher efficiency. In
reality, frontline bureaucrats made little use of the data. They applied standard procedures
in 90 percent of cases and asked their bosses what to do about the rest. They checked with
supervisors partly to get the “right” answer but even more to get political cover. Because they
saw no need for the new technology, street-level bureaucrats had incentives to ignore or
work around it. After a consultant clarified the political map, a new battle erupted between
unrepentant techies, who insisted their solution was correct, and senior managers who
argued for a less ambitious approach. The two sides ultimately compromised.
A simple way to develop a political map for any situation is to create a two-dimensional
diagram mapping players (who is in the game), power (how much clout each player is likely
to exercise), and interests (what each player wants). Exhibits 10.1 and 10.2 present two
hypothetical versions of the Belgian bureaucracy’s political map. Exhibit 10.1 shows the map
as the techies saw it. They expected little opposition and assumed they held the high cards;
their map implied a quick and easy win. Exhibit 10.2, a more objective map, paints a very
Exhibit 10.1.
The Political Map as Seen by the Techies: Strong Support and Weak
Opposition for Change.
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Exhibit 10.2.
The Real Political Map: A Battleground with Strong Players on Both Sides.
different picture. Resistance is more intense and opponents more powerful. This view
forecasts a stormy process with protracted conflict. Though less comforting, the second map
has an important message: Success requires substantial effort to realign the political force
field. The third and fourth key skills of the manager as politician, discussed in the next two
sections, respond to that challenge.
Networking and Building Coalitions
Managers often fail to get things done because they rely too much on reason and too little on
relationships. In both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle catastrophes (discussed in
Chapter 9), engineers pitched careful, data-based arguments to their superiors about
potentially lethal safety risks—and failed to dent their bosses’ resistance (Glanz and
Schwartz, 2003; Vaughan, 1995). Six months before the Challenger accident, for example,
an engineer at Morton Thiokol wrote to management: “The result [of an O-ring failure]
would be a catastrophe of the highest order—loss of human life” (Bell and Esch, 1987, p. 45).
A memo, if it is clear and powerful, may work, but is often a sign of political innocence.
Kotter (1985) suggests four basic steps for exercising political influence:
1. Identify relevant relationships. (Figure out which players you need to influence.)
2. Assess who might resist, why, and how strongly. (Determine where the leadership
challenges will be.)
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3. Develop, wherever possible, links with potential opponents to facilitate communica­
tion, education, or negotiation. (Hold your enemies close.)
4. If step three fails, carefully select and implement either more subtle or more forceful
methods. (Save your more potent weapons until you really need them, but have a Plan
B in case Plan A falls short.)
These steps underscore the importance of developing a power base. Moving up the
managerial ladder confers authority but also creates more dependence, because success
requires the cooperation of many others (Kotter, 1985, 1988; Butcher and Clarke, 2001).
People rarely give their best efforts and fullest cooperation simply because they have been
ordered to do so. They accept direction better when they perceive the people in authority as
credible, competent, and sensible.
The first task in building networks and coalitions is to figure out whose help you need.
The second is to develop relationships so people will be there when you need them.
Successful middle-management change agents typically begin by getting their boss on board
(Kanter, 1983). They then move to “preselling,” or “making cheerleaders”: “Peers, managers
of related functions, stakeholders in the issue, potential collaborators, and sometimes even
customers would be approached individually, in one-on-one meetings that gave people a
chance to influence the project and [gave] the innovator the maximum opportunity to sell it.
Seeing them alone and on their territory was important: the rule was to act as if each person
were the most important one for the project’s success” (p. 223).
Once you cultivate cheerleaders, you can move to “horse trading”: promising rewards in
exchange for resources and support. This builds a resource base that helps in “securing
blessings”—getting the necessary approvals and mandates from higher management
(Kanter, 1983). Kanter found that the usual route to success in securing blessings is to
identify critical senior managers and to develop a polished, formal presentation to nail down
their support. The best presentations respond to both substantive and political concerns.
Senior managers typically care about two questions: Is it a good idea? How will my
constituents react? Once innovators get a nod from higher management, they can formalize
the coalition with their boss and make specific plans for pursuing the project.
The basic point is simple: As a manager, you need friends and allies to get things done.
To sew up their support, you need to build coalitions. Rationalists and romantics often rebel
against this scenario. Why should you have to play political games to get something
accepted if it’s the right thing to do? One of the great classics of French drama, Molière’s The
Misanthrope, tells the story of a protagonist whose rigid rejection of all things political is
destructive for him and everyone close by. The point that Molière made four centuries ago
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still holds: It is hard to dislike politics without also disliking people. Like it or not, political
dynamics are inevitable under three conditions most managers face every day: ambiguity,
diversity, and scarcity.
Informal networks perform a number of functions that formal structure may do poorly
or not at all—moving projects forward, imparting culture, mentoring, and creating
“communities of practice.” Some organizations use measures of social networking to
identify and manage who’s connected to whom. When Procter & Gamble studied linkages
among its 25 research and development units around the world, it discovered that its unit in
China was relatively isolated from all the rest—a clear signal that linkages needed
strengthening to corner a big and growing market (Reingold and Yang, 2007).
Ignoring or misreading people’s roles in networks is costly. Consider the mistake that
undermined John LeBoutillier’s political career. Shortly after he was elected to Congress
from a wealthy district in Long Island, LeBoutillier fired up his audience at the New York
Republican convention with the colorful quip that Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill
was “fat, bloated, and out of control, just like the Federal budget.” Asked to comment, Tip
O’Neill was atypically terse: “I wouldn’t know the man from a cord of wood” (Matthews,
1999, p. 113). Two years later, LeBoutillier unexpectedly lost his bid for reelection to an
unknown opponent who didn’t have the money to mount a real campaign—until a
mysterious flood of contributions poured in from all over America. When LeBoutillier
later ran into O’Neill, he admitted sheepishly, “I guess you were more popular than I
thought you were” (Matthews, 1999, p. 114). LeBoutillier learned the hard way that it is
dangerous to underestimate or provoke people when you don’t know how much power they
have or who their friends are.
Bargaining and Negotiation
We often associate bargaining with commercial, legal, and labor transactions. From a
political perspective, though, bargaining is central to decision making. The horse trading
that Kanter describes as part of coalition building is just one of many examples. Negotiation
occurs whenever two or more parties with some interests in common and others in conflict
need to reach agreement. Labor and management may agree that a firm should make money
and offer good jobs to employees but part ways on how to balance pay and profitability.
Engineers and managers in the NASA space program had a common interest in the success
of the shuttle flights, but at key moments differed sharply on how to balance technical and
political tradeoffs.
A fundamental dilemma in negotiations is choosing between “creating value” and
“claiming value” (Lax and Sebenius, 1986). Value creators believe that successful negotiators
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must be inventive and cooperative in searching for a win-win solution. Value claimers see
“win-win” as naively optimistic. For them, bargaining is a hard, tough process in which you
have to do what it takes to win as much as you can.
One of the best-known win-win approaches to negotiation was developed by Fisher and
Ury (1981) in their classic Getting to Yes. They argue that parties too often engage in
“positional bargaining”: They stake out positions and then reluctantly make concessions to
reach agreement. Fisher and Ury contend that positional bargaining is inefficient and misses
opportunities to create something that’s better for everyone. They propose an alternative:
“principled bargaining,” built around four strategies.
The first strategy is to separate people from the problem. The stress and tension of
negotiations can easily escalate into anger and personal attack. The result is that a negotiator
sometimes wants to defeat or hurt the other party at almost any cost. Because every
bargaining situation involves both substance and relationship, the wise negotiator will “deal
with the people as human beings and with the problem on its merits.” Paul Maritz
demonstrated this principle in dealing with the prickly Dave Cutler. Even though Cutler
continually baited and insulted him, Maritz refused to be distracted and persistently focused
on the task at hand.
The second strategy is to focus on interests, not positions. If you get locked into a particular
position, you might overlook better ways to achieve your goal. A classic example is the 1978
Camp Davidtreaty between Israel and Egypt. The sides were at an impasse over where to draw
the boundary between the two countries. Israel wanted to keep part of the Sinai; Egypt wanted
all of it back. Resolution became possible only when they looked at underlying interests. Israel
was concerned about security: no Egyptian tanks on the border. Egypt was concerned about
sovereignty: The Sinai had been part of Egypt from the time of the Pharaohs. The parties
agreed on a plan that gave all of the Sinai back to Egypt while demilitarizing large parts of it
(Fisher and Ury, 1981). That solution led to a durable peace agreement.
Fisher and Ury’s third strategy is to invent options for mutual gain instead of locking in
on the first alternative that comes to mind. More options increase the chance of a better
outcome. Maritz recognized this in his dealings with Cutler. Instead of bullying, he asked
innocently, “Could you do a demo at COMDEX?” It was a new option that created gains for
both parties.
Fisher and Ury’s fourth strategy is to insist on objective criteria—standards of fairness for
both substance and procedure. Agreeing on criteria at the beginning of negotiations can
produce optimism and momentum, while reducing the use of devious or provocative tactics
that get in the way of a mutually beneficial solution. When a school board and a teachers’
union are at loggerheads over the size of a pay increase, they can look for independent
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standards, such as the rate of inflation or the terms of settlement in other districts. A classic
example of fair procedure finds two sisters deadlocked over how to divide the last wedge of
pie between them. They agree that one will cut the pie into two pieces and the other will
choose the piece that she wants.
Fisher and Ury devote most of their attention to creating value—finding better solutions
for both parties. They downplay the question of claiming value. Yet there are many
examples in which shrewd value claimers have come out ahead. In 1980, Bill Gates offered to
license an operating system to IBM about 48 hours before he had one to sell. Then he
neglected to mention to Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer that Microsoft was buying his
operating system to resell it to IBM. Gates gave IBM a great price: only $30,000 more than
the $50,000 he’d paid for it. But he retained the rights to license it to anyone else. At the time,
Microsoft was a flea atop IBM’s elephant. Almost no one except Gates saw the possibility
that consumers would want an IBM computer made by anyone but IBM. IBM negotiators
might well have thought they were stealing candy from babies in buying DOS royalty-free
for a measly $80,000. Meanwhile, Gates was already dreaming about millions of computers
running his code. As it turned out, the new PC was an instant hit, and IBM couldn’t make
enough of them. Within a year, Microsoft had licensed MS-DOS to 50 companies, and the
number kept growing (Mendelson and Korin, n.d.). Twenty years later, onlookers who
wondered why Microsoft was so aggressive and unyielding in battling government antitrust
suits might not have known that Gates had long been a dogged value claimer.
A classic treatment of value claiming is Schelling’s 1960 essay The Strategy of Conflict,
which focuses on how to make credible threats. Suppose, for example, that I want to buy
your house and am willing to pay $250,000. How can I convince you that I’m willing to pay
only $200,000? Contrary to a common assumption, I’m not always better off if I’m stronger
and have more resources. If you believe that I’m very wealthy, you might take my threat less
seriously than you would if I can get you to believe that $200,000 is the highest I can go.
Common sense also suggests that I should be better off if I have considerable freedom of
action. Yet I may get a better price if I can convince you my hands are tied. Perhaps I’m
representing a very stubborn buyer who won’t go above $200,000, even if the house is worth
more. Such examples suggest that the ideal situation for a bargainer is to have substantial
resources and freedom while convincing the other side of the opposite. Value claiming
provides its own slant on the bargaining process:
• Bargaining is a mixed-motive game. Both parties want an agreement but have differing
interests and preferences, so that what seems valuable to one may be negligible to the
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• Bargaining is a process of interdependent decisions. What each party does affects the
other. Each player wants to be able to predict what the other will do while limiting the
other’s ability to reciprocate.
• The more player A can control player B’s level of uncertainty, the more powerful A is.
The more A can keep private—as Bill Gates did with Seattle Computer and IBM—the
• Bargaining involves judicious use of threats rather than sanctions. Players may threaten to
use force, go on strike, or break off negotiations. In most cases, they prefer not to bear the
costs of carrying out the threat.
• Making a threat credible is crucial. A threat works only if your opponent believes it.
Noncredible threats weaken your bargaining position and confuse the process.
• Calculation of the appropriate level of threat is also critical. If I underthreaten, you may
think I’m weak. If I overthreaten, you may not believe me, may break off the negotiations,
or may escalate your own threats.
Creating value and claiming value are both intrinsic to the bargaining process. How do
you decide how to balance the two? At least two questions are important: How much
opportunity is there for a win-win solution? And will you have to work with these people
again? If an agreement can make everyone better off, it makes sense to emphasize creating
value. If you expect to work with the same people in the future, it is risky to use scorched-
earth tactics that leave anger and mistrust in their wake. Managers who get a reputation for
being manipulative, self-interested, or untrustworthy have a hard time building the net­
works and coalitions they need for long-term success.
Axelrod (1980) found that a strategy of conditional openness works best when
negotiators need to work together over time. This strategy starts with open and collaborative
behavior and maintains the approach if the other responds in kind. If the other party
becomes adversarial, however, the negotiator responds accordingly and remains adversarial
until the opponent makes a collaborative move. It is, in effect, a friendly and forgiving
version of tit for tat: do unto others as they do unto you. Axelrod’s research found that this
conditional openness approach worked better than even the most fiendishly diabolical
adversarial strategy.
A final consideration in balancing collaborative and adversarial tactics is ethics.
Bargainers often misrepresent their positions—even though society almost universally
condemns lying as unethical (Bok, 1978). This leads to a tricky question for the manager as
politician: What actions are ethical and just?
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Burns (1978), Lax and Sebenius (1986), Messick and Ohme (1998), and Svara (2007)
explore ethical issues in bargaining and organizational politics. Burns’s conception of
positive politics (1978) draws on examples as diverse and complex as Franklin Roosevelt
and Adolf Hitler, Gandhi and Mao, Woodrow Wilson and Joan of Arc. He sees conflict and
power as central to leadership. Searching for firm moral footing in a world of cultural and
ethical diversity, Burns turned to Maslow’s (1954) theory of motivation and Kohlberg’s
(1973) treatment of ethics.
From Maslow, he borrowed the hierarchy of motives (see Chapter 6). Moral leaders, he
argued, appeal to higher-order human needs. Kohlberg supplied the idea of stages of moral
reasoning. At the lowest, “preconventional” level, moral judgment rests primarily on
perceived consequences: An action is right if you are rewarded and wrong if you are
punished. In the intermediate or “conventional” level, the emphasis is on conforming to
authority and following the rules. At the highest, “postconventional” level, ethical judgment
rests on general principles: the greatest good for the greatest number, or universal moral
Maslow and Kohlberg, intertwined, gave Burns a foundation for constructing a positive
view of politics: “If leaders are to be effective in helping to mobilize and elevate their
constituencies, leaders must be whole persons, persons with full functioning capacities for
thinking and feeling. The problem for them as educators, as leaders, is not to promote
narrow, egocentric self-actualization, but to extend awareness of human needs and the
means of gratifying them, to improve the larger social situation for which educators or
leaders have responsibility and over which they have power” (1978, pp. 448–449).
Burns’s view provides two expansive criteria: Does your leadership rest on general moral
principles? And does it appeal to the “better angels” in your constituents’ psyches? Lax and
Sebenius (1986) see ethical issues as inescapable quandaries but provide a concrete set of
questions for assessing leaders’ actions:
• Are you following rules that are mutually understood and accepted? In poker, for example,
players understand that bluffing is part of the game but pulling cards from your sleeve is
• Are you comfortable discussing and defending your choices? Would you want your
colleagues and friends to know what you’re doing? Your spouse, children, or parents?
Would you be comfortable if your deeds appeared on the Web or in your local
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• Would you want to be on the receiving end of your own actions? Would you want this
done to a member of your family?
• Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted as you did? If you were designing an
organization, would you want people to follow your example? Would you teach your
children the ethics you have embraced?
• Are there alternatives you could consider that rest on firmer ethical ground? Could you test
your strategy with a trusted advisor and ask about other possibilities?
These questions embody four principles of moral judgment:
Mutuality. Are all parties to a relationship operating under the same understanding about
the rules of the game? Enron’s Ken Lay was talking up the company’s stock to analysts
and employees even as he and others were selling their shares. In the period when
WorldCom improved its profits by cooking the books, it made its competitors look bad.
Top executives at competing firms such as AT&T and Sprint felt the heat from analysts
and shareholders and wondered, “Why can’t we get the results they’re getting?” Only later
did they learn the answer: “They’re cheating, and we’re not.”
Generality. Does a specific action follow a principle of moral conduct applicable to
comparable situations? When Enron and WorldCom violated accounting principles to
inflate their results, they were secretly breaking the rules, not adhering to a broadly
applicable rule of conduct.
Openness. Are we willing to make our thinking and decisions public and confrontable? As
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed many years ago, “Sunlight is the best disinfec­
tant.” That was why Aruna Roy was so passionate about making government more
transparent. Keeping others in the dark has been a consistent theme in corporate ethics
scandals. Enron’s books were almost impenetrable, and the company attacked analysts
who questioned the numbers.
Caring. Does this action show concern for the legitimate interests and concerns of others?
Enron’s effort to protect its share price by locking in employees so they couldn’t sell the
stock in their retirement accounts, even as the value of the shares plunged, put the
interests of senior executives ahead of everyone else’s.
Business scandals come in waves; they are a predictable feature of the trough following
every business boom. After the market boom of the Roaring Twenties and the crash that
began the Great Depression, the president of the New York Stock Exchange went to jail in
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his three-piece suit (Labaton, 2002). There was another wave of corporate scandals in the
1970s. The 1980s gave us Ivan Boesky and the savings and loan crisis. And in the early years
of the twenty-first century, we have seen scandals at Enron, Siemens, Volkswagen, Wells
Fargo Bank, and WorldCom, among many others. There will always be temptation
whenever big egos and large sums of money are at stake. Too many managers rarely think
or talk about the moral dimension of management and leadership. Porter notes the dearth of
such conversation:
In a seminar with seventeen executives from nine corporations, we learned how
the privatization of moral discourse in our society has created a deep sense of
moral loneliness and moral illiteracy; how the absence of a common language
prevents people from talking about and reading the moral issues they face. We
learned how the isolation of individuals—the taboo against talking about
spiritual matters in the public sphere—robs people of courage, of the strength
of heart to do what deep down they believe to be right (1989, p. 2).
If we banish moral discourse and leave managers to face ethical issues alone, we invite
dreary and brutish political dynamics. An organization can and should take a moral stance.
It can make its values clear, hold employees accountable, and validate the need for dialogue
about ethical choices. Positive politics without an ethical framework and moral dialogue is
as unlikely as bountiful harvests without sunlight or water.
The question is not whether organizations are political, but what kind of politics they will
encompass. Political dynamics can be sordid and destructive. But politics can also be a
vehicle for achieving noble purposes. Organizational change and effectiveness depend on
managers’ political skills. Constructive politicians know how to fashion an agenda, map the
political terrain, create a network of support, and negotiate with both allies and adversaries.
In the process, they will encounter a predictable and inescapable ethical dilemma: when to
adopt an open, collaborative strategy or when to choose a tougher, more adversarial
approach. In making such choices, they have to consider the potential for collaboration, the
importance of long-term relationships, and, most important, their own and their organi­
zation’s values and ethical principles.
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c h a p t e r
Organizations as Political
Arenas and Political Agents
Peace extends only to private life. In business it is
war all the time.
—George Eastman, Founder of Eastman Kodak
Sam Walton started his merchant career in 1945 as proprietor of thesecond-best variety store in a small rural Arkansas town. From that
humble beginning, he built the world’s largest retail chain. With more than
2 million “associates,” Walmart became the world’s largest employer and, for
both better and worse, one of the most powerful companies on the globe.
More than 90 percent of American households shop at Walmart stores every
year, expecting the company to keep its promise of “always low prices”
(Fishman, 2006).
Walmart’s subtle and pervasive impact is illustrated in a little-known story about
deodorant packaging. Deodorant containers used to come packed in cardboard boxes until
Walmart decided in the early 1990s that the boxes were wasteful and costly—about a nickel
apiece for something consumers would just toss. When Walmart told suppliers to kill the
cardboard, the boxes disappeared across the industry. Good for Walmart had to be good
enough for everyone. The story is but one of countless examples of the “Walmart effect”—an
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC11 05/26/2017 2:21:31 Page 218
umbrella term for multiple ways Walmart influences consumers, vendors, employees,
communities, and the environment (Fishman, 2006).
Yet, for all its power and success, Walmart has struggled in recent years to cope with
an assortment of critics and image problems. The company has been accused of abusing
workers, discriminating against women, busting unions, destroying small businesses,
damaging the environment, and bribing government officials in Mexico and elsewhere.
Circled by enemies, it has mounted major public relations campaigns in defense of its
Like all organizations, Walmart is both an arena for internal conflict and a political
agent or player operating on a field crammed with other organizations pursuing their own
interests. As arenas, organizations house an ongoing interplay of players and agendas. As
agents, organizations are powerful tools for achieving the purposes of whoever calls the
shots. Walmart’s enormous size and power have made its political maneuvers widely visible;
almost everyone has feelings about Walmart, one way or another. The company’s historic
penchant for secrecy and its secluded location in Bentonville, Arkansas, have sometimes
shielded its internal politics from the spotlight, but tales of political skullduggery still
emerge, including a titillating story about a superstar marketing executive who was fired
amid rumors of an office romance and conflict with her conservative bosses. The same year
also spawned the strange tale of a Walmart techie who claimed he’d been secretly recording
the deliberations of the board of directors. Walmart has historically resisted any efforts to
unionize its workers, but in the fall of 2012, the company had its first experience with strikes
by workers in multiple cities. Ambivalent shoppers told reporters that they sympathized
with the workers but still shopped at Walmart because they could not afford to pass up the
low prices.
This chapter explores organizations as both arenas and political agents. Viewing
organizations as political arenas is a way to reframe many organizational processes.
Organization design, for example, can be viewed not as a rational expression of an
organization’s goals but as a political embodiment of contending claims. In our discussion
of organizations as arenas, we examine the political dimensions of organizational change,
contrasting directives from the top with pressures from below. As political agents,
organizations operate in complex ecosystems—interdependent networks of organizations
engaged in related activities and occupying particular niches. We illustrate several forms
that ecosystems can take—business, public policy, business-government, and society.
Finally, we look at the dark side of the power wielded by big organizations. We explore
the concern that corporate giants represent a growing risk to the world because they are too
powerful for anyone to control.
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From a political view, “happily ever after” exists only in fairy tales. Today’s winners may
quickly become tomorrow’s losers or vice versa. Change and stability are paradoxical:
Organizations constantly change and yet never change. As in competitive sports, players
come and go, but the game goes on. In the annals of organizational politics, few have
illustrated these precepts as well as Ross Johnson, who once made the cover of Time
magazine as an emblem of corporate greed and insensitivity. In Barbarians at the Gate,
Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (1990) explain how.
Barbarians at the Gate
Ross Johnson began his career in the 1960s. His charm, humor, and charisma moved him
ahead, and by the mid-1970s he was second in command to Henry Weigl at the consumer
products firm Standard Brands. Johnson’s lavish spending (on limousines and sumptuous
entertainment, for example) soon put him on a collision course with his tightfisted boss, who
tried to get him fired. But Johnson had wooed members of Standard’s board of directors so
successfully that he had more friends on the board than Weigl. Johnson argued that Weigl’s
conservative style was strangling the company, and the board bought his pitch. Weigl was
kicked upstairs, and Johnson took over. He fired many of Weigl’s people and enjoyed a
spectacular period of lavish spending on executive perks. After four years of mediocre
business results, the company got an unexpected call from the chairman of the food giant
Nabisco, who proposed a merger of the two companies. Within two weeks, the transaction
was done: a $1.9 billion stock swap—a big deal in 1981.
Everyone knew Nabisco would be in charge after the deal; it was by far the stronger
player. But they underestimated Ross Johnson. He was so successful at ingratiating himself
with Nabisco’s chairman, while quietly shedding the old Nabisco executives, that he was
able to take over the company after a few years. Once in charge, Johnson showed more
interest in hobnobbing with celebrities than in running the business. And then, in 1985, he
received another call: Tylee Wilson, chief executive of R.J. Reynolds, the huge tobacco
company, wanted to talk merger. Wilson needed a corporate partner to help Reynolds
reduce its heavy dependence on the tainted cigarette business. Johnson held out for more
than Wilson wanted to pay, but the deal was soon done: Reynolds coughed up $4.9 billion
for Nabisco.
Although more than one of his friends warned him about Johnson, Wilson figured it was his
deal, and he would be in charge. But Wilson, who lacked Johnson’s awesome skills at
ingratiation, had alienated some members of his board. After cultivating alliances with board
members, Johnson used the same gambit that had worked at Standard Brands. He told friends on
the board that he would be leaving because there was room for only one CEO. A few weeks
later, Wilson was startled when his board pushed him out.
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Political Dimensions of Organizational Processes
As arenas, organizations house contests and set the stakes, the rules of the game, and the
parameters for players. In this light, every organizational process has a political dimension.
Consider the task of shaping and structuring an organization. Theories built on the rational
premises of the structural frame assume that the best design is the one that contributes most
to efficient strategy and successful attainment of goals. Pfeffer offers an explicitly political
conception as an alternative: “Since organizations are coalitions, and the different partic­
ipants have varying interests and preferences, the critical question becomes not how
organizations should be designed to maximize effectiveness, but rather, whose preferences
and interests are to be served by the organization. . . . What is effective for students may be
ineffective for administrators. . . . Effectiveness as defined by consumers may be
ineffectiveness as defined by stockholders. The assessment of organizations is dependent
upon one’s preferences and one’s perspective” (1978, p. 223).
Even though groups have conflicting preferences, they have a shared interest in avoiding
incessant conflict. So they agree on ways to distribute power and resources, producing
settlements reflected in organizational design. Structures are “the resolution, at a given time,
of the contending claims for control, subject to the constraint that the structures permit the
organization to survive” (Pfeffer, 1978, p. 224).
An example is a controversial decision made by Ross Johnson when he headed RJR
Nabisco. Johnson moved RJR’s headquarters from Winston-Salem, where it had been
for a century, to Atlanta. Reynolds was the commercial heart of Winston-Salem. It
engendered fierce pride and loyalty among the citizenry, many of whom were substan­
tial stockholders. Structural logic suggests placing your headquarters in a location that
best serves the business, but Johnson and his key lieutenants saw the small city in the
heart of tobacco country as boring and provincial. The move to Atlanta had scant
business justification, was unpopular with the RJR board, and made Johnson the most
hated man in Winston-Salem. But he headed the dominant coalition. He got what he
Sources of Political Initiative
Gamson’s distinction (1968) between authorities and partisans (see Chapter 9) implies
two major sources of political initiative: bottom-up, relying on mobilization of groups to
assert their interests; and top-down, relying on authorities’ capacity to influence sub­
ordinates. We discuss examples of both to illustrate some of the basic premises of political
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Bottom-Up Political Action
The rise of trade unions, the emergence of the American civil rights movement, the
antiwar movement of the 1970s, environmental activism in recent decades, and the “Arab
Spring” and Occupy Wall Street initiatives that began in 2011 all exemplify the process of
bottom-up change. In every case, the impetus for change was a significant disruption in
old patterns. Trade unions developed in the context of the industrial revolution, rapid
urbanization, and the decline of family farms. The civil rights movement arose after
massive occupational and geographic shifts for black citizens. The antiwar movement
emerged from the juxtaposition of an unpopular war with a draft lottery that affected
every 18-year-old male in the United States. “Green” activism developed as the costs of
growing prosperity—including pollution, destruction of habitats and species, and global
warming—became increasingly visible and hard to discount. In each case, changing
conditions intensified dissatisfaction for disenfranchised groups. Each reflected a classic
script for revolutions: a period of rising expectations followed by widespread
The initial impetus for change came from grassroots mobilizing and organizing—the
formation of trade unions, civil rights groups, student movements, or environmental
groups. Elites contested the legitimacy of grassroots action and launched coercive blocking
tactics. Employers often resisted unions, using everything from lawsuits to violence. The
civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages, experienced violent repression by
whites. Efforts to suppress the antiwar movement reached their apogee at Kent State
University, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired on student demonstrators.
Greens have been engaged in a long battle against business and political leaders who dispute
the significance of environmental threats and resist what they see as the excessive costs of
proposed remedies. In every Arab Spring country, authorities tried to clamp down,
producing thousands of deaths in Libya and Syria.
In every case, despite intense opposition, grassroots groups fought to have their rights
embodied in law, policy, or political change. Some achieved success, but many ultimately
failed to achieve their most important goals.
Barriers to Control from the Top
The difficulties of grassroots political action lead many people to believe that you have to
begin at the top to get anything done. Yet studies of top-down initiatives catalogue many
failures. Deal and Nutt (1980), for example, conducted a revealing analysis of local school
districts that received generous, long-term federal funding to develop experimental
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programs for comprehensive changes in rural education. These projects followed a
recurring scenario:
1. The central administration learned of the opportunity to obtain a sizable chunk of
government funding.
2. A small group of administrators met to develop a proposal for improving some aspect
of the educational program. (Tight deadlines meant that the process was usually
rushed, with only a few people involved.)
3. When funding was approved, the administration announced with pride and enthu­
siasm that the district had won a national award that would bring substantial funds to
support an exciting new project to improve instruction.
4. Teachers were dismayed to learn that the administration had committed to new
teaching approaches without faculty input. Administrators were startled and perplexed
when teachers greeted the news with resistance, criticism, and anger.
5. Caught in the middle between teachers and the funding agency, administrators
interpreted teacher resistance as a sign of defensiveness and unwillingness to change.
6. The new program became a political football. Teachers joined with parents, commu­
nity members, and the school board in opposing the project’s primary goals. The
ensuing battles produced more disharmony, mistrust, and conflict than tangible
improvement in education.
The programs studied by Deal and Nutt represented examples of top-down change
efforts under favorable circumstances. The districts were not in crisis. The change efforts
were well funded and blessed by the federal government. Yet across the board, the new
initiatives set off heated political battles. In many cases, administrators found themselves
outgunned. Only one superintendent survived over the program’s five-year funding cycle.
In most instances, administrators never anticipated a major political battle. They were
confident their proposed programs were progressive, effective, and good for everyone. They
overlooked the risks in proposing change that someone else was expected to carry out. As a
result, they were showered with antagonism instead of the expected huzzahs.
A similar pattern appears repeatedly in other attempts at change from above. Countless
efforts mounted by chief executives, frustrated managers, hopeful study teams, and high-
status management consultants end in failure. The usual mistake is assuming that the right
idea (as perceived by the idea’s champions) and legitimate authority ensure success. This
assumption neglects the agendas and power of the “lowerarchy”—partisans and groups in
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midlevel and lower-level positions, who devise creative and maddening ways to resist,
divert, undermine, ignore, or overthrow innovative plans.
Organizations are lively arenas for internal politics. They are also active political agents in
larger arenas, or “ecosystems” (Moore, 1993). Because organizations depend on their
environment for resources they need to survive, they are inevitably enmeshed with external
constituents whose expectations or demands must be heeded. These constituents often
speak with loud but conflicting voices, adding to the challenge of managerial work
(Hoskisson et al., 2002). As political actors, organizations need to master many of the
basic skills of individual managers as politicians: develop an agenda, map the environment,
manage relationships with both allies and enemies, and negotiate compacts, accords, and
An example is the “framing contests” (Gurses and Ozcan, 2015) that can arise between
competing sides in a business battle. Uber, founded in 2009 by two young entrepreneurs in
San Francisco, grew rapidly into an international powerhouse, with some estimates putting
its value at more than $50 billion by 2015. Offering a new transportation option in cities
around the globe, Uber found itself in pitched battles with regulators and incumbent taxi
operators in almost every market it entered. Uber framed the issue as one of choice,
innovation, customer service, and freedom from the grip of an antiquated industry.
Opponents framed the contest very differently: a rogue operator was routinely breaking
the law, ignoring public safety, and competing unfairly. Uber’s pattern—enter first and
worry about legalities later—illustrates Funk and Hirschman’s (2017) argument that firms
use market as well nonmarket tactics to influence their policy and regulatory environment.
Uber’s most important allies were its customers, who saw the service as a big
improvement over traditional cab companies. While writing this book, one of the authors
phoned a local taxi company 2 hours in advance to arrange a ride to the airport. When the
cab failed to arrive at the promised time, he called to learn that the company had lost track of
the pickup but might be able to get him a cab in another 45 minutes. He switched to Uber. A
genial driver in a late-model car arrived quickly and got him to the airport on time. Uber has
leveraged similar customer experiences to build a powerful coalition that helps it win more
battles than it loses and keep growing (Griswold, 2015).
Many of an organization’s key constituents are other enterprises. Just as frogs, flies, and
water lilies coevolve in a swamp, organizations develop in tandem in a shared environment.
Moore (1993) illustrates this with two ecosystems in the personal computer business, one
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pioneered by Apple Computer and the other by IBM. Apple’s ecosystem dominated the PC
industry before IBM’s entry. But IBM’s ecosystem rapidly surpassed Apple’s. IBM had a
very powerful brand, and the open architecture of its PC induced new players to flock to it.
Some of these players competed head on (for example, Compaq and Dell in hardware,
Microsoft and Lotus in software). Others were related much like bees and flowers, each
performing an indispensable service to the other. One symbiotic pairing was particularly
fateful. As Microsoft gained control of the operating system and Intel of the microprocessor
in the IBM ecosystem, the two increasingly became mutually indispensable. More sophis­
ticated software needed faster microprocessors and vice versa, so the two had every reason
to cheer each other on. “Intel giveth, and Microsoft taketh away,” as some cynics put it. Two
companies that began as servants to IBM eventually took over what became the “Wintel”
ecosystem. IBM eventually dropped out of the business, and industry terminology changed
to reflect the shift in power—what were once called “IBM clones” and proudly advertised as
“100 percent IBM compatible!” became simply “Windows PCs.”
Meanwhile, the Apple ecosystem, which nearly died in the 1990s, came back to life in
stunning fashion early in the twenty-first century with the introduction of a series of highly
successful mobile devices, including the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Wintel continued to
dominate the world of microcomputers, but most of the growth and excitement were in
mobile. Microsoft was in the smartphone business before Apple or Google and invested
billions of dollars in the business but fell to less than 1 percent market share by 2016.
The same factors that spawn politics inside organizations also create political dynamics
within and between ecosystems. Organizations have parochial interests and compete for
scarce resources. Ross Johnson again provides an example. After he became CEO of RJR
Nabisco, Johnson made a fateful decision to engage in a management craze of the time—a
leveraged buyout (LBO). The basic idea of an LBO is to find an undervalued company, buy
up shares with someone else’s money, fix it up or break it up, and sell it at a profit. It’s a high-
risk venture.
Johnson’s plan was to use a leveraged buyout to take RJR Nabisco private. But once he
had announced the LBO, the company was in play; it was open season for anyone to enter
the bidding. Anyone in this case meant Henry Kravis and his secretive firm, KKR, with some
$45 billion in buying power. Johnson gave Kravis a cold shoulder, expecting Kravis to stay
out because the deal was too big. He underestimated a dangerous adversary. What followed
was one of business history’s biggest six-week poker games. Huge coalitions formed around
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both players. Millions of dollars in fees gushed into the laps of bankers, lawyers, and brokers.
When the dust cleared, Henry Kravis and KKR had won by a nose. RJR Nabisco was theirs
for a cool $25 billion.
The bidding war created a fluid, temporary ecosystem illustrating many of the
complexities of such arrangements. Dozens of individuals, groups, and organizations
were involved, but the big prize in the contest, RJR Nabisco, was largely a bystander; its
board was on the sidelines for most of the game. Johnson and his allies pursued their private
interests more than the corporation’s. Financial stakes were enormous, yet the game was
often driven by issues of power, reputation, and personal animosity. Everyone wanted the
prize, but you could win by losing and lose by winning. In the competitive frenzy, both sides
bid too much, and the winner was stuck with an overpriced albatross.
The RJR Nabisco LBO ecosystem lasted only until the brutal bidding war was over. But
many ecosystems, like Wintel’s and Walmart’s, are durable, lasting for decades. In such
cases, an organization’s role in an ecosystem affects how it can balance pursuit of its own
interests with the overall well being of the ecosystem. This may not be a major issue for small
players with only marginal influence, but is vital for “keystone” firms like Walmart that sit at
the hub of an ecosystem:
Walmart is successful because it figured out how to create, manage, and evolve
an incredibly powerful business ecosystem. Over the years Walmart took
advantage of its ability to gather consumer information to coordinate the
distributed assets of its vast network of suppliers. Walmart made a point of
tracking demand information in real time. The key was that it decided to share
this information with its supplier network. It introduced Retail Link, the
system that still delivers the most accurate, real-time sales information in
the industry to Walmart partners. Walmart was unique in the retail space in
offering this kind of service, turning Retail Link into a critical supply chain hub
(Iansiti and Levien, 2004, pp. 1–2).

Fishman agrees about Walmart’s dominant role in its ecosystem, but sees less rosy results:
The ecosystem isn’t a metaphor; it is a real place in the global economy where
the very metabolism of business is set by Walmart. The fear of Walmart isn’t
just the fear of losing a big account. It’s the fear that the more business you do
with Walmart, the deeper you end up inside the Walmart ecosystem, and the
less you are actually running your own business. Walmart’s leadership virtually

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never acknowledges this control, but the company clearly understands it, and
even takes a sly pride in it (2006, p. 16).
But Walmart’s ecosystem is not a gated community. Much as it might like to, Walmart
has limited ability to exclude other players—including the firm’s many competitors and
critics—who choose to spend time in its neighborhood, even if uninvited. Walmart
initiatives to build new stores are routinely countered by opponents who decry the
economic and environmental costs that they claim the new outlet would create. Walmart’s
low wages and benefits create a tempting target for union organizers, though the company’s
antiunion stance has mostly been successful so far in keeping unions out.
Organizational ecosystems come in many forms and sizes. Some, like Walmart’s, are
huge and global. Others are small and local (like the ecosystem of laundries in Oslo or
policing in Omaha). Next, we examine how ecosystem dynamics vary across sectors.
Public Policy Ecosystems
In the public sector, policy arenas form around virtually every government activity. One
example is the commercial aviation ecosystem, in which air carriers, airplane manufactur­
ers, travelers, legislators, and regulators are all active participants. In the United States, the
Federal Aviation Administration has been a troubled key player for decades. Charged with
divergent goals of defending safety, promoting the economic health of the industry, and
keeping its own costs down, the FAA has perennially come under heavy fire from virtually
every direction. Feeble oversight sometimes permitted marginal carriers to shortcut safety
but continue flying. An air traffic modernization plan rang up billions of dollars in bills but
20 years later had yielded few results:
When Marion C. Blakey took over at the Federal Aviation Administration in
2002, she was determined to fix an air travel system battered by terrorism,
antiquated technology, and the ever-turbulent finances of the airline industry.
Five years later, as she prepares to step down on Sept. 13, 2007, it’s clear she
failed. Almost everything about flying is worse than when she arrived. Greater
are the risks, the passenger headaches, and the costs in lost productivity. Almost
everyone has a horror story about missed connections, lost baggage, and wasted
hours on the tarmac (Palmeri and Epstein, 2007, p. 1).
Fast forward to 2016, and the story was little changed: “The Federal Aviation Adminis­
tration has little to show for a decade of work on modernizing air traffic control, and faces
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barriers and billions more in spending to realize its full benefits, says a report released
Tuesday by a government watchdog” (Lowy, 2016).
Some of the FAA’s troubles were internal. An earlier report from what was then called
the General Accounting Office had faulted the agency’s lack of a “performance-oriented
culture essential to establishing a culture of accountability and coordination” (Dillingham,
2001). But almost every move it made to solve one constituency’s problem created trouble
for others. Much of the fault lay in its ecosystem: “Nobody is in charge. The various players
in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane
manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as
they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs
Congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking
the gridlock” (Palmeri and Epstein, 2007).
In recent years, drones presented a new test of the FAA’s ability to balance conflicting
interests and pressures. In August 2016, the FAA issued long-awaited drone regulations that
sought to balance considerations of safety and commerce. At the time, there were about
20,000 commercial drones in operation in the United States, but the FAA was expecting that
number to increase to approximately 600,000 in another year.
Education is another illustration of a complex policy ecosystem. Everyone thinks good
schools are important. Families want their children to acquire the ingredients for success.
Businesses need well-trained, literate graduates. Economists and policy analysts stress the
importance of human capital. Teachers want better pay and working conditions.
Taxpayers want to cut frills and keep costs down. Almost no one believes that American
schools are as good as they should be, but there is little agreement about how to make
them better.
One popular remedy, enshrined in the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act, emphasizes
tests and incentives: measure how well schools are doing, reward the winners, and penalize
the losers. But high-stakes testing may have generated more political heat than educational
light. Some research suggests that the testing emphasis has improved learning outcomes
(Wang, Beckett, and Brown, 2006), while others see “distortion, corruption, and collateral
damage” (Nichols and Berliner, 2007) as the primary impact. The strenuous opposition to
No Child Left Behind led the federal Department of Education into state-by-state
negotiations to modify the requirements, making it even harder to assess how well the
program is working (Sunderman, 2006).
Another popular cure for educational ills is giving parents more choice about which
schools their children attend. One version of school choice is vouchers, grants that families
can use to send their children to private schools. Another is charter schools—publicly
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funded, quasi-independent educational enterprises. Proponents of choice argue that parents
would seek the best school for their children and that the ensuing competition would have
an invigorating effect on public schools. But school administrators maintain that vouchers
and charter schools drain away resources and exacerbate the challenges for the neediest
students. Coalitions have formed on both sides of the choice issue and have lobbied
vigorously at the state and national levels. Available research suggests that, on the whole,
some charter schools are very good and others are not, but, on average, student learning
outcomes are neither better nor worse than conventional public schools.
Business-Government Ecosystems
Government and business inevitably intersect in a multitude of ecosystems. Perrow (1986)
discusses one example: pharmaceutical companies, physicians, and government. A major
threat to drug companies’ profit margins is generic drugs, which sell at a much lower price
than brand-name equivalents. In the United States, the industry trade association, an
interorganization coalition, successfully lobbied many state legislatures to prohibit the sale
of generic drugs, ostensibly to protect consumers. The industry also persuaded the
American Medical Association (AMA) to permit drugs to be advertised by brand name
in its journals. Consumers normally buy whatever the doctor prescribes, and drug
companies wanted doctors to think brands rather than chemical names. As a result of
the policy shift, the AMA’s advertising income tripled in seven years, and the manufacturers
strengthened the position of their respective brands (Perrow, 1986).
The ecosystem shifted with the rapid rise of a newly powerful group of players: insurers
and managed-care providers. The growing market dominance of a few large insurers
dramatically reduced the bargaining power of physicians and drug companies. Insurers used
their growing political leverage to push physicians to prescribe less expensive generic drugs.
In an effort to save consumers’ money, state legislatures began to require pharmacists to
offer the generic equivalent when a brand name is prescribed. Pharmaceutical companies
fought back with televised ads encouraging patients to ask their doctors for brand name
Drug companies are not alone in their attention to politics. Government policy can be a
powerful source of competitive advantage because it “determines the rules of commerce; the
structure of markets (through barriers to entry and changes in cost structures due to
regulations, subsidies, and taxation); the offerings of goods and services that are permissible;
and the sizes of markets based on government subsidies and purchases. Consequently,
gaining and maintaining access to those who make public policy may well be a firm’s most
important political goal” (Schuler, Rehbein, and Cramer, 2002, p. 659).
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Politically active firms use a range of strategies for influencing government agencies
(Schuler, Rehbein, and Cramer, 2002). FedEx illustrates the possibilities. In Chapter 7, we
noted the company’s sophisticated approach to managing people. FedEx has been equally
agile in managing its political environment. The New York Times described it as “one of the
most formidable and successful corporate lobbies in the capital” (Lewis, 1996, p. A17).
FedEx CEO Fred Smith “spends considerable time in Washington, where he is regarded as
Federal Express’s chief advocate. It was Mr. Smith who hit a lobbying home run in 1977
when he persuaded Congress to allow the fledgling company to use full-sized jetliners to
carry its cargo, rather than the small planes to which it had been restricted. That was the
watershed event that allowed the company to grow to its present dominating position with
almost $10.3 billion in business” (p. A30).
FedEx’s political action committee ranked among the nation’s top ten, making generous
donations to hundreds of congressional candidates. Its board was adorned with former
political leaders from both major political parties. Its corporate jets regularly ferried
officeholders to events around the country. All this generosity paid off. In October
1996, when FedEx wanted two words inserted into a 1923 law regulating railway express
companies, the Senate stayed in session a few extra days to get it done, even with elections
only a month away. A first-term senator commented, “I was stunned by the breadth and
depth of their clout up here” (Lewis, 1996, p. A17).
A similar coevolution of business and politics occurs around the world:
No one would dispute that business and politics are closely intertwined in
Japan. As one leading financial journalist puts it, “If you don’t use politicians,
you can’t expand business these days in Japan—that’s basic.” Businessmen
provide politicians with funds, politicians provide businessmen with infor­
mation. If you wish to develop a department store, a hotel, or a ski resort, you
need licenses and permissions and the cooperation of leading local political
figures. And it is always useful to hear that a certain area is slated for
development, preferably several years before development starts, when land
prices are still low (Downer, 1994, p. 299).

The same intertwining of business and politics is even more dominant in China. It is
almost impossible to start or build a business without the support of party and government
officials. Guanxi (relationships) generally matters more than laws and regulations. Negoti­
ating the ethical terrain is treacherous in a country where bribes are technically illegal but
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the exchange of cash-filled “red envelopes” is deeply rooted in a culture that sees gift-giving
as basic to building relationships.
Society as Ecosystem
On a still grander scale, we find society: the massive, swirling ecosystem in which business,
government, and the public are embedded. A critical question in this arena is the power
relationship between organizations and everyone else. All organizations have power. Large
organizations have a lot: “Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations,
and only 49 are countries. Walmart is bigger than Israel, Poland, or Greece. Mitsubishi is
bigger than Indonesia. General Motors is bigger than Denmark. If governments can’t set the
rules, who will? The corporations? But they’re the players. Who’s the referee?” (Longworth,
1996, p. 4).
This question is becoming more urgent as big companies get bigger. In 1954, it took
more than 60 companies to equal 20 percent of the American economy; in 2005, it took only
20 companies. “We don’t often talk about the concentration of corporate power, but it is
almost unfathomable that the men and women who run just 20 companies make decisions
every day that steer one-fifth of the U.S. economy” (Fishman, 2006, p. 22). A number of
writers (including Bakan, 2004; Korten, 1995; Perrow, 1986; and Stern and Barley, 1996)
emphasize that whoever controls a multibillion-dollar tool wields enormous power. Bakan
(2004, p. 2) sees the corporation as “a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the
great power it wields over individuals and societies.” Korten’s view is similarly dark:
An active propaganda machinery controlled by the world’s largest corpora­
tions constantly reassures us that consumerism is the path to happiness,
government restraint of market excess is the cause of our distress, and
economic globalization is both a historical inevitability and a boon to the
human species. In fact, these are all myths propagated to justify profligate
greed and mask the extent to which the global transformation of human
institutions is a consequence of the sophisticated, well-funded, and inten­
tional interventions of a small elite whose money enables them to live in a
world of illusion apart from the rest of humanity. These forces have trans­
formed once beneficial corporations and financial institutions into instru­
ments of a market tyranny that is extending its reach across the planet like a
cancer, colonizing ever more of the planet’s living spaces, destroying live­
lihoods, displacing people, rendering democratic institutions impotent, and
feeding on life in an insatiable quest for money (Korten, 1995, p. 12).
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Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 2: Jeffrey Pfeffer and Gerald Salancik, The External Control of
Organizations (New York: HarperCollins, 1978)
Pfeffer and Salancik’s book fell out of print for several years and is little known outside
academic circles, but scholars love it; it occupies the second rung in our ranking of most-cited
works. As its title suggests, the book’s principal theme is that organizations are much more
creatures than creators of their environment. In the authors’ words: “The perspective [in this
book] denies the validity of the conceptualization of organizations as self-directed,
autonomous actors pursuing their own ends and instead argues that organizations are other-
directed, involved in a constant struggle for autonomy and discretion, confronted with
constraint and external control” (p. 257). The authors follow Cyert and March (1963) in
viewing organizations as coalitions that are both “markets in which influence and control are
transacted” (p. 259) and players that need to negotiate their relationships with a range of
external constituents.
Pfeffer and Salancik emphasize that organizations depend on their environment for inputs
that they need to survive. Much of the job of management is to understand and respond to
demands of key external constituents whose support is vital to survival. This job is made more
difficult by two challenges:
• Organizations’ understanding of their environment is often distorted or imperfect (because
organizations act on only the information they’re geared to collect and know how to
• Organizations confront multiple constituents whose demands are often inconsistent.
Organizations comply where they have to, but they also look for ways to increase their
autonomy by making their environment more predictable and favorable. They may merge to
gain greater market supremacy, form coalitions (alliances, joint ventures) to gain greater
influence, or enlist government help (by seeking subsidies, tax breaks, or protective tariffs, for
example). But there is a dilemma: every entanglement, even as it garners greater influence
over a part of the environment, also produces erosion of the organization’s autonomy.
There’s no free lunch.
Pfeffer and Salancik describe three roles for managers, two political and one symbolic: (1) a
responsive role in which managers adjust the organization’s activities to comply with pressures
from the environment; (2) a discretionary role in which they seek to alter the organization’s
relationship with its environment; and (3) a symbolic role arising from the widely accepted myth
that managers make a difference. If a team is losing but you can’t change the players, you fire the
coach, creating the appearance of change without actually changing anything (an important idea
that we address in the next chapter).
Do sophisticated consumer marketing firms create and control consumer tastes, or do
they simply react to needs created by larger social forces? Critics like Korten (1995) are
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convinced that the advantage lies with the corporations, but Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) see
it the other way around, as do many proponents of “the marketing concept”:
The marketing concept of management is based on the premise that over the
longer term all businesses are born and survive or die because people (the
market) either want them or don’t want them. In short, the market creates,
shapes, and defines the demand for all classes of products and services. Almost
needless to say, many managers tend to think that they can design goods and
services and then create demand. The marketing concept denies this proposi­
tion. Instead, the marketing concept emphasizes that the creative aspect of
marketing is discovering, defining, and fulfilling what people want or need or
what solves their life-style problems (Marshall, 1984, p. 1).
Proponents of this view note that even the most successful marketers have had their
share of Edsels—products released with great fanfare and huge marketing budgets that
fluttered briefly and then sank like stones. Consumers, in this view, are in charge because
they can buy what they want and walk away from what they don’t want.
Slee (2006) provides a contrary view. He uses game theory and the concept of market
failures to argue that, even though consumers generally make rational choices in terms of
the options they have, their collective behavior can lead to a world that is worse for everyone.
If, for example, Walmart opens a store on the outskirts of a medium-sized community,
consumers may flock to it for the low prices and wide variety of merchandise. At first
everyone is happy. But then, downtown merchants who can’t match Walmart go out of
business, throwing employees out of work and making the town center bleak and empty.
Not all the newly unemployed can get jobs at Walmart, and those who do get paid less. Some
of the wealth that used to circulate in the community now flies away to Walmart
headquarters in Arkansas. The community as a whole may be worse off, even though
everyone still likes Walmart’s low prices.
Are large multinational corporations so powerful that they have become a law unto
themselves, or are they heavily constrained by the need to respond to customers, cultures,
and governments? An ecological view suggests that the answer is some of both.
Ecosystems and competitors within them rise and fall. Power relations are never static,
and even the most powerful have no guarantee of immortality. Of the top twenty-five U.S.
companies at the beginning of the twentieth century, all but one had dropped off the list
or vanished altogether when the century came to a close. The lone survivor? General
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Fishman frames both sides of this issue in the case of Walmart:
The easiest response to the Walmart critics comes from people who shrug and
say, the United States economy is capitalistic and market-based. Walmart is
large and ubiquitous—and powerful—because it does what it does so well.
Walmart is winning for no other reason than personal choice: Customers vote
for Walmart with their wallets; suppliers vote for Walmart with their products.
Any consumer, any businessperson who doesn’t care for the way Walmart does
business is free to buy and sell products somewhere else.

percent of the office and school supplies bought by consumers, and 24 percent of
the bottled water. That kind of dominance at both ends of the spectrum—
dominance across a huge range of merchandise and dominance of geographic
consumer markets—means that market capitalism is being strangled with the
kind of slow inexorability of a boa constrictor. It’s not free-market capitalism;
has sales in excess of $64 billion a year—not only bigger by far than any other
consumer products company, but bigger than all but 20 public companies of any
kind in the United States. But remember: Walmart isn’t just P&G’s number-one
customer; it’s P&G’s business. Walmart is bigger than P&G’s next nine customers
combined. That’s why businesspeople are scared of Walmart. They should be.
And if a corporation with the scale, vigor, and independence of P&G must bend
to Walmart’s will, it’s easy to imagine the kind of influence Walmart wields
over the operators of small factories in developing nations, factories that just
want work and have almost no leverage with Walmart or Walmart’s vendors
(Fishman, 2006, p. 20. Copyright  2006. Academy of Management).

Walmart’s clout remains formidable, but its future is less clear. After years of embattled,
slow growth, in 2016 Walmart’s sales and profits declined for the first time in decades. Will
it grow and prosper in the future? Or will it follow companies like Sears into a long downhill
slide from the pinnacle it now commands? Whatever happens to Walmart, the battle over
corporate power will continue on a global scale.
In recent years, across industries and around the globe, wealth and power have been
increasingly concentrated in a shrinking number of very large “superstar” firms. This is not
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always good news for workers because as industries become more concentrated, the share of
the economic pie that goes to labor shrinks (Autor et al., 2017). The power of large
multinational companies has continued to grow, but they must still cope with the demands
of other powerful players: governments, labor unions, investors, and consumers. In a
cacophonous global village, this is the biggest political contest of all.
Organizations are both arenas for internal politics and political agents with their own
agendas, resources, and strategies. As arenas, they house competition and offer a setting for
the ongoing interplay of divergent interests and agendas. An arena’s rules and parameters
shape the game to be played, the players on the field, and the interests to be pursued. From
this perspective, every significant organizational process is inherently political.
As agents, organizations are tools, often very powerful tools, for achieving the purposes
of whoever controls them. But they are also inevitably dependent on their environment for
needed support and resources. They exist, compete, and coevolve in business or political
ecosystems with clusters of organizations, each pursuing its own interests and seeking a
viable niche. As in nature, relationships within and between ecosystems are sometimes
fiercely competitive, sometimes collaborative and symbiotic.
A particularly urgent and controversial question is the relative power of organizations
and society. Giant multinational corporations have achieved scale and resources
unprecedented in human history. Critics worry that they are dominating and distorting
politics, society, and the environment. Optimists argue that organizations retain their clout
only by adapting to larger social forces and responding to the needs and demands of
customers and constituents.
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The Symbolic Frame
When the Catholic Church changed the liturgy from Latin to English many parishioners
rebelled even though the change made sacred tenets more accessible. For many it was the
first time that they could grasp and grapple with the sacred values of their faith. In Hunger of
Memory, one parishioner describes vividly his reaction to the change:
But now that I no longer live as a Catholic in a Catholic world, I cannot expect
the liturgy—which reflects and cultivates my faith—to remain what it was. I will
continue to go to the English mass. I will go because it is my liturgy. I will,
however, often recall with nostalgia the faith I have lost . . . The church is no
longer mine (Rodriguez, 1997, p. 107).
In 1995 The Coca-Cola Company changed its 99-year-old recipe for its flagship soft
drink. Pepsi, the company’s chief competitor, was making inroads into Coke’s market share;
and in a series of blind taste tests, the new recipe was consistently preferred over Pepsi. This
gave the company executives confidence that a new product would corner the market. The
New Coke was launched with an elaborate advertising campaign.
Public reaction was swift and unanticipated. Some consumers filled their basements with
the original Coke. Protest groups popped up across the country. Songs were written to
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honor the old taste. Protestors at an event in Atlanta carried placards: “We want the real
thing,” “Our children will never know refreshment.” Other reactions carried the same
Both the Latin liturgy and Coca-Cola are laden with symbolism. Symbols carry powerful
intellectual and emotional messages; they speak to the heart and the soul. They are
embedded in myths which are truer than true. “It is through myths that men are lifted
above their capacity in the ordinary, attain powerful visions of the future, and realize such
visions” (Berger, 1974, p. 26).
The symbolic frame focuses on how myth and symbols help humans make sense of the
chaotic, ambiguous world in which they live. Meaning, belief, and faith are its central
concerns. Meaning is not given to us; we create it. There are, for example, many who revere
the American flag and many others who burn it. The flag is symbolically powerful for both
groups but for different reasons. It represents patriotism for one group, oppression or
imperialism for the other. Symbols are the basic materials of the meaning systems, or
cultures, we inhabit. Leaders are bricoleurs, people who survey and use the materials at hand
to help construct meaning systems. We experience our way of life in the same way that fish
live in water. Many contemporary leaders highlight the critical role culture plays in
• Lou Gerstner (IBM): “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture is not just one aspect
of the game—it is the game.”
• Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
• Jim Sinegal (Costco): “What else have we got besides stories? It’s what brings meaning to
the work we do.”
• Howard Schultz (Starbucks): “A company can grow big without losing the passion and
personality that built it, but only if it’s driven not by profits but by values and people.”
• John Mackey (Whole Foods): “Culture is no less than ‘how we do things around here.’
Less tangible than other physical assets on a company balance sheet, it is nonetheless the
most valuable asset a company has—for it stitches people together in common beliefs,
values and purpose and represents the basis for authenticity of experience for both team
members and customers.”
Chapter 12 explores the many forms cultural symbols take in social life, including myth,
vision, story, heroes and heroines, ritual, and ceremony. It then uses a variety of examples to
demonstrate what culture is and why it is so important.
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In Chapter 13, we apply symbolic concepts to team dynamics. We use a detailed case of a
legendary and highly successful computer development team to show that the essence of its
success was cultural and spiritual. The team relied on initiation rituals, humor, play,
specialized language, ceremony, and other symbolic forms to weld a diverse and fractious
group of individuals into a spirited, successful team.
Chapter 14 highlights dramaturgical and institutional perspectives, viewing organiza­
tions as akin to theater companies seeking recognition and support by staging dramas that
both please and influence their audiences. We show that many activities and processes in
organizations—such as evaluation and strategic planning—rarely achieve their supposed
goals. Yet they persist, because they convey vital symbolic messages that internal and
external audiences yearn for.
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c h a p t e r
Organizational Symbols
and Culture
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin
and culture is like a tree without roots.
—Marcus Garvey
For 800 years, neighborhoods in Siena, Italy, have competed twice eachsummer in a horse race known as the palio. Each side has its club, hymn,
costumes, museum, and elected head. A crowd of more than 100,000 gathers
to witness a 75-second event that people live for throughout the year. Riding
under banners of the goose, seashell, or turtle, jockeys attack one another with
whips and hang on desperately around 90-degree turns. The first horse to
finish, with or without rider, wins. “The winners are worshipped. The losers
embarrass their clan” (Saubaber, 2007, p. 42).
In July 2007, 22-year-old Giovanni Atzeni won the race in a photo finish. His followers
were ecstatic. A young woman shouted, “We’ve waited 10 years,” as she showered him with
kisses. An old man almost fainted with joy at the chance to see a victory before he died. The
legendary Aceto, a 14-time winner, once said, “Palio is a drug that makes you a God . . . and
then crucifies you.” The rest of Italy considers the event barbaric, but locals are proudly
unfazed. Unless you were born in Siena, they insist, you will never understand the palio.
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Rooted in a time when Siena was a proud and powerful republic, the occasion embodies the
town’s unique identity.
Building distinctive identity or community around a brand name in business updates
ancient traditions based on tribe and homeland, like those surrounding the palio. Consider
the characteristics of a unique modern business: Carnival-like zaniness. Free food and
vending machines. Corporate values placing a premium on delivering “wow” and “creating
fun and weirdness” (Heathfield, 2012). New recruits offered shots of vodka during hiring
interviews and offered $2,000 to quit after their first round of training (Chafkin, 2009).
The 95 percent who turn down the $2,000 graduate in full ceremony to “Pomp and
Circumstance” in front of families and members of their new, nontraditional departments:
“Each department has its own décor, ranging from the rain forest–themed to Elvis-themed,
and employees are encouraged to decorate their work spaces . . .” (Rogers-Kante, 2011.)
Employees carrying cowbells and noisemakers lead spontaneous office parades in
costume (Frei, Ely, and Winig, 2010). Departments sponsor cookouts and other fun events
throughout the year. Managers are required to spend 10 to 20 percent of their hours
“goofing off” with employees. Managers and employees are encouraged to fraternize outside
normal office hours. Three big company events—a summer picnic, a January party at the
Boss’s home, and a vendor party—fill out the year’s cycle of fun and happiness.
Welcome to Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh’s “Culture of Happiness” (introduced in
Chapter 3). All the merriment and spirit captures the hearts of the company’s employees.
But it also pays off in employee satisfaction and business results. Hsieh credits the
company’s phenomenal success to its distinctive culture with carnival-like zaniness that
bears some resemblance to Siena’s palio.
Zapposand the palioare two examples ofhow symbols permeateevery fiber ofsocietyand
organizations. “A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it conveys
socially constructed meanings beyond its intrinsic or obvious functional use” (Zott and Huy,
2007, p. 72). Distilled to the essence, people seek meaning in life. Because life is mysterious,
symbols arise to sustain hope, belief, and faith. They express themselves in analogies. Symbols
are metaphoric expression of psychic energy. Their content is far from obvious; it is expressed
in unique and individual ways while embodying universal and collective imagery (Ghareman,
2016). These intangibles then shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Symbols cut deeply
into the human psyche and tap the collective unconscious (Jung, [1912] 1965).
Symbols are basic elements of culture that pop up to fit unique circumstances. Symbols
and symbolic actions are part of everyday life and are particularly perceptible at weekly,
monthly, or seasonal high points. Symbols stimulate energy in moments of triumph and
offer solace in times of tribulation. After 9/11, Americans relied on symbols to cope with the
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aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack. Flags flew. Makeshift monuments honored
victims and the heroic acts of police and firefighters who gave their lives. Members of
Congress sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Across the country, people
gathered in both formal and informal healing ceremonies.
A comparably intense expression of shock, grief, and compassion came in the wake of
the senseless 2012 shootings of 20 young schoolchildren and their adult caretakers at the
Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. Mourners from all over the nation sent
flowers and toys, which were piled up in huge mounds in front of the school. Memorials of
white angels appeared across the country. President Obama shed a tear in his nationally
televised speech. It was another example of the spiritual magic that symbols represent.
The symbolic frame interprets and illuminates the basic issues of meaning and belief
that make symbols so potent. It depicts a world distinct from popular canons of rationality,
certainty, and linearity. This chapter journeys into the symbolic inner sanctum. We discuss
symbolic assumptions and highlight various forms that symbols take in human organiza­
tions. We then move on to discuss organizations as cultures or tribes. Finally, we describe
how two distinctive companies—BMW and Nordstrom department stores—have success­
fully applied symbolic ideas.
The symbolic frame forms an umbrella for ideas from several disciplines, including
organization theory and sociology (Selznick, 1957; Blumer, 1969; Schutz, 1967; Clark,
1975; Corwin, 1976; Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013; March and Olsen, 1976; Maitlis and
Christianson, 2014; Meyer and Rowan, 1978; Weick, 1976; Davis et al., 1976; Hofstede,
1984), political science (Dittmer 1977; Edelman, 1971), magic (O’Keefe, 1983), and
neurolinguistic programming (Bandler and Grinder, 1975).
Jung relied heavily on symbolic concepts to probe the human psyche and unconscious
archetypes. Anthropologists have traditionally focused on symbols and their place in the lives
the early 1980s, business books began to apply cultural ideas to corporations, health care, and
nonprofit enterprises (Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Peters and Waterman, 1982; Schein, 1992).
The symbolic frame distills ideas from diverse sources into five suppositions:
• What is most important is not what happens but what it means.
• Activity and meaning are loosely coupled; events and actions have multiple interpreta­
tions as people experience situations differently.
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• In the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, symbols arise to help people resolve confusion,
find direction, and anchor hope and faith.
• Events and processes are often more important for what they express or signal than for
their intent or outcomes. Their emblematic form weaves a tapestry of secular myths,
heroes and heroines, rituals, ceremonies, and stories to help people find purpose and
• Culture forms the superglue that bonds an organization, unites people, and helps an
enterprise to accomplish desired ends.
The symbolic frame sees life as allegorical, mystical, and more serendipitous than linear.
Organizations are like constantly changing organic pinball machines. Issues, actors,
decisions, and policies carom through an elastic labyrinth of cushions, barriers, and traps.
Managers turning to Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive (1967) might do better to seek
advice from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. But apparent chaos has an
underlying pattern and an emblematic order increasingly appreciated in corporate life
(Kotter and Heskett, 1992).
An organization’s culture is revealed and communicated through its symbols: GEICO’s
gecko, Target’s bullseye, Airbnb’s Bélo or Aflac’s duck. McDonald’s franchises are unified as
much by golden arches, core values, and the legend of Ray Kroc as by sophisticated control
systems. Harvard professors are bound less by structural constraints than by rituals of
teaching, values of scholarship, and the myths and mystique of Harvard. Symbols take many
forms in organizations. Myth, vision, and values imbue an organization with deep purpose
and resolve. The words and deeds of heroes and heroines serve as icons or logos for others to
admire or emulate. Fairy tales and stories tender explanations, reconcile contradictions, and
resolve dilemmas (Cohen, 1969). Rituals and ceremonies offer direction, faith, and hope
(Ortner, 1973). Metaphor, humor, and play loosen things up and form communal bonds
(Lewin, 1998; Romero and Cruthirds, 2006; Statler and Roos, 2007). We look at each of these
symbolic forms in the following sections.
Myths, Vision, and Values
A myth is a collective dream (Jung, 1965). Myths, operating at a mystical level, are the story
behind the story (Campbell, 1988). They explain, express, legitimize, and maintain
solidarity and cohesion. They communicate unconscious wishes and conflicts, mediate
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contradictions, and offer a narrative anchoring the present in the past (Cohen, 1969). All
organizations rely on myths or sagas of varying strength and intensity (Clark, 1975). Myths
can transform a place of work into a beloved, revered, hallowed institution and an all-
encompassing way of life.
Myths often originate in the launching of an enterprise. The original plan for Southwest
Airlines, for example, was sketched on a cocktail napkin in a San Antonio bar. It envisioned
connecting three Texas cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. As legend has it, Rollin
King, one of the founders, said to his counterpart Herb Kelleher, “Herb, let’s start an airline.”
Kelleher, who later became Southwest’s CEO, replied, “Rollin, you’re crazy. Let’s do it!”
(Freiberg and Freiberg, 1998, p. 15).
As the new airline moved ahead, it met fierce resistance from established carriers. Four
years of legal wrangling kept the upstart grounded. In 1971, the Texas Supreme Court ruled
in Southwest’s favor, and its planes were ready to fly. A local sheriff’s threat to halt flights
under a court injunction prompted a terse directive from Kelleher: “You roll right over the
son of a bitch and leave our tire tracks on his uniform if you have to” (Freiberg and Freiberg,
1998, p. 21). (That directive, of course, signaled resolve, not homicidal intent.) The
persistence and zaniness of Southwest’s mythologized beginnings shape its unique culture:
“The spirit and steadfastness that enabled the airline to survive in its early years is what
makes Southwest such a remarkable company today” (p. 14).
Myths undergird an organization’s values. Values characterize what an organization
stands for, qualities worthy of esteem or commitment. Unlike goals, values are intangible and
define a unique character that helps people find meaning and feel special about what they do.
The values that count are those an organization lives, regardless of what it articulates in
mission statements or formal documents. Southwest Airlines has never codified its values
formally. But its Symbol of Freedom billboards and banners once expressed the company’s
defining purpose: extending freedom to fly to everyone, not just the elite, and doing it with
an abiding sense of fun. Other organizations make values more explicit. The Edina
(Minnesota) School District, following the suicide of a superintendent, involved staff,
parents, and students in formally articulating values in a document: “We care. We share. We
dare.” The values of the U.S. Marine Corps are condensed into a simple phrase: “Semper Fi”
(short for semper fidelis—always faithful). More than a motto, it stands for the traditions,
sentiments, and solidarity instilled into recruits and perpetuated by veteran Marines: “The
values and assumptions that shape its members . . . are all the Marines have. They are the
smallest of the U.S. military services, and in many ways the most interesting. Theirs is the
richest culture: formalistic, insular, elitist, with a deep anchor in their own history and
mythology” (Ricks, 1998, p. 19).
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Vision turns an organization’s core ideology, or sense of purpose, into an image of the
future. It is a shared fantasy, illuminating new possibilities within the realm of myths and
values. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, for example, articulated poetically a
new future for race relations rooted in the ideals of America’s founding fathers.
Vision is deemed vital in contemporary organizations. In Built to Last, Collins and
Porras profile a number of extraordinary companies and conclude, “The essence of a
visionary company comes in the translation of its core ideology and its own unique drive for
progress into the very fabric of the organization” (1994, p. 201). Johnson & Johnson’s
commitment to the elimination of “pain and disease” and to “the doctors, nurses, hospitals,
mothers, and all others who use our products” motivated the company to make the costly
decision to pull Tylenol from store shelves when several tainted bottles were discovered.
3M’s principle of “thou shalt not kill a new product idea” came to life when someone refused
to stop working on an idea that became Scotch Tape. The same principle paved the way for
Post-it® notes, a product resurrected from the failed development of an adhesive. A vision
offers mental pictures linking historical legend and core precepts to future events. Shared, it
imbues an organization with spirit, resolve, and élan.
Myths, values, and visions often overlap. Take eBay, which emerged as a highly visible
success amid a sea of 1990s dot-com disasters. Its interplay of myth, values, and vision
contributes to its success even in a tough economic environment. Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s
founder, envisioned a marketplace where buyers would have equal access to products and
prices, and sellers would have an open outlet for goods. Laws of supply and demand would
govern prices.
But Omidyar’s vision incorporated another element: community. Historically, people
have used market stalls and cafés to swap gossip, trade advice, and pass the time of day.
Omidyar wanted to combine virtual business site and caring community. That vision led to
eBay’s core values of commerce and community. Embedded in these are corollary
principles: “Treat other people online as you would like to be treated, and when disputes
arise, give other people the benefit of the doubt.”
eBay is awash in myths and legends. Omidyar’s vision is said to have taken root over
dinner with his fiancée. She complained that their move from Boston to Silicon Valley
severed her ties with fellow collectors of Pez dispensers. He came to her rescue by writing
code and laying the foundation for a new company. Did it happen this way? Not quite. Mary
Lou Song, an eBay publicist, hatched this story in an effort to get media exposure. Her
rationale: “Nobody wants to hear about a 30-year-old genius who wanted to create a perfect
market. They want to hear that he did it for his fiancée” (CNN Money, 2011). Her version
persists because myths are truer than truth.
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Airbnb, like Uber, is a young brand in the upcoming “sharing economy.” Success has
come so quickly that the 2008 start-up is now valued at $30 billion and has become a verb in
everyday communication: “Let’s ‘Airbnb’ in Los Angeles this weekend.”
The company’s rise had not been without its challenges, but one of its key successes is its
search for a mission. The cofounders have succeeded in identifying the company’s soul and
how it interplays with employees, hosts, guests, and the outside world (Gallagher, 2016).
The quest for a unifying identity began in 2013 and was guided by key questions: Why
does Airbnb exist? What’s its purpose? What’s its role in the world? The questions were put
to founders, employees, hosts, and guests around the world. The answers would become the
“rudder that guides the whole ship.”
Early on, consensus began to emerge around “belonging.” This formed the cornerstone for
Airbnb’s new mission: to make people around the world feel like they could “Belong
Anywhere.” Airbnb would become the place where anyone could engage with people and
cultures as insiders, to meet the “universal human yearning to belong.” The Company
fashioned a new logo, the “Bélo,” a cute squiggly shape resembling a heart, a location pin and
the “A” in Airbnb. It stands for four things: people, places, love, and Airbnb (Gallagher, 2017).
Heroes and Heroines
Organizations often rely on CEOs or other prominent leaders as exemplars. They may not
be media celebrities, like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or symbols of corporate greed, like Ken
Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and Dennis Kozlowski. They are solid leaders who build time-tested
companies and deliver results.
One is Mary Barra, the first woman to serve as CEO of General Motors. She took the
helm at a challenging time for the venerable automaker, which had barely survived
bankruptcy and was under heavy fire for concealing a defective ignition switch that
produced 13 deaths in GM Cobalts. Barra handled that with a directness and transparency
that were new to General Motors and used it as an opportunity to begin to change GM’s
sclerotic culture. Since becoming GM’s chief in 2014, she has tripled profits and engineered
a dramatic revival (Colvin, 2014; Varchaver, 2016).
Another, Costco’s James Sinegal, took pride in his disdain for corporate perks. He
answered his own phone and personally escorted guests to his spartan office—no executive
bathroom, no walls, 20-year-old furniture. He commented: “We’re low-cost operators, and
it would be a little phony if we tried to pretend that we’re not and had all the trappings”
(Byrnes et al., 2002, p. 82).
Executives like Barra and Sinegal embrace their role as cultural heroes. They act as living
logos, human icons, whose words and deeds exemplify and reinforce core values. Bernie
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Marcus, cofounder of Home Depot, underscores the impact of well-placed cultural heroes
and heroines: “People watch the titular heads of companies, how they live their lives, and
they know [if] they are being sold a bill of goods. If you are a selfish son-of-a-bitch, well that
usually comes across fairly well. And it comes across no matter how many memos you send
out [stating otherwise]” (Roush, 1999, p. 139).
Not all icons are at the top of organizations. Ordinary people often perform exemplary
deeds. The late Joe Vallejo, custodian at a California junior high school, kept the place
immaculate. He was also a liaison between the school and its community. His influence
knew few limits. When emotions ran high, he attended parent conferences and often
negotiated a compromise acceptable to all parties. He knew the students and checked report
cards. He was not bashful about telling seasoned teachers how to tailor lessons to student
interests and needs. When he retired, a patio was named in his honor. It remains today,
commemorating a hero who made a difference well beyond his formal assignment.
Some heroic exploits go unrecognized because they happen out of view. Southwest
Airlines annually recognizes its behind-the-scenes employees in a “Heroes of the Heart”
award ceremony. The honor goes to the backstage individual or group that contributes most
to Southwest’s unique culture and successful performance. The year following the award, a
Southwest aircraft flies with the winner’s name on its fuselage. A song written for the
occasion expresses the value Southwest places on its heroes and heroines whose important
work is often hidden:
Heroes come in every shape and size;
Adding something very special to others in their lives
No one gives you medals and the world won’t know your name
But in Southwest’s eyes you’re heroes just the same.
The Twin Towers tragedy reminded Americans of the vital role heroism plays in the
human spirit. New York City police officers and firefighters touched people’s hearts by
risking their lives to save others. Many perished as a result. Their sacrifices reaffirmed
Americans’ spirit and resolve in enduring one of the nation’s most costly tragedies. Every
day, less dramatic acts of courage come to light as people go out of their way to help
customers or serve communities. NBC’s Nightly News airs a recurring segment recognizing
people who “have made a difference.” In 2007, Colin Powell proposed an “Above the Call”
citizen award, recognition on par with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Exploits of heroes and heroines are lodged in our psyches. We call on their examples in
times of uncertainty and stress. American POWs in North Vietnamese prisons drew upon
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stories of the courage of Captain Lance Sijan, Admiral James Stockdale, and Colonel Bud
Day, who refused to capitulate to Viet Cong captors. “[Their examples] when passed along
the clandestine prison communications network . . . helped support the resolve that
eventually defeated the enemy’s efforts” (McConnell, 2004, p. 249). During the Bosnian
conflict, the ordeal of Scott O’Grady, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, made headlines. To
survive after being shot down, O’Grady drew on the example of Sijan: “His strong will to
survive and be free was an inspiration to every pilot I knew” (O’Grady, 1998, p. 83).
Although drawn from nightmares of warfare, these examples demonstrate how human
models influence our decisions and actions. We carry lessons of teachers, parents, and
others with us. Their exploits, animated through stories, serve as guides to choices we make
in our personal lives and at work.
Stories and Fairy Tales
It is said that God made people because he loves stories. “Human life is so bound up in
stories that we are desensitized to their weird and witchy power” (Gottschall, 2012, p. 1).
Stories, like folk or fairy tales, offer more than entertainment or moral instruction for small
children. They grant comfort, reassurance, direction, and hope to people of all ages. They
externalize inner conflicts and tensions (Bettelheim, 1977). We tend to dismiss stories as the
last resort of people without substance. As an older retiree remarked, “Why, I have a perfect
memory. I even remember things that never happened.” We denigrate professors and elders
for telling “war stories.” Yet stories convey information, morals, and myths vividly and
convincingly (Mitroff and Kilmann, 1975; Denning, 2005; Gottschall, 2012). They perpetu­
ate values and keep heroic feats alive. This helps account for the recent proliferation of
business books linking stories and leadership (Clark, 2004; Denning, 2004, 2005; Simmons,
2006, 2007; Seely et al., 2004). Barry Lopez captures poetically why stories are significant:
Remember only this one thing,
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.
If stories come to you, care for them.
And learn to give them away where they are needed.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories.
This is how people care for themselves (Lopez, 1998).
Stories are deeply rooted in the human experience. It is through story that we can see into
each other’s souls, and apprehend the soul of the organization. The stories that both
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individuals and organizations tell about themselves anchor identity and hope. Vough and
Caza (2017) note that when individuals experience career setbacks, they do better going
forward if they tell a positive story. For example, one manager said about a career setback: “I
actually don’t regret . . . [not being promoted], because it helped me better understand how
to navigate the political landscape, to really trust myself, and not allow others’ opinions to
influence my own sense of self-worth” (p. 203).
Stories are told and retold around campfires and during family reunions (Clark, 2004).
David Armstrong, CEO of Armstrong International, notes that storytelling has played a
commanding role in history through the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed,
among many others. It can play an equally potent role in contemporary organizations:
“Rules, either in policy manuals or on signs, can be intimidating. But the morals in stories
are invariably inviting, fun, and inspiring. Through storytelling our people can know very
clearly what the company believes in and what needs to be done” (Armstrong, 1992, p. 6).
To Armstrong, storytelling is a simple, timeless, and memorable way to have fun, train
newcomers, recognize accomplishments, and spread the word. Denning (2005) puts the
functions of stories into eight categories:
• Sparking action
• Communicating who you are
• Communicating who the company is—branding
• Transmitting values
• Fostering collaboration
• Taming the grapevine
• Sharing knowledge
• Leading people into the future
Effective organizations are full of good stories. They often focus on the legendary exploits
of corporate heroes. Marriott Hotels founder J. W. Marriott Sr. died many years ago, but his
presence lives on. Stories of his unwavering commitment to customer service linger. His
aphorism “Take good care of your employees and they’ll take good care of your customers”
is still part of Marriott’s philosophy. According to fable, Marriott visited new general
managers and took them for a walk around the property. He pointed out broken branches,
sidewalk pebbles, and obscure cobwebs. By tour’s end, the new manager had a long to-do
list—and, more important, an indelible lesson in what mattered at Marriott.
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Not all stories center on the founder or chief executive. Ritz-Carlton is famous for the
upscale treatment it offers guests. It begins with the Ritz-Carlton credo and service values,
reviewed at the daily “lineup” in every property and carried by every employee in a wallet-
sized card. (Another hotel chain planned to implement a similar approach but then canceled
the initiative to save the cost of the cards.) “My pleasure” is employees’ traditional response
to requests, no matter how demanding or trivial. One hurried guest jumped into a taxi to the
airport but left his briefcase on the sidewalk. The doorman retrieved the briefcase,
abandoned his post, sped to the airport, and delivered it to the panicked guest. Instead
of being fired, the doorman became part of the legends and lore—a living example of the
company’s commitment to service (Deal and Jenkins, 1994).
Stories are a key medium for communicating corporate myths. They establish and
perpetuate tradition. Recalled and embellished in formal meetings and informal coffee
breaks, they convey and buttress an organization’s values and identity to insiders, building
loyalty and support. At a company’s annual celebration banquet, a nervous executive
serving as the night’s emcee introduced all the VIPs seated at the head dais. As he was
completing his obviously compulsory assignment, a younger man stepped up behind him
and whispered, “You forgot to mention the chairman.”
A red-faced, flustered emcee turned to the crowd and apologized, “Oh yes, and of course
our esteemed chairman of the board, Dr. Frye. Excuse me, Dr. Frye, my secretary left your
name off the list.” Frye turned to his COO: “John, I want that guy fired tomorrow. That’s not
the way we do things around here. Honesty and owning your mistakes are a big part of who
we are.” The story spread quickly through the cultural network. Point made.
Or take Costco, widely recognized for its low prices and high value. Jim Sinegal, founder
and former CEO of Costco, is known as a masterful storyteller constantly spinning yarns
that reinforce the value of putting the interests of customers and employees ahead of
In 1996 we were selling between $150,000 and $200,000 worth of salmon
fillet every week at $5.99 a pound. Then our buyers were able to get an
improved product with belly fat, back fins, and collarbones removed, at a
better price. As a result we reduced our retail price to $5.29. So they
improved the product and lowered the price. The buyers weren’t finished
with the improvements, though. Next our buyers negotiated for a product
with the pin bone out and all of the skin removed, and it was at an even
better price, which enabled us to lower our price to $4.99 a pound. Then,
because we had continued to grow and had increased our sales volume, we
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were able to buy direct from Canadian and Chilean farms, which resulted in
an even lower price of $4.79 (Denning, 2005, p. 137).
The “salmon story” is a widely shared symbolic reminder that low prices and high value
are central to Costco’s core purpose. The story’s meaning is reinforced by a “salmon award”
given to an employee or supplier who shows great diligence in contributing to Costco’s
mission. Each award celebrates new stories and creates new lore.
“What else have we got besides stories?” Sinegal asks, “It’s what brings meaning to the
work we do” (Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis, 2008).
Costco does not advertise, because fans and the media tell their story for them. Costco
couldn’t say it better than “GearheadGrrrl” in a Daily Kos post:
Been looking for a small tool set to carry in the cars and sidecars, and Costco
had the best deal with an American made Craftsman set for $100, now
marked down to $80 . . . I was still looking for a better floor jack and Costco
had one for $100 that goes down as low as 4” to get under my cars and up to
18” to get the car up where it’s easier on my back to work on. Shopped local,
but anything equivalent was at least $150 . . . My back is much happier now!
So folks, that’s the “Costco effect.” How Costco saves consumers dollars on
mass market merchandise in major markets, while leaving opportunities for
small local businesses to cater to our needs for specialty merchandise. Add in
the living wages that Costco pays that allow Costco employees to funnel more
dollars back into the economy, and we have a “Costco effect” that benefits
workers, consumers, and businesses of all sizes instead of funneling wealth to
the few like Walmart does! (GearheadGrrrl, 2013).
CNBC ran a TVstory that focused onlowprices, customer loyalty, and the “treasure hunt,”
crediting Costco with reinventing shopping; the clip has more than 500,000 periodic views
on YouTube (CNBC, 2013). The webmaster for addictedtocostco.com maintained her
devotion to the store even after moving from Texas to the United Kingdom, despite a
longer and initially scarier drive. Similar fanaticism was exemplified by two customers who
held their engagement party at a local Costco. The story garnered national media attention.
As a symbolic act, ritual is routine that “usually has a stateable purpose, but one that
invariably alludes to more than it says, and has many meanings at once” (Moore and
Meyerhoff, 1977, p. 5). Enacting a ritual connects an individual or group to something
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mystical, more than words or rational thinking can capture. At home and at work, ritual
gives structure and meaning to each day: “We find these magical moments every day—
drinking our morning coffee, reading the daily paper, eating lunch with a friend, drinking a
glass of wine while admiring the sunset, or saying, ‘Good night, sleep tight . . . ’ at bedtime.
The holy in the daily; the sacred in the single act of living . . . A time to do the dishes. And a
time to walk the dog” (Fulghum, 1995, pp. 3, 254).
Humans create both personal and communal rituals. The ones that carry meaning
become the dance of life. “Rituals anchor us to a center,” Fulghum writes, “while freeing us
to move on and confront the everlasting unpredictability of life. The paradox of ritual
patterns and sacred habits is that they simultaneously serve as a solid footing and
springboard, providing a stable dynamic in our lives” (1995, p. 261).
The power of ritual becomes palpable if one experiences the emptiness of losing it.
Campbell (1988) underscores this loss: “When you lose rituals, you lose a sense of
civilization; and that’s why society is so out of kilter.” As mentioned earlier, many Catholics
lost their faith in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church changed its liturgy from Latin
to vernacular. Later the Church reversed its earlier position and gave local priests
permission to conduct the mass in Latin. Conversely, when the Catholic Church was
hit later with a series of scandals involving sexual abuse of children and adolescents by
priests, shaken laypersons turned to rituals of the mass for comfort and reassurance.
Rituals of initiation induct newcomers into communal membership. “Greenhorns” often
encounter powerful cultural pressures as they join a group or organization. A new member
must gain entry to the inner sanctum. Transitioning from stranger to full-fledged member
grants access to cherished organizational secrets. The key episode is the rite of passage
affirming acceptance. In tribes, simply attaining puberty is insufficient for young males:
“There must be an accompanying trial and appropriate ritual to mark the event. The so-
called primitives had the good sense to make these trials meaningful and direct. Upon
attaining puberty you killed a lion and were circumcised. After a little dancing and whatnot,
you were admitted as a junior member and learned some secrets. The [men’s] hut is a
symbol of, and a medium for maintaining, the status quo and the good of the order” (Ritti
and Funkhouser, 1982, p. 3).
We are not beyond the primitive drives, sexism, and superstition that gave rise to age-old
institutions such as the men’s hut. Consider the experience of a newly elected member of the
U.S. Congress:
One of the early female novices was a representative who was a serious
feminist. Soon after arriving in Congress, she broke propriety by audaciously
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proposing an amendment to a military bill of Edward Hebert, Chief of the
Defense Clan. When the amendment received only a single vote, she
supposedly snapped at the aged committee chairman: “I know the only
reason my amendment failed is that I’ve got a vagina.” To which Hebert
retorted, “If you’d been using your vagina instead of your mouth, maybe you’d
have gotten a few more votes” (Weatherford, 1985, p. 35).
That exchange seems particularly harsh and offensive, but its multiple interpretations
take us to the heart of symbolic customs. A kinder and gentler anecdote would blunt the
power in a multilayered transaction with multiple meanings. Let’s look at some possible
One version highlights the age-old battle between the sexes. The female representa­
tive raises the specter of sexual discrimination; Hebert uses a sexist jibe to put her in her
place. Another view sees the exchange as a classic give-and-take. Newcomers bring new
ideas as agents of evolution and reform. Old-timers are supposed to pass along time-
tested values and traditions. As an initiation ritual, the exchange is a predictable clash
between a new arrival and an established veteran. The old-timer is reminding the rookie
who’s in charge. Newcomers don’t get free admission. The price is higher for those who,
because of race, gender, or ethnicity, question or threaten existing values, norms, or
patterns. If newcomers succumb, an organization risks stultification and decay; if old-
timers fail to induct new arrivals properly, chaos and disarray lie ahead. Only a weak
culture accepts newcomers without some form of testing, rite of passage, or “hazing.”
The rite of passage reinforces the existing culture while testing the newcomer’s ability to
become a member.
Initiation rituals in other organizations also reveal cultural values and ways to the
newcomer. At Ritz Carlton, the process is called “Onboarding.” The two-day experience is
as intense as the Congressional example but not as coarse. Newcomers learn the Credo and
Gold Standards from current employees and high-ranking executives. They are imbued with
their role as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” They learn about the
“Wow Effect” and their role in assuring that each guest has a superlative experience (each
Ritz employee has a $4,000 discretionary fund to make sure this happens).
One new employee describes how the “Wow Effect” took place at the end of the event’s
second day:
We took a break. But before being dismissed our leaders asked each of us to
write down our favorite food. Mine was Belgian chocolate. We handed in our
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slips of paper and left. Upon the return, there was a plate of our favorite food at
each place. Belgian chocolate for me. I never forgot that and now look for any
chance I have to make a guest exclaim “WOW.”
Initiation is one important role of ritual. Rituals also bond a group together and imbue
the enterprise with traditions and values. They prepare combat pilots to slip into a fighter
cockpit knowing they may not return:
For me, there can be no fighter pilots without fighter pilot rituals. The end
result of these rituals is a culture that allows individuals to risk their lives and
revel in it (Broughton, 1988, p. 131).
Some rituals become ceremonial occasions to recognize momentous accomplishments.
When Captain Lance Sijan received his posthumous Medal of Honor, the president of the
United States attended:
In the large room, men in impressive uniforms and costly vested suits and
women [in uniforms] and cheerful spring pastels stood motionless and silent in
their contemplation of the words. The stark text of the citation contained a
wealth of evocative imagery, some of it savage, some tender to the point of
heartbreak. President Ford left the rostrum: a group of senior officers drew up
beside him to hand forward the glass-covered walnut case containing the medal.
There was a certain liturgical quality to this passing of a sanctified object among
a circle of anointed leaders (McConnell, 2004, p. 217).
At the other end of the scale are many light-hearted rituals, but even these have a more
serious side:
On a Friday night at a base officers’ club, four Marine A-6 Intruder pilots joined
a packed crowd of Air Force officers. One of the Marine aviators put his cap on
the bar while fishing for some money to pay for his drink. The bartender rang a
foot-tall bell and yelled “Hat on the bar!” This infraction automatically means
the guilty party buys a round of drinks. Surveying the size of the crowd, the
Marine . . . refused to pay. An Air Force colonel approached him and asked
him if he really intended to flout the tradition. When the Marine responded in
the affirmative, the colonel called the base security and ordered the A-6
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[aircraft] on the ramp impounded. The Marine left and called his superior to
report the colonel’s action. Shortly thereafter, he returned and asked sheepishly,
“What’s everyone having?” (R. Mola, cited in Reed, 2001, p. 6).
Rituals also delineate key relationships. One of the most important relationships in a
fighter squadron is that between a pilot and crew chief.
A preflight ritual transfers ownership between someone who cares for an
aircraft on the ground and the one who will take it aloft. The ground ritual has
several phases. A first salute reinforces rank and signifies respect between
mechanic and pilot. A handshake takes the formal greeting to a new level,
cementing the personal bond between the two. A second salute after the pilot
has checked the aircraft indicates the aircraft’s airworthiness. It is now
officially under the pilot’s command. Finally, a thumbs-up is a personal
gesture wishing the pilot a good flight. Interwoven, the many rituals of combat
flying bond the participants and bind them to the service’s traditions and
values (R. Mola, cited in Reed, 2001, p. 5).
Historically, cultures have relied on ritual and ceremony to create order, clarity, and
predictability—particularly around mysterious and random issues or dilemmas. The
distinction between ritual and ceremony is elusive. As a rule of thumb, rituals are more
frequent, everyday routines imbued with special meaning. Ceremonies are more episodic,
grander, and more elaborate. Ceremonies often weave several rituals in concert and are
convened at times of transition or on special occasions. Rain dances, harvest celebrations,
the darkest days of winter, the new beginnings and hope of spring bring people together to
remember the past and to renew faith, hope, and spirit. Annual business meetings invoke
supernatural assistance in explaining dips in the stock price or in building new market share.
Annual conventions renew old ties and revive deep, collective commitments. “Convention
centers are the basilicas of secular religion” (Fulghum, 1995, p. 96).
Both ritual and ceremony are illustrated in an account from Japan:
It has been the same every night since the death in 1964 of Yasujiro Tsutsumi,
the legendary patriarch of the huge Seibu real-estate and transportation group.
Two employees stand an overnight vigil at his tomb . . . On New Year’s, the
weather is often bitter, but at dawn the vigil expands to include five or six
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hundred top executives—directors, vice presidents, presidents—arrayed by
company and rank, the most senior in front. A limousine delivers Yasujiro’s
third son, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the head of the family business and Japan’s richest
man. A great brass bell booms out six times as Yoshiaki approaches his father’s
tomb. He claps his hands twice, bows deeply, and says, “Happy New Year,
Father, Happy New Year.” Then he turns to deliver a brief-but-stern sermon to
the assembled congregation. The basic themes change little from year to year:
last year was tough, this year will be even tougher, and you’ll be washing dishes
in one of the hotels if your performance is bad. Finally, he toasts his father with
warm sake and departs (Downer, 1994).
Ceremonies serve four major roles: they socialize, stabilize, reassure, and convey
messages to external constituencies. Consider the example of Mary Kay Cosmetics. Several
thousand people gather at the company’s annual seminars to hear (now posthumous)
personal messages from Mary Kay, to applaud the achievements of star salespeople, to hear
success stories, and to celebrate. The ceremony brings new members into the fold and helps
maintain faith, hope, and optimism in the Mary Kay family. It is a distinctive pageant and
makes the Mary Kay culture accessible to outsiders, particularly consumers. Failure recedes
and obstacles disappear in the “you can do it” spirit of the company symbol, the
bumblebee—a creature that, according to mythical aerodynamics experts, should not be
able to fly. Unaware of its limitations, it flies anyway.
Some events, like retirement dinners and welcoming events for new employees, are
clearly ceremonial. Other ceremonies happen at moments of triumph or transition.
When Phil Condit took over the reins of Boeing in 1996, he invited senior managers
to his home for dinner. Afterward, the group gathered around a giant fire pit to tell
stories about Boeing. Condit asked them to toss negative stories into the flames. It
was an emblematic way to banish the dark side of the company’s past (Deal and Key,
Condit resigned his chairman position at Boeing, under pressure, in 2003 but returned as
part of the crowd to witness the ceremonial rollout of an aircraft his team had begun work
on a decade earlier—the 787 Dreamliner. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, “With
some 15,000 people gathered Sunday inside the world’s largest building—Boeing’s Everett
factory—and tens of thousands more watching the event live around the world—Boeing
opened the hangar doors to reveal the 787 Dreamliner, the first commercial passenger plane
that will have a mostly composite airframe rather than aluminum . . . Those 15,000
employees, past and current executives, airline customers and others crowded around
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the new jet for an up-close look” (“Thousands Welcome the Long-Awaited 787 Dream­
liner,” 2007).
Condit mingled with employees to give and receive congratulations. Tom Brokaw served
as master of ceremonies. Rock music roused the crowd. The event gave VIPs and politicians
an opportunity to bask in the glory of a momentous accomplishment. As those who had
launched every plane from the 707 through the 747 rubbed elbows and swapped tales, the
roots of the past fused with the joy of the present and the promise of tomorrow’s next leap
Ceremonies do not have to be as lavish as Boeing’s launch of the Dreamliner. Every
organization has its moments of achievement and atonement. Expressive events provide
order and meaning and bind an organization or a society together.
Ceremony is equally evident in other arenas. In the United States, political conventions
select candidates, even though in recent decades the winner is usually determined well in
advance. After the conventions come several months in which competing candidates trade
clichés. The same pageantry unfolds each election year. Rhetoric and spontaneous demon­
strations are staged in advance. Campaigning is repetitious and superficial, reporters play up
the skirmish of the day, and voting often seems disconnected from the main drama. The
denouement is often just what everyone expected, but occasionally the drama takes an
unexpected turn, as in 2016 when Donald Trump won even though he was expected to lose.
Even so, the process of electing a president is still a momentous ceremony. It entails a
sense of social involvement. It is an outlet for expression of discontent and enthusiasm. It
stages live drama for citizens to witness and debate and gives millions of people a sense of
participating in an exciting adventure. It lets candidates reassure the public that there are
answers to important questions and solutions to vexing problems. It draws attention to
common social ties and to the importance of America’s peaceful transfer of power
(Edelman, 1977).
When properly conducted and attuned to valued myths, both ritual and ceremony fire
the imagination and deepen faith; otherwise, they become cold, empty forms that people
resent and avoid. They can release creativity and transform meanings, but they can also
cement the status quo and block adaptation and learning. In some organizations, whining
and complaining evolve as rituals of choice. Negative symbols perpetuate evil, just as
positive symbols reinforce goodness. Symbols cut both ways.
Metaphor, Humor, and Play
Metaphor, humor, and play illustrate the important “as if,” “suppose that” quality of
symbols. Metaphors make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. They capture subtle
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themes that normal language can obscure. Consider these metaphors from managers asked
to depict their agency as it is and as they hope it might become:
As the Agency Is As It Might Become
A maze A well-oiled wheel
Wet noodle Oak tree
Aggregation of competing tribes Symphony orchestra
Three-ring circus Championship team
An unsolvable puzzle A smooth-running machine
Twilight zone Utopia
Herd of rampaging cattle Fleet of ships
Metaphors compress complicated issues into understandable images, influencing our
attitudes and actions. A university head who views the institution as a factory leads differently
than one who conceives of it as a craft guild, shopping center, or beloved alma mater.
Humor plays a number of important roles: It integrates, expresses skepticism, contrib­
utes to flexibility and adaptiveness, and lessens status differences. Hansot (1979) argues that
instead of asking why people use humor in organizations, we should ask why people are so
serious. Humor is a classic device for distancing, but it also draws people together. It
establishes solidarity and facilitates face saving. Above all, it is a way to illuminate and break
frames, indicating that any single definition of a situation is arbitrary.
Play and humor are often distinguished from work. Play is what people do away from the
office. Images of play among managers typically connote aggression, competition, and
struggle (“We’ve got to beat them at their own game”; “We dropped the ball on that one”;
“We knocked that one out of the park”) rather than relaxation and fun. But if play is viewed
as a state of mind (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974), any activity can become playful. Play
relaxes rules to explore alternatives, encouraging experimentation, flexibility, and creativity.
Playfulness has created many remarkable innovations. March (1976) suggests some guide­
lines for encouraging play in organizations: treat goals as hypotheses, intuition as real,
hypocrisy as transition, memory as an enemy, and experience as a theory.
What is culture? What is its role in an organization? Both questions are contested. Some
argue that organizations have cultures; others insist that organizations are cultures. Schein
(1992, p. 12) offers a formal definition: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group
learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and integration, that has worked well
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enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way
to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Deal and Kennedy (1982, p. 4)
portray culture more succinctly as “the way we do things around here.” Culture is both a
product and a process. As a product, it embodies wisdom accumulated from experience. As
a process, it is renewed and recreated as newcomers learn the old ways and eventually
become teachers themselves.
There is a long-standing controversy about the relationship between culture and leader­
ship. Do leaders shape culture, or are they shaped by it? Is symbolic leadership empowering or
manipulative? Another debate swirls around the link between culture and results. Do
organizations with robust cultures outperform those relying on structure and strategy?
Does success breed a cohesive culture, or is it the other way around? Books like Kotter
and Heskett’s Corporate Culture and Performance (1992), Collins and Porras’s Built to Last
(1994), and Collins’s Good to Great (2001) offer impressive longitudinal evidence linking
culture to the financial bottom line.
Over time, an organization develops distinctive beliefs, values, and customs. Managers
who understand the significance of symbols and know how to evoke spirit and soul can
shape more cohesive and effective organizations—so long as the cultural patterns align with
the challenges of the marketplace. To be sure, culture can become a negative force, as it did
at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Bank. But two cases demonstrate how positive, cohesive
business cultures can be fashioned and perpetuated.
BMW’s Dream Factory
In 1959, BMW was in a financial hole as deep as the one General Motors and Ford
experienced more recently (Edmondson, 2006. Copyright  2006. McGraw-Hill
Companies, Inc.). During the 1950s, BMW executives misjudged the consumer market,
and customers shunned two new models—one too big and pricey even for the luxury
market, the other a two-seater too small and impractical for the sporty crowd. BMW
almost went bankrupt and almost had to sell out to Mercedes. A wealthy shareholder
stepped in and, with concessions from the unions, bailed the company out. The
memory of this close call is part of BMW’s lore: “Near death experiences are healthy
for companies. BMW has been running scared for years” (p. 4, Copyright  2006.
McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). The near-death story is retold often and is one of the
first things newcomers learn.
Old ways become especially vulnerable in times of crisis. BMW shucked off its top-down
mentality in 1959 and cultivated a new cultural mind-set to guard against making the same
mistake again.
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A visit to BMW’s Leipzig plant shows how far the company has come. The plant’s
modern, artsy, open-air feeling reflects the company’s cultural values and demonstrates its
commitment to breaking down barriers among workers, designers, engineers, and manag­
ers. Openness encourages chance encounters and a freewheeling exchange of ideas. People
“meet simply because their paths cross naturally. And they say ‘Ah, glad I ran into you, I
have an idea’” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 1. Copyright  2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
At BMW, the bedrock value is innovation:
Just about everyone working for the Bavarian automaker—from the factory
floor to the design studios to the marketing department—is encouraged to speak
out. Ideas bubble up freely, and there is never a penalty for proposing a new way
of doing things, no matter how outlandish. Much of BMW’s success stems from
an entrepreneurial culture that’s rare in corporate Germany, where manage­
ment is usually top-down and the gulf between workers and management is
vast. BMW’s 100,000 employees have become a nimble network of true
believers with few barriers to hinder innovation (Edmondson, 2006, pp. 1–2.
Copyright  2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
Commitment to its workers is another core value of BMW. It is not easy to get a job at a
company that fields 200,000 applications annually. Those who pass initial screening have to
survive intense interviews and a day of working in teams. The goal: to screen out those who
don’t fit. The lucky few who are hired move into the mix right away. They are forced to rely
on veteran workers to learn the ropes. But once part of the BMW workforce, workers have
unparalleled job security. Layoffs, once common at Ford and GM, don’t happen at BMW.
The company is loyal to its employees, and they respond in kind.
From the start, workers receive indoctrination into the BMW Way. They are steeped
“with a sense of place, history, and mission. Individuals from all strata of the corporation
work elbow-to-elbow, creating informal networks where they can hatch even the most
unorthodox ideas for making better Bimmers or boosting profits. The average BMW
buyer may not know it, but he is driving a machine born of thousands of important
brainstorming sessions. BMW, in fact, may be the chattiest company ever” (Edmondson,
2006, p. 2. Copyright  2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
Rituals are a way of tribal life at BMW—building bonds among diverse groups,
connecting employees’ hearts with the company’s soul, and pooling far-flung ideas for
better products. After BMW acquired Rolls-Royce, an assemblage of designers, engineers,
marketers, and line workers was thrown together to redesign the signature Rolls Phantom.
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The result was a superluxurious best seller. When management decided to drop the Z3, a
designer persuaded some other designers and engineers to join him in an “off the books,
skunk-works” effort. The outcome of their collective endeavor: the successful Z4 sports car.
The flexibility of BMW’s manufacturing process allows buyers to select engine types,
interior configuration, and trim, customizing almost every key feature. They can change
their minds up to 5 hours before the vehicle is assembled—and they do. The assembly line
logs 170,000 alterations a month. This level of personal attention lets assemblers visualize
who the driver might be. Making identical cars only every nine months creates a sense of
personal touch and creativity. That’s a prime reason work at BMW has meaning beyond a
paycheck. Everyone’s efforts are aimed at building a distinctive automobile that an owner
will be proud to drive.
The vitality and cohesiveness of the idea-driven BMW culture is reflected in the
company’s bottom line. From its nadir in the 1950s, BMW grew past Mercedes to become
the world’s largest premium carmaker (Vella, 2006). But that growth may also be its biggest
vulnerability. “Losing its culture to sheer size is a major risk” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 3.
Copyright  2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). So far, BMW seems to be meeting the
challenge of nurturing recollections of 1959 as a defense against complacency. In 2012,
Forbes named BMW the most reputable company in the world.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 28: Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: International
Differences in Work-Related Values (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1984)
Geert Hofstede pioneered research on the impact of national culture on the workplace. Although
other studies, such as GLOBE (House et al., 2004), are more current, his work remains the most
frequently cited.
Defining culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members
of one human group from another” (p. 21), Hofstede focused particularly on work-related values.
The heart of his book is a survey of a large U.S. multinational company’s employees.
Approximately 117,000 surveys were collected from workers and managers in 40 countries and
20 languages. Data were collected in two waves, one in 1968 and another in 1972. Hofstede
then identified variables that reliably differentiated managers of various nations. He ultimately
settled on four dimensions of national culture:
1. Power distance: A measure of power inequality between bosses and subordinates. High
power-distance countries (such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Venezuela) display more
autocratic relationships between bosses and subordinates. Low power-distance countries
(including Denmark, Israel, and Austria) show more democratic and decentralized patterns.
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2. Uncertainty avoidance: The level of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Countries high
on uncertainty avoidance (Greece, Portugal, Belgium, and Japan) tend to make heavy use of
structure, rules, and specialists to maintain control. Those low on the index (Hong Kong,
Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore) put less emphasis on structure and are more tolerant of
risk taking.
3. Individualism: The importance of the individual versus the collective (group, organization, or
society). Countries highest on individualism (the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and
Canada) put emphasis on autonomous, self-reliant individuals who care for themselves.
Countries lowest on individuality (Peru, Pakistan, Colombia, and Venezuela) emphasized
mutual loyalty.
4. Masculinity-femininity: The degree to which a culture emphasizes ambition and achievement
versus caring and nurture. In countries highest in masculinity (Japan, Austria, Venezuela,
Italy), men tend to feel strong pressures for success, relatively few women hold high-level
positions, and job stress is high. The opposite is true in countries low in masculinity (such as
Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden).
Hofstede argues that management practices and theories are inevitably culture bound. Most
management theory has been developed in the United States, which is culturally similar to
nations where people speak English and other northern-European languages but distinct from
most countries in Asia (as well as those speaking Romance languages). To Hofstede, managers
and scholars have too often assumed that what works in their culture will work anywhere, an
assumption that can have disastrous results.
Hofstede also explores the relationship between national and organizational culture, noting
that a common culture is a powerful form of organizational glue. This is most likely to occur in
multinationals in which a home country culture reigns companywide, which in turn requires that
managers from outside the home country become bicultural. Many American managers who
work abroad, in Hofstede’s view, tend to live in American enclaves and remain both monolingual
and monocultural.
Hofstede’s research was limited in many ways. His sample came from only one American
company (IBM), and many nations were absent (China, Russia, most of Africa and Eastern
Europe). His data are now about four decades old. But no other work has been as influential in
demonstrating the pervasive impact of national culture on organizations.
Nordstrom’s Rooted Culture
Nordstrom department stores are renowned for customer service and employee satisfaction.
Customers rave about its no-hassle, no-questions-asked commitment to high-quality
service: “not service the way it used to be, but service that never was” (Spector and
McCarthy, 1995, p. 1). Year after year, Nordstrom has been ranked at or near the top in
retail service ratings, and in 2016 it continued to hold the top spot for department stores.
The company is consistently listed on Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for.
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Founder John Nordstrom was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Seattle after an
odyssey across America and a brief stint hunting gold in Alaska. He and Carl Wallin, a
shoemaker, opened a shoe store. Nordstrom’s sons Elmer, Everett, and Lloyd joined the
business. Collectively, they anchored the firm in an enduring philosophical principle: the
customer is always right. The following generations of Nordstroms expanded the business
while maintaining a close connection with historical roots.
The company relies on acculturated “Nordies” to induct new employees into customer
service the Nordstrom way. Newcomers begin in sales, learning traditions from the ground
up: “When we are at our best, our frontline people are lieutenants because they control the
business. Our competition has foot soldiers on the front line and lieutenants in the back”
(Spector and McCarthy, 1995, p. 106).
Nordstrom’s unique commitment to customer service is heralded in its “heroics”—tales
of heroes and heroines going out of their way:
• A customer fell in love with a particular pair of pleated burgundy slacks on sale at
Nordstrom’s downtown Seattle store. Unfortunately, the store was out of her size. The
sales associate got cash from the department manager, marched across the street, bought
the slacks at full price from a competitor, brought them back, and sold them to the
customer at Nordstrom’s reduced price (Spector and McCarthy, 1995, p. 26).
• According to legend, a Nordie once refunded a customer’s payment for a set of
automobile tires, even though the company had never stocked tires. In 1975, Nordstrom
had acquired three stores from Northern Commercial in Alaska. The customer had
purchased the tires from Northern Commercial, so Nordstrom took them back—as the
story goes (Spector and McCarthy, 1995, p. 27).
Nordstrom’s commitment to customer service is reinforced in storewide rituals. New­
comers encounter the company’s values in the initial employee orientation. For many years,
× 8´´they were given a 5´´ card labeled the “Nordstrom Employee Handbook,” which listed
only one rule: Use your sound judgment in all situations. Newcomers still get the card, but
Nordstrom has added a handbook that lists a few rules and legal considerations. The
emphasis on pleasing the customer is still dominant. At staff meetings, sales associates
compare and discuss sales techniques and role-play customer encounters.
Periodic ceremonies reinforce the company’s cherished values. From the company’s
early years, the Nordstrom family sponsored summer picnics and Christmas dance parties,
and the company continues to create occasions to celebrate customer service: “We do crazy
stuff. Monthly store powwows serve as a kind of revival meeting, where customer letters of
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appreciation are read and positive achievements are recognized, while coworkers whoop
and cheer for one another. Letters of complaint about Nordstrom customer service are also
read over the intercom (omitting the names of offending salespeople)” (Spector and
McCarthy, 1995, pp. 120, 129).
At one spirited sales meeting, a regional manager asked all present to call out their sales
targets for the year, which he posted on a large chart. Then the regional manager uncovered
his own target for each person. Anyone whose target was below the regional manager’s was
roundly booed. Those whose individual goals were higher were acclaimed with enthusiastic
cheers (Spector and McCarthy, 1995).
The delicate balance of competition, cooperation, and customer service has served
Nordstrom well. Its stellar identity has created a sterling image. In a sermon titled “The
Gospel According to Nordstrom,” one California minister “praised the retailer for carrying
out the call of the gospel in ways more consistent and caring than we sometimes do in the
church” (Spector and McCarthy, 1995, p. 21).
Nordstrom, like every business, has stumbled occasionally. But its steadfast loyalty to
proven values and ways keeps the company on a successful course.
In contrast to traditional views emphasizing rationality, the symbolic frame highlights the
tribal aspect of contemporary organizations. It centers on complexity and ambiguity and
emphasizes the idea that symbols mediate the meaning of work.
Myths, values, and vision bring cohesiveness, clarity, and direction in the presence of
confusion and mystery. Heroes carry values and serve as powerful icons. Rituals and
ceremonies provide scripts for celebrating success and facing calamity. Metaphors, humor,
and play offer escape from the tyranny of facts and logic; they stimulate creative alternatives
to timeworn choices. Symbolic forms and activities are the basic elements of culture,
accumulated over time to shape an organization’s unique identity and character. In The
Feast of Fools, Cox (1969, p. 13) summarizes: “Our links to yesterday and tomorrow depend
also on the aesthetic, emotional, and symbolic aspects of human life—on saga, play, and
celebration. Without festival and fantasy, man would not really be a historical being at all.”
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c h a p t e r
Culture in Action
Not a having and a resting, but a growing and becoming is
the character of perfection as culture conceives it.
—Matthew Arnold
The public has been fascinated with the U.S. Navy’s secret SEAL striketeams ever since one of them, SEAL Team Six Red Squadron, tracked
down Osama bin Laden in 2012. The public eye typically focuses on the
modern weaponry, awesome firepower, and sheer bravado of the SEAL
operators. At least three books and a hit movie, Zero Dark Thirty—each
with its own interpretation of that operation—came out in 2013. But lurking
beneath the surface of Red Squadron’s successful foray is another story about
the culture of SEAL Team Six, which has not been fully told.
The books written by SEALs generally underscore the important contributions of the
team’s tightly knit culture. The members of Team Six “are bound together not only by
sworn oaths, but also by the obligations of their brotherhood” (Pfarrer, 2011, p. 28).
As one SEAL described it, “My relationship with Team Six has been more important than
my marriage” (Wasdin and Templin, 2011, p. 254). Posttraumatic stress disorder among
returning soldiers has been attributed to the loss of brotherhood. Published sources
sometimes mention pranks, humor, ritual, and specialized language, but they don’t
describe in depth the essential cultural components that create these intense emotional
and spiritual bonds.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC13 05/26/2017 2:23:8 Page 266
Descriptions, prescriptions, and theories about improving teamwork often miss the
deeper secrets and mysteries of how groups and teams reach the elusive state of grace and
peak performance. Former Visa CEO Dee Hock captured the heart of the issue: “In the field
of group endeavor, you will see incredible events in which the group performs far beyond
the sum of its individual talents. It happens in the symphony, in the ballet, in the theater, in
sports, and equally in business. It is easy to recognize and impossible to define. It is a
mystique. It cannot be achieved without immense effort, training, and cooperation, but
effort, training, and cooperation alone rarely create it” (quoted in Schlesinger, Eccles, and
Gabarro, 1983, p. 173).
With a population of only slightly more than 2 million people in the 1770s, how was the
United States able to produce an extraordinary leadership team that included John Adams,
Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington? In
World War II, did anyone believe that Britain’s Royal Air Force could defend the island
nation against the overwhelming power of Hitler’s Luftwaffe? As Winston Churchill later
commented, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”
Did anyone expect the Iraqi soccer team to take home the Asian Cup in 2007? With all
the turmoil and strife at the time in Iraq, it is hard to picture the country even fielding a
team. And how could two graduate students who came from opposite ends of the earth
(Michigan and Moscow), and who initially didn’t like each other, create a company whose
name—Google—became a global household word?
Are such peak performances simply a great mystery—beautiful when they happen but
no more predictable or controllable than California’s next earthquake? Too often we try to
attribute success to extraordinary individuals, enlightened structural design, or political
harmony. In this chapter, we scrutinize a classic case of a team that achieved a state of
transcendence. Tracy Kidder spent a year embedded in a group of engineers, intimately
observing it in operation. The unusually in-depth and close-grained story takes us directly to
the symbolic roots of flow, spirit, and magic. Very few studies of teams can match Kidder’s
rigor and attention to detail.
Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine (1981) is the dazzling and detailed account of the extensive
period of time he spent at the minicomputer firm Data General in the 1970s with a group of
engineers who created a new computer in record time. Despite scant resources and limited
support, the Eagle Group outperformed all other Data General divisions to produce a new
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state-of-the-art machine. The technology they developed is now antiquated, but lessons
drawn from how they pulled it off are as current and instructive ever.1
Why did the Eagle Group succeed? So many groups of engineers—or educators,
physicians, executives, or graduate students—start out with high hopes but falter and fail.
Were the project members extraordinarily talented? Not really. Each was highly skilled,
but there were equally talented engineers working on other Data General projects.
Were team members treated with dignity and respect? Quite the contrary. As one
engineer noted, “No one ever pats anyone on the back” (p. 179). Instead, the group
experienced what they called mushroom management: “Put ‘em in the dark, feed ‘em shit,
and watch ‘em grow” (p. 109). For over a year, group members jeopardized their health,
their families, and their careers: “I’m flat out by definition. I’m a mess. It’s terrible. It’s a lot
of fun” (p. 119).
Were financial rewards a motivating factor? Group members said explicitly that they did
not work for money. Nor were they motivated by fame. Heroic efforts were rewarded
neither by formal appreciation nor by official applause. The group quietly dissolved shortly
after completing the new computer, and most members moved unrecognized to other parts
of Data General or to other companies. Their experience fits later successes at Cisco
Systems, about which Paulson concludes, “All personnel are driven by the desire to be a part
of a winning organization” (2001, p. 187).
Perhaps the group’s structure accounted for its success. Were its members pursuing
well-defined and laudable goals? The group leader, Tom West, offered the precept that
“not everything worth doing is worth doing well.” Pushed to translate his maxim, he
elaborated, “If you can do a quick-and-dirty job and it works, do it” (p. 119). Did the group
have clear and well-coordinated roles and relationships? According to Kidder, it kept no
meaningful charts, graphs, or organization tables. One of the group’s engineers put it
bluntly: “The whole management structure—anyone in Harvard Business School would
have barfed” (p. 116).
Can the political frame unravel the secret of the group’s phenomenal performance?
Possibly group members were motivated more by power than by money: “There’s a big high
in here somewhere for me that I don’t fully understand. Some of it’s a raw power trip. The
reason I work is because I win” (p. 179). They were encouraged to circumvent formal
channels to advance group interests: “If you can’t get what you need from some manager at
your level in another department, go to his boss—that’s the way to get things done” (p. 191).
Group members were also unusually direct and confrontational: “Feeling sorely pro­
voked, [David] Peck one day said to this engineer, ‘You’re an asshole.’ Ordered by his boss to
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apologize, Peck went to the man he had insulted, looking sheepish, and said, ‘I’m sorry
you’re an asshole’” (p. 224).
The group was highly competitive with others in the company: “There’s a thing you learn
at Data General, if you work here for any period of time . . . that nothing ever happens
unless you push it” (p. 111). They also competed with one another. Their “tube wars” are a
typical example. Carl Alsing, head of a subgroup known as the Microkids, returned from
lunch one day to find that all his files had become empty shells: the names were there, but the
contents had vanished. It took him an hour to find where the real files were. Alsing
counterattacked by creating an encrypted file and tantalizing the team, “There’s erotic
writing in there and if you can find it, you can read it” (p. 107).
Here we begin to encounter the secrets of the group’s success. The tube wars—and other
exchanges among group members—were more than power struggles. They were a form of
play that released tensions, created bonds, and contributed to an unusual group spirit. A
shared and cohesive culture rather than a clear, well-defined structure was the invisible force
that gave the team its drive.
From the Eagle Group’s experience, we can distill several important tenets of the
symbolic frame that are broadly applicable to groups and teams:
• How someone becomes a group member is important.
• Diversity supports a team’s competitive advantage.
• Example, not command, holds a team together.
• A specialized language fosters cohesion and commitment.
• Stories carry history and values and reinforce group identity.
• Humor and play reduce tension and encourage creativity.
• Ritual and ceremony lift spirits and reinforce values.
• Informal cultural players contribute disproportionately to their formal roles.
• Soul is the secret of success.
Becoming a Member
Joining a team involves more than a rational decision. It is a mutual choice marked by some
form of ritual. In the Eagle Group, the process of becoming a member was called “signing
up.” When interviewing recruits, Alsing conveyed the message that they were volunteering
to climb Mount Everest without a rope despite lacking the “right stuff” to keep up with other
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climbers. When the new recruits protested they wanted to climb Mount Everest anyway,
Alsing told them they would first have to find out whether they were good enough. After the
selections were made, Alsing summed it up this way: “It was kind of like recruiting for a
suicide mission. You’re gonna die, but you’re gonna die in glory” (p. 66).
Through the signing-up ritual, an engineer became part of a special effort and agreed to
forsake family, friends, and health to accomplish the impossible. It was a sacred declaration:
“I want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul” (p. 63).
Diversity Is a Competitive Advantage
Though nearly all the group’s members were engineers, each had unique skills and style.
Tom West, the group’s leader, was by reputation a highly talented technical debugger. He
was also aloof and unapproachable, the “Prince of Darkness.” Steve Wallach, the group’s
computer architect, was a highly creative maverick. According to Kidder (p. 75), before
accepting West’s invitation to join the group, he went to Edson de Castro, the president of
Data General, to find out precisely what he’d be working on:
“Okay,” Wallach said, “what the fuck do you want?”
“I want a 32-bit Eclipse,” de Castro told him.
“If we can do this, you won’t cancel it on us?” Wallach asked. “You’ll leave us alone?”
“That’s what I want, a 32,” de Castro assured him, “a 32-bit Eclipse and no mode bit.”
Wallach signed up. His love of literature, stories, and verse provided a literary
substructure for the technical architecture of the new machine. Alsing, the group’s
microcode expert, was as warm and approachable as West was cold and remote. Alsing
headed the Microkids, the group of young engineers who programmed the new machine. Ed
Rasala, Alsing’s counterpart, headed the Hardy Boys, the group’s hardware design team.
Rasala was a solid, hyperactive, risk-taking, detail-oriented mechanic: “I may not be the
smartest designer in the world, a CPU giant, but I’m dumb enough to stick with it to the
end” (p. 142).
Diversity among the group’s other top engineers was evident in specialty as well as
personality. One engineer, for example, was viewed as a creative genius who liked inventing
an esoteric idea and then trying to make it work. Another was a craftsman who enjoyed
fixing things, working tirelessly until the last bug had been tracked down and eliminated.
West buffered the team from upper management interference and served as a group
“devil.” Wallach created the original design. Alsing and the Microkids created “a synaptic
language that would fuse the physical machine with the programs that would tell it what to
do” (p. 60). Rasala and the Hardy Boys built the physical circuitry. Understandably, there
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was tension among these diverse, highly specialized individuals and groups. Harnessing the
resulting energy galvanized the parts into a working team.
Example, Not Command
Wallach’s design generated modest coordination for Eagle’s autonomous individuals and
groups. The group had some rules but paid little attention to them. Members viewed de
Castro, the CEO, as a distant god. He was never there physically, but his presence was.
West, the group’s official leader, rarely interfered with the actual work, nor was he around
in the laboratory. One Sunday morning in January, however, when the team was supposed
to be resting, a Hardy Boy happened to come by the lab and found West sitting in front of
one of the prototypes. The next Sunday, West wasn’t in the lab, and after that they rarely
saw him. For a long time he did not hint that he might again put his hands inside the
West contributed primarily by causing problems for the engineers to solve and making
mundane events and issues appear special. He created an almost endless series of “brush­
fires” so he could inspire his staff to douse them. He had a genius for finding drama and
romance in everyday routine. Other members of the group’s formal leadership followed de
Castro and West in creating ambiguity, encouraging inventiveness, and leading by example.
Heroes of the moment gave inspiration and direction. Subtle and implicit signals rather than
concrete and explicit guidelines or decisions held the group together and directed it toward a
common goal.
Specialized Language
Every group develops words, phrases, and metaphors unique to its circumstances. A
specialized language both reflects and shapes a group’s culture. Shared language allows team
members to communicate easily, with minimal misunderstanding. To the members of the
Eagle Group, for example, a kludge was a poor, inelegant solution—such as a machine with
loose wires held together with duct tape. A canard was anything false. Fundamentals were
the source of enlightened thinking. The word realistically typically prefaced flights of
fantasy. “Give me a core dump” meant tell me your thoughts. A stack overflow meant that an
engineer’s memory compartments were too full, and a one-stack-deep mind indicated
shallow thinking. “Eagle” was a label for the project, and “Hardy Boys” and “Microkids”
gave identity to the subgroups. Two prototype computers received the designations
“Woodstock” and “Trixie.”
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Shared lingo binds a group together and is a visible sign of membership. It also sets a
group apart and reinforces unique values and beliefs. Asked about the Eagle Group’s
headquarters, West observed, “It’s basically a cattle yard. What goes on here is not part of
the real world.” Asked for an explanation, West remarked, “Mm-hmm. The language is
different” (p. 50).
Stories Carry History, Values, and Group Identity
In high-performing organizations and groups, stories keep traditions alive and provide
examples to channel everyday behavior. Group lore extended and reinforced the subtle yet
powerful influence of Eagle’s leaders—some of them distant and remote. West’s reputation
as a “troublemaker” and an “excitement junkie” spread through stories about computer
wars of the mid-1970s. Alsing said of West that he was always prepared and never raised his
voice. But he coolly conveyed intensity and the conviction that he knew the way out of
whatever storm was currently battering the group.
West also possessed the skills of a good politician. He knew how to develop agendas,
build alliances, and negotiate with potential supporters or opponents. When he had a
particular objective in mind, he would first sign up senior executives.
Then he went to people one at a time, telling them the bosses liked the idea and asking
them to come on board: “They say, ‘Ah, it sounds like you’re just gonna put a bag on the side
of the Eclipse,’ and Tom’ll give ‘em his little grin and say, ‘It’s more than that, we’re really
gonna build this fucker and it’s gonna be fast as greased lightning.’ He tells them, ‘We’re
gonna do it by April’” (p. 44).
Stories of persistence, irreverence, and creativity encouraged others to go beyond
themselves, adding new exploits and tales to Eagle’s lore. For example, as the group neared
completion, a debugging problem threatened the entire project. Jim Veres, one of the
engineers, worked day and night to find the error. Ken Holberger, one of the Hardy Boys,
drove to work early one morning, pondering the state of the project and wondering if it
would ever get done.
He was startled out of his reverie by an unexpected scene as he entered the lab. “A great
heap of paper lies on the floor, a continuous sheet of computer paper streaming out of the
carriage at [the] system console. Stretched out, the sheet would run across the room and back
again several times. You could fit a fairly detailed description of American history . . . on it.
Veres sits in the midst of this chaos, the picture of the scholar. He’s examined it all. He turns to
Holberger. ‘I found it,’ he says” (p. 207).
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Humor and Play
Groups often focus single-mindedly on the task, shunning anything not directly work
related. Seriousness replaces playfulness as a cardinal virtue. Effective teams balance
seriousness with play and humor. Surgical teams, cockpit crews, and many other groups
have learned that joking and playful banter are essential sources of invention and team
spirit. Humor releases tension and helps resolve issues arising from day-to-day routines as
well as from sudden emergencies.
Play among the members of the Eagle project was an innate part of the group’s process.
When Alsing wanted the Microkids to learn how to manipulate the computer known as
Trixie, he made up a game. As the Microkids came on board, he told each of them to figure
how to write a program in Trixie’s assembly language. The program had to fetch and print
contents of a file stored inside the computer. The Microkids went to work, learned their way
around the machine, and felt great satisfaction—until Alsing’s perverse sense of humor
tripped them up. When they finally found the elusive file, a message greeted them: “Access
Through such play, the Microkids learned to use the computer, coalesced into a team,
and practiced negotiating their new technical environment. They also learned that their
playful leader valued creativity.
Humor was a continuous thread as the team struggled with its formidable task.
Humor often stretched the boundaries of good taste, but that too was part of the group’s
[Alsing] drew his chair up to his terminal and typed a few letters—a short
code that put him in touch with Trixie, the machine reserved for the use of his
micro coding team. “We’ve anthropomorphized Trixie to a ridiculous extent,”
he said.
He typed, WHO.
On the dark-blue screen of the cathode-ray tube, with alacrity, an answer

appeared: CARL.
WHERE, typed Alsing.
IN THE ROAD, WHERE ELSE! Trixie replied.
ERROR, read the message on the screen.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” said Alsing, and he typed, PLEASE HOW.
Alsing seemed satisfied with that, and he typed, WHEN.
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RIGHT FUCKING NOW, wrote the machine.
WHY, wrote Alsing.

Throughout the year and a half it took to build their new machine, engineers of the Eagle
project relied on play and humor as a source of relaxation, stimulation, enlightenment, and
spiritual renewal.
Ritual and Ceremony
Rituals and ceremonies are expressive occasions. As parentheses in an ordinary workday,
they enclose and define special forms of symbolic behavior. What occurs on the surface is
not nearly as important as the deeper meaning communicated below ground. With little
time for anything not related to the task of building the machine, the Eagle Group intuitively
understood the importance of symbolic activity. From the beginning, leadership encouraged
ritual and ceremony.
As one example, Rasala, head of the Hardy Boys, established a rule requiring that
changes in public boards of the prototype be updated each morning. This activity allowed
efforts to be coordinated formally. More important, the daily update was an occasion for
informal communication, bantering, and gaining a sense of the whole. The engineers
disliked the daily procedure, so Rasala changed it to once a week—on Saturday. He made it a
point always to be there himself.
Eagle’s leaders met regularly, but their meetings focused more on symbolic issues than
on substance. “We could be in a lot of trouble here,’ West might say, referring to some
current problem. And Wallach or Rasala or Alsing would reply, ‘You mean you could be in a
lot of trouble, right, Tom?’ It was Friday, they were going home soon, and relaxing, they
could half forget that they would be coming back to work tomorrow” (p. 132). Friday
afternoon is a customary time at the end of the workweek to wind down and relax. Honoring
such a tradition was all the more important for a group whose members often worked all
week and then all weekend. West made himself available to anyone who wanted to chat.
Near the end of the day, before hurrying home, he would lean back in his chair with his
office door open and entertain any visitor.
In addition to recurring rituals, the Eagle Group members convened intermittent
ceremonies to raise their spirits and reinforce their dedication to a shared, intensely zealous
mission. Toward the end of the project, Alsing instigated a ceremony to trigger a burst of
renewed energy for the final push. The festivities called attention to the values of creativity,
hard work, and teamwork. A favorite pretext for parties was presentation of the Honorary
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Microcoder Awards that Alsing and the Microcoder Team instituted. Not to be outdone, the
Hardy Boys cooked up the PAL Awards (named for the programmable array logic chips
used in the machines). The first presentation came after work at a local establishment called
the Cain Ridge Saloon. The citation read as follows (p. 250):
Honorary PAL Award
In recognition of unsolicited contributions to the advancement of Eclipse hardware above
and beyond the normal call of duty, we hereby convey unto you our thanks and
congratulations on achieving this “high” honor.
The same values and spirit were reinforced again and again in a continued cycle of
celebratory events:
Chuck Holland [Alsing’s main submanager] handed out his own special awards
to each member of the Microteam, the Under Extraordinary Pressure Awards.
They looked like diplomas. There was one for Neal Firth, “who gave us a
computer before the hardware guys did,” and one to Betty Shanahan, “for
putting up with a bunch of creepy guys.” After dispensing the Honorary
Microcoder Awards to almost every possible candidate, the Microteam insti­
tuted the All-Nighter Award. The first of these went to Jim Guyer, the citation
ingeniously inserted under the clear plastic coating of an insulated coffee cup
(p. 250).
The Contribution of Informal Cultural Players
Alsing was the main organizer and instigator of parties. He was also the Eagle Group’s
conscience and nearly everyone’s confidant. For a time when he was still in college, Alsing
had wanted to become a psychologist. He acted like one now. He kept track of his team’s
technical progress but was more visible as the social director of the Microteam and often of
the entire Eclipse Group. Fairly early in the project, Chuck Holland had complained,
“Alsing’s hard to be a manager for, because he goes around you a lot and tells your people to
do something else.” But Holland also conceded, “The good thing about him is that you can
go and talk to him. He’s more of a regular guy than most managers” (p. 105).
Every group or organization has a “priest” or “priestess” who ministers to spiritual
needs. Informally, these people hear confessions, give blessings, maintain traditions,
encourage ceremonies, and intercede in matters of gravest importance. Alsing did all these
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things and, like the tribal priest, acted as a counterpart to and interpreter of the intentions
of the chief:
West warned him several times, “If you get too close to the people who work for
you, Alsing, you’re gonna get burned.” But West didn’t interfere, and he soon
stopped issuing warnings.
One evening, while alone with West in West’s office, Alsing said: “Tom, the
kids think you’re an ogre. You don’t even say hello to them.”
West smiled and replied. “You’re doing fine, Alsing” (pp. 109–110).
The duties of Rosemarie Seale, the group’s secretary, also went well beyond formal
boundaries. If Alsing was the priest, she was the mother superior. She performed the usual
secretarial chores—answering the phones, preparing documents, and constructing budgets.
But she found particular joy in serving as a kind of den mother who solved minor crises that
arose almost daily. When new members came on, it was Rosemarie Seale who worried about
finding them a desk and some pencils. When paychecks went astray, she would track them
down and deliver them to their intended recipients. She liked the job, she said, because she
felt that she was doing something important.
In any group, a network of informal players deals with human issues outside formal
channels. On the Eagle project, their efforts were encouraged, appreciated, and rewarded
outside the formal chain of command; they helped keep the project on track.
Soul Is the Secret of Success
The symbolic tenor of the Eagle Group was the actual secret of its success. Its soul, or
culture, created a new machine: “Ninety-eight percent of the thrill comes from knowing that
the thing you designed works, and works almost the way you expected it would. If that
happens, part of you is in that machine” (p. 273).
All the members of the Eagle Group put something of themselves into the new computer.
Individual efforts went well beyond the job, supported by a unique way of life that
encouraged each person to commit to doing something of significance. Their deep
commitment and unwavering spirit jelled in the ritual of signing up. Both were then
intensified and expanded by diversity, exceptional leaders, common language, stories,
rituals, ceremonies, play, and humor. In the best sense of the word, the Eagle Group was a
team, and the efforts of the individual members were interwoven by symbolic fibers.
Cultural elements were the heart and soul of the group’s success.
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The experience of the Eagle Group is not an outlier. After extensive research on high-
performing groups, Vaill (1982) concluded that spirit was at the core of every such group he
studied. Members of such groups consistently “felt the spirit,” a feeling essential to the
meaning and value of their work. Bennis (1997) could have been writing about the Eagle
Group when he concluded, “All Great Groups believe that they are on a mission from God,
that they could change the world, make a dent in the universe. They are obsessed with their
work. It becomes not a job but a fervent quest. That belief is what brings the necessary
cohesion and energy to their work” (p. 1).
More and more teams and organizations, like the Eagle project or SEAL Team Six, realize
that culture, soul, and spirit are the wellspring of high performance. The U.S. Air Force, in
the aftermath of the Vietnam War, embarked on a vigorous effort to reaffirm traditions and
rebuild its culture. The air warfare arm of the U.S. military added “Cohesion is a principle of
war” to its list of core values. Project Warrior brought heroes—living and dead—forward as
visible examples of the right stuff. The Air Force also instituted a “reblueing” ceremony to
encourage recommitment to its traditions and values.
Other organizations have taken similar steps. In 2006 Starbucks’s performance had
begun to slide, then dip. By 2007, the company’s stock price had fallen by 42 percent. In
February, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz sent a confidential memo to top executives
linking the downturn to slippage in the firm’s culture: “Over the past 10 years, in order to
achieve the growth, development and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to
13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have
led to the watering down of the Starbucks Experience, and what some might call the
commoditization of our brand” (Schultz and Gordon, 2011, p. 23).
The “confidential” memo became public, and bedlam reigned at Starbucks. Schultz
resumed his former role as CEO and took immediate steps to breathe new spirit into the
company’s once vibrant way of life:
• A brainstorming meeting of company leaders to ponder the question: What is the soul of
• A ritual closing of 7,100 Starbucks outlets nationwide for an evening to refresh baristas in
the texture and magic of a perfect espresso
• A meeting of top executives and managers to review, refine, revive, and recommit
themselves to the company’s values
• A large meeting of shareholders featuring, with dramatic panache, new products, a
frequent customer reward program, and a new espresso machine
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• A meeting in New Orleans of almost 10,000 Starbucks managers—a gigantic celebration
with themes of “Onward” and “Believe”; a recommitment to the company’s cultural
history, values, and ways; and, to seal the deal, a rousing speech from Bono
The Air Force and Starbucks confirm that too much emphasis on sorties flown or
quarterly numbers can divert attention from sustaining and revitalizing culture. That, in
turn, can jeopardize the outcomes an organization or team is trying to maximize. Team Six,
Starbucks, Zappos, and other successful companies and teams understand and live this
lesson. When asked, “How much of your time do you spend dealing with cultural issues?” a
wise executive said, “Not enough—maybe half my time.”
Symbolic perspectives question the traditional view that building a team mainly entails
putting the right people in the right structure. The essence of high performance is spirit. If
we were to banish play, ritual, ceremony, and myth from the workplace, we would destroy
teamwork, not enhance it. There are many signs that contemporary organizations are at a
critical juncture because of a crisis of meaning and faith. Managers wonder how to build
team spirit when turnover is high, resources are tight, and people worry about losing their
jobs. Such questions are important, but by themselves, they limit imagination and divert
attention from deeper issues of faith and purpose. Managers are inescapably accountable for
budget and bottom line; they have to respond to individual needs, legal requirements, and
economic pressures. Leaders serve a deeper and more durable function if they recognize that
team building at its heart is a spiritual undertaking. It is both a search for the spirit within
and creation of a community of believers united by shared faith and shared culture. Burton
Clark calls this an organization’s saga, a story “between the coolness of rational purpose and
the warmth of sentiment found in religion or magic . . . it includes affect that turns a formal
place into a beloved institution” (Baldridge and Deal, 1975, p. 98). Peak performance
emerges as a team discovers its soul.
1. Unless otherwise attributed, page number citations in this chapter are to Kidder’s book. From
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Copyright  1981 by John Tracy Kidder. Reprinted
by permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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c h a p t e r
Organization as Theater
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women
merely players.
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It
More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare captured an enduring truth wesometimes neglect in our love affair with facts and logic. Much of
human behavior aims at getting things accomplished. The assumption of
linear causality works sometimes when outcomes are tangible and a link
between means and ends is clear. A factory, we surmise, rises or falls on what
it produces. But the logic falters when outcomes are less tangible and the
connection between actions and outcomes is more elusive.
Think about a church or temple. Shall we rely on income statements and congregation
size to gauge success? How do we capture the value of souls saved and lives enriched? Such
elusive variables are hard to quantify, but focusing on what we can measure rather than what
we care about is a formula for disappointment and failure. In theater, what appears on stage
is draped in perception. The same is true of organizations. We judge them by how they
appear and how well they follow the script we expect. Shared faith and liturgy tie believers
together and bestow legitimacy. As in theater, performance, faith, and devotion matter more
than data and logic.
This is illustrated in a story and its accompanying drama that are central to the faith of
Ethiopian Christians. The existence and location of the Ark of the Covenant is one of
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC14 05/26/2017 2:23:50 Page 280
history’s greatest mysteries . . . but not to Ethiopians. They know that the Ark is now
enshrined in a modest Chapel surrounded by a small courtyard in Azum. The Ark is
overseen by a High Priest who, it is alleged, chooses his successor on his deathbed. Very few
Ethiopians have seen the Ark’s caretaker. No one, including religious leaders and the
president of Ethiopia, has ever laid eyes on the Ark, though they have seen models because
every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has one (Raffaele, 2007).
A reporter once approached the chapel and was able to talk briefly to the guardian. He
said, “I have heard of the Ethiopian tradition that the Ark of the Covenant is kept here . . . in
this Chapel. I have also heard that you are the Guardian of the Ark. Are these things true?”
“They are true.”
“But in other countries, nobody believes these stories.”
“People can say what they wish. People can believe what they wish. Nevertheless, we
do possess the Ark of the Covenant and I am its Guardian. It is not a lesson. It is
“But no one has seen the Ark. Don’t people need some proof that it’s really here?”
“I’ve seen the Ark as did my predecessor and will my successor. The story of the Ark has
passed through generations. What other proof do we need? In the very distant past, the Ark
was brought out for religious rituals at Tikrit. But we don’t do that anymore because of the
turmoil and civil war around us. It is much too dangerous to have the Ark exposed.”
“Do people have memories of seeing it before, in more peaceful times?”
“The Ark was always draped. Its brilliance would have blinded onlookers.”
The ongoing drama surrounding the Ark creates its own kind of proof. Belief suffices;
facts are irrelevant. Any attempt to challenge the truth of the historical interpretation is
thwarted by a dramatic explanation that reinforces the prevailing account.
Even in technical environments, a dramaturgical view of situations offers enlighten­
ment. The story of the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile system is a classic example of the role
show business can play. One of its outstanding attributes was reliance on modern
management techniques such as PERT (Program Evaluation Review Techniques) and
PPBS (Program Planning and Budgeting Systems)—both better known by their acronyms
than by their names. Specialist roles, technical divisions, management meetings, and the
Special Projects Office embodied the methods.
In the wake of the project’s success—on time and under budget—analysts credited the
project’s innovative management approach. The admiral in charge received recognition for
his leadership in bringing modern management techniques to the U.S. Navy. A team of
British experts visiting the project were impressed and, upon returning home, highly
recommended PERT and PPBS to their Admiralty.
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A later study by Sapolsky (1972) revealed a very different explanation for the
project’s accomplishments. Management innovations were highly visible but only
marginally connected to the actual work. Specialists’ activities linked loosely to other
elements of the project. Plans and charts produced by the technical division received
scant attention. Management meetings served as public arenas to chide poor performers
and to stoke the project’s religious fervor. The Special Projects Office served as an official
briefing area. Visiting dignitaries were regaled with impressive diagrams and charts
almost entirely unrelated to the project’s progress. The team from the British Navy
apparently surmised all this and still recommended a similar approach back home
(Sapolsky, 1972).
Instead of serving intended rational purposes, modern management techniques con­
tributed to a saga that built external legitimacy and support and kept critics and legislators at
bay. The myth afforded breathing space for work to go forward and elevated participants’
spirits and self-confidence. The Polaris story demonstrates the virtues of drama in engaging
the attention and appreciation of both internal and external audiences: “An alchemist’s
combination of whirling computers, bright-colored charts, and fast-talking public relations
officers gave the Special Projects Office a truly effective management system. It mattered not
whether the parts of the system functioned, or even existed. It mattered only that certain
people, for a certain period of time, believed that they did” (Sapolsky, 1972, p. 129).
Of course, not all theater has a happy conclusion. The drama in theater or on television
features tragedy as well as triumph. U2’s music video “The Saints Are Coming” demon­
strates the power of drama in driving home the meaning of an experience. The video, which
focuses on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, opens with scenes of the storm’s traumatic
aftermath: New Orleans under water, survivors trapped on roofs pleading for help, the
horror of conditions at the Superdome, widespread devastation. The song lyrics plaintively
call for the next act: When will aid arrive?
CNN news flashes appeared periodically on the screen below images of the ravaged city:
“U.S. Iraq Troops Redeployed to New Orleans,” “U.S. Troops Come Home to Help Katrina
Victims,” “Air Force Launches Aid Drops.” With the melancholic lyrics as musical
background, the video shows swarms of Black Hawk helicopters arriving to pluck victims
from roofs, and larger helicopters and Harrier fighters dropping food and medical supplies.
The video fades and a large sign appears: “Not as seen on TV.”
The U2 video packs a wallop for several reasons: Bono himself is a heroic symbol on the
world stage. The opening acts reveal the pathos all Americans observed initially. The “troops
to the rescue” imagery conveys what everyone wanted to believe; the final scene transports
us back to the reality viewers actually saw firsthand on their television sets.
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During previous hurricanes, drama played quite differently. The Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) came onstage as a heroic rescuer. The script was clear. A
hurricane hits, bringing devastation and suffering. FEMA arrives with symbolic fanfare to
dispense aid and hope to victims. A world audience applauds the performance. FEMA takes
a bow. In New Orleans, the drama went off track. The hero missed most of the show. The
audience waited for an actor who arrived too late and then muffed his lines. The world saw a
once-heroic agency become a bumbling performer in a bad play.
The juxtaposed theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy capture the different dramas
played out by Polaris and FEMA. Polaris staged a drama that wowed its audience and
became a smash hit. FEMA blew its act. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 gave FEMA an
opportunity for a comeback with a new director, a new cast, and a revised script from
a skilled playwright. This time the performance received an ovation from the audience,
including the governor of New Jersey and the mayor of New York City.
Theater arouses emotions and kindles our spirit or reveals our fears. It reduces
bewilderment and soothes open wounds. It provides a shared basis for understanding
the present and imagining a more promising tomorrow. Dramaturgical and institutional
theorists have explored the role of theater in organizations, and we begin this chapter by
discussing their views. We then look at structure and other organizational processes as
Institutional theory, a fairly recent addition to the management literature, draws on ideas
from earlier dramaturgical theories. We can identify two traditions (Boje, Luhman, and
Cunliffe, 2003): one represented by the work of Erving Goffman (1959, 1974), who
pioneered in the use of theater as a metaphor for understanding organizations, and the
other by the work of Kenneth Burke (1937, 1945, 1972), who drew his inspiration from
philosophy and literary criticism. Goffman approached organizations as if they were
theatrical; Burke saw them as theater. Despite their differences, both theorists opened a
window for seeing organizations in a new way: “Most of our organizational life is carefully
scripted; we play out our scenes in organizationally approved dress codes and play the game
by acceptable roles of conduct” (Boje, Luhman, and Cunliffe, 2003, p. 4).
Whereas dramaturgical theorists focus on social interaction among individuals and on
internal situations, institutional scholars extend theatrical examples like Polaris and FEMA to
the interface between organizations and their various publics. Scott (2014) sees the institu­
tional view encompassing three schools of thought, each embedded in different literatures.
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The first views institutions as providing the rules of the game in which organizations are the
players (North, 1989). A second view holds that “individual organizations devise distinctive
characteristics over time, developing commitments that channel and constrain future
behavior in the service of their basic values (Williamson 1985; Selznick, 1957).
The third view argues that structure in institutional organizations reflects prevailing
social myths and ideas in good currency about what constitutes a good organization.
Contemporary organizations gain legitimacy through isomorphism—reflecting current
thinking about modern management technology. Accordingly, technical organizations
plan in order to change, whereas institutionalized organizations plan instead of changing.
“Plans are regarded as ends in themselves—as evidence that we are a humane and scientific
people who have brought yet another problem under rational control” (Meyer and Rowan,
1983, p. 126).
DiMaggio and Powell agree that in some contexts organizations worry more about how
innovations appear than what they add to effectiveness: “New practices become infused
with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand . . . As an innovation
spreads, a threshold is reached beyond which adoption provides legitimacy rather than
improves performance” (1983, p. 142). Staw and Epstein (2000) present evidence that
adoption of modern management techniques accentuates a company’s legitimacy and
increases CEO compensation—even if the methods are not fully put into action. Perform­
ance may not improve, but perceptions of innovativeness and confidence in management
still rise.
Institutional theory has been criticized for focusing more on why organizations don’t
change than how they do and for attending to why organizations are irrational instead of
how they might become more effective (see Peters, 2000; Scott and Davis, 2007). But the
ideas provide a counterweight to traditional views of organizations as closed, rational
systems (Meyer, 2008). In such views, functional demands shape social architecture. The
environment serves as a source of raw materials and a market for finished products.
Efficiency, internal control of the means of production, and economic performance are key
concerns. Exterior fluctuations and production uncertainties are buffered by rational
devices such as forecasting, stockpiling, leveling peaks and valleys of supply and demand,
and growth (so as to get more leverage over the environment).
Institutional theorists present a dramaturgical retake on rational imagery. Organizations,
particularly those with vague goals and weak technologies, cannot seal themselves off from
external events and pressures. They are constantly buffeted by larger social, political, and
economic trends. The challenge is sustaining isomorphism—that is, schools need to look
like schools “ought to” and churches need to look like churches “should” in order to project
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legitimacy and engender belief, support, faith, and hope among a variety of constituents.
Structure and processes must reflect widely held myths and expectations. When production
and results are hard to measure, correct appearance and dramatic presentation become the
principal gauge of an organization’s effectiveness.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies
Hit Number 1: Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited:
Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,”
American Sociological Review, April 1983, 48, 147–160
At the top of our list of greatest hits is an article by Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell that
parallels our view of organization as theater. Isomorphism, as DiMaggio and Powell use the word,
refers to processes that cause organizations to become more like other organizations, particularly
members of the same “organizational field.” The authors define an organizational field as a set
of organizations that “constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource
and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar
services or products” (p. 148). This is similar to the concept of an organizational ecosystem,
discussed in Chapter 11. As an example, think about public schools. They are like each other but
unlike most other kinds of organization. They have similar buildings, classrooms, curricula,
staffing patterns, gyms, and parent-teacher organizations. The structural frame explains these
similarities as resulting from the need to align structure with goals, task, and technology.
DiMaggio and Powell counter that isomorphism occurs for reasons unrelated to efficiency or
They describe three kinds of isomorphism: coercive, mimetic, and normative. Coercive
isomorphism occurs when organizations become more similar in response to outside pressures or
requirements. For example, MBA programs tend to have similar admission requirements,
curricula, and faculty credentials because so many of them are accredited by the same body using
the same standards. Mimetic isomorphism occurs when one organization simply copies another,
as when a university of modest reputation adopts a set of freshman requirements borrowed from
those at Harvard or Yale. To DiMaggio and Powell, imitation is particularly likely in the presence
of fuzzy goals and uncertain technology. When uncertainty makes it hard to prove one approach
better than another, imitation saves time and may buy legitimacy.
Normative isomorphism, the third type, occurs because professionals (such as lawyers,
doctors, engineers, and teachers) bring shared ideas, values, and norms from their training to the
workplace. DiMaggio and Powell argue that professionally trained individuals are becoming more
numerous and predominant. Managers with MBAs from accredited business schools carry shared
values, beliefs, and practices wherever they go. New ideas from business schools may or may not
produce better results, but they spread rapidly because the newly minted professionals believe in
The primary benefit of isomorphism is to improve an organization’s image rather than its
products and services: “Each of the institutional isomorphic processes can be expected to
proceed in the absence of evidence that they increase internal organizational efficiency. To the
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extent that organizational effectiveness is enhanced, the reason will often be that organizations
are rewarded for being similar to other organizations in their fields. This similarity can make it
easier for organizations to transact with other organizations, to attract career-minded staff, to
be acknowledged as legitimate and reputable, and to fit into administrative categories that
define eligibility for public and private grants and contracts” (p. 153).
The idea that appearance can be more important than tangible outcomes may seem
heretical. Such heresy can easily lead to cynicism, undercutting confidence in organizations
and undermining faith and morale for those struggling to make a difference. Skepticism is
also spawned by rationalists who champion a tidy cause-and-effect world where concrete
outcomes matter most.
The symbolic frame offers a more hopeful interpretation. Institutionalized structures,
activities, and events become expressive components of organizational theater. They create
ongoing drama that entertains, creates meaning, and portrays the organization to itself and
outsiders. They undergird life’s meaning. Geertz observed this phenomenon in Balinese
pageants, where “the carefully crafted and scripted, assiduously enacted ritualism of court
culture was . . . ‘not merely the drapery of political order but its substance’” (Mangham and
Overington, 1987, p. 39).
Recall that the structural frame depicts a workplace as a formalized network of inter­
dependent roles and units coordinated through a variety of horizontal and vertical linkages.
Structural patterns align with purpose and are determined by goals, technologies, and
environment (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967; Perrow, 1979; Woodward, 1970). In contrast, a
symbolic view approaches structure as stage design: an arrangement of space, lighting,
props, and costumes that make the drama vivid and credible to its audience.
One dramaturgical role of structure is reflecting and conveying prevailing social values
and myths. Settings and costumes should be appropriate: a church should have a suitable
building, religious artifacts, and a properly attired member of the clergy. A clinic should
have examination rooms, uniformed nurses, and licensed physicians, with diplomas
prominently featured on the wall. Meyer and Rowan (1978) depict the structure of public
schools as largely symbolic. A school has difficulty sustaining public support unless it offers
fashionable answers to three questions: Does it offer appropriate topics (for example, third-
grade mathematics or world history)? Are topics taught to age-graded students by certified
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teachers? Does it look like a school (with classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, and a flag near
the front door)?
An institution of higher education is judged by the age, size, and beauty of the campus,
the amount of its endowment, its faculty-student ratio, and the number of professors who
received doctorates from prestigious institutions. Kamens (1977) suggests that the major
function of a college or university is to redefine novice students as graduates who possess
special qualities or skills. The value of the status transformation is negotiated with important
constituencies through constant references to the quality and rigor of educational programs.
The significance of the conversion from novice to graduate is validated by structural
characteristics, reputation of faculty, success of former students, or appearance of the
A valid structural configuration, in Kamens’s view, depends on whether an institution is
elite or not and whether it allocates graduates to a specific social or corporate group. Each
type of institution espouses its own myth and dramatizes its own aspects of structure. Ivy
League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are known for producing graduates
who occupy elite roles in society. Elite schools dramatize selectivity, maintain an attractive
residential campus, advertise a favorable ratio of faculty to students, and develop a core
curriculum that restrains specialization in favor of a unified core of knowledge.
If an institution or its environment changes, theatrical refurbishing is needed. Audiences
call for revisions in actors, scripts, or settings. Because legitimacy and worth are anchored in
the match between structural characteristics and prevailing myths, organizations alter
appearances to mirror changes in social expectations. For example, if total quality
management, reengineering, or Six Sigma becomes the fashionable addition to the screen­
play for progressive companies, corresponding programs and consultants spread like fire in
a parched forest.
New structures reflect legal and social expectations and represent a bid for legitimacy and
support from the attending audience. An organization without an affirmative action
program, for example, is suspiciously out of step with prevailing concerns for diversity
and equity. Nonconformity invites questions, criticism, and inspection. It is easier to
appoint a diversity officer than to change hiring practices deeply embedded in both
individual and institutional beliefs and practices. Because the presence of a diversity officer
is more visible than revisions in hiring priorities, the addition of a new role may signal to
external constituencies that there has been a new development in the drama even if the
appointment is “window dressing” and no real change has occurred.
In this light, government agencies serve mostly political and symbolic functions:
“Congress passes on to these agencies a type of symbolic control; they represent our belief
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in the virtues of planning and the value of an integrated program of action. But the agencies
are given no formal authority over the organizations whose services they are to control and
few funds to use as incentives to stimulate the cooperation of these existing organizations”
(Scott, 1983, p. 126).
In practice, agencies reduce tension and uncertainty and increase the public’s sense of
confidence and security. Only in a crisis—as when people or pets die from eating
contaminated food—do people ask why regulators failed to do their job. Theatrically,
agencies enact their roles to create a drama showing that violators will be identified and
punished and flaws will be remedied so that the problems never recur.
Rationally, procedures produce results. Administrative protocols coordinate work. Tech­
nology improves efficiency. Lectures impart information, knowledge, and wisdom. Medical
care cures illness. Social workers manage cases and write reports to, occasionally, identify
and remedy social ills.
People in organizations spend much of their time engaged in such endeavors. To justify their
toil, they want to believe that their efforts produce the intended outcomes. Even if the best
a vital theatrical role. They serve as scripts and stage markings for self-expressive opportunities,
illustrate how these figurative forms alter the context of meetings, planning, performance
appraisals, collective bargaining, the exercise of power, and symbolic management.
March and Olsen (1976) were ahead of their time in depicting meetings as improvisational
“garbage cans.” In this imagery, meetings are magnets attracting individuals looking for
something to do, problems seeking answers, and people bringing solutions in search of
problems. The results of a meeting depend on a serendipitous interplay among items that
show up: Who came to the meeting? What problems, concerns, or needs were on their
minds? What solutions or suggestions did they bring?
Garbage-can scripts are likely to play out in meetings dealing with emotionally charged,
symbolically significant, or technically fuzzy issues. The topic of mission, for example,
attracts a more sizable collection of people, problems, and solutions than the topic of cost
accounting. Meetings may not always produce rational discourse, sound plans, or mean­
ingful improvements. But they serve as expressive occasions to clear the air and promote
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collective bonding. Some players get opportunities to practice and polish their lines in the
drama. Others revel in the chance to add excitement to work. Audiences feel reassured that
issues are getting attention and better times may lie ahead. But problems and solutions
characteristically linger on, detached from one another.
An organization without a plan is in peril of being seen as reactive, shortsighted, and
rudderless. Planning, then, is an essential ceremony that organizations stage periodically to
maintain legitimacy. A plan is a decoration displayed conspicuously and with pride. A
strategic plan carries even higher status. A new leader in a school, college, or public agency
almost invariably initiates a strategic planning process shortly after arrival. Mintzberg’s
insightful book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (1994) presents an array of survey
and anecdotal evidence questioning the link between strategic planning and its stated
objectives. He shows that the presumed linear progression from analysis to objectives to
action to results is more fanciful than factual. Many executives recognize the shortcomings
of strategic planning yet continue to champion the process: “Recently I asked three
corporate executives what decisions they had made in the last year that they would not
have made were it not for their corporate plans. All had difficulty identifying one such
decision. Since each of their plans [was] marked ‘secret’ or ‘confidential,’ I asked them how
their competitors might benefit from the possession of their plans. Each answered with
embarrassment that their competitors would not benefit. Yet these executives were strong
advocates of corporate planning” (Russell Ackoff, quoted in Mintzberg, 1994, p. 98).
Planning persists because it plays an eminent role in an organization’s enduring drama.
Quinn notes: “A good deal of the corporate planning I have observed is like a ritual rain
dance; it has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does.
Moreover, it seems to me that much of the advice and instruction related to corporate
planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather” (quoted in Mintzberg, 1994,
p. 139).
Discussing universities, Cohen and March (1974) list four symbolic roles that plans play:
• Plans are symbols. Academic organizations have few real pieces of objective evidence to
evaluate performance. They have nothing comparable to profit or sales figures. How are
we doing? No one really knows. Planning is a signal that all is well or improvement is just
around the corner. A school or university undergoing an accreditation review engages in
a “self-study” and lays out an ambitious strategic plan, which can then gather a decade of
dust until it is time to repeat the process.
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• Plans become games. Especially where goals and technology are unclear, planning
becomes a test of will. A department that wants a new program badly must justify
the expenditure by substantial planning efforts. An administrator who wishes to avoid
saying yes but has no real basis for saying no can test commitment by asking for a plan.
Benefits lie more in the process than the result.
• Plans become excuses for interaction. Developing a plan forces discussion and may
increase interest in and commitment to new priorities. Occasionally, interaction yields
positive results. But rarely does it yield an accurate forecast. Conclusions about what will
happen next year are notoriously susceptible to alteration as people, politics, policies, or
preferences change, but discussions of the future seldom modify views of what should be
done differently today.
• Plans become advertisements. What is frequently labeled as a plan is more like an
investment brochure. It is an attempt to persuade private and public donors of an
institution’s attractiveness. Plans are typically adorned with glossy photographs of
beautiful people in pristine settings, official pronouncements of excellence, and a
noticeable dearth of specifics.
Cohen and March (1974) asked college presidents their views of the linkage between
plans and decisions. Responses fell into four main categories:
“Yes, we have a plan. It is used in capital project and physical location decisions.”
“Yes, we have a plan. Here it is. It was made during the administration of
our last president. We are working on a new one.”
“No, we do not have a plan. We should. We’re working on one.”
“I think there’s a plan around here someplace. Miss Jones, do we have a
copy of our comprehensive, ten-year plan?” (p. 113).
Assessing the performance of individuals, departments, or programs is a major undertaking.
Organizations devote considerable time, energy, and resources to appraising individuals,
even though many doubt that the procedures connect closely with improvements, and
Culbert (2010) insists that they do more harm than good. Organization-wide reviews yield
lengthy reports presented with fitting pomp and ceremony. Universities convene visiting
committees or accrediting teams to evaluate schools or departments. Government requires
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routine assessment of program efficacy. Social service agencies commission studies or audits
whenever an important problem or issue arises.
Occasionally, actions follow insights or recommendations. Sometimes suggestions yield
tangible improvements. At other times they trigger changes that are primarily symbolic.
Most higher education accreditors, for example, insist on currently fashionable “assurance
of learning” processes, which in practice typically assure additional paperwork more than
enhanced learning. Often, results disappear into the recesses of people’s minds or the far
reaches of administrators’ files. But evaluation still plays a decisive role in helping
organizations foster faith, belief, and confidence among constituents.
Evaluation as drama assures spectators that an organization is responsible, serious, and
well managed. It shows that an organization takes goals seriously and cares about
performance and improvement. The evaluation process gives participants an opportunity
to share opinions and have them recognized publicly. It helps people relabel old practices,
escape normal routine, and build new beliefs (Rallis, 1980). Although the impact on
decisions or behavior may be marginal, methodical evaluation and its magic numbers serves
as a potent weapon in political battles or as a compelling justification for a decision already
made (Weiss, 1980).
In public organizations, Floden and Weiner argue, “Evaluation is a ritual whose function
is to calm the anxieties of the citizenry and to perpetuate an image of government
rationality, efficiency, and accountability. The very act of requiring and commissioning
evaluations may create the impression that government is seriously committed to the
pursuit of publicly espoused goals, such as increasing student achievement or reducing
malnutrition. Evaluations lend credence to this image even when programs are created to
appease interest groups” (1978, p. 17).
Collective Bargaining
In collective bargaining, labor and management negotiate to forge divisive standoffs into
workable agreements. The process typically pits two sets of interests against each other:
Unions want better wages, benefits, and working conditions for members; management
aims to keep costs down and maximize profits for shareholders. Negotiating teams follow a
familiar script: “Negotiators have to act like opponents, representatives and experts,
showing that they are aligned with teammates and constituents, willing to push hard to
achieve constituent goals, and constantly in control. On the public stage, anger and
opposition dominate; rituals of opposition, representation, and control produce a drama
of conflict. At the same time, there are mechanisms for private understanding between
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opposing lead bargainers, such as signaling and sidebar discussions” (Friedman, 1994, pp.
On the surface, the negotiation process appears as a strife-ridden political brawl where
persistence and power determine the distribution of scarce resources. On a deeper level,
negotiation is a carefully crafted pugilistic performance that delivers the show various
audiences demand. Going off script carries high risk: “A young executive took the helm of a
firm with the intention of eliminating bickering and conflict between management and
labor. He commissioned a study of the company’s wage structure and went to the bargaining
table to present his offer. He informed the union representatives what he had done and
offered them more than they had expected to get. The astonished union leaders berated the
executive for undermining the process of collective bargaining and asked for another five
cents an hour beyond his offer” (Blum, 1961, pp. 63–64).
Similar problems have been documented by Friedman in his studies of mutual-gains
bargaining (which emphasizes cooperation and a win-win outcome rather than conflict). A
disillusioned participant in an abortive mutual gains process lamented: “It hurt us. We got
real chummy. Everyone talked. Then in the final hours, it was the same old shit. Maybe we
should have been pounding on the table” (Friedman, 1994, p. 216).
In theater, actors who deviate from the script disrupt everyone else’s ability to deliver
their lines. The bargaining drama is designed to convince each side that the outcomes were
the result of a heroic battle—often underscored by desperate, all-night, after-the-deadline
rituals of combat that produce a deal just when hope seems lost. If well performed, the
drama conveys the message that two determined opponents fought hard and persistently for
what they believed was right (Blum, 1961; Friedman, 1994). It obscures the reality that
actors typically know in advance how the play will end.
A perennial example in U.S. politics is periodic budget stand-offs between the White
House and Congress. One came in late 2012, as the United States confronted a “fiscal cliff.”
Without congressional action by December 31, the country faced a set of spending cuts and
tax increases that spelled economic turmoil. President Obama, who had just been re-elected
in November, and a Republican Congress were at loggerheads. A final compromise failed to
pass before Congress adjourned for the holidays. Technically, the U.S. went over the cliff at
12:01 AM on January 1. But then at 2 AM the Senate passed the compromise bill, and the
House followed suit later in the day. It was a stopgap measure that postponed all the key
The real drama was a play within a play, a struggle for power between two divided
parties. It ended as many expected. No agreement reached. No catastrophe. Both sides
fought hard. Republicans in the House demonstrated that they were a powerful force.
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Obama reminded everyone that he was still the president. But to the American public the
Washington drama portrayed government as a Keystone Cops comedy.
Power is typically viewed as a commodity that individuals or systems possess—something
that can be seized, exercised, contested, or redistributed. But power is inherently ambiguous
and slippery. It is rarely easy to determine what power is, who has it, or how to get it.
Sometimes it is even harder to know when someone actually wields power. You are powerful
if others think you are.
Certain performances are widely believed to portray power. People often attribute power
to those who talk a lot, belong to committees, and seem close to the action. Yet there may be
little relationship between such actions and their impact. The relationship between actions
and real clout may even be negative; the frustrated may talk a lot, and the disgruntled may
resort to futile political intrigue or posturing (Enderud, 1976).
People also attribute power to individuals or groups in an effort to account for observed
outcomes. If the unemployment or crime rates drop, political incumbents take credit. If a
firm’s profits jump, we credit the influence and power of the chief executive. If a program
launches just as things are getting better, its advocates inherit success. Myths of leadership
attribute causality to individuals in high places. Whether things are going well orbadly, we like
to hold someone responsible. Cohen and March have this to say about college presidents:
Presidents negotiate with their audiences on the interpretations of their power.
As a result, during . . . years of campus troubles, many college presidents
sought to emphasize the limitations of presidential control. During the more
glorious days of conspicuous success, they solicited a recognition of their
responsibility for events. This is likely to lead to popular impressions of strong
presidents during good times and weak presidents during bad times. Persons
who are primarily exposed to the symbolic presidency (for example, outsiders)
will tend to exaggerate the power of the presidency. Those people who have
tried to accomplish something in the institution with presidential support (for
example, educational reforms) will tend to underestimate presidential power or
presidential will (1974, pp. 198–199).
As Edelman puts it: “Leaders lead, followers follow, and organizations prosper. While
this logic is pervasive, it can be misleading. Serendipitously marching one step ahead of a
crowd moving in a specific direction may suggest a spurious connection between leadership
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and followership. Successful leadership is having followers who believe in the power of
the leader. By believing, people are encouraged to link positive events with leadership
behaviors” (1977, p. 73).
Though reassuring, the assumption that powerful leaders make a difference is often
misleading. Cohen and March compare the command and control of college presidents to
that of the driver of a skidding automobile: “The marginal judgments he makes, his skill, and
his luck will probably make some difference to the life prospects of his riders. As a result, his
responsibilities are heavy. But whether he is convicted of manslaughter or receives a medal
for heroism is largely outside his control” (1974, p. 203).
As with other processes, a leader’s power is less a matter of action than of appearance.
When a leader does make a difference, it is mostly by enriching and updating the drama—
constructing new myths that alter beliefs and generate faith.
Managing Impressions
Peter Vaill (1989) characterized management as a performing art. This rings especially true
for those trying to launch a business. One of the chief challenges confronting entrepreneurs
is acquiring the resources needed to get embryonic ideas to the marketplace. This requires
convincing investors of the future worth of an idea or product. Entrepreneurs typically
concentrate on developing a persuasive business plan that projects a rosy financial future,
coupled with an impressive PowerPoint presentation full of information about the new
idea’s potential.
Zott and Huy’s two-year field study suggests that symbols may be more powerful than
numbers in determining who gets funded (2007). They compared entrepreneurs who garnered a
lion’s share of resources with others who did not fare as well. Their results depict “the
entrepreneur as an active shaper of perceptions and a potentially skilled user of cultural tool
kits . . . Byenactingsymbolseffectively entrepreneurscanshapeacompelling symbolicuniverse
that complements the initially weak and uncertain quality of their ventures” (pp. 100–101).
Resources flowed to entrepreneurs who presented themselves, their companies, and their
products with dramatic flair rather than relying solely on technical promise and financial
analyses. The winners knew their audience, capitalized on credentials and business
associations, wore appropriate costumes to blend with clients and investors, spotlighted
the symbolic value of their products, stressed the cultural vigor of their enterprises, called
attention to unique processes, highlighted personal commitment, pointed to short-term
achievements, and told good stories.
Fundraisers often say that giving is a matter of heart more than head. By invoking
meaningful symbols, successful entrepreneurs were able to loosen the purse strings of
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investors. They skillfully managed impressions through carefully crafted theatrical
From an institutional perspective, organizations are judged as much on appearance as on
outcomes. The right drama gives audiences the performance they expect. The production
reassures, fosters belief in the organization’s purposes, and cultivates hope and faith.
Structures that do little to coordinate activity and protocols that rarely achieve their
intended outcomes still play a significant symbolic role. They provide internal glue. They
help participants cope, believe, find meaning, and play their roles without reading the wrong
lines, upstaging the lead actors, or confusing tragedy with comedy. To outside audiences,
they provide a basis for confidence and support.
Dramaturgical concepts sharply redefine organizational dynamics. Historically, theories
of management and organization have focused on instrumental issues. We see problems, try
to solve them, and then ask, “What did we accomplish?” Often, the answer is “nothing” or
“not much.” We find ourselves repeating the old saw that the more things change, the more
they remain the same. Such a message can be disheartening and disillusioning. It often
produces a sense of helplessness and a belief that things will never get much better.
In Hope Dies Last, Studs Terkel says it well: “In all epochs, there were first doubts and the
fear of stepping forth and speaking out, but the attribute that spurred the warriors on was
hope. And the act. Seldom was there a despair or a sense of hopelessness. Some of those on
the sidelines, the spectators, feeling hopeless and impotent, had by the very nature of the
passionate act of others become imbued with hope themselves” (2004, p. xviii). Theatrical
imagery offers a hopeful note. For a variety of reasons, we may be restless, frustrated, lost, or
searching to renew our faith and beliefs. We commission a new play called Change. At the
end of the pageant, we can ask: What was expressed? What was recast? And what was
legitimized? A good play assures us that each day is potentially more exciting and full of
meaning than the last. If things go badly, buff up the symbols, revise the drama, develop new
myths—or dance to another tune.
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Improving Leadership
A messy, turbulent world rarely presents bounded, well-defined problems, and decoding
complex situations is not a single-frame activity. In this part of the book, we focus on
combining lenses to achieve multiframe approaches to managing and leading.
In Chapter 15, we contrast a stereotype of crisp, orderly rationality with the more frantic,
reactive reality of managerial life. We show how routine activities and processes such as
strategic planning, decision making, and conflict take on different meanings depending on
how they are viewed. We provide an example to illustrate the cacophony that arises when
parties are seeing different realities. Finally, we look at studies of effective organizations and
senior managers to examine how research aligns with our framework.
In Chapter 16, we examine a case of a middle manager who encounters an unexpected
crisis on the first day in a new job. We show how each lens spawns both helpful and
unproductive scenarios in a situation where the stakes and risks are high.
We turn to a discussion of leadership in Chapter 17. We begin by examining the 2016
U.S. presidential election to examine the interaction between leader and circumstances. We
explore the concept of leadership and tour 100 years of leadership research. We review
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

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issues of culture and gender in leadership. Then we illustrate each frame’s image of leaders
and leadership.
Chapter 18 takes us to a perennial challenge: creating change. We examine predictable
barriers identified in each frame and point out different remedies. We then integrate the
frames with a stage model of change. The two in combination provide a powerful map.
Ethics and spirit take center stage in Chapter 19. We begin with a look at cases of dubious
ethics at Siemens and Walmart. We discuss four criteria for ethical behavior: authorship,
love, justice, and significance.
Chapter 20 presents an integrative case in which we zoom in on a new principal in his
perilous early weeks at a troubled urban high school. We illustrate how the frames in
tandem generate a more comprehensive diagnosis of the issues and offer more promising
options for moving ahead.
Finally, in the Epilogue, we summarize the basic messages of the book and lay out
implications for the development of future leaders.
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c h a p t e r
Integrating Frames for
Effective Practice
The world is but canvas to our imaginations.
—Henry David Thoreau
Can a natural disaster determine a presidential election?
Crises are an acid test of leadership. In the heat of the moment, leaders sometimes
hesitate until events pass them by. Other times they jump too quickly, making bad decisions.
Either way, they look weak, foolish, or out of touch. A deft response to crisis bolsters a
leader’s credibility. When Superstorm Sandy roared out of the Atlantic Ocean a week before
the U.S. presidential election in 2012, it posed a major test for elected officials up and down
the East Coast but even more for the two men locked in a close contest for the presidency,
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney struggled to find his footing, hampered by the
ambiguity of the challenger’s role and by comments he had made months earlier suggesting
he favored defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the arm of the
U.S. government responsible for coming to the rescue in major natural disasters.
Obama could have stumbled, as his predecessor, President George W. Bush, had during
Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just before Sandy hit, Obama was campaigning in Florida. He
almost got stuck there, which would have painted a picture of a misguided president who
cared more about getting elected than helping storm victims. Instead, he got back to
Washington to do what presidents are supposed to do in such an emergency—convey an
image of being concerned and in charge. Leveraging the advantages of incumbency, he
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC15 05/26/2017 2:38:50 Page 298
ordered relief to the affected areas, coordinated with governors and mayors and travelled to
scenes of destruction to offer comfort and reassurance. He garnered rave reviews from two
prominent Republicans, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey’s
Governor Chris Christie. Christie’s praise was particularly potent—he had given a fiery
speech in support of Romney at the Republican convention and had recently described
Obama as a flailing president who couldn’t find the light switch.
Obama could always give a good speech—otherwise he would never have attained the
presidency in 2008. But many critics and supporters alike saw him as bloodless, remote, and
passive, deficient in the strength and passion needed to cope with the leadership challenges
of the presidency. But in the face of Superstorm Sandy, his sure-footed response captured
elements of every frame. He cut through red tape and bureaucracy to speed help to victims.
He worked the phones to develop personal relationships with key leaders like Bloomberg
and Christie. He visited affected areas, hugged victims, and promised swift and effective
help. He recognized both the political and symbolic benefits of getting off the campaign trail
for several days to focus on the biggest natural disaster to hit the United States since
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Just before Sandy hit, the election polls showed
the race as a virtual tie. A few days later, Obama began to pull away and he easily won
Harmonizing the frames and crafting inventive responses to new circumstances are
essential to both management and leadership. This chapter considers questions about
using the frames in combination. How do you decide how to frame an event? How do
you integrate multiple lenses in responding to the same situation? We begin by revisiting
the turbulent world of managers. We then explore what happens when people diverge in
viewing the same challenge. We offer questions and guidelines to stimulate thinking
about aligning perspectives with specific situations. Finally, we examine literature on
effective managers and organizations to see which modes of thought dominate current
Traditional mythology depicts managers as rational people who plan, organize, coordinate,
and control the activities of subordinates. Periodicals, books, and business schools some­
times paint a pristine image of modern managers: unruffled and well organized, with clean
desks, power suits, and sophisticated information systems. Such “super managers” develop
and implement farsighted strategies, producing predictable and robust results. It is a
reassuring picture of clarity and order. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.
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An entirely different picture appears if you watch managers at work (Carlson, 1951;
Florén and Tell, 2013; Kahneman, 2011; Klein, 1999; Kotter, 1982; Luthans, 1988;
Mintzberg, 1973; Tengblad, 2013). It’s a hectic life, shifting rapidly from one situation
to another. Much of it involves dealing with people and emotions. Decisions emerge from a
fluid, swirling vortex of conversations, meetings, and memos. Information systems ensure
an overload of detail about what happened yesterday or last month. Yet they fail to answer a
far more important question: What next?
McCloskey (1998) maintains that only two important European novels have depicted
managers in a positive light. One is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, published in 1902. The
other is David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988), whose central figure is Victor Wilcox, the manager
of a struggling British factory. The novel opens with Wilcox struggling through a sleepless
night that provides an all-too-realistic glimpse of managerial life:
Worries streak towards him like an enemy spaceship in [a video game]. He
flinches, dodges, zaps them with instant solutions, but the assault is endless:
the Avco account, the Rawlinson account, the price of pig-iron, the value of the
pound, the competition from Foundrax, the incompetence of his Marketing
Director, the persistent breakdowns of the core blowers, the vandalizing of the
toilets in the fettling shop, the pressure from his divisional boss, the last month’s
account, the quarterly forecast, the annual review (Lodge, 1988, p. 3).
The work of managers, Tengblad (2013) concludes, is more akin to juggling hot potatoes
than engaging in analytic contemplation. In deciding what to do next, managers operate
largely on the basis of intuition, drawing on firsthand observations, hunches, and judgment
derived from experience. Too swamped to spend much time thinking, analyzing, or reading,
they get most of their information in meetings, on the Internet, on the fly, or over the phone.
They are hassled priests, modern muddlers, and corporate wheeler-dealers.
Howdoesonereconcile the actualworkofmanagerswiththeheroicimagery?“WheneverI
report this frenetic pattern to groups of executives,” says Harold Leavitt, “regardless of
hierarchical level or nationality, they always respond with a mix of discomfiture and
recognition. Reluctantly, and somewhat sheepishly, they will admit that the description
fits, but they don’t like to be told about it. If they were really good managers, they seem to feel,
they would be in control, their desks would be clean, and their shops would run as smoothly as
a Mercedes engine” (1996, p. 294). Led to believe that they should be rational and on top of
and organize, yet they find themselves muddling and playing catch-up. They want to solve
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mostly an illusion and rationality an elusive dream.
Life in organizations is packed with activities and happenings that can be interpreted in a
number of ways. Exhibit 15.1 examines familiar processes through four lenses. As the chart
shows, any event can be framed in different ways and serve multiple purposes. Planning, for
example, produces specific objectives. But it also creates arenas for airing conflict and
becomes a sacred occasion to renegotiate symbolic meanings.
Exhibit 15.1.
Four Interpretations of Organizational Processes.
Process to set
objectives and
Activities to
build support
Arenas to air
conflicts and
realign power
Ritual to signal
produce symbols,
sequence to
Open process to
Opportunity to
gain or
exercise power
Ritual to confirm
values and provide
opportunities for
Reorganizing Realign roles
and responsi­
bilities to fit
tasks and
Improve balance
between human
needs and
formal roles
power and
form new
Maintain an image
of accountability
and responsiveness;
negotiate a new
social order
Evaluating Way to
rewards or
penalties and
Feedback for
individuals grow
and improve
Opportunity to
exercise power
Occasion to play
roles in shared
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Exhibit 15.1. (continued)
Structural Resource Political Symbolic
Process Frame Frame Frame Frame
Approaching Authorities
conflict maintain
goals by
Goal setting Keep
headed in the
right direction
Communication Transmit
facts and
Meetings Formal
occasions for
Motivation Economic
confront conflict
to develop
and keep people
committed to
needs, and
occasions for
sharing feelings
Growth and self-
Use power to
opponents and
achieve goals
for individuals
and groups to
Influence or
occasions to
win points
and seduction
Use conflict to
negotiate meaning
and develop shared
Develop symbols
and shared values
Tell stories
Sacred occasions to
celebrate and
transform the
Symbols and
Multiple realities produce confusion and conflict as individuals see the same event
through different lenses. A hospital administrator once called a meeting to make an
important decision. The chief technician viewed it as a chance to express feelings and build
relationships. The director of nursing hoped to gain power vis-à-vis physicians. The medical
director saw it as an occasion for reaffirming the hospital’s distinctive approach to medical
care. The meeting became a cacophonous jumble, like a group of musicians each playing
from a different score.
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The confusion that can result when people view the world through different lenses is
illustrated in this classic case:
Doctor Fights Order to Quit Maine Island
Dr. Gregory O’Keefe found himself the focus of a fierce battle between 1,200 year-round
residents of Vinalhaven, Maine (an island fishing community), and the National Health Service
Corps (NHSC), which paid his salary and insisted he take a promotion to an administrator’s desk
in Rockville, Maryland. He didn’t want to go, and his patients felt the same way. The islanders
were so distressed they lobbied Senator William Cohen (R-Maine) to keep him there:
It’s certainly not the prestige or glamour of the job that is holding O’Keefe, who drives the
town’s only ambulance and, as often as twice a week, takes critically ill patients to
mainland hospitals via an emergency ferry run or a Coast Guard cutter, private plane, or
even a lobster boat.
Apparently unyielding in their insistence that O’Keefe accept the promotion or resign,
NHSC officials seemed startled last week by the spate of protests from angry islanders,
which prompted nationwide media attention and inquiries from the Maine congressional
delegation. NHSC says it probably would not replace O’Keefe on the island, which, in the
agency’s view, is now able to support a private medical practice.
Cohen described himself as “frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of lower-level
bureaucrats.” But to the NHSC, O’Keefe is a foot soldier in a military organization of more
than 1,600 physicians assigned to isolated, medically needy communities. And he’s had the
audacity to question the orders of a superior officer.
“It’s like a soldier who wanted to stay at Ft. Myers and jumped on TV and called the
defense secretary a rat for wanting him to move,” Shirley Barth, press officer for the federal
Public Health Service, said in a telephone interview Thursday (Goodman, 1983, p. 1).
The NHSC officials had trouble seeing beyond the structural frame; they had a job to do and
a structure for getting it done. O’Keefe’s resistance was illegitimate. O’Keefe saw the situation in
human resource terms. He felt the work he was doing was meaningful and satisfying, and the
islanders needed him. For Senator Cohen, it was a political issue; could minor bureaucrats be
allowed to harm his constituents through mindless abuse of power? For the hardy residents of
Vinalhaven, O’Keefe was a heroic figure of mythic proportions: “If he gets one night’s sleep out
of 20, he’s lucky, but he’s always up there smiling and working.” The islanders were full of stories
about O’Keefe’s humility, skill, humaneness, dedication, wit, confidence, and caring.
With so many people peering through different filters, confusion, and conflict were
predictable. The inability of NHSC officials to understand and acknowledge the existence of other
perspectives illustrates the risks of clinging to a single view of a situation. Whenever someone’s
actions seem to make no sense, it is worth asking whether you and they are seeing contrasting
realities. You know better what you’re up against when you understand their perspective, even if
you’re sure they’re wrong. Their mind-set—not yours—determines how they act.
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In a given situation, one lens may be more helpful than others. At a strategic crossroads, a
rational process focused on gathering and analyzing information may be exactly what is
needed. At other times, developing commitment or building a power base may be more
critical. In times of great stress, decision processes may become a form of ritual that brings
comfort and support. Choosing a frame to size things up or understanding others’
perspectives involves a combination of analysis, intuition, and artistry. Exhibit 15.2 poses
questions to facilitate analysis and stimulate intuition. It also suggests conditions under
which each way of thinking is most likely to be effective.
• Are commitment and motivation essential to success? The human resource and symbolic
approaches need to be considered whenever issues of individual dedication, energy, and
skill are vital to success. A new curriculum launched by a school district will fail without
teacher support. Support might be strengthened by human resource approaches, such as
participation and self-managing teams or through symbolic approaches linking the
innovation to values and symbols teachers cherish.
Exhibit 15.2.
Choosing a Frame.
Question If Yes: If No:
Are individual commitment and
motivation essential to success?

Is the technical quality of the decision
Human resource
Are there high levels of ambiguity and
Human resource
Are conflict and scarce resources significant?
Human resource
Are you working from the bottom up?
Human resource
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• Is the technical quality important? When a good decision needs to be technically sound,
the structural frame’s emphasis on data and logic is essential. But if a decision must be
acceptable to major constituents, then human resource, political, or symbolic issues loom
larger. Could the technical quality of a decision ever be unimportant? A college found
itself embroiled in a three-month battle over the choice of a commencement speaker. The
faculty pushed for a great scholar, the students for a movie star. The president was more
than willing to invite anyone acceptable to both groups; she saw no technical criterion for
judging that one choice was better than the other.
• Are ambiguity and uncertainty high? If goals are clear, technology well understood, and
behavior reasonably predictable, the structural and human resource approaches are
likely to apply. As ambiguity increases, the political and symbolic perspectives become
more relevant. The political frame expects that the pursuit of self-interest will often
produce confused and chaotic contests that require political intervention. The symbolic
lens sees symbols as a way of finding order, meaning, and “truth” in situations too
complex, uncertain, or mysterious for rational or political analysis.
• Are conflict and scarce resources significant? Human resource logic fits best in situations
favoring collaboration—as in profitable, growing firms or highly unified schools. But
when conflict is high and resources are scarce, dynamics of conflict, power, and self-
interest regularly come to the fore. In situations like a bidding war or an election
campaign, sophisticated political strategies are vital to success. In other cases, skilled
leaders may find that an overarching symbol helps potential adversaries transcend their
differences and work together.
In 1994, after decades of increasing turmoil, the Republic of South Africa finally ended its
system of white rule and held a national election in which the black majority could vote for the
first time. The African National Congress and its leader, Nelson Mandela, came to power with
more than 60 percent of the vote, but it was a sudden and wrenching adjustment for many
South Africans. Historic tensions plagued the new government, and there was a serious threat
of violence and guerilla warfare from armed and dangerous white bitter-enders.
Looking for a way to build unity, Mandela alighted on an unlikely vehicle: rugby.
White South Africans loved the sport and the national team, the Springboks. Black
South Africans hated rugby and routinely cheered for the Springboks’ opponents.
Mandela lobbied to bring the rugby world cup tournament to South Africa, and he
charmed the Springbok captain in order to enlist him as a champion of a united nation.
Mandela then undertook the even harder task of persuading black South Africans to
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support a team they hated. He was initially booed by distressed supporters, but his
credibility, persuasive skills, and a mantra of “one team, one nation” eventually
persuaded most of his followers to get on board. Then something magical happened.
No one expected the Springboks to go very far in the tournament, but they kept winning
until they reached the finals.
Mandela’s coup de grâce, the final submission of white South Africa to his
charms, came minutes before the final itself when the old terrorist-in-chief went
onto the pitch to shake hands with the players dressed in the colors of the
ancient enemy, the green Springbok shirt.
For a moment, Ellis Park Stadium, 95 per cent white on the day, stood in
dumb, disbelieving silence. Then someone took up a cry that others followed,
ending in a thundering roar: “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!”
. . . With Mandela playing as an invisible 16th man, Joel Stransky, the
one Jewish player in the Springbok team, kicked the winning drop goal in extra
Mandela emerged again, still in his green jersey, and, to even louder cries of
“Nel-son! Nel-son!,” walked onto the pitch to shake the hand of [Springbok
captain] François Pienaar.
As he prepared to hand over the cup to his captain, he said: “François, thank
you for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar, with extraordinary
presence of mind, replied: “No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have
done” (Carlin, 2007. Reprinted with permission).
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There wasn’t a dry eye in the country. Everybody
celebrated: one country at last.
• Are you working from the bottom up? Restructuring is an option primarily for those in a
position of authority. Human resource approaches to improvement—such as training,
job enrichment, and participation—usually need support from the top to be successful.
The political frame, in contrast, is more likely to work for changes initiated from below.
Change agents lower in the pecking order rarely can rely on formal clout, so they have to
find other bases of power, such as symbolic acts, to draw attention to their cause and
embarrass opponents. The 9/11 terrorists could have picked from an almost unlimited
array of targets, but the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were deliberately selected
for their symbolic value.
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The questions in Exhibit 15.2 cannot be followed mechanically. They won’t substitute for
judgment and intuition in deciding how to size up or respond to a situation. But they can
guide and augment the process of choosing a promising course of action. Finding a
workable strategy is a matter of playing probabilities. In some cases, your line of thinking
might lead you to a familiar frame. But if the tried-and-true approach seems likely to fall
short, reframe again. You may discover an exciting and creative new lens for deciphering the
situation. Then you can take on the challenge of communicating your breakthrough to
others who still champion the old reality.
Does the ability to use multiple frames actually help managers decipher events and
determine alternative ways to respond? If so, how are the frames embedded and integrated
in everyday situations? We examine several strands of research to answer these questions.
First, we look at four influential guides to organizational excellence: In Search of Excellence
(Peters and Waterman, 1982), Built to Last (Collins and Porras, 1994), Good to Great
(Collins, 2001), and Great by Choice (Collins and Hansen, 2011). We then review three
studies of managerial work: The General Managers (Kotter, 1982), Managing Public Policy
(Lynn, 1987), and Real Managers (Luthans, Yodgetts, and Rosenkrantz, 1988). Finally, we
look at studies of managers’ frame orientations to see whether current thinking is equal to
present-day challenges.
Organizational Excellence
Peters and Waterman’s best-seller In Search of Excellence (1982) explored the question,
“What do high-performing corporations have in common?” Peters and Waterman studied
more than 60 large companies in six major industries: high technology (Digital Equipment
and IBM, for example), consumer products (Kodak, Procter & Gamble), manufacturing
(3M, Caterpillar), service (McDonald’s, Delta Airlines), project management (Boeing,
Bechtel), and natural resources (Exxon, DuPont). The companies were chosen on the
basis of both objective performance indicators (such as long-term growth and profitability)
and the judgment of knowledgeable observers.
Collins and Porras (1994) attempted a similar study of what they termed “visionary”
companies but tried to address two methodological limitations in the Peters and Waterman
study. Collins and Porras included a comparison group (missing in Peters and Waterman)
by matching each of their top performers with another firm in the same industry with a
comparable history. Their pairings included Citibank with Chase Manhattan, General
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Electric with Westinghouse, Sony with Kenwood, Hewlett-Packard with Texas Instruments,
and Merck with Pfizer. Collins and Porras emphasized long-term results by restricting their
study to companies at least 50 years old with evidence of consistent success over many
Built to Last was the first in a series of works that Jim Collins, alone and with colleagues,
has produced that attempt to draw lessons from successful companies. Good to Great
(2001) used a comparative approach similar to that of Collins and Porras but focused on a
different criterion for success: instead of organizations that had excelled for many years, he
identified a group of companies that had made a dramatic breakthrough from middling to
superlative and compared them with similar companies that had remained ordinary. In
Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen focused on seven companies (Amgen, Biomet, Intel,
Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker) that had dramatically
outperformed the stock market and their respective industries over a period of two to three
All of these studies identified roughly seven or eight critical characteristics of excellent
companies, similar in some respects and distinct in others, as Exhibit 15.3 shows. All suggest
that excellent companies manage to embrace paradox. They are loose yet tight, highly
disciplined yet entrepreneurial. Peters and Waterman’s “bias for action” and Collins and
Porras’s “try a lot, keep what works” both point to risk taking and experimenting as ways to
learn and avoid bogging down in analysis paralysis. All four studies emphasize a clear core
identity that helps firms stay on track and be clear about what they will not do.
All of the Collins studies emphasized a nonfinding that ran afoul of conventional
wisdom: They did not find that success was associated with larger-than-life charismatic
leaders. All three books highlighted leaders who were typically homegrown and focused on
building their organization rather than their own reputation. Collins’s “level 5” leaders were
driven but self-effacing, extremely disciplined, and hardworking but consistent in attribut­
ing success to their colleagues rather than themselves.
As Exhibit 15.3 shows, all four studies produced three-frame models of excellence.
Notice that none of the characteristics of excellence are political. Does an effective
organization eliminate politics? Or did the authors miss something? By definition, their
samples focused on companies with a strong record of growth and profitability. Infighting
and backbiting tend to be less visible on a winning team than on a losing one. When
resources are relatively abundant, political dynamics are less prominent because it’s easier to
use slack assets to keep everyone happy. Recall, too, that a strong culture breeds people who
share both values and habits of mind. A unifying culture reduces conflict and political
strife—or at least makes them easier to manage.
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Exhibit 15.3.
Characteristics of Excellent or Visionary Companies.
Peters and Collins and Collins and
Frame Waterman, 1982 Porras, 1994 Collins, 2001 Hansen, 2011
Structural Autonomy and
bias for action;
simple form,
lean staff
Clock building,
not time telling;
try a lot, keep
what works
Confront the
brutal facts;
concept” (best
in the world,
and consistent,”
“flywheel,” not
“doom loop”
“Fire bullets,
then cannon­
Close to the
through people
“Level 5
first who, then
“Level 5
Symbolic Hands-on,
loose and tight;
stick to the
Big hairy
audacious goals;
cultures; good
enough never
is; preserve the
core, stimulate
Never lose
belief or faith;
concept (deeply
culture of
progress; more
than profits
Even in successful companies, it is likely that power and conflict are more important than
these studies suggest. Ask a few managers, “What makes your organization successful?”
They rarely talk about coalitions, conflict, or jockeying for position. Even if it is a prominent
issue, politics is typically kept in the closet—known to insiders but not on public display. But
if we change our focus from effective organizations to effective managers, we find a different
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The Effective Senior Manager
Kotter (1982) conducted an intensive study of 15 corporate general managers (GMs). His
sample included “individuals who hold positions with some multifunctional responsibility for
a business” (p. 2); each managed an organization with at least several hundred employees.
Lynn (1987) analyzed five subcabinet-level executives in the U.S. government—political
appointees with responsibility for a majorfederal agency. Luthans, Yodgetts, and Rosenkrantz
(1988) studied a larger but less elite sample of managers. They examined the day-to-day
activities of 450 managers at a variety of levels and described how those activities related to
success and effectiveness. Exhibit 15.4 shows the characteristics that these studies emphasize
as being the keys to effectiveness.
Kotter and Lynn described jobs of enormous complexity and uncertainty, coupled with
substantial dependence on networks of people whose support and energy were essential for
the executives to do their job. They described leaders who focused on three basic challenges:
setting an agenda, building a network, and using the network to get things done. Lynn’s
work is consistent with Kotter’s observation: “As a result of these demands, the typical GM
faced significant obstacles in both figuring out what to do and in getting things done”
(Kotter, 1982, p. 122).
Kotter and Lynn both emphasized the political dimension in senior managers’ jobs. Lynn
described the need for a significant dose of political skill and sophistication: “building
legislative support, negotiating, and identifying changing positions and interests” (1987,
p. 248). Kotter’s model includes elements of all four frames; Lynn’s includes all but the
A somewhat different picture emerges from the study by Luthans, Yodgetts, and
Rosenkrantz. In their sample, middle- and lower-level managers spent about three-fifths
of their time on structural activities (routine communications and traditional management
functions like planning and controlling), about one-fifth on “human resource management”
(people-related activities like motivating, disciplining, training, staffing), and about one-
fifth on “networking” (political activities like socializing, politicking, and relating to external
constituents). The results suggest that, compared with the senior executives Kotter and Lynn
studied, middle managers spend less time grappling with complexity and more time on
Luthans, Yodgetts, and Rosenkrantz distinguished between “effectiveness” and “suc­
cess.” The criteria for effectiveness were the quantity and quality of the unit’s performance
and the level of subordinates’ satisfaction with their boss. Success was defined in terms of
promotions per year—how fast people got ahead. Effective managers and successful
managers used time differently. The most “effective” managers spent much of their
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Exhibit 15.4.
Challenges in Managers’ Jobs.
Luthans, Yodgetts, and
Frame Kotter (1982) Lynn (1987) Rosenkrantz (1988)
Structural Keep on top of large, Attain Communication∗
complex set of activities intellectual grasp (paperwork, exchange
Set goals and policies of policy issues routine information)
under conditions of Traditional management
uncertainty (planning, goal setting,
Human Motivate, coordinate, Use own Human resource
resource and control large, personality to management∗ (motivating,
diverse group of best advantage managing conflict, staffing,
subordinates and so on)
Political Achieve “delicate Exploit all Networkingy (politics,
balance” in allocating opportunities to interacting with outsiders)
scarce resources achieve strategic
Get support from bosses gains
Get support from
corporate staff and
other constituents
Symbolic Develop credible
strategic premises
Identify and focus on
core activities that give
meaning to employees
∗Most relevant to managers who were judged “effective” by their subordinates.
yMost relevant to managers who were considered “successful” (achieved rapid promotions to higher positions faster
than peers).
time on communications and human resource management and relatively little time on
networking. But networking was the only activity that was strongly related to getting
ahead. “Successful” managers spent almost half their time on networking and only about
10 percent on human resource management.
At first glance, this might seem to confirm the cynical suspicion that getting ahead in a
career is more about politics than performance. More likely, though, the results confirm that
performance is in the eye of the beholder. Subordinates rate their boss primarily on criteria
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internal to the unit—effective communications and treating people well. Bosses, on the
other hand, focus on how well a manager handles relations to external constituents,
including, of course, the bosses themselves. The researchers found that the 10 percent or so
of their sample who were high on both success and effectiveness had a balanced approach
emphasizing both internal and external issues. A multiframe approach made them both
effective and successful.
Comparing all these studies—those focusing on organizations and those focusing on
managers—reveals both similarities and differences. All give roughly equal emphasis to
structural and human resource considerations. But political issues are invisible in the
organizational excellence studies, whereas they are prominent in all the studies of individual
managers. Politics was as important for Kotter’s corporate executives as for Lynn’s political
appointees and was the key to getting ahead for middle managers. Conversely, symbols and
culture were more prominent in the studies of organizational excellence. For various
reasons, each study tended to neglect one frame or another. In assessing any prescription for
improving organizations, ask whether any frame is omitted. The overlooked perspective
could be the one that derails the effort.
Yet another line of research has yielded additional data on how frame preference influences
leadership effectiveness. Bolman and Deal (1991, 1992a, 1992b) and Bolman and Granell
(1999) studied populations of managers and administrators in both business and education.
They found that the ability to use multiple frames was a consistent correlate of effectiveness.
Effectiveness as a manager was particularly associated with the structural frame, whereas the
symbolic and political frames tended to be the primary determinants of effectiveness as a
Bensimon (1989, 1990) studied college presidents and found that multiframe presidents
were viewed as more effective than presidents wedded to a single frame. In her sample, more
than a third of the presidents relied only one frame, and only a quarter depended on more
than two. Single-frame presidents tended to be less experienced, relying mainly on
structural or human resource perspectives. Presidents who relied solely on the structural
frame were particularly likely to be seen as ineffective leaders. Heimovics, Herman, and
Jurkiewicz Coughlin (1993) found the same thing for chief executives in the nonprofit
sector, and Wimpelberg (1987) found comparable results in a study of school principals. He
found that principals of ineffective schools relied almost entirely on the structural frame,
whereas principals in effective schools used multiple frames. When asked about hiring
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teachers, principals in less effective schools talked about standard procedures (how
vacancies are posted, how the central office sends a candidate for an interview), whereas
more effective principals emphasized “playing the system” to get the teachers they needed.
Bensimon found that presidents thought they used more frames than their colleagues
observed. They were particularly likely to overrate themselves on the human resource and
symbolic frames, a finding also reported by Bolman and Deal (1991). Only half of the
presidents who saw themselves as symbolic leaders were perceived that way by others.
Despite the low image of organizational politics in the minds of many managers, political
savvy appears to be a primary determinant of success in managerial work. Heimovics,
Herman, and Jurkiewicz Coughlin (1993, 1995) found this for chief executives of nonprofit
organizations, and Doktor (1993) found the same thing for directors of family service
organizations in Kentucky.
The image of firm control and crisp precision often attributed to managers has little
relevance to the messy world of complexity, conflict, and uncertainty they actually inhabit.
They need multiple frames to survive. They need to understand that any event or process
can serve several purposes and that participants are often operating from different views of
reality. Managers need a diagnostic map that helps them assess which lenses are likely to be
salient and helpful in a given situation. Among the key variables are motivation, technical
constraints, uncertainty, scarcity, conflict, and whether an individual is operating from the
top down or from the bottom up.
Several lines of research have found that effective leaders and effective organizations rely
on multiple frames. Studies of effective corporations, of individuals in senior management
roles, and of public and nonprofit administrators all point to the need for multiple
perspectives in developing a holistic picture of complex systems.
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c h a p t e r
Reframing in Action
Opportunities and Perils
When you are face to face with a difficulty,
you are up against a discovery.
—William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)
Life in organizations is often governed by routine, with undercurrents ofsuppressed conflicts, jealousies, or unhealed egos from past skirmishes.
Periodically, however, past or present issues come to the surface, and tensions
are laid bare. One likely scenario is a transition from one boss to another.
How participants frame their circumstances is fateful for the outcomes.
Reach and Grasp
Put yourself in the shoes of Cindy Marshall. You’re headed to the office for your first day in a new
job. Your company has transferred you to Kansas City to manage a customer service unit. It’s a
big promotion, with a substantial increase in pay and responsibility, but you know you face a
major challenge. You are inheriting a department with a reputation for slow, substandard service.
Senior management places much of the blame on your predecessor, Bill Howard, seen as too
authoritarian and rigid. Howard is moving to another job, but the company asked him to stay on
for a week to help you get oriented. One potential sticking point: He hired most of your new
staff. Many may still feel loyal to him.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.

WEBC16 05/26/2017 2:39:29 Page 314
(continued )
When you arrive, you get a frosty hello from Susan Bond, the department secretary. As you
walk into your new office, you see Howard behind the desk in a conversation with three other
staff members. You say hello, and he responds by saying, “Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re
in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be able to see you in about an hour.”
As Cindy Marshall, what would you do? You’re in the glare of the spotlight, and the
audience eagerly awaits your response. If you feel threatened or attacked—as most of us
would—those feelings will push you toward either fight or flight. Escalating the conflict is risky
and could damage everyone. Backing away or fleeing could suggest that you are too emotional
or not tough enough.
This is a classic example of a manager’s nightmare: an unexpected situation that
threatens to explode in your face. Howard’s greeting tries to throw you off stride and put you
in a bind. It carries echoes of historic patterns of male arrogance and condescension in
relating to women (similar to those that surfaced in the Anne Barreta case in Chapter 8).
Whether or not he intended it that way, Howard’s response appears well designed for
disconcerting a younger female colleague. He makes it likely that, as Cindy, you will feel
trapped and powerless, or you will do something rash and regrettable. Either way, he wins
and you lose.
The frames suggest another set of possibilities. They offer the advantage of multiple
angles to size up the situation. What’s really going on here? What options do you have?
What script does the situation demand? How might you reinterpret the scene to create a
more effective scenario? Reframing is a powerful tool in a tough situation for generating
possibilities other than fight or flight.
An immediate question facing you, as Cindy Marshall, is whether to respond to Howard
on the spot or to buy time. If you’re at a loss for what to say or if you fear you will make
things worse instead of better, take time to “go to the balcony”—try to get above the
confusion of the moment long enough to get a sharper perspective. Better yet, find an
effective response on the spot.
Each of the frames generates its own possibilities, creatively translated into
alternative scenarios. They can also be misapplied or misused. Success depends on
the skill and artistry of the person following a given script. In this chapter, we describe
setups Marshall might compose, showing that each of the four lenses can produce both
effective and ineffective reactions. We conclude with a summary of the power and risks
of reframing and highlight its importance for outsiders and newcomers taking on new
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Structural Frame
A Structural Scenario
A structural scenario casts managers and leaders in fundamental roles of clarifying goals,
attending to the relationship between structure and environment, and developing a clearly
defined array of roles and relationships appropriate to what needs to be done. Without a
workable structure, people become unsure about what they are supposed to be doing. The result
is confusion, frustration, and conflict. In an effective organization, individuals understand their
responsibilities and their contribution. Policies, linkages, and lines of authority are straightforward
and accepted. With the right structure, the organization can achieve its goals, and individuals can
see their role in the big picture.
The main job of a leader is to focus on task, facts, and logic, rather than personality and
emotions. Most people problems stem from structural flaws, not personal limitations or liability.
The structural leader is not rigidly authoritarian and does not attempt to solve every problem by
issuing orders (although that is sometimes appropriate). Instead, the leader tries to design and
implement a process or architecture appropriate to the circumstances.
You may wonder what structure has to do with a direct, personal confrontation, but the
structural scenario in the box can be scripted to generate a variety of responses.
Here’s one example:
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: My appointment as manager ofthis officebegan at nine this morning. This is nowmy office,
and you’re sitting behind my desk. Either you relinquish the desk immediately, or I will call
headquarters and report you for insubordination.
Howard: I was asked to stay on the job for one more week to try to help you learn the ropes. Frankly, I
doubt that you’re ready for this job, but you don’t seem to want any help.
Marshall: I repeat,Iamnowinchargeofthisoffice.Letmealsoremindyouthatheadquartersassigned
you to stay this week to assist me. I expect you to carry out that order. If you don’t, I will
submit a letter for your file detailing your lack of cooperation. Now, [firmly] I want my desk.
Howard: Well, we were working on important office business, but since the princess here is more
interested in giving orders than in getting work done, let’s move our meeting down to your
office, Joe. Enjoy your desk!
In this exchange, Marshall places heavy emphasis on her formal authority and the chain
of command. By invoking her superiors and her legitimate authority, she takes charge and
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gets Howard to back down, but at a price. She unwittingly colludes with Howard in making
the encounter a personal confrontation. She risks long-term tension with her new sub­
ordinates, who surely feel awkward during this combative encounter. They may conclude
that the new boss is like the old one—autocratic and rigid.
There are other options. Here’s another example of how Marshall might exercise her
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: She didn’t mention it, and I don’t want to interrupt important work, but we also need to set
some priorities and work out an agenda for the day anyway. Bill, have you developed a plan
for how you and I can get to work on the transition?
Howard: We can meet later on, after I get through some pressing business.
Marshall:Thepressingbusinessis justthekindofthingIneedtolearnaboutasthenewmanagerhere.
What issues are you discussing?
Howard: How to keep the office functioning when the new manager is not ready for the job.
Marshall: Well, I have a lot to learn, but I feel up to it. With your help, I think we can have a smooth
and productive transition. How about if you continue your meeting and I just sit in as an
observer? Then, Bill, you and I could meet to work out a plan for how we’ll handle the
transition. After that, I’d like to schedule a meeting with each manager to get an individual
progress report. I’d like to hear from each of you about your major customer service
objectives and how you would assess your progress. Now, what were you talking about
before I got here?
This time, Marshall is still clear and firm in establishing her authority, but she does it
without appearing harsh or dictatorial. She underscores the importance of setting priorities.
Note the deft use of a question when she asks whether Howard has a plan for making the
transition productive. That lets her engage Howard while declining his invitation for
combat. She emphasizes shared goals and defines a temporary role for herself as an observer.
She focuses steadfastly on the task and not on Howard’s provocations. In keeping the
exchange on a rational level and outlining a transition plan, she avoids escalating or
submerging the conflict. She also communicates to her new staff that she has done her
homework, is organized, and knows what she wants. When she says she would like to hear
their personal objectives and progress, she communicates an expectation that they should
follow her example.
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Human Resource Frame
A Human Resource Scenario
The human resource leader believes that people are the center of any organization. If people feel the
organization is responsive to their needs and supportive of their personal goals, they will deliver
commitment and loyalty. Administrators who are authoritarian or insensitive, who don’t communicate
effectively, or who don’t care can never be effective leaders. The human resource leader works on
behalf of both the organization and its people, seeking to serve the best interests of both.
The job of the leader is support and empowerment. Support takes a variety of forms:
showing concern, listening to people’s aspirations and goals, and communicating personal
warmth and openness. The leader empowers through participation and inclusion, ensuring that
people have the autonomy and support needed to do their job.
The human resource frame favors listening and responsiveness, but some people go a
little too far in trying to be responsive:
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: Oh, gosh, no, she didn’t. I just feel terrible about interrupting your meeting. I hope I didn’t
offend anyone because to me, it’s really important to establish good working relationships
right from the outset. While I’m waiting, is there anything I can do to help? Would anyone
like a cup of coffee?
Howard: No. We’ll let you know when we’re finished.
Marshall: Oh . . . Um, well, have a good meeting, and I’ll see you in an hour.
In the effort to be friendly and accommodating, Marshall is acting more like a waitress
than a manager. She defuses the conflict, but her staff are likely to see their new boss as weak.
She could instead capitalize on an interest in people:
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: I’msorryif I’minterrupting,butI’meagertogetstarted,andI’llneedallyourhelp.[Shewalks
around, introduces herself, and shakes hands with each member of her new staff. Howard
the transition, now that I’m coming in to manage the department?
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(continued )
Howard: You’re not the manager yet. I was asked to stay on for a week to get you started—though,
frankly, I doubt that you’re ready for this job.
Marshall: I understand your concern, Bill. I know how committed you are to the success of the
department. If I were you, I might be worried about whether I was turning my baby over to
someonewhowouldn’tbeabletotakecareofit. ButIwouldn’tbehereif Ididn’tfeelready.
I want to benefit as much as I can from your experience. Is it urgent to get on with what you
Howard: We have some things we need to finish.
Marshall:Well,asamanager, Ialwaysprefertotrustthejudgmentofthepeoplewhoareclosesttothe
action. I’ll just sit in while you finish up, and then we can talk about how we move forward
from there.
Here, Marshall is unfazed and relentlessly cheerful; she avoids a battle and acknowl­
edges Howard’s perspective. When he says she is not ready for the job, she resists the
temptation to debate or return his salvo. Instead, she recognizes his concern but calmly
communicates her confidence and focus on moving ahead. She demonstrates an important
skill of a human resource leader: the ability to combine advocacy with inquiry. She listens
carefully to Howard but gently stands her ground. She asks for his help while expressing
confidence that she can do the job. When he says they have things to finish, she responds
with the agility of a martial artist, using Howard’s energy to her own advantage. She
expresses part of her philosophy—she prefers to trust her staff’s judgment—and positions
herself as an observer, thus gaining an opportunity to learn more about her staff and the
issues they are addressing. By reframing the situation, she has gotten off to a better start with
Howard and is able to signal to others the kind of people-oriented leader she intends to be.
Political Frame
A Political Scenario
The political leader believes that managers have to recognize political reality and know how to
deal with conflict. Inside and outside any organization, a range of people and interest groups,
each with their own agenda, compete for scarce resources. There are never enough to give all
parties what they want, so there will always be struggles.
The job of the leader is to recognize major constituencies, develop ties to their
leadership, and manage conflict as productively as possible. Above all, leaders need to build
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a power base and use power carefully. They can’t give every group everything it wants, but
they can create arenas where groups can negotiate differences and come up with a
reasonable compromise. They also need to work at articulating interests everyone has in
common. It is wasteful for people to expend energy fighting each other when there are
plenty of enemies outside to battle. Any group that doesn’t get its act together internally
tends to get trounced by outsiders.
Some managers translate the political approach described in this box to mean manage­
ment by intimidation and manipulation. It sometimes works, but the risks are high. Here’s an
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: In your next job, maybe you should train your secretary better. Anyway, I can’t waste
time sitting around in hallways. Everyone in this room knows why I’m here. You’ve got a
choice, Bill. You can cooperate with me, or you can lose any credibility you still have in
this company.
Howard: If I didn’t have any more experience than you do, I wouldn’t be so quick to throw my
weight around. But if you think you know it all already, I guess you won’t need any help
from me.
Marshall: What I know is that this department has gone downhill under your leadership, and it’s my
You’ll be a lot better off if I can tell him you’ve been cooperative.
Moviegoers cheer when bullies get their comeuppance. It can be satisfying to give the
verbal equivalent of a kick in the groin to someone who deserves it. In this exchange,
Marshall establishes that she is tough, even dangerous. But such coercive tactics can be
expensive in the long run. She is likely to win this battle because her hand is stronger. But she
may lose the war. She increases Howard’s antagonism, and her attack may offend him and
frighten her new staff. Even if they dislike Howard, they may see Marshall as arrogant and
callous. She lays the ground for a counterattack, and she may have done political damage
that will be difficult to reverse.
Sophisticated political leaders prefer to avoid naked demonstrations of power, looking
instead for ways to appeal to the self-interests of potential adversaries:
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Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: [pleasantly] Bill, if it’s okay with you, I’d prefer to skip the games and go to work. I expect this
department to be a winner, and I hope that’s what we all want. I also would like to manage
the transition in a way that’s good for your career, Bill, and for the careers of others in the
Howard: If I need advice from you on my career, I’ll ask.
Marshall: Okay, but the vice president has asked me to let him know about the cooperation I get here.
I’d like to be able to say that everyone has been helping me as much as possible. Is that what
you’d like, too?
Howard: I’ve known the vice president a lot longer than you have. I can talk to him myself.
Marshall: I know, Bill; he’s told me that. In fact, I just came from his office. If you’d like, we could both
go see him right now.
Howard: Uh, no, not right now.
Marshall: Well, then, let’s get on with it. Do you want to finish what you were discussing, or is this a
good time for us to develop some agreement on how we’re going to work together?
In this politically based response, Marshall is both direct and diplomatic. She uses a light
touch in dismissing Howard’s opening salvo. (“I’d prefer to skip the games.”) She speaks
directly to both Howard’s interest in his career and her subordinates’ interest in theirs. She
deftly deflates his posturing by asking whether he wants to go with her to talk to the vice
president. Clearly, she is confident of her political support and knows that his bluster has
little to back it up.
Note that in both political scenarios, Marshall draws on her power resources. In the first,
she uses those resources to humiliate Howard, but in the second, her approach is subtler. She
conserves her political capital and takes charge while leaving Howard with as much pride as
possible, achieving something closer to a win-win than a win-lose outcome.
Symbolic Frame
A Symbolic Scenario
The symbolic leader believes that the most important part of a leader’s job is inspiration—giving
people something they can believe in. People become excited about and committed to a place
with a unique identity, a special place where they feel that what they do is really important.
Effective symbolic leaders are passionate about making the organization unique in its niche and
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communicating that passion to others. They use dramatic symbols to get people excited and to
give them a deep sense of the organization’s mission. They are visible and energetic. They create
slogans, tell stories, hold rallies, give awards, appear where they are least expected, and manage
by wandering around.
Symbolic leaders are sensitive to an organization’s history and culture. They seek to use the
best in an organization’s traditions and values as a base for building a culture with cohesiveness
and meaning. They articulate a vision that communicates the organization’s unique capabilities
and mission.
Atfirstglance,CindyMarshall’sencounter withBillHowardmightseema poorcandidate
for the symbolic approach just outlined. An ineffective effort could produce embarrassing
results, making the would-be symbolic leader look foolish:
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
Marshall: It’s great to see that you’re all hard at work. It’s proof that we all share a commitment to
excellence in customer service. In fact, I’ve already made up buttons for all the staff. Here—I
have one for each of you. They read, “The customer is always first.” They look great, and
they communicate the spirit that we all want in the department. Go on with your meeting. I
can use the hour to talk to some of the staff about their visions for the department. [She
walks out of the office.]
Howard: [to remaining staff] Did you believe that? I told you they hired a real space cadet to replace
me. Maybe you didn’t believe me, but you just saw it with your own eyes.
Marshall’s symbolic direction might be on the right track, but symbols work only when
attuned to the context—both people and place. As a newcomer to the department culture,
she needs to pay close attention to her audience. Meaningless symbols antagonize, and
empty symbolic events backfire.
Conversely, a skillful symbolic leader understands that a situation of challenge and
stress can serve as a powerful opportunity to articulate values and build a sense of mission.
Marshall demonstrates how, in a well-formed symbolic approach to Howard’s gruffness:
Howard: Didn’t the secretary tell you that we’re in a meeting right now? If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be
able to see you in about an hour.
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(continued )
Marshall: [smiling] Maybe this is just the traditional initiation ritual in this department, Bill, but let me
ask a question. Ifone ofourcustomers came throughthe doorright now, would you ask her
to wait outside for an hour?
Howard: If she just came barging in like you did, sure.
Marshall: Are you working on something that’s more important than responding to our customers?
Howard: They’re not your customers. You’ve only been here 5 minutes.
Marshall: True, but I’ve been with this company long enough to know the importance of putting
customers first.
Howard:Look, you don’t know thefirst thing about howthis department functions. Before yougo off
on some customer crusade, you ought to learn a little about how we do things.
Marshall: There’s a lot I can learn from all of you, and I’m eager to get started. For example, I’m
very interested in your ideas on how we can make this a department where as soon as
people walk in, they get the sense that this is a place where people care, are responsive,
and genuinely want to be helpful. I’d like that to be true for anyone who comes in—a
staff member, a customer, or just someone who got lost and came into the wrong
office. That’s not the message I got from my initiation just now, but I’m sure we can
think of lots of ways to change that. How does that fit with your image of what the
department should be like?
Notice how Marshall recasts the conversation. She recognizes newcomers usually
experience an initial test or “hazing.” Instead of engaging in a personal confrontation
with Howard, she focuses on the department’s core values. She brings her “customer first”
commitment with her, but she avoids positioning that value as something imposed from
outside. Instead, she grounds it in an experience everyone in the room has just shared: the
way she was greeted when she entered. Like many successful symbolic leaders, she is attuned
to the cues about values and culture that are expressed in everyday life. She communicates
her philosophy, but she also asks questions to draw out Howard and her new staff members.
If she can use the organization’s history to an advantage in rekindling a commitment to
customer service, she passes her first test and is off to a good start.
The multiple replays of the Howard–Marshall incident illustrate both the power and the
risks of reframing. The frames are powerful because of their ability to spur imagination and
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generate new insights and options. But each frame has limits as well as strengths, and each
can be applied well or poorly.
Frames generate scripts, or scenarios, to guide action in high-stakes circumstances. By
changing your script, you can change how you appear, what you do, and how your audience
sees you. You can create the possibility of a makeover in everyday life. Few of us have the
dramatic skill and versatility of a professional actor, but you can alter what you do by
choosing an alternative script or scenario. You have been learning how to do this since birth.
Both men and women, for example, typically employ different scenarios for same-sex and
opposite-sex encounters. Students who are guarded and formal when talking to a professor
become energized and intimate when talking to friends. Managers who are polite and
deferential with the boss may be gruff and autocratic with subordinates and then come
home at night to romp playfully with their kids. The tenderhearted neighbor becomes a
ruthless competitor when his company’s market share is threatened. The tough-minded
drill instructor bows to authority when facing a colonel. Consciously or not, we all read
situations to figure out the scene we’re in and the role we should fill so that we can respond
in character. But it’s important to ask ourselves whether the drama is the one we want and to
recognize that we can choose which character to play and how to interpret or alter the script.
The essence of reframing is examining the same situation from multiple vantage points.
The effective leader changes lenses when things don’t make sense or aren’t working.
Reframing offers the promise of powerful new options, but it cannot guarantee that every
new strategy will be successful. Each lens offers distinctive advantages, but each has its blind
spots and shortcomings.
The structural frame risks ignoring everything outside the rational scope of tasks,
procedures, policies, and organization charts. Structural thinking can overestimate the
power of authority and underestimate the authority of power. Paradoxically, overreliance on
structural assumptions and a narrow emphasis on rationality can lead to an irrational
neglect of human, political, and cultural variables crucial to effective action.
Adherents of the human resource frame sometimes cling to a romanticized view of
human nature in which everyone hungers for growth and collaboration. When they are too
optimistic about integrating individual and organizational needs, they may neglect both
structure and the stubborn realities of conflict and scarcity.
The political frame captures dynamics that other frames miss, but it has its own limits. A
fixation on politics easily becomes a cynical self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing conflict and
mistrust while sacrificing opportunities for rational discourse, collaboration, and hope.
Political action too often is interpreted as amoral, scheming, and oblivious to the common
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The symbolic frame offers powerful insight into fundamental issues of meaning and
belief, as well as possibilities for bonding people into a cohesive group with a shared mission.
But its concepts are subtle and elusive; effectiveness depends on the artistry of the user.
Symbols are sometimes mere fluff or camouflage, the tools of a scoundrel who seeks to
manipulate the unsuspecting, or awkward gimmicks that embarrass more than energize
people at work. But in the aura of an authentic leader, symbols can bring magic to the
Marshall’s initial encounter with Howard exemplifies many of the challenges and tests that
managers confront as they move forward in their careers. The different scenarios offer a
glimmer of what they might run into, depending on how they size up a situation. Managers
feel powerless and trapped when they rely on only one or two frames. This is particularly
true for newcomers, as well as for women and outsiders who experience “the dogged
frustration of people living daily in a system not made for them and with no plans soon to
adjust for them or their differences” (Gallos and Ramsey, 1997, p. 216). These outsiders are
less likely to get a second or third chance when they fail.
Though progressive organizations have made heroic strides in building fairer, more just
opportunity structures (Bell, 2011; Esposito et al., 2002; Daniels et al., 2004; Levering and
Moskowitz, 1993; Morrison, 1992), the path to success is still fraught with obstacles blocking
particularly women and minorities. Judicious reframing can enable them to transform an
imprisoning managerial trap into a promising leadership opportunity. And the more often
individuals break through the glass ceiling or out of the corporate ghetto, the more quickly
those barriers will fade. Career barriers can feel as foreboding and impenetrable as the Berlin
Wall did—until it suddenly fell.
Managers can use frames as scenarios, or scripts, to generate alternative approaches to
challenging circumstances. In planning for a high-stakes meeting or a tense encounter, they
can imagine and try out novel ways to play their roles. Until reframing becomes instinctive,
it takes more than the few seconds that Cindy Marshall had to generate an effective response
in every frame. In practicing any new skill—playing tennis, flying an airplane, or handling a
tough leadership challenge—the process is often slow and painstaking at first. But as skill
improves, it gets easier, faster, more fluid, and comes almost as second nature.
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c h a p t e r
Reframing Leadership
A leader is a dealer in hope.
—Napoléon Bonaparte
The pitched battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for the U.S.presidency in 2016 sent shockwaves around the world and was
unprecedented in many ways. Clinton was the first woman nominated to
run for president by a major party, while Trump was the first major candidate
who had no previous political or military experience. Few, if any, could
remember an election where both candidates were so widely disliked, nor one
where one of the candidates, Trump, spent so much time battling leaders of
his own party. Historians will no doubt spend years trying to sort this out, but
a look through the four frames reveals important lessons for leadership.
Structure, people, politics, and symbols all contributed to the outcome.
Two key structural issues were the process for nominating candidates and the Electoral
College system for choosing the winner. In U.S. presidential elections, a party’s nominee
emerges over several months from a state-by-state process of caucuses and primary
elections that select delegates to each party’s national convention. The two major parties
had different rules. On the Republican side, it was winner-take-all in many states, and a
candidate could garner all of a state’s delegates with less than half the votes. Running in a
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal.
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WEBC17 05/26/2017 2:40:14 Page 326
multicandidate field, Trump racked up a majority of all Republican delegates with less than
40 percent of the total votes. The race ended early but produced an unconventional
candidate opposed by many grassroots Republicans and much of the party’s leadership.
Meanwhile, the Democratic race dragged on longer because the party awarded delegates on
a proportional basis. Over the primary season, Clinton got a majority of the votes but had
trouble pulling away from her major opponent, Bernie Sanders. Even when she won a state,
she often got only a slightly larger share of the delegates.
The Electoral College, a quaint eighteenth century compromise enshrined in the U.S.
Constitution,1 gives each state a number of electors equivalent to its representation in
Congress. Beginning in the 1990s, America became sharply divided between red (Republi­
can) and blue (Democratic) states. In the 2016 election, most of the 50 states and the District
of Columbia were sure to vote either red or blue, leaving only a few states that were real
battlegrounds and three that were critical. Trump was almost sure to win if, but only if, he
carried Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Human Needs
Turning to the human resource frame, we can ask about the concerns and attitudes that
were motivating American voters. It was a year of surprises as both sides of the political
spectrum saw major shifts in the electorate toward greater anger and dissatisfaction with the
status quo. Many voters wanted wholesale change because they believed Washington was
broken. On the Democratic side, almost everyone expected that Clinton, who had narrowly
lost the nomination to Barack Obama eight years earlier, had an easy path to the
nomination. But Bernie Sanders, a relatively obscure senator from Vermont, mounted a
ferocious challenge from the left on a platform of economic justice, universal health care,
and free college tuition. Liberals and young voters flocked to him. Caught off guard, Clinton
struggled to adjust her positions to catch up with a leftward drift among Democratic
primary voters. She ultimately prevailed but emerged weaker than expected amid concerns
that many Sanders voters might never support her.
Meanwhile, the surprises were even greater on the Republican side. When Donald Trump
first announced that he was running for the nomination, almost everyone saw it as a publicity
stunt that would quickly flame out. How could a brash real estate developer and television
personality with no government experience and a crazy idea about building a wall along the
U.S./Mexican border get anything more than a fringe vote? But Trump tapped into a huge
reservoir of disenchantment among voters who felt that they were being left behind and that
the America they knew was being undermined by globalization, immigrants, bureaucrats, and
condescending coastal elites. Trump gave voice to their feelings. His promise to deport
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immigrants, bring jobs back, and make America great again resonated powerfully, and he
overwhelmed the large field of more traditional Republicans running against him.
The human resource frame also underscores the importance of the personal character­
istics of the two candidates. Clinton and Trump had a few things in common. Long before
the election, both were household names and both had very high unfavorable ratings. The
two were also the oldest pair of candidates in U.S. history; Trump would be 70 on Election
Day, and Clinton would be 69. But they had very different personas. Trump was hot where
Clinton was cool, flamboyant where she was restrained, shoot-from-the-hip where she was
disciplined, and outrageous where she was cautious. To almost every issue, Trump offered
dramatic but vague promises, while Clinton delineated specific policies and plans. Voters
who liked one rarely liked the other. Many disliked both and lamented that they were forced
to choose the lesser of two evils.
The candidates also had contrasting leadership styles. Trump was an entertainer, a
business magnate, and perhaps the least-disciplined presidential candidate in American
history. He was notorious for over-the-top 3 AM Twitter storms attacking his various
enemies. He was a relentless warrior who mostly embodied the political and symbolic
frames, both central to effective leadership. Clinton was a cool-headed policy wonk—strong
on details but weaker on assembling them into a compelling vision. She was more attuned to
the structural and human resource frames. Her picture of the future was clearer on the
details but fuzzier in terms of the big picture. Voters knew that Trump promised to “Make
America great again,” but were less clear about Clinton’s core message.
Changing Coalitions
The political frame points to the importance of coalitions and scarce resources, and the 2016
election occurred in the context of a deeply polarized nation and a changing electorate.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Republicans had evolved from the party of the industrial north
to a coalition of economic conservatives (including much of the business elite) and white
social conservatives (particularly in the south and the Plains states). The party appealed to
the first group with support for low taxes, free markets, and free trade and kept the second
group happy by opposing abortion, gay marriage, and government programs many whites
saw as mostly benefitting persons of color.
The Democratic coalition, meanwhile, underwent its own evolution in the late twentieth
and early twenty-first centuries. Members of the white working class, particularly religious
and social conservatives, drifted toward the Republicans, but a new Democratic coalition
emerged that brought together groups heavily concentrated in and around major cities—the
poor, minorities, and upscale progressives.
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The differences between Clinton and Trump backers in the 2016 campaign reflected the
evolution in both parties. Democrats increased their share of college-educated voters, and
Clinton won among women and people of color. But Trump won among whites,
particularly white men without college degrees. Tellingly, 81 percent of Trump supporters,
but only 19 percent of Clinton’s said that life for people like them was worse now than 50
years earlier (Smith, 2016).
Culture and Narrative
The symbolic frameunderscores the importance ofculture and narrativeinunderstandingthe
election. A critical cultural shift in the U.S. electorate was the gradual decline of non-Hispanic
whites as a percentage of the population. People of color had become a majority in four states
(California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas) and were gaining in many others. This worked
both for and against Trump: demographics were shifting toward the Democrats, but that shift
triggered powerful levels of distress and anger among many whites. The specter of terrorism,
beginning with 9/11 and continuing with the rise of ISIS, exacerbated voters’ suspicions
toward immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Trump supporters were not poorer
thanClinton voters, but theyhad the lowest opinions ofMuslims and were most likely tofavor
mass deportation of undocumented immigrants (Matthews, 2016).
What followed was one of the bitterest, most divisive presidential campaigns in U.S.
history. Many Trump supporters saw Clinton as a corrupt, lying criminal who would
confiscate their guns, open the door to terrorists, and destroy everything good in America
if she became president. They cheered when Trump said that she would be in jail if he became
president and nodded assent when he told them that “this election is our last chance to save
our country.” Many Clinton supporters found the prospect of a Trump presidency genuinely
terrifying. They saw him as a homegrown version of Adolf Hitler—an authoritarian,
narcissistic, racist misogynist.
In the end, Clinton got some 2.8 million more votes, but Trump won the presidency. He
took the battleground states he had to get (Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) and picked up
narrow victories in two blue states in the upper Midwest, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Leadership Lessons from the 2016 Election
In the tale of the 2016 election we can find many of the lessons for leadership that form the
backbone of this chapter. Structure matters but is not always sufficient for leadership
success. Clinton won on campaign infrastructure, but that was not enough to win the
presidency. During the primaries, both candidates had to appeal to the partisan zealots who
form the party’s base, but Trump defied the conventional wisdom that a candidate needs to
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move to the center in a general election to pick up independents and undecideds. He thrived
on huge rallies where his passionate supporters devoured his message and showered him
with approval. That passion turned out to be critical.
Symbolically, elections are always about shaping the narrative in order to control how voters
perceive you and your opponent. Trump framed himself as the only leader strong enough to
save America from terminal decline. In his story, the United States had become a weak,
borderless nation that was failing on almost every front, and he knew how to “Make America
on policy specifics than grand narrative, struggled to communicate an equally focused and
compelling message. Her catchphrases included “I’m with her,” “Stronger together,” “America
is already great,” and “Love trumps hate.” They added up to a fuzzy rationale for her candidacy.
In a change election, Trump offered a clearer message of making things better.
Both campaigns’ efforts to develop a positive image for their candidate were sometimes
overshadowed by efforts to persuade the public that their opponents were terrible leaders
and vile human beings. Trump consistently referred to Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and
labeled her the worst candidate for president in American history. That narrative drew
support from an FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail server while she
was Secretary of State and from an ongoing drip-drip of e-mails hacked from her campaign
by Russian operatives and distributed through Wikileaks. Clinton supporters believed that
her momentum was seriously damaged when FBI director James Comey announced days
before the election that new e-mails had been discovered that “might be pertinent” to the
investigation. A week later, Comey said that it had been a false alarm, but Democrats
believed the new announcement served only to keep the e-mails in the news.
Although the Democrats got no help from the FBI or Wikileaks, they benefited from a
continuing flow of new material from investigative reporters and from Trump himself to
support their framing of him as a liar, misogynist, racist, and tax cheat who lacked the
judgment and self-control to be trusted in the White House.
Gender was a central issue for the first time in a U.S. presidential election. It both helped
and hindered Clinton. She was a powerful symbol to millions who hoped to see the first
woman president. But leadership has historically been associated with maleness, and
research (that we examine later in this chapter) shows that women who seek high office
often face discrimination and higher expectations than men. Both men and women are
often uncomfortable with women who are powerful or who seem to want power.
In the end, much of the public believed the worst about both candidates—polls
suggested that Clinton was viewed unfavorably by 57 percent of the public and Trump
by 62 percent. Even many Trump supporters feared that he lacked the maturity and
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steadiness required in a president. But they saw him as the candidate who could bring
change to Washington. That was enough to make him president.
We begin this chapter with a historical tour of theory and research on leadership,
examining quantitative and qualitative strands that have run in parallel to one another. This
will lead us into an exploration of the idea of leadership—what it is, what it is not, and what
it can and cannot accomplish. We look at the differences between leadership and power and
between leadership and management. We examine the intersection of leadership with
gender and culture. Finally, we explore how each of the four frames generates its own image
of leadership.
In nearly every culture, the earliest literature includes sagas of heroic figures who led their
people to physical or spiritual victory over internal or external enemies. In Egypt and China,
we find narratives about pharaohs and emperors and the rise and fall of dynasties that date
back thousands of years. Ancient Chinese chronicles tell a cyclical story that begins when a
dynamic leader leverages disorder and discontent and amasses sufficient force to found a new
dynasty. For a time the new dynasty produces vigorous and far-sighted leaders who create a
stable and prosperous state. But eventually corruption spreads, leadership falters, and the
dynasty collapses in the face of a new challenger.Thenthe cyclebegins anew. This sagastillhas
a powerful resonance in modern China because the Communist party leaders understand that
their dynasty, like all that have come before, may someday lose the “mandate of heaven.”
From ancient times to the late nineteenth century, the leadership literature consisted
mostly of narratives about monarchs, generals, and political leaders. Then the rise of big
business triggered an interest in the qualities of the giants who founded great enterprises,
like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. In the
same era, social science began to separate from philosophy and emerge as a distinct
academic field. Scholars like Harvard psychologist William James and the sociologists
Herbert Spencer in England and Emile Durkheim in France began to lay the intellectual
foundations for a science of society and human behavior based on systematic research.
Out of this ferment emerged two distinct approaches to understanding leadership in
organizations that have coexisted for more than a century, traveling more or less side by
side, with only occasional nods to one another. One track, which we label quantitative-
analytic, emphasizes testing hypotheses with quantitative data to develop leadership theory.
The work is typically published as articles in scholarly journals (an overview of eras in the
evolution of this strand appears in Exhibit 17.1). A second track, qualitative-holistic, relies
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Exhibit 17.1.
A Short History of Quantitative-Analytic Leadership Research.
Theory Examples Central Idea Current Status
Trait theory: how Galton, 1869; Terman, Leaders possess distinctive Fell out of favor in the 1950s when
are leaders 1904; Kirkpatrick and personal characteristics reviewers found weak empirical support,
different? Locke, 1991; Zaccaro, (intelligence, self-confidence, but has returned to favor in recent
2007 integrity, extraversion, and so on). decades.
Leadership style Lewin, Lippitt, and White, Leadership depends on style Mixed evidence stimulated move toward
theory: how do 1939; Likert, 1961; (democratic vs. autocratic, task- contingency theories, which often include
leaders act? Fleishman and Harris, oriented vs. people-oriented, etc.). leader style variables.
Contingency Fiedler, 1967; Lawrence Effective leadership depends on No single contingency view has found
theory: how do and Lorsch, 1967; Evans, the characteristics of followers consistent empirical support or wide
circumstances 1970; House, 1971, 1996 and context: what works in one acceptance, but most modern leadership
affect leadership? situation may not work in research incorporates the idea that
another. leadership depends on circumstances.
Leader-member Dansereau, Graen, and Leadership is rooted in the quality Advocates of LMX theory have been
exchange (LMX) Haga, 1975; Graen and of the relationships between actively conducting research since the
theory: what Uhl-Bien, 2008 leaders and individual followers. 1970s; many LMX propositions have
happens in the empirical support, but the approach is
leader-follower criticized for complexity and viewing
relationship? leadership too narrowly.
Transformational Burns, 1978; Bass, 1985; Transformational (or charismatic) Evidence suggests transformational
leadership Conger and Kanungo, leaders use inspiration, idealized leadership makes a difference, but more
theory: how do 1998 influence, and the like to research is needed on when and how it
leaders transform generate followers’ trust and works best.
followers? willingness to go above and
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on case studies and interviews with practitioners to develop ideas and theory about how
leadership works in practice. Such work is often published in books aimed at an audience
that includes both practitioners and scholars. We will survey quantitative and then
qualitative work before trying to capture the current state of the field.
Quantitative-Analytic Research
Since the early twentieth century, quantitative research has moved through several eras,
gradually evolving from simpler to more complex views of leadership. The initial research,
flowing from the “great man” theory of leadership (Carlyle, 1841), focused on finding the
distinctive traits that made leaders different from everyone else. Around 1950, multiple
reviews (Stogdill, 1948; Gibb, 1947; Jenkins, 1947) concluded that there was little consist­
ency in leadership traits across people and circumstances. That gave rise to two lines of
research in the 1950s and subsequent decades: one on leadership style and another on
situational contingencies. Style research focused particularly on the difference between task-
oriented and people-oriented leaders. The results suggested that leaders who focused on
people generated higher morale although not necessarily higher productivity, and that the
most effective leaders were good at dealing with both tasks and people (Fleishman and
Harris, 1962).
Contingency theorists examined characteristics of situations that interacted with
leader behavior. One influential line, for example, found that task-oriented leaders
did best in situations that were either highly favorable or highly unfavorable for the
leader, while people-oriented leaders did best in situations in the middle (Fiedler, 1964,
Another contingency theory, Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model
(1969, 1977), had less research support (Hambleton and Gumpert, 1982; Graeff, 1983;
Blank, Weitzel, and Green, 1990) but became more popular with practitioners because it is
more intuitive and offers clearer practical guidance to practitioners. The model incorporates
its own version of the distinction between task and people, using a two-by-two table to
develop four different leadership styles (see Exhibit 17.2). Hersey and Blanchard argued that
each style was appropriate for a different level of subordinate “readiness,” which they
defined in terms of how able and willing subordinates were to do the work. If subordinates
are neither willing nor able, then the leader should tell them how to do the job. If they want
to do the job but lack skill, then the leader should sell or coach to build capacity. When
subordinates are able but unwilling or insecure, then the leader should use a participative
style to build motivation. If they are both able and willing, the leader should delegate and get
out of the way.
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Exhibit 17.2.
Situational Leadership Model.
High Relationship, Low Task: High Relationship, High Task:
Participate Sell (or Coach)
Use when followers are “able” but Use when followers are “unable” but
“unwilling” or “insecure.” “willing” or “motivated.”
Low Relationship, Low Task: Low Relationship, High Task:
Delegate Tell
Use when followers are “able” and Use when followers are “unable” and
“willing” or “motivated.” “unwilling” or “insecure.”
Hersey and Blanchard’s model continues to be popular for leadership training but has
been criticized for lack of research support and for generating self-fulfilling prophesies. If,
for example, managers give unwilling and unable subordinates high direction and low
support, what would cause their motivation to improve? The manager of a computer design
team told us ruefully, “I treated my group with a ‘telling’ management style and found that
in fact they became both less able and less willing.”
The 1970s spawned a new line of research: leader-member exchange theory (LMX). LMX
research began with the insight that leaders create different relationships with different
followers, and, in particular, they create in-groups and out-groups by interacting with some
subordinates in a more personal way while focusing strictly on task with others (Dansereau,
Graen, and Haga, 1975; Graen and Uhl-Bien, 2008). One practical implication from this
research is that leaders can get better results by creating strong relationships with all, not just
some, of their subordinates (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 2008, p. 225).
A major new strand that emerged in the 1980s emphasized a distinction between
transactional and transforming leadership (Burns, 1978). Transactional leadership involves
practical, give-and-take exchanges, such as pay for performance. Transforming leaders, on
the other hand, “champion and inspire followers . . . to rise above narrow interests and
work together for transcending goals” (Burns, 2003, p. 26). Over the next two decades,
research on transformational, or charismatic, leadership became a dominant research
strand, producing a number of studies confirming that transformational leaders had a more
powerful impact than those who relied only on transactional approaches (Shamir, House,
and Arthur, 1993; Conger and Kanungo, 1998).
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Qualitative-Holistic Leadership Studies
The quantitative research tradition has both strengths and limits. Over more than a century,
scholars have tested hypotheses, discarded ideas that don’t work, and gradually built theory
that fits the data. But the work has often simplified the complexities of leadership by treating
only a few variables at a time and by treating leadership as equivalent to what happens
between managers and their subordinates. Qualitative research on real-world practice has
viewed leadership in more nuanced and holistic ways, often developing ideas decades before
they make their way into quantitative studies. Mary Parker Follett (1896, 1918, 1941), for
example, was well ahead of her time in exploring distributed leadership, charisma, and the
importance of the human element. Many of the major themes in Follett’s work were
extended by two of the most influential management thinkers of the early twentieth century:
Elton Mayo and Chester Barnard. Mayo, often viewed as the founder of the “human
relations” school of management, conducted the famous studies that gave rise to the
“Hawthorn effect” and promoted the idea, viewed as radical at the time, that human and
social factors mattered as much as technical and economic ones (Mayo, 1933).
Chester Barnard, a telephone executive, was a practitioner rather than an academic, but
he wrote one of the most influential management books of the midtwentieth century, The
Functions of the Executive (Barnard, 1938). Barnard argued that the task of leadership is to
balance technical and human factors to achieve cooperation among the many groups and
individuals within an organization. Organizations rarely survive indefinitely, he noted,
because it is so challenging to solve two central issues: achieving goals while satisfying the
needs of those who do the work.
The idea that leadership is about balancing or integrating concerns for task and
people remained a central theme in qualitative work on leadership for the next several
decades (examples include Argyris, 1962; Bennis, 1961; Likert, 1961; McGregor, 1960),
but in later years researchers began to give greater attention to political and symbolic
issues in the workplace (Dalton, 1959; Mintzberg, 1973; Kotter, 1985; Heifetz and
Linsky, 2002).
Interest in the symbolic dimension of leadership exploded in the 1980s when students of
organization discovered something long known to anthropologists—organizations had
cultures, and those cultures mattered (Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Peters and Waterman,
1982; Schein, 1992). Symbolic elements such as charisma, vision, and transformational
leadership became dominant themes in discussions of leadership, although Collins and
Porras (1994) and Collins (2001) led a kind of counterrevolution, arguing that charisma was
overrated (Collins and Porras, 1994). Instead, they argued, leaders of successful companies
were disciplined and determined but humble (attributing success to the team, not to
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themselves) and even self-effacing. Heifetz and Linsky (2002), focusing particularly on
leadership in the public sector, took a similar position, arguing that the essence of leadership
is not vision but mobilizing followers to work on solving hard problems.
Prior to the twentieth century, leadership was usually equated to high position, and the
dominant theme in leadership studies was that leaders were born with special gifts that
made them different from ordinary mortals. That view is dying, brought down by leadership
research and by the complex challenges of leading in contemporary organizations. Our tour
of more than 100 years of leadership history shows a gradual shift from a simpler view
centered on the individual to a more complex view that takes account of individual,
relationship, and context. Five propositions capture this evolution:
Leadership Is an Activity, Not a Position
Leadership is distinct from authority and position, although authorities may be leaders.
Weber (1947) and Barnard (1938) both linked authority to legitimacy. People consent and
choose to obey authority only as long as they believe it is legitimate. Authority and
leadership are both built on voluntary compliance. Leaders cannot lead without legitimacy,
but many examples of authority fall outside the domain of leadership. As Gardner put it,
“The meter maid has authority, but not necessarily leadership” (1989, p. 7).
Heifetz (1994) argues that authority often impedes leadership because in times of distress
we expect those in authority to know and do more than they can and to solve our problems
for us. This tempts leaders to overpromise and underdeliver, a recurring setup for failure
and disappointment. After the 2016 election, many observers wondered how Donald
Trump would be able to deliver on the many promises that he made during his election
The management literature has often equated leadership to whatever managers do with
their subordinates, but this defines leadership too narrowly. Leaders need skill in managing
relationships with all significant stakeholders, including superiors, peers, and external
constituents (Burns, 1978; Gardner, 1986; Kotter and Cohen, 2002; Heifetz and Linsky,
Leadership Is Different from Management
You can be a leader without being a manager, and many managers could not “lead a
squad of seven-year-olds to the ice-cream counter” (Gardner, 1989, p. 2). Bennis and
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Nanus (1985) suggest that “managers do things right, and leaders do the right thing”
(p. 21); that is, managers focus on execution, leaders on purpose and values. Barnard
(1938) argued that a moral dimension is central to leadership because it rests on
“creating faith: faith in common understanding, in the probability of success, in the
ultimate satisfaction of personal motives, in the integrity of objective authority, and in
the superiority of common purpose” (Barnard, 1938, p. 239). A managerially oriented
navy officer gave a ringing endorsement of his more leaderlike successor: “I go by the
book; he writes the book.”
Kotter (1988) sees management as being primarily about structural nuts and bolts:
planning, organizing, and controlling. He views leadership as a change-oriented process of
visioning, networking, and building relationships. But Gardner argues against contrasting
leadership and management too sharply, because leaders may “end up looking like a cross
between Napoleon and the Pied Piper, and managers like unimaginative clods” (1989, p. 3).
He suggests several dimensions for distinguishing leadership from management. Leaders
think in the long term, look outside as well as inside, and influence constituents beyond their
immediate formal jurisdiction. They emphasize vision and renewal and have the political
skills to cope with the demands of multiple constituencies.
Leadership Is Multilateral, Not Unilateral
Heroic images of leadership convey the notion of a one-way transaction: leaders show the
way and followers tag along. But leaders are not independent actors; they both shape and are
shaped by their constituents (Gardner, 1989; Simmel, 1950; Heifetz and Linsky, 2002).
Leaders often promote a new initiative only after a large number of constituents favor it
(Cleveland, 1985). Leaders’ actions generate responses that in turn affect the leaders’
capacity for taking further initiatives (Murphy, 1985). As Briand puts it, “A ‘leader’ who
makes a decision and then attempts to ‘sell’ it is not wise and will likely not prove effective.
The point is not that leaders should do less but that others can and should do more.
Everyone must accept responsibility for the people’s well being, and everyone has a role to
play in sustaining it” (1993, p. 39).
Leadership Is Distributed Rather Than Concentrated at the Top
In times of crisis we expect leadership from people in high places, and we are grievously
disappointed if they fail to provide it. But it is misleading to imagine that leadership
comes only from people in prominent positions. Such a view leads us to ask too much of
too few. It relegates the rest of us to a passive role and reinforces a tendency for those at
the top to take on more responsibility than they can discharge (Oshry, 1995). The
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turbulent world of the twenty-first century pushes organizations to be fast, flexible, and
decentralized, which requires leadership from many quarters (Barnes and Kriger, 1986;
Kanter, 1983).
Leadership does not come automatically with high position, as Follett (1896) docu­
mented long ago in a study of the U.S. Congress. Speakers of the House were always elected
by their colleagues, but Follett found that some were able to leverage and expand the
potential in the job, while others failed to lead. Conversely, it is possible and often necessary
to lead without a position of formal authority. In 1991, the year that she was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi was the most credible and respected leader in
Myanmar, even though she held no office and was under house arrest. Finally set free in
2010, she was elected to parliament in 2012, and her party won control of the Myanmar
government in 2015.
Leadership Is Contextual and Situated Not in the Leader but in the
Exchange between Leader and Constituents
In story and myth, leaders are often lonely heroes and itinerant warriors, wed only to
honor and a noble cause. Think of Batman, Ellen Ripley, Han Solo, James Bond, Joan of
Arc, Rambo, or every character ever played by Clint Eastwood. But images of solitary,
heroic leaders mislead by suggesting that leaders go it alone and by focusing the spotlight
too much on individuals and too little on the stage where they play their parts. Leaders
make things happen, but things also make leaders happen. The transformation in Rudy
Giuliani’s image after 9/11 from has-been to hero in 24 hours is a perfect illustration. An
unpopular, lame-duck New York mayor found himself center stage in an unplanned
theater of horror and delivered the performance of his life. But Giuliani’s heroic image
was fleeting. Time magazine named him person of the year for 2001, but he left the
mayor’s office at the end of the year and struggled to find another opportunity to
demonstrate such visible and heroic leadership. He ran for the Republican presidential
nomination in 2008, but his early lead in the polls evaporated after a series of gaffes. He
disappeared from the public eye until he bobbed up again in 2016 as a loyal surrogate
promoting Donald Trump for president.
No single formula is possible for the great range of situations leaders encounter. Three of
the most dominant and destructive figures of the twentieth century were Adolf Hitler,
Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. All were able to come to power because they came of age
when their respective countries were in disarray, and people were looking for someone
strong enough to lead them out of chaos. Had they been born in different times or places, no
one would remember them.
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Leadership is thus a subtle process of mutual influence fusing thought, feeling, and
action. It produces cooperative effort in the service of purposes embraced and enhanced by
both leader and led. Single-frame managers are unlikely to understand and attend to the
intricacies of this lively process.
Threading through the literature on leadership have been two divergent propositions. One
asserts that good leaders need the right stuff—qualities like vision, strength, and commit­
ment. The other holds that good leadership is situational; what works in one setting will not
work in another. A proposition from the “effective schools” literature illustrates the right-
stuff perspective: A good school is headed by a strong and visionary instructional leader. An
example of the situational view is the belief that it takes a different kind of person to lead
when you’re growing and adding staff than when you’re cutting budgets and laying people
Despite the tension between these one-best-way and contingency views, both capture
part of the truth. Studies have found shared characteristics among effective leaders across
sectors and situations. Another body of research has identified situational variables that
determine the kind of leadership that works best.
Recent decades have produced a steady stream of studies of effective leadership. Modern
trait research (reviewed in Zaccaro, Kemp, and Bader, 2004) tells us that leaders, compared
to nonleaders, tend to be smarter, more creative, more extroverted and agreeable, and better
at thinking outside the box. They have more social skills and stronger needs for power and
achievement. But this research tells us more about what leaders are like than what they do. A
list of leadership traits may help in selecting leaders but provides limited guidance for how
to lead (Zaccaro, 2007).
We get a different picture if we look at the many qualitative studies of leadership in
recent decades. No characteristic is universally associated with good leadership in these
studies, but vision and focus show up most often. Effective leaders help articulate a vision,
set standards for performance, and create focus and direction. A related characteristic,
explicit in some reports (Clifford and Cavanagh, 1985; Kouzes and Posner, 2007; Peters and
Austin, 1985) and implicit in others, is the ability to communicate a vision effectively, often
through the use of symbols. Another quality often mentioned is passion, determination, or
will (Clifford and Cavanagh, 1985; Collins, 2001; Collins and Hansen, 2011; George, 2004;
Peters and Austin, 1985; Vaill, 1982). Good leaders care deeply about their work and the
people who do it and are doggedly persistent in pushing the cause forward. Yet another
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characteristic is the ability to inspire trust and build relationships (Bennis and Nanus, 2007;
Kotter, 1988; Kouzes and Posner, 1987, 2007; Maccoby, 1981). But beyond vision, focus,
passion, and trust, there is less consensus. The many reviews of the literature (Bass, 1990;
Gardner, 1987; Hollander, 1978; Yukl, 2012) generate a long list of attributes associated with
effective leadership, but they do not add up to a coherent picture.
Research has made progress in one area of growing importance: the intersection of
culture and leadership. We’ll discuss results from the GLOBE program, a large international
research project, in the next section.
Organizational culture (as we discussed in Chapter 12) is a pattern of basic assumptions and
values shared among members of a group. This definition applies to groups of any size, from
a small work group or family to a nation like China or the United States. Much of the
research on leadership in organizations has been conducted in a Western context,
particularly in the United States, but globalization drives a need to better understand
what happens when citizens of one culture try to lead those of another. What do they need to
understand? What adjustments do they have to make?
The GLOBE researchers surveyed more than 17,000 middle managers in 950 organizations
across 62 countries (see Exhibit 17.3). They found that some leadership characteristics seemed
to be universal, but others were not. Managers around the world wanted leaders who were
trustworthy, planful, positive, motivating, decisive, and intelligent, and not unfriendly,
irritable, or self-centered. But other characteristics—such as autonomous, ambitious, cunning,
The GLOBE researchers identified six different leadership styles in their data:
1. Charismatic/values based: leader sets high standards, seeks to inspire people around a
vision, emphasizes core values
2. Team-oriented: leader evokes pride, loyalty, and cooperation, values team cohesiveness
and shared goals
3. Participative: leader encourages input in decisions, emphasizes delegation and equality
4. Humane: leader is patient, supportive, concerned for others’ welfare
5. Autonomous: leader is independent and individualistic and puts self at the center
6. Protective: leader emphasizes procedure, status, face-saving, and safety and security of
individual and group
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Exhibit 17.3.
GLOBE Country Clusters.
Source: Adapted from House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, and Gupta (eds.), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations:
The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Copyright  2004 by Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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Which of those styles is most like you? Which do you think works best? Your answer is
likely to be different depending on the culture you grew up in. The GLOBE researchers
categorized their 62 countries into 10 regional clusters, shown in Exhibit 17.3. Countries
that are near one another on the wheel are more similar in terms of culture and views of
leadership. Those that are opposite one another are least alike. Thus the English-speaking
Anglo cluster is least like the Middle-Eastern cluster of Islamic nations. The Anglo managers
preferred the charismatic/values-based, participative, and humane styles. They liked the
protective style least. Middle-Eastern managers liked the protective style best and the
charismatic/values-based style least. It is easy to imagine how an American or Australian
trying to lead in the Middle East could flame out while implementing a leadership
approach—charismatic or participative, for example—that was perfect back home but
wrong for a new and unfamiliar context. Instead of recognizing the cultural dynamics, the
failed manager might blame the locals for having bad attitudes or a poor work ethic.
Globalization increases the chance that at some point in your career you will be working in
another culture that has different values and ideas about leadership. Your cultural
intelligence and willingness to learn will be vital to your success.
When Carlyle (1841) laid out his influential “great man theory” of leadership, his story
included women only as wives and mothers. He omitted Vietnam’s national heroines, the
Trung sisters, who raised a mostly female army almost 2,000 years ago and succeeded for a
time in pushing out Chinese overlords. Nor did he mention Joan of Arc, revered in France
for leading her dispirited prince to the victories over the English that he needed in order to
be coronated as King of France. The implicit, taken-for-granted assumption was that
leadership is a male activity. Recent decades, however, have seen a dramatic shift in women’s
roles and accomplishments. At the end of 2016, some of the world’s most prominent leaders
were women, including Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Theresa
May, the new prime minister in the United Kingdom. In breaking through old barriers and
bringing their own strengths and styles to traditionally male roles, an increasing number of
women have blazed new paths.
One example is Karren Brady, who became managing director of the Birmingham
(England) City Football Club in 1993. At 23, she was the youngest and the only female head
of an English professional soccer team. As you might expect, she ran into some challenges.
There was the strapping forward who told her on the team bus that he liked her blouse
because he could see her breasts through it. She looked him in the eye and replied, “Where
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I’m going to send you, you won’t be able to see them from there.” A week later, he was
downgraded to a club a hundred miles away. There was the time the directors of another
team told her how fortunate she was that they were willing to let her into their owners’ box.
She fired back, “The day I have to feel grateful for half a lager and a pork pie in a dump of a
little box with a psychedelic carpet is the day I give up” (Hoge, 2002, p. A14. Copyright 
2002 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.).
Brady got plenty of media attention, but it often focused on her looks and wardrobe. One
newspaper ran a full-page photo of her in a short skirt under the headline “Sex Shooter.”
Another described her entry into a meeting: “Every inch the modern woman, she totters into
the room on high-heeled strappy sandals and a short and sexy black suit.” Brady was
continually perplexed: “I came here to run a business, to put right a dilapidated, rundown
operation with a series of business solutions. But the media, with the combination of my age,
the way I look, and obviously the fact that I was a female—the first in a male-dominated
world—went into a frenzy. It was unbelievable. I’d be in press conferences, and journalists
would actually ask me my vital statistics” (Hoge, 2002, p. A14. Copyright  2002 by The
New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission). Brady did not have the benefit of later
research showing that “self-sexualizing” women suffered a backlash related to discomfort
with women being powerful (Infanger, Rudman, and Sczesny, 2014)
Still, Brady understood that publicity, even tinged with notoriety, was good for business.
She took a team that had never shown a profit from the edge of bankruptcy to become one of
the England’s strongest teams, both on the field and at the cash register. The club was sold in
2009 for almost $130 million. She even overcame the complications that might have arisen
after she married one of her players. She bought and sold her husband twice, making over a
million pounds in the process. She won businesswoman-of-the-year awards, and even her
fellow football executives recognized her talent, naming her to represent them in negotia­
tions for the national television contract that provided much of their revenue.
Women like Karren Brady have proven that they can lead in a man’s world. But do men
and women lead differently? Are they seen differently in leadership roles? Why do men still
have such a disproportionate hold on positions of institutional and organizational power?
Research on gender and leadership has asked these and other questions, and we turn next to
some of the answers that have emerged.
Do Men and Women Lead Differently?
Book (2000), Helgesen (1990), Rosener (1990), and others have argued that women bring a
“female advantage” to leadership. They believe that modern organizations need the
leadership style that women are more likely to offer, including concern for people,
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nurturance, and willingness to share information. But the evidence is equivocal. We might
expect, for example, that women would be higher on people attributes (warmth, support,
participation) and lower on political characteristics (power, shrewdness, aggression), more
“communal” and less “agentic.” But examples like Karren Brady and “the Iron Lady,” British
prime minister Margaret Thatcher, tell us that things are not so simple. In fact, research
gives such stereotypes limited support (Van Engen, Van der Leeden, and Willemsen, 2001;
Dobbins and Platz, 1986; Eagly and Johnson, 1990; Bolman and Deal, 1991, 1992a).
For the most part, the available evidence suggests that men and women in similar
positions are more alike than different, at least in the eyes of their subordinates (Bolman and
Deal 1991, 1992a; Carless, 1998; Komives, 1991; Morrison, White, and Van Velsor, 1987;
Paustian-Underdahl, Walker, and Woehr, 2014; Thompson, 2000). When differences are
detected, they often show women scoring somewhat higher than men on a variety of
measures of leadership and managerial behavior (Bass, Avolio, and Atwater, 1996; Eagly
and Carli, 2003; Edwards, 1991; Hallinger, Bickman, and Davis, 1990; Weddle, 1991; Wilson
and Wilson, 1991). But the differences are not large, and it is not clear that they have
practical significance, except among physicians—female doctors get better outcomes in
terms of mortality and hospital readmission rates (Tsugawa et al., 2016).
Why the Glass Ceiling? And the Glass Cliff?
If women lead at least as well as men, why does the so-called glass ceiling cap their rise to top
positions? Growing numbers are now in the pipeline leading to the executive suite. In the
United States, they are a substantial majority of college students and an expanding presence
in professional schools—more than half of education and law students and close to half in
business and medical schools. This is a dramatic shift (except in education, where they have
long been a majority).
Nevertheless, in 2014, women made up less than 10 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500
companies (Glass and Cook, 2016). More than half the companies did not have a single female
officer. The story is similar in education. In American schools, women constitute the great
majority ofteachers and a growing percentageofmiddlemanagers,yet in 2010theyaccounted
for slightly less than a quarter of school superintendents (Kowalski et al., 2010). That was only
slightly more than in 1930, though it was up from a low of 1.2 percent in 1981 (Keller, 1999).
There is no consensus about what sustains the glass ceiling, but evidence points to several
contributing factors:
• Stereotypes associate leadership with maleness. Both men and women tend to link
leadership characteristics to men more than women (Schein, 1975, 1990). Job applicants
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with more masculine voices get rated as more competent (Ko, Judd, and Stapel, 2009),
Even with identical backgrounds, female CEOs are seen as less capable, and therefore less
worthy of investment, than men (Bigelow, Parks, and Wuebker, 2012).
• Women walk a tightrope of conflicting expectations. Simply put, high-level jobs are
“powerful, but women, in the minds of many people, should not be” (Keller, 1999).
Women have the difficult challenge of being powerful and “feminine” at the same time.
Expressing anger and wanting power are viewed as positive or neutral traits for men, but
negative ones for women (Brescoll and Uhlmann, 2008; Okimoto and Brescoll, 2010).
Women are attracted to intelligent men, but men are not enthusiastic about women who
are smarter than they are (Fisman et al., 2006). As a woman running for president in
2016, Hillary Clinton had to negotiate this tightrope. How could she prove that she was
tough enough to be commander-in-chief without seeming too angry or too smart? How
could she show feminine warmth and caring without seeming weak?
• Women encounter discrimination. In ancient fairy tales as well as modern films, powerful
women often turn out to be witches (or worse). Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is
typical of many stories with the message that a strong woman is dangerous unless tamed
by a stronger man. The historical association of powerful men with leadership and of
powerful women with evil produces unspoken and often unconscious bias. Subtle gender
biases associate competence with maleness and inhibit women’s ability to accumulate the
“career capital” that leads to success (Valian, 1999; Fitzsimmons and Callan, 2016).
• Parenting has a positive career impact for men but a negative one for women. Women are
rated lower on almost everything if they are parents, but the opposite is true for men
(Correll and Benard, 2007). Bosses, regardless of gender, see women as having greater
family-work conflict than men, even when their family situations are the same (Hoobler,
Wayne, and Lemmon, 2009). Those perceptions in turn led them to see women as less
• Women pay a higher price. Shakeshaft (cited in Keller, 1999) argues that the rewards of
senior positions are lower for women because, compared with men, they have higher
needs for success in their family and personal lives but lower needs for esteem and status.
Almost 70 percent of women in one study named personal and family responsibilities as
by far the biggest barrier to their career success (Morris, 2002). Executive jobs impose a
crushing workload on incumbents. The burden is even more overwhelming for women,
who still do the majority of the housework and child rearing in most dual-career families.
That helps to explain why fast-track women are less likely to marry and, if they do marry,
are more likely to divorce (Heffernan, 2002; Keller, 1999). It also clarifies why many
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women who do make it to the top are blessed with “trophy husbands”—those hard-to­
find stay-at-home dads (Morris, 2002).
• Women in high positions are pushed toward the “glass cliff” where they are more likely to
fail. Glass and Cook (2016) studied male and female Fortune 500 CEOS—including all
52 of the women who had held one of those jobs by 2014. They report, “Women are more
likely than men to be promoted to high-risk leadership positions and often lack the
support or authority to accomplish their strategic goals As a result, women leaders often
experience shorter tenures compared to male peers.” Women in powerful positions have
a harder time than men eliciting respect and admiration from subordinates. As a result,
female power-holders are seen as less legitimate than male counterparts (Viall, Napier,
and Brescoll, 2016, p. 400).
Despite the challenges, women have made progress. Attitudes are changing, support
mechanisms (such as day care) have increased, and cultural views have shifted. A study of
gender and leadership in higher education underscores the importance of culture and the
policy context that it spawns:
In secular Sweden there are strong policies that are implemented at all political
levels supported by the public discourse, while in Ireland such measures are few
and the equality infrastructures and discourse have been weakened by the state.
In Sweden women have come to dominate the Rector/President/Vice Chancel­
lor positions, and each gender has between 40 and 50 percent of the other
leading positions. In Ireland, there are no women in the top position and their
percentage of other leading positions is between 13 to 25 percent (O’Connor
and Goransson, 2015, p. 323).
Perhaps the strongest force for continued advancement is the talent pool that women
represent—they make up more than half the population and have a growing educational
edge over their male counterparts. Glass and Cook (2016, p. 55) note that, despite the many
barriers, an increasing number of women are getting to the top of large corporations. “Prior
to the year 2000, only seven women had been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Twenty-four
women became CEO between 2001 and 2010, and from 2011 to 2014, 22 women became
CEO.” In 2009, Ursula Burns at Xerox became the first African American woman to head a
major U.S. corporation and the first woman to succeed another woman.
Between 1986 and 2006, the proportion of female presidents of American universities
more than doubled—to almost one in four—and Harvard put a woman in the job for the
first time in 2007. Princeton accepted no women until 1969, and 30 years later, some of its
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mostly male alumni worried that their beloved alma mater might be on the skids when the
first woman president appointed the first female provost. But grumbling at alumni
gatherings could not change the fact that women were making gains even in America’s
most elite academic institutions.
Each of the frames offers a distinctive image of leadership. Depending on leader and
circumstance,eachturnofthekaleidoscope canrevealcompellingand constructiveleadership
opportunities, even though no one image is right for all times and seasons. In this section, we
discuss four images of leadership summarized in Exhibit 17.4. For each, we examine skills and
processes and propose rules of thumb for successful leadership practice.
Architect or Tyrant? Structural Leadership
Structural leadership may evoke images of petty tyrants and rigid bureaucrats who never
met a command or rule they didn’t like. Compared with other frames, literature on
structural leadership is sparse, and some structural theorists have contended that leadership
is neither important nor basic (Hall, 1987). But the effects of structural leadership can be
Exhibit 17.4.
Reframing Leadership.
Leadership is effective when Leadership is ineffective when
Leadership Leadership
Frame Leader is: process is: Leader is: process is:
Structural Analyst, Analysis, design Petty Management by
architect bureaucrat or detail and fiat
Human Catalyst, Support, Weakling, Abdication
resource servant empowerment pushover
Political Advocate, Advocacy, Con artist, thug Manipulation,
negotiator coalition building fraud
Symbolic Prophet, Inspiration, Fanatic, Mirage, smoke and
poet meaning-making charlatan mirrors
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powerful and enduring, even if the style is subtler and more analytic than other forms.
Collins and Hansen (2011) argue that great companies develop and adhere to a set of
durable operating principles that are specific, methodical, and consistent.
One of the great architects in business history is Jeff Bezos, who has built Amazon into one
of America’s most dominant firms with a relentless focus on building structure and
technology to support a relentless focus on customers. Bezos follows in a long line of
structural leaders that can be traced back at least to Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who became president
of General Motors in 1923 and remained a dominant force until his retirement in 1956. The
structure and strategy he established made GM the world’s largest corporation. Lee (1988)
described Sloan as “the George Washington of the GM culture” (p. 42), even though his
“genius was not in inspirational leadership, but in organizational structures” (p. 43).
GM founder, Billy Durant, had built GM by buying everything he could, forming a loose
combination of previously independent firms. “GM did not have adequate knowledge or
control of the individual operating divisions. It was management by crony, with the
divisions operating on a horse-trading basis. The main thing to note here is that no one had
the needed information or the needed control over the divisions” (Sloan, 1965, pp. 27–28).
Uncontrolled costs and a business slump in 1920 created a financial crisis, and GM
almost sank (Sloan, 1965). In 1923, Sloan’s first year at the helm, GM’s market share
dropped from 20 percent to 17 percent, while Ford’s increased to 55 percent. But change was
afoot. Henry Ford had a disdain for organization and clung to his vision of a single low-
priced, mass-market car. His cheap, reliable Model T—the “Tin Lizzie”—was a marketing
miracle at a time when customers would buy anything with four wheels and a motor if the
price was right. But Ford stayed with the same design for almost 20 years and dismissed the
need for creature comforts. Sloan surmised that consumers would pay more for amenities
like windows to keep out rain and snow. His strategy worked, and Chevrolet soon began to
gnaw off large chunks of Ford’s market share. By 1928, Model T sales had dropped so
precipitously that Henry Ford was forced to close his massive River Rouge plant for a year to
retool. General Motors took the lead in the great auto race for the first time in 20 years. For
the rest of the twentieth century, no one sold more cars than General Motors.
The dominant structural model of the time was a centralized, functional organization,
but Sloan felt that GM needed something better. He developed the world’s first division­
alized organization The basic principle was simple: Centralize planning and resource
allocation; decentralize operating decisions. Under Sloan’s model, divisions focused on
making and selling cars, while top management worked on long-range strategy and major
funding decisions, relying on headquarters staff for the information and control systems
they needed.
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The structure worked. By the late 1920s, GM had a more versatile organization with a
broader product line than Ford’s. With the founder still dominating his highly centralized
company, Ford was poorly positioned to compete with GM’s multiple divisions, each
producing its own cars and chasing distinct market niches at different price points. GM’s
pioneering structural form eventually set the standard for others: “Only two basic
organizational structures have been used for the management of large industrial enterprises.
One is the centralized, functional departmentalized type perfected by General Electric and
Du Pont before World War I. The other is the multidivisional, decentralized structure
initially developed at General Motors and also at Du Pont in the 1920s” (Chandler, 1977,
p. 463).
In the 1980s, GM found itself with another structural leader, Roger Smith, at the helm.
The results were less satisfying. Like Sloan, Smith ascended to the top at a difficult time. In
1980, his first year as GM’s chief executive, every American carmaker lost money. It was
GM’s first loss since 1921. Recognizing that the company had serious competitive problems,
Smith banked on structure and technology to make it “the world’s first twenty-first century
corporation” (Lee, 1988, p. 16). He restructured vehicle operations and spent billions of
dollars in a quest for paperless offices and robotic assembly plants. The changes were
dramatic, but the results were dismal: “[Smith’s] tenure has been a tragic era in General
Motors history. No GM chairman has disrupted as many lives without commensurate
rewards, has spent as much money without returns, or has alienated so many along the way”
(Lee, 1988, pp. 286–287).
Why did Smith stumble where Sloan had succeeded? The answer comes down to how
well each implemented the right structural form. Effective structural leaders share several
• Structural leaders do their homework. Sloan was a brilliant engineer who had grown up in
the auto industry. Before coming to GM, he ran an auto accessories company where he
implemented a divisional structure. He pioneered the development of better information
systems and market research. He was an early convert to group decision making and
created a committee structure to make major decisions. Roger Smith had spent his career
with General Motors, but most of his jobs were in finance. His numbers told him
machines were cheaper than people, so much of his vision for General Motors involved
changes in production technology, an area where he had little experience or expertise.
• Structural leaders rethink the relationship of structure, strategy, and environment. Sloan’s
new structure was intimately tied to a strategy for reaching the automotive market. He
foresaw growing demand, better cars, and more discriminating consumers. In the face of
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Henry Ford’s stubborn attachment to the Model T, Sloan initiated the “price pyramid”
(cars for every pocketbook) and the annual introduction of new models, which soon
became the industry norm.
For a variety of reasons, GM in the 1960s began to move away from Sloan’s concepts.
Fearing a government effort to break up the corporation, GM reduced the independence
of the car divisions and centralized design and engineering. Increasingly, the divisions
became marketing groups tasked to build and sell the cars that corporate gave them.
“Look-alike cars” confused consumers who found it hard to tell a Chevrolet from a
Instead of addressing this marketing challenge, Smith focused more on reducing costs
than on making better cars. As he saw it, GM’s primary competitive problem was high costs
driven by high wages. He showed little interest in efforts already under way at GM to
improve working conditions on the shop floor. Ironically, one of his best investments—a
joint venture with Toyota—succeeded because Toyota brought innovative approaches to
managing people: “With only a fraction of the money invested in GM’s heavily robotized
plants, [the NUMMI plant at] Fremont is more efficient and produces better-quality cars
than any plant in the GM system” (Hampton and Norman, 1987, p. 102).
• Structural leaders focus on implementation. Structural leaders often miscalculate the
difficulties of putting their designs in place. They underestimate resistance, skimp on
training, fail to build a political base, and misread cultural cues. Sloan was no human
resource specialist, but he intuitively saw the need to cultivate understanding and
acceptance of major decisions. He did that by continually asking for advice and by
establishing committees and task forces to address major issues.
• Effective structural leaders experiment. Sloan tinkered constantly with GM’s structure
and strategy and encouraged others to do likewise. The Great Depression produced a
drop of 72 percent in sales at GM between 1929 and 1932, but the company adapted
adroitly to hard times. Sales fell, but GM increased its market share and made money
every year. In the 1980s, Smith spent billions on his campaign to modernize the company
and cut costs, yet GM lost market share every year and remained the industry’s highest-
cost producer.
Catalyst or Wimp? Human Resource Leadership
The tiny trickle of writing about structural leadership is swamped by a torrent of human
resource literature (including Argyris, 1962; Bennis and Nanus, 1985, 2007; Blanchard and
Johnson, 1982; Bradford and Cohen, 1984; Boyatzis and McKee, 2005; Fiedler and Chemers,
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1974; Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, 2004; Hersey, 1984; Hollander, 1978; House, 1971;
Levinson, 1968; Likert, 1967; Vroom and Yetton, 1973; and Waterman, 1994). Human
resource theorists typically advocate openness, caring, mutuality, listening, coaching, partici­
pation, and empowerment. They view the leader as a facilitator and catalyst who uses
emotional intelligence and social skill to motivate and empower subordinates. The leader’s
power comes from talent, caring, sensitivity, and service rather than position or force.
Greenleaf contends that followers “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen
as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (1973, p. 4). He adds, “The
servant-leader makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The
best test [of leadership] is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served,
become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become
servants?” (p. 7). Research confirms that servant leadership improves employee attitudes,
job performance, and loyalty (Liden et al., 2014; Ling, Liu, and Wu, 2016)
Martín Varsavsky is one example of a human resource leader whose skill and artistry
have produced extraordinary results. Varsavsky, a native of Argentina, wound up in New
York as a teenager after violence forced his family to flee the military dictatorship in his
homeland. Over two decades, Varsavsky founded seven companies and picked up entre-
preneur-of-the-year awards on both sides of the Atlantic. He made his first millions in New
York City real estate before moving to Europe. There he founded two high-tech companies
that he later sold for more than a billion dollars each. In 2005, he partnered with venture
capitalists and Google to found FON, which soon became the world’s largest Wi-Fi network.
His approach to managing people was pivotal to his success: “Martín developed manage­
ment practices that would be keys throughout his career: create horizontal organizations
without any hierarchy, communicate clearly what you intend before doing it, delegate as
much as possible, trust your colleagues, and leave operating decisions in the hands of others”
(Ganitsky and Sancho, 2002, p. 101).
Gifted human resource leaders such as Varsavsky typically apply a consistent set of
people-friendly leadership principles:
• Human resource leaders communicate a strong belief in people. They are passionate about
“productivity through people” (Peters and Waterman, 1982). They express this faith in
both words and actions, often formalized in a core philosophy or credo. Fred Smith,
founder and CEO of Federal Express, sees “putting people first” as the cornerstone of his
company’s success: “We discovered a long time ago that customer satisfaction really
begins with employee satisfaction. That belief is incorporated in our corporate philoso­
phy statement: “People—Service—Profit . . . In that order” (Waterman, 1994, p. 89).
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• Human resource leaders are visible and accessible. Peters and Waterman (1982)
popularized “management by wandering around”—the idea that managers need to
get out of their offices and spend time with workers and customers. Patricia Carrigan, the
first female plant manager at General Motors, modeled this technique in the course of
turning around two manufacturing plants, each with a long history of union–manage­
ment conflict (Kouzes and Posner, 1987). In both situations, she began by going to the
plant floor to introduce herself to workers and to ask how they thought the operation
could be improved. One worker commented that before Carrigan, “I didn’t know who
the plant manager was. I wouldn’t have recognized him if I saw him.”
• Effective human resource leaders empower others. People-oriented leaders often refer to
their employees as “partners,” “owners,” or “associates.” They make it clear that workers
have a stake in the organization’s success and a right to be involved in making decisions.
In the 1980s, Jan Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavian Air Systems (SAS), turned around a
sluggish business with the intent of making it “the best airline in the world for business
travelers” (Carlzon, 1987, p. 46). To find out what the business traveler wanted, he turned
to SAS’s frontline service employees. Focus groups generated hundreds of ideas and
emphasized the importance of frontline autonomy to decide on the spot what passengers
needed. Carlzon concluded that SAS’s image was built on countless “moments of truth:”
15-second encounters between employees and customers:
“We have to place responsibility for ideas, decisions, and actions with the people
who are SAS during those 15 seconds. If they have to go up the organizational
chain of command for a decision on an individual problem, then those 15
golden seconds will elapse without a response and we will have lost an
opportunity to earn a loyal customer” (Carlzon, 1987, p. 66).
Advocate or Hustler? Political Leadership
Even in the results-driven private sector, leaders find that they have to plunge into the
political arena to move their company where it needs to go. Lee Iacocca, who became chief
executive of Chrysler in the late 1970s when the company was near death, provided one of
the most impressive examples of political leadership in American business history.
Iacocca’s career had taken him to the presidency of Ford Motor Company. But then in
1978 his boss, Henry Ford II, fired him, reportedly with the simple explanation, “Let’s just
say I don’t like you” (O’Toole, 1984, p. 231). Iacocca’s unemployment was brief. Chrysler
Corporation, desperate for new leadership, saw Iacocca as the best answer to the company’s
business woes.
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Iacocca had done his homework before accepting Chrysler’s offer but still found things
were worse than he expected. Chrysler was losing money so fast that bankruptcy seemed
almost inevitable. He concluded that the only way out was to persuade the U.S. government
to guarantee massive loans. It was a tough sell; much of Congress, the media, and the
American public was against the idea. Iacocca had to convince them all that government
intervention was in their best interest as well as Chrysler’s.
Ultimately, Iacocca got his guarantees. He won by artfully employing rules for political
• Political leaders clarify what they want and what they can get. Political leaders are realists.
They don’t let hope cloud judgment. Iacocca translated Chrysler’s survival into the
realistic goal of getting enough help to eke out a couple of difficult years. He was always
careful to ask not for money but for loan guarantees. He insisted that it would cost
taxpayers nothing because Chrysler would pay back its loans.
• Political leaders assess the distribution of power and interests. Political leaders map the
political terrain by thinking carefully about the key players, their interests, and their power,
asking: Whose support do I need? How do I go about getting it? Who are my opponents?
How much power do they have? What can I do to reduce or overcome their opposition? Is
this battle winnable? Iacocca needed the support of Chrysler’s employees and unions, but
they had little choice. The key players were Congress and the public. Congress would vote
for the guarantees only if Iacocca’s proposal had sufficient popular support.
• Political leaders build linkages to key stakeholders. Political leaders focus their attention
on building relationships and networks. They recognize the value of personal contact and
face-to-face conversations.
• Iacocca worked hard to build linkages. He spent hours meeting with members of Congress
and testifying before congressional committees. After he met with 31 Italian American
members of Congress, all but one voted for the loan guarantees. Said Iacocca, “Some were
Republicans, some were Democrats, but in this case they voted the straight Italian ticket.
We were desperate, and we had to play every angle” (Iacocca and Novak, 1984, p. 221).
• Political leaders persuade first, negotiate second, and coerce only if necessary. Wise
political leaders recognize that power is essential to their effectiveness; they also know to
use it judiciously. William P. Kelly, a veteran public administrator, put it well:
“Power is like the old Esso [gasoline] ad—a tiger in your tank. But you can’t let
the tiger out, you just let people hear him roar. You use power terribly sparingly
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because it has a short half-life. You let people know you have it and hope that
you don’t have to use it” (Ridout and Fenn, 1974, p. 10).
Sophisticated political leaders know that influence begins with understanding others’
concerns and interests. Iacocca knew that he had to address a widespread fear that federal
guarantees would throw taxpayer dollars down a rat hole. He used a big ad campaign to
respond to public concerns. Does Chrysler have a future? Yes, he said, we’ve been here 54
years, and we’ll be here another 54 years. Would the loan guarantees be a dangerous
precedent? No, the government already carried $400 billion in other loan guarantees, and in
any event, Chrysler was going to pay its loans back. Iacocca also spoke directly to
Congressional concerns with data painting a grim picture of jobs lost in every district if
Chrysler went under.
Iacocca got what he wanted—enough breathing room for Chrysler to pull out of its
tailspin. The company repaid its loans, ignited the minivan craze, and had many profitable
years before the return of bad times in the 1990s (which led to a sale to German automaker
Daimler Benz in 1998 and then to a private equity firm in 2007).
Prophet or Zealot? Symbolic Leadership
The symbolic frame represents a fourth turn of the leadership kaleidoscope, portraying
organization as both theater and temple. As theater, an organization creates a stage on
which actors play their roles and hope to communicate the right impression to their
audience. As temple, an organization is a community of faith, bonded by shared beliefs,
traditions, myths, rituals, and ceremonies.
Symbolically, leaders lead through both actions and words as they interpret and
reinterpret experience. What are the real lessons of history? What is really happening
in the world? What will the future bring? What mission is worthy of our loyalty and
investment? Data and analysis offer few compelling answers to such questions. Symbolic
leaders interpret experience so as to impart meaning and purpose through phrases of beauty
and passion. Franklin D. Roosevelt reassured a nation in the midst of its deepest economic
depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” At almost the same time,
Adolf Hitler assured Germans that their severe economic and social problems were the
result of betrayal by Jews and communists. Germans, he said, were a superior people who
could still fulfill their nation’s destiny of world mastery. Though many saw the destructive
paranoia in Hitler’s message, millions of fearful citizens were swept up in Hitler’s bold vision
of German preeminence.
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Symbolic leaders follow a consistent set of practices and scripts:
• Symbolic leaders lead by example. They demonstrate their commitment and courage by
plunging into the fray. In taking risks and holding nothing back, they reassure and
inspire others. When Ann Mulcahy took the top job at Xerox in 2001, the building was
burning and few thought she had much chance of putting the fire out. Her financial
advisors told her bankruptcy was the only choice. Determined to save the company she
loved, Mulcahy became a tireless, visible cheerleader working to get the support she
needed to make Xerox a success: “Constantly on the move, Mulcahy met with bankers,
reassured customers, galvanized employees. She sometimes visited three cities a day”
(Morris, 2003, p. 1).
• They use symbols to capture attention. When Diana Lam became principal of the Mackey
Middle School in Boston, she faced a substantial challenge. Mackey had the typical
problems of an urban school: decaying physical plant, poor discipline, racial tension,
disgruntled teachers, and limited resources (Kaufer and Leader, 1987a). In such a
situation, a symbolic leader looks for something visible and dramatic to signal that
change is on the way. During the summer before assuming her duties, Lam wrote
personal letters to every teacher requesting individual meetings. She met teachers
wherever they wanted (in one case driving for 2 hours). She asked them how they
felt about the school and what changes they wanted. Then she recruited her family to
repaint the school’s front door and some of its ugliest classrooms. “When school opened,
students and staff members immediately saw that things were going to be different, if
only symbolically. Perhaps even more important, staff members received a subtle
challenge to make a contribution themselves” (Kaufer and Leader, 1987b, p. 3).
When Iacocca became president of Chrysler, one of his first steps was to announce
that he was reducing his salary to $1 a year. “I did it for good, cold pragmatic reasons. I
wanted our employees and our suppliers to be thinking: ‘I can follow a guy who sets that
kind of example’” (Iacocca and Novak, 1984, pp. 229–230).
• Symbolic leaders frame experience. In a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, a key
function of symbolic leadership is to offer plausible and hopeful interpretations of
experience. President John F. Kennedy channeled youthful exuberance into the Peace
Corps and other initiatives with his stirring inaugural challenge: “Ask not what your
country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” When Martin Luther
King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 and gave his extraordinary “I Have a
Dream” speech, his opening line was, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go
down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
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He could have interpreted the event in a number of other ways: “We are here because
nothing else has worked”; “We are here because it’s summer and it’s a good day to be
outside.” Each version is about as accurate as the next, but accuracy is not the issue.
King’s assertion was bold and inspiring; it told members of the audience that they were
making history by their presence at a momentous event.
• Symbolic leaders communicate a vision. One powerful way in which a leader can interpret
experience is by distilling and disseminating a vision—a persuasive and hopeful image of
the future. A vision needs to address both the challenges of the present and the hopes and
values of followers. Vision is particularly important in times of crisis and uncertainty.
When people are in pain, when they are confused and uncertain, or when they feel
despair and hopelessness, they desperately seek meaning and hope. In the 2016 U.S.
presidential election, Donald Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” was
accompanied by very few policy specifics, but that did not trouble millions of voters
who longed to see their country get back on the right track.
Where does such vision come from? One view is that leaders create a vision and then
persuade others to accept it (Bass, 1985; Bennis and Nanus, 1985). A different take is that
leaders discover and articulate a vision that is already there, even if unexpressed
(Cleveland, 1985). Kouzes and Posner put it well: “Corporate leaders know very well
that what seeds the vision are those imperfectly formed images in the marketing
department about what the customers really wanted and those inarticulate mumblings
from the manufacturing folks about the poor product quality, not crystal ball gazing in
upper levels of the corporate stratosphere. The best leaders are the best followers. They
pay attention to those weak signals and quickly respond to changes in the corporate
course” (1987, p. 114).
Leadership is a two-way street. No amount of charisma or rhetorical skill can sell a
vision that reflects only the leader’s values and needs. Effective symbolic leadership is
possible only for those who understand the deepest values and most pressing concerns
of their constituents. But leaders still play a critical role in articulating a vision by
bringing a unique, personal blend of history, poetry, passion, and courage in distilling
and shaping direction. Most important, they can choose which stories to tell to express
a shared quest.
• Symbolic leaders tell stories. Symbolic leaders often embed their vision in a mythical
story—a story about “us” and about “our” past, present, and future. “Us” could be a
school’s faculty, a plant’s employees, the people of Thailand, or any other audience a
leader hopes to reach. The past is usually golden, a time of noble purposes, of great deeds,
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of legendary heroes and heroines. The present is troubled, a critical moment when we
have to make fateful choices. The future is a dreamlike vision of hope and greatness, often
tied to past glories.
A version of this story line helped Ronald Reagan, a master storyteller, become
America’s thirty-ninth president. Reagan’s golden past was rooted in the frontier, a place
of rugged, sturdy, self-reliant men and women who built a great nation. They took care of
themselves and their neighbors without interference from a monstrous national gov­
ernment. America had fallen into crisis, said Reagan, because “the liberals” had created a
federal government that levied oppressive taxes and eroded freedom through bureau­
cratic regulation and meddling. Reagan promised a return to American greatness by
“getting government off the backs of the American people” and restoring traditional
values of freedom and self-reliance. Reagan’s story line worked for him and for a Reagan
acolyte, George W. Bush, in 2000. It worked still a third time in 2016 for Donald Trump.
Trump did not spell out the golden past that was implicit in his campaign mantra “Make
America great again.” But he was clear that America was in crisis because of a toxic
combination of terrorism, uncontrolled immigration, increasing crime and violence, the
loss of jobs to foreign competitors, and bad leadership in Washington. His vision for the
future offered resolution of all those problems: “Together, we will lead our party back to
the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace. We
will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and
order” (Politico Staff, 2016).
Leaders’ stories succeed when they offer something that people want to believe,
regardless of historical validity or empirical support. Even a flawed story will work if it
taps persuasively into the experience, values, and hopes of listeners.
Although leadership is universally accepted as a cure for social and organizational ills, it is
also widely misunderstood. Many views of leadership fail to recognize its relational and
contextual nature and its distinction from power and position. Shallow ideas about
leadership mislead managers. A multiframe view provides a more comprehensive map
of a complex and varied terrain.
Each frame highlights significant possibilities for leadership, but each by itself is
incomplete. A century ago, models of managerial leadership were narrowly rational. In
the 1960s and 1970s, human resource leadership became fashionable. In recent years,
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symbolic and political leadership have become more prominent, and the literature abounds
with advice on how to become a powerful or visionary leader. Ideally, managers combine
multiple frames into a comprehensive approach to leadership. Wise leaders understand
their own strengths, work to expand them, and build diverse teams that can offer an
organization leadership in all four modes: structural, political, human resource, and
1. In the constitutional convention, delegates were divided over whether the president should be
selected by Congress or elected directly by the voters. The Electoral College was the compromise
solution. Usually, the winner of the national popular vote wins the presidency, but there have
been exceptions, including two in this century. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, and would
have been president if he had carried Florida, which he lost by 537 votes out of almost 4 million
total. In 2016, as we discuss, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes
but lost in the electoral college when Donald Trump carried key swing states