A Handy Guide To The Gods Of Management

By Winifred Tan

How would you describe your current workplace?

Is it a young, vibrant environment bubbling with creative ideas and employee-led initiatives? Is everyone’s opinion heard and taken into account? Do you work independently, in small project groups, or in an organization so extensive you bump into new faces every day?

Or is your environment growing stale, entrenched in an ever-growing set of Standard Operating Procedures that read longer than the Constitution of India (which is 450 articles and 120,000 words long and has the distinction of being the longest Constitution in the world)? Are proposals for change frequently turned down by The Boss on advice of his Old Boys’ Club, to which only his closest confidants are granted entry?

Understanding your workplace culture is important because it gives you a useful framework to guide your code of conduct. Workplace culture defines what’s important, what’s expected, what’s accepted, what’s preferred, what’s rewarded, what’s frowned upon, and what’s taboo within the organization – these are answers you won’t find in the official contract or employee handbook.

To understand workplace culture, you need to actively interact with fellow colleagues and take your cue from your supervisors, upper management and The Boss (i.e. the group who decides the strategic direction of the company and makes the final decisions).

If you wish to succeed and go far in your career, it is crucial for you to discern the nuances of your workplace culture and tailor your behavior accordingly.

The Mansion of the Gods

Imagine if your boss were Dionysus, God of wine and revelry, and promised you the freedom to make your own decisions in an organization free of hierarchy. Would you thrive in such an environment? Or would you prefer your boss to be Zeus instead, ruling his empire with an iron fist?

Such an idea may seem fantastic and unreal, but it also happens to be one of the most influential and valuable models for understanding management styles and the corporate cultures associated with them.

In a 1978 classic titled Gods of Management: The Changing Work of Organizations, British management guru Charles Handy visualizes what the world of business would be like if it were run by the Greek gods of yore. Using the archetypes of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and Dionysus, he illustrates four distinct management cultures that exist within all corporate organizations and explains how making culturally-aware decisions can lead to more productive and harmonious workplaces.

• Zeus: Club Culture

As its name implies, the club culture rallies around the father figure Zeus – usually the founder or the top boss of an organization – who strives to maintain absolute control over his employees. Proximity to the Zeus boss is vital as power is concentrated in his hands and radiates outwards to his network of friends, old boys and contacts; in other words, one’s relationship with the boss carries more weight than any official title or formal job description. Due to the centralized circle of trust, the Zeus organization is cheap to operate and good at making speedy decisions.

Examples: Investment banks and brokerage firms

• Apollo: Role Culture

The Apollonian culture is a bureaucracy that bases its approach on the definition of the role/job to be done. Employees’ authority and responsibilities are determined by the power hierarchy, and a strong premium is placed on order and efficiency. There is very little initiative among the employees as high efficiency does not lead to reward but rather a re-evaluation of the institution’s goals and objectives.

Apollonian cultures look to the past in order to predict the future. Though stable, such cultures are noticeably weak when responding to changes in the environment. They begin firstly by ignoring the changes, then subsequently setting up cross-functional liaison groups to hold the structure together. If these measures fail, the entire organization will collapse in merger, bankruptcy, or a consultant’s re-organization.

Examples: Life insurance companies, civil service, state industries, and local government

• Athena: Task Culture

Athenian cultures flourish in times of expansion, when the products and services offered are new or when there is a cartel arrangement that provides a price floor. They can be thought of as meritocratic matrix organizations which draw employees and resources from different units together to solve a common problem. Since work is the leading principle of coordination, the amount of power one commands is derived from one’s expertise in completing a task or project. This is a culture that fosters a high level of adaptation and innovation by emphasizing talent, creativity, youth and team problem-solving.

In real life, however, Athenian cultures tend to be short-lived due to the high expenses incurred from hiring industry experts to analyze organizational problems in depth. Over time, the organization will be driven to develop routines and adopt a greater Apollonian work philosophy.

Examples: Ad agencies and consultancies

• Dionysus: Existential Culture

In a Dionysian culture, the organization exists solely to help the individual achieve his or her goals. Unlike the other three cultures, employees see themselves as independent professionals who have temporarily lent their skills and services to the organization. Management is considered an unnecessary counterweight as decision-making occurs by consensus. Every individual has the right to veto, such that any coordinated effort becomes a matter of endless negotiation.

People who belong to this small and highly-participatory culture are often young, reputable and talented professionals capable of commanding an open market salary. While Utopian in theory, the Dionysian culture can lead to poisonous ideological wars among its professionals.

Examples: Professional service firms

Metamorphoses

These four archetypes are equal in value and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Handy’s model is especially useful in organizational and group levels, since organizations are rarely homogenous but instead usually subdivided into multiple groups, each subscribing to a different type of dominant culture.

For managers, cultivating the right workplace culture matters because workplaces are, in essence, organic and interactive. Being an effective leader involves staying abreast of the culturally-embedded behaviors, biases and beliefs of your employees, and making use of that knowledge to motivate and manage them.

Better still, walk the talk and set a model of desired attitudes and actions for your staff to follow.

• Practice open communication.
• Build meaningful relationships with your co-workers and employees.
• Strive to be a servant leader and promote individual self-actualization and creative collaboration at the same time.

Employees do respond to authentic, principle-driven leadership; and in time to come, you will see a noticeably happier, healthier, and more productive performance culture in your workplace.

What about the average corporate employee? Would you have to bury your personality entirely in order to fit in at work? Not necessarily. If you perceive that a particular culture does not suit your personality, by all means, feel free to switch to another department or organization. Otherwise, you may find that adopting some of the more visible characteristics of your workplace culture can help you relate better with your colleagues and managers.

Find out more about your company’s history and mission. Dress in an appropriate style for work. Adopt the communication style and work schedule most prevalent in your workplace. Doing so will ensure that you are seen as a positive team player, while still allowing you a certain degree of flexibility to express your individuality.

Eventually, you will be able to capitalize on your workplace culture and build the long-lasting, cooperative relationships that are critical for career success.

So the next time you catch yourself harboring thoughts such as “my boss is from hell”, think again. He (or she) may hail from Mount Olympus instead.


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