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A Metaphor at Work

Discuss one of the metaphors from Morgan’s writings that applies to your own organizational context, Transportation Security Administration (TSA). From the perspective of a leader/manager, discuss the benefit of identifying the functionality of your organization through the lens of the selected metaphor. What do you learn about your organization using that metaphor? What do you learn about your role in the organization through recognizing the metaphor at work? 

This discussion is reflective (No citations/references required). First person is acceptable.

*Post must be a minimum of 250 words.

*See Attachment for Morgan’s Metaphors


Gareth Morgan’s Organisational Metaphors


Our interpretations of organisations are always based on some sort of theory to explain reality
(Morgan). Many ideas about organisations and management are based on a small number of taken
for granted beliefs and assumptions.

Organisations are complex and can be understood in terms of several perspectives. People who are
inflexible only see organisations in terms of one of these metaphors, but people who are open and
flexible and suspend judgement are able to recognise several perspectives, which open up several
rather than only a single possibility for dealing with organisations and their problems. We live in a
world that is increasingly complex and deal with complexity by ignoring it.

Morgan identifies nine organisational perspectives.

1. The machine view which dominates modern management thinking and which is typical of

2. The organismic view which emphasises growth, adaptation and environmental relations.
3. Organisations as information processors that can learn (brain metaphor).
4. Organisations as cultures based on values, norms, beliefs, rituals and so on.
5. In political organisations interests, conflict and power issues predominate.
6. Some organisations are psychic prisons in which people are trapped by their mindsets.
7. Organisations can adapt and change, and
8. Some organisations are instruments of domination with the emphasis on exploitation and

imposing your will on others.

Machines and machine thinking dominates the modern world. People are expected to operate like
clockwork by working to certain procedures, rest according to certain rules and repeat that in a
mechanical way. Organisations are machines in which people are parts.

Machine organisations are tools to achieve the ends of those who own them. Organisations have to
adapt to the technology they use and after the Industrial revolution people lost their work
autonomy to become specialists in controlling machines.

Machine organisations are modelled on the military from which it borrowed ranks and uniforms,
standardised regulations, task specialisation, standardised equipment, systematic training, and
command language. Bureaucracies produce routine administration in the same way as machines in

Machine managers are taught that you can plan for and control organisations and divide
organisations in functional departments with precisely defined jobs. Commands are given from the
top and travel throughout the organisation in a precisely defined way to have a precisely defined
effect. The thrust of classical management theory is that organisations are rational and can be
optimised to become as efficient as possible.


Machine organisations work well if the task is simple, the environment stable, the task is repetitive,
if precision is required, and if humans behave like machines. On the flipside, machine organisations
adapt poorly to change, it fosters bureaucracy, it can have unanticipated unwanted consequences,
and it is dehumanising.

These organisations are perceived to work like living organisms. Consequently, they are concerned
with survival. Employees have complex needs that must be satisfied for them to function well. The
Hawthorne studies identified social needs in the workplace and brought the motivation to work to
the fore. The emphasis shifted towards making work more meaningful and getting people more
involved in their jobs.

Since organisations are open to the environment, they should be organised to fit their task
environments, rather than according to a boilerplate. Such organisations are better able to respond
to change in the environment. This lead to models such as adhocracies, project orientated
companies, matrix organisations, and so on.

Some researchers emphasise the importance of the environment as a force in organisational
survival. According to the population ecology view, some organisations depend on resources to
survive for which they have to compete with other organisations. Since there is normally a shortage
of resources, only the fittest survive and the environment determines who will succeed or fail. It is
therefore important to understand how groups of organisations or industries adapt and survive
rather than individual organisations, since whole industries may fail when the environment

The strengths of the organismic view is its emphasis on relations between organisations and the
environment, which suggests that open systems must be understood at a process level. Secondly, its
focus is on survival, which is a process as opposed to goals which are endpoints. Organismic
organisations have more design choices, they are more innovative, and they focus on
interorganisational relations. Its limitations are that it is too mechanistic and therefore struggles
with social phenomena on which it relies, most organisations do not function well because their
elements do not cooperate, and the metaphor can easily become an ideology.

When things change, it is important that people should be able to question whether what they do is
appropriate in a rational way, like a brain, which is the best known information processor.
Organisations cannot function without processing information, communicating, and making

According to Simon, organisations cannot be perfectly rational because they never have access to all
information, they can therefore only consider a few alternatives when making decisions, and they
are unable to accurately predict outcomes. Organisations therefore settle for a bounded rationality
of based on sufficient decisions guided by rules of thumb and a limited search and limited
information. These limits of rationality are institutional and make decision making more
manageable. Jobs and functional departments create structures of interpretation and decision
making, which simplifies the ability of managers to make decisions.


The question is whether organisations, like a brain, can learn? Cybernetics studies the exchange of
information, communication, and control, which allows machines to maintain a steady state
through feedback and self-regulation. Movement beyond a specified limit triggers movement
towards the opposite direction to maintain a course towards a desired goal. An analogy is that of a
sailboat on its way to a harbour. In order to do that, a system must be able to detect aspects in the
environment, compare that to rules guiding behaviour, detect deviations from the rules, and take
action to correct the deficit. More complex systems are able to correct mistakes in the rules guiding
them, and the ability to question the activities of a system is the basis of learning (see for example
(Argyris and Schön).

In practice, so-called double-loop learning is not that easy for the following reasons. Bureaucratic
structures discourage people from thinking for themselves, people protect themselves against
making mistakes in organisations where employees are held accountable for their actions and
rewards success and punish failure, and there is often a gap between what people say and do.
Organisational learning requires accepting mistakes and uncertainty as inevitable in complex
environments, it requires the ability to consider different viewpoints to issues and problems, and
action based on inquiry rather than traditionally imposed goals or targets. A key issue is
questioning prevailing beliefs and assumptions and a shift towards choosing limits or constraints
rather than just ends.

Morgan speculates that the key to the brain’s abilities is its connectivity, which means that different
functions are performed by the same structures, and functions can evolve depending on changing
circumstances. In the same way, organisations should therefore seek to self-organise and build in
redundancy that allows that just like the brain. Redundancy can be created by adding specialised
parts to the system, or by adding functions to the parts, in other words multitasking or multi-
skilling. The former is mechanistic and the latter allows for flexibility and the ability to self-

Ross Ashby suggested that the diversity of a self-regulating system must be the same as the
complexity of its environment so that it can respond appropriately to its environment. This can be
achieved by multifunctional people or multifunctional teams that have the ability to adapt and
learn. It requires facilitative enabling management that specifies direction but not the specifics for
getting there. The more you specify or predesign, the less flexible the system becomes. On the other
end of the spectrum, without any direction at all, self-organisation takes too long.

The strengths of the brain metaphor are its contribution to learning and self-organisation, a shift
away from goal directed planning, and a shift away from bounded rationality. But it also has two
major weaknesses, namely the conflict between learning and self-organisation and power and
control, and secondly, the resistance of beliefs and assumptions, or mind maps, to change.

In industrial countries we now live in a society made up of organisations that influence our lives,
each with their own peculiar beliefs, rules, and rituals. According to Emile Durkheim, in
organisational societies traditional patterns of social order disintegrate and lead to fragmented
beliefs based on the occupational structure of the society.

As I showed earlier, Hofstede’s research showed significant national differences in the concept of
work and how work is organised. Culture therefore shapes organisations, and organisations are


mini-societies with their own different subcultures within national cultures with frequently
subcultures within subcultures.

In short: organisations are socially constructed realities.

The strengths of the cultural model of organisation is that it draws attention to the symbolic aspects
and subjective meaning of organisations, to the shared mental programs that create this meaning, it
helps to interpret the nature and significance of relations between the organisation and its
environment, and it helps in understanding organisational change. However, a cultural model can
also lead to ideological control in the wrong hands and getting a complete picture of an existing
culture is not easy.

Edgar Schein takes a somewhat different view of organisational culture that has implications for
Hofstede’s’ research (Schein). According to him there are three dimensions to organisational
culture namely artefacts, which are similar to Hofstede’s cultural practices, espoused values, and
beliefs, or Hofstede’s mental programs.

Artefacts are the visible structures and processes of an organisation and include language,
technology, products, dress code, ways to address people, rituals, ceremonies, and so on. They are
easy to see but are only meaningful relative to the values and assumptions of the organisation.

Espoused values are the ways an organisation justify what it does. When any group forms or is faced
with a new task or challenge, it accepts some person or subgroup’s proposed solutions based on
assumptions about what works and what is right or wrong. Once the group observes that the plan
works, the perception is mentally transformed into a shared belief and then becomes a shared
assumption. Only solutions that continue to work in reliably solving a group’s problems and that
can be socially validated are transformed into assumptions. Social validation means that certain
values are confirmed by shared experience, which in turn means how comfortable and free of
anxiety members are when they adhere to the new rules.

Beliefs and ethical rules copied from other people remain conscious as espoused values and are
used as a guide for dealing with important situations and when initiating new members in an
organisation on how to behave. Espoused values are therefore useful for coping with uncertainty
and events that cannot be controlled. They refer to what people say they do, as opposed to what
they may actually do in a given situation. Hofstede’s research reports on national espoused values,
which may not necessarily always be what many people in different national cultures do in practice.

Assumptions are the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings that
serve as the ultimate source of values and action. When a solution to a problem often works, what
was a theory in the beginning becomes a reality to people. We never confront or discuss our
assumptions which make them extremely difficult to change. To change we have to relearn things
about reality which is difficult because asking questions about assumptions destabilises our mental
and interpersonal worlds which causes anxiety. To avoid anxiety people want to see that things fit
their existing assumptions to the point that they will distort or deny what is really happening.
Leaders are the custodians of culture and therefore have an important role to play when change
becomes necessary.


To Schein therefore, organisational culture is the product of a complex group learning process that
binds together a pattern of behaviours and provides structural stability to groups at a deeper level
through shared basic assumptions. The search for patterns and integration comes from the human
need for stability, consistency and meaning. Hence the function of culture is to provide stability to
human group interaction by maintaining expected behaviour.

One can understand the substance and dynamics of group culture by distinguishing between how a
group adapts to the outside world and how it integrates its internal processes in order to remain
able to adapt. Adaptation basically describes a coping cycle that any system must maintain relative
to its environment, with the following essential elements.

1. Every group must have a shared concept of its ultimate survival problem, from which it

develops a basic sense of what its core mission, primary task, or reason for existence is. If
people disagree about goals subcultures may develop or the group may break up. Assumptions
about identity and purpose are central to organisational culture.

2. To achieve their goals, people must agree about how to go about to achieve the group’s mission.
3. People must also agree about how to allocate tasks and roles, how the organisation should be

structured, people rewarded, tasks controlled, and how information and authority will be
shared. In other words, a group’s skills, technology and knowledge become part of its culture.
Cultural assumptions about means and goals involve internal status issues related to the
allocation of territory, property, roles and privileges, which increases the complexity of the
group and become issues to be addressed if change is necessary. If there is consensus on means,
it supports regular behaviour and many visible artefacts of culture, which, once they are in
place become a source of stability and difficult to change.

4. There must be consensus about how an organisation measures the outcomes of its activities.
5. People must decide how the group will take corrective action if they discover that they vary

from their stated goals. Corrective strategies reveal assumptions about mission and identity and
are also related to assumptions about a groups’ internal functioning.

6. The process of becoming a group is not automatic. Every group must learn how to become a
group by developing a common language, reaching consensus on boundary issues of in versus
out-group, developing rules to define relationships, developing assumptions about reward and
punishment to constrain individual behaviour, and finding explanations for unpredictable

Organisations on the whole are unitary or pluralistic in Flood and Jackson’s terms, which is why
they are able to function the way they do. The situation is somewhat different in bureaucracies.

In democracies people are free in principle to have their own opinions, make their own decisions,
and to be treated as equals. In organisations in democratic countries employees have none of these
rights. The only freedom they have is the option to quit and move on. A country may therefore be
democratic, but its organisations are not.

The concepts of authority, power and superior-subordinate relationships dominate management
and organisations therefore are structured according to political principles. The original meaning of
politics is based on the view that when people have divergent opinions they should have the ability
to reconcile them through consultation and negotiation.


Many organisations are ruled by autocratic managers with a lot of power who make all decisions. In
such organisations the rule is to do things my way, as opposed to bureaucracies where the rule is to
do it according to the rules, or true democratic organisations, where the rule is how should we do
it? Politics is most evident in power plays, conflict and interpersonal intrigues, and is mostly

In human systems, people have different interests, which may come into conflict with that of the
organisation or other people in the organisation. They become political if people begin to share
interests or form coalitions to advance their interests.

Conflict occurs when there are opposing interests and is probably always present in most
organisations. Conflict can occur between people, groups, and coalitions and it may be inherent in
the way the organisation is structured. It is fostered by beliefs, mental programming, stereotyping,
competition for scarce resources, or in organisations that encourage competition between

The way that conflicts of interest are resolved is through the power to determine who gets what,
when and how. It is the ability to get people to do things they would not normally want to do.
Morgan extends the sources of power from the four identified earlier to fifteen.

1. Formal power is when people accept the right of another to rule and to have power which
means that they have a duty to obey them. This form of legitimacy leads to social stability.
Traditionally charisma, tradition or rule of law is associated with this form of power with
formal authority associated with position typically of the bureaucratic type.

2. The control of resources depends on resources being scarce or limited access to them. A
common form of this type is the control of the financial resources of an organisation.

3. Using organisational structures, rules and regulations which is how the struggle for political
control expresses itself. The ability to use rules to your own advantage is an important
source of organisational power.

4. Control of decision making. One of the most effective ways to get a decision is by default, in
other words by controlling the agenda and assumptions about a problem situation. One can
also influence the issues and as stated before, decisions are shaped by group interaction.

5. Control of knowledge and information by controlling who gets what information.
6. Control of boundaries. Groups and departments often try to control key skills and resources,

which influences in-group/out-group decisions.
7. Control of technology. Organisations often become dependent on some form of core

technology, which influences interdependence and power relations. People are able to
manipulate control over technology to their advantage.

8. Coping with uncertainty means the ability to foresee change and make provision for that
ahead of time.

9. Alliances and networks include contacts, sponsors, coalitions and informal networks, which
give individuals advance information. Organisational politics therefore uses culture
alliances and networks to influence others with a stake in the sphere within which they are
operating. In order to be successful one has to incorporate friends and pacify potential
enemies by trading favours now for favours in the future. More often than not, these
networks and alliances are informal and invisible.

10. Control of counter-organisations such as for example trade unions. Opposing forces can
enter into an alliance to form a power bloc and in this case governments for example use
trade unions to indirectly control business monopolies.


11. You manage meaning when you can convince others to live the reality you would like to
pursue. Charismatic leaders seem to be able to influence how people perceive reality and
therefore act, in other words, they are able to change people’s mind maps towards what
they want.

12. Managing gender. In many organisations it matters a lot whether you are a male or female
and the male stereotype may dominate concepts of organisation.

13. There is a difference between surface manifestations and the deep structure of power,
which suggests that power is linked to the social environment and how it works.

14. The power you have can be used to get more power.
15. Power is ambiguous because it is difficult to describe precisely what power is and one

cannot be sure whether power is an interpersonal phenomenon or arising from deep
structural factors.

The political view of organisation shows that politics is inevitable in organisations and all
organisational activity is based on self-interest. It explodes the myth that organisations are rational,
it helps to find ways to overcome the limitations of the notion that organisations are integrated
systems, and it gets us to recognise socio-political implications of different organisations and their
roles in society. The danger of this view is that it can increase the politicisation of organisations.

Organisations are consciously and subconsciously created and sustained and people become
imprisoned by mind maps to which these processes give rise. Socially constructed realities take on
an existence and power of their own that control those who created them.

People in everyday life are trapped by their incomplete and flawed understanding of reality. They
are able to free themselves from that, but many prefer to remain n the dark. People in organisations
become trapped by success, by organisational slack, and by group processes that lead to

Many organisations and industries failed because they were unable to move beyond the policies
that made them successful to begin with. Secondly, in order to create certainty many organisations
build in margins for error, which eventually leads to institutionalised inefficiency.

The psychic prison metaphor brings a set of perspectives that enable us to explore unconscious
processes that trap people, it shows that our understanding of organisation is too rational, it draws
attention to ethics, power relations, and it shows up barriers to innovation and change. But it also
has limitations, namely that it ignores ideologies that control and shape organisations, it places a lot
of emphasis on cognitive processes whereas exploitation, domination and control are rotted in
material life, it encourages speculation, and it raises the risk of mind control.

The universe is impermanent and constantly changing. That means that to understand
organisations we need to understand the basic force that generate and maintain organisations.
Geoffrey Vickers calls this the regulator and in natural systems there are basins of attraction around
which complex systems stabilise which fulfil the same function. Traditional approaches to
organisational theory suggest that change is initiated by the organisational environment.


The advantage of this view is that it provides an insight on the nature and sources of change, which
can help us to find ways of dealing effectively with change. The transformative view is criticised as
too idealistic and more effective after the fact than before.

Bakan argues that since corporations are individuals in the eyes of the law, their behaviour can be
measured against that of humans, in which case corporations are socially disruptive and in terms of
the criteria of the DSM antisocial. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders version IV, antisocial behaviour is characterised by at least 3 of the following: failure to
conform to social norms, deceitfulness, failure to plan for the future, aggressiveness, a reckless
disregard of the safety of self and others, consistent irresponsibility to sustain consistent work
behaviour or honour financial obligations, and lack of remorse. Bakan’s study shows evidence of all
of these behaviours in corporations.

Corporate practices place profit before human welfare and in Third World countries people are
dispossessed and working in sweatshops and factories for subsistence wages. Organisations
therefore often are instruments of domination to further the self interest of elites at the expense of
others. Within organisations there is also often an element of domination.

Throughout history, organisations have been associated with social domination. In most
organisations asymmetrical power relations lead to the majority working in the interests of a few.
People can be dominated by charisma, by custom, and by rules and laws. The ability to use any of
these depends on the ability to find support and legitimation amongst those being ruled and
authority is vested in how the ruled are administered. Under the charismatic model, administration
is unstructured, unstable, and works through nepotism, customary administration is through
officials in the employ of someone with inherited status, and legal administration is bureaucratic.
Bureaucracies are therefore instruments of domination. Even democratic leaders become part of an
elite interested in furthering their own interests, and will tend to hang on to power at all costs.

People are increasingly being dominated by the process of strict administration and rules through
impersonal principles and the quest for efficiency. The logic of modern society is therefore
domination by reason.

The Industrial Revolution changed labour from a craft into a commodity that can be bought and
sold. It eliminated prior systems of production and made people dependent on the wage system.
Ancient systems relied on slaves for labour and even Plato’s idealised republic could not function
without them, whereas modern capitalism depends on wage labour. Profit depends on efficient
labour, which likely resulted in the discovery of modern management. Wage labour is followed by
strict and precise organisation, close supervision, and standardised jobs and it follows that skilled
and semiskilled work is replaced by cheaper unskilled workers and mechanisation. Consequently,
managed gains increasing control over workers, labour costs are reduced and planning and control
becomes centralised.

Organisations become politicised because jobs became stratified between skilled career type and
unskilled lower paid type jobs. The former requires an investment in education and training which
becomes a fixed cost whereas the latter is of low status and subject to periodic unemployment and
come to see themselves as exploited.


The dominance metaphor draws attention to the rational consequences of individuals seeking to
advance their own interests while ignoring values. The model shows that domination can be
intrinsic to how we organise human behaviour, but the fact that domination is class based, that
ruling elites tend to centralise and control their interests, and that government policies sustain and
serve the interests of socially dominant groups does not mean that that is due to a conspiracy.

Reference List

Argyris, C. and D. Schön. Organizational Learning. A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading: Addison

Wesley Publishing, 1978.

Morgan, G. Images of Organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc, 1986.

Schein, E. H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,



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