Home Organizational Psychology Leadership Leading into the Future VI: Postmodern Perspectives on Organizational Life

Leading into the Future VI: Postmodern Perspectives on Organizational Life

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Organizations (like virtually all other systems) contain layers of chaos and order. When confronted with a seemingly chaotic and unpredictable organization, we have only to move up one level (to greater abstraction), or down one level (to greater specificity), if we wish to find order. Thus, for instance, the behavior of a specific person may begin to make some sense once we begin to examine overall dynamics in her department rather than just look at her individual behavior. Organizational theorists tell us about the deskilling of managers or subordinates that often occurs in organizations and the ways in which this deskilling contributes in some manner to the maintenance of stability in this department.

Similarly, we can move up or down levels of analysis to find chaos in an organization that seems to be orderly. The operation of a ballet or theater company, for instance, may look very orderly from the audience’s perspective. At a higher level, however, everything may look quite chaotic (inadequate funding, props that never arrive, recalcitrant performers)—just as at the level of the individual performer we will find stage fright, confusion, rivalry and other forms of non rational and chaotic behavior that are never seen by the appreciative audience. Similarly, in many large organizations, the customers (and perhaps even corporate board members) are never allowed to witness its pervasive chaos. We polish and rationalize (public relations) decisions that have been made in highly irrational ways and in complex, unpredictable settings.

Organizational Anchors and Forms

Postmodernists also have something to teach us about the mission and boundaries of the organizations in which we find ourselves. They employ rich and provocative metaphors to describe the distinctive ways in which organizations operation. Postmodernists, for instance, point to the need for anchors that provide both stability and flexibility to organizations as they negotiate with an unpredictable and turbulent external environment. These anchors exist at both the individual level (often called career anchors) and at the organizational level (often called organizational charters).

The postmodernists also speak of the differences between more traditional organizations that resemble maple trees (with deeply rooted identities and highly complex and differentiated structures), and some of the newer organizations that more closely resemble palm trees (with highly flexible and replicable structures but shallow root systems and short lives). The maple tree organization grows and changes very slowly, for each growth phase or change on the part of one branch on the tree ultimately requires a readjustment of all the other branches of the tree. By contrast, change in the palm tree organization is readily introduced, for each unit of the organization operates independently and need not adjust appreciably to changes in other parts of the organization. Both types of organizations make sense in the postmodern world. One must decide, however, which is appropriate to one’s own organization, or risk organizational dysfunction and death.

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