A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 1st, 2014 by William

The Mansions of the Gods

I just read an interesting article by Charles Handy called “Gods of Management: The Changing Work of Organizations.” While a bit dated, having been published back in 1996, what it has to say is just as applicable today. In the article, Handy uses Greek gods to illustrate what the world of business would be like, and the workplace cultures that would evolve, if the workplace were run by Greek gods.

To start, he poses the following question to the reader: “How would you describe your current workplace?” Is it an environment where employee ideas and opinions are listened to? Is everyone held accountable (especially management) or is it a culture of blame? Do people work well in project groups, or is teamwork an elusive commodity? Is the organization rife with bureaucracy, in-fighting and fiefdoms? Are there interpersonal games being played out between people who seem to have the sole job function of torpedoing their colleagues? Or is your work environment stagnating, mired down in an ever-growing set of Standard Operating Procedures that make doing even the simplest things painful? Are there a group of elites that surround the top tier management to which only the closest loyal sycophants are granted entry?

Understanding your workplace culture is important because it gives you a useful framework to guide your conduct. An organization’s culture defines what’s important, what’s expected, what’s accepted, what’s preferred, what’s rewarded, and what’s frowned upon–these are the things you won’t find out about in the interview. They can only be gleaned after being an inmate in the organization for some length of time. To truly understand and organization’s culture, you need to actively interact with fellow colleagues, upper management and, of course, your boss. If you want to survive and prosper in any organization it is crucial that you understand the nuances of the everyday culture and tailor your behavior accordingly.

In my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I tackle the issue of organizational culture from the perspective of it being either an “instrument of domination,” or a “psychic prison,” both terms being pretty much self-explanatory. These are two of the eight metaphors for organizational culture that Gareth Morgan presents in his book Images of Organization. I picked these two to focus on as they are most indicative of the typical dysfunctional organization, but Charles Handy’s article got me thinking–there are other ways to describe (using metaphor) workplace culture. What follows builds on Handy’s article with a bit of extrapolation from my own experience.

First off (in case you’re forgotten from high school), Greek mythology is the body of myths and teachings that belong to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes. Among the principal Greek gods were the Olympians–residing on Mount Olympus led by Zeus. Not all the Gods were Olympians–there were also various other gods that covered just about every aspect of life. There was even the God of the underworld: Hades (an Olympian). This structure was called the Pantheon and the organizational cultures described in this post, are “The Mansions of the Gods.”

When we look at workplace culture from the Greek God perspective there a couple of Gods that provide perfect metaphors for differing types of culture. The first is the Olympian God Apollo, the God of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, and more. For the Greeks, Apollo was all the Gods in one and through the centuries he acquired different functions which could originate from different gods. One of Apollo’s more important daily tasks is to harness his chariot with four horses and drive the Sun across the sky.

According to Handy, an Apollonian workplace culture is a “role” focused bureaucracy that bases its daily functioning 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 in one’s job usually does not lead to much reward–this is the type organization that worships the performance review process believing it to be the key to success.

Apollonian cultures look to the past in order to predict the future. These type workplace cultures are weak when responding to changes in the business environment or even in how they handle day-to-day challenges. They usually will ignore problems until they become life-threatening and then act in an impetuous way to try to solve them. They will typically attack symptoms vs. seeking out the root cause of problems.

In an Apollonian culture there is only one source of power and influence: the top management team who strive to maintain absolute control over the organization. Thus all decisions are made under the influence of the leaders’ priorities.

Handy provides a perfect analogy for the Apollonian culture. It is like an ancient Greek temple where every pillar is an independent department or project–the Fiefdom Syndrome reigns supreme here. As noted above, these tend to be bureaucratic organizations so cooperation among the fiefdoms is based upon procedures and job descriptions. Power depends on the formal position of the fiefdom’s leader in the organization’s management structure and his/her effectiveness as a loyal sycophant, rather than sheer job performance.

We also have the Athenian “task” culture. Athena was an Olympian, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. In this culture, emphasis is placed on getting the job, task, or project done. Power stems from knowledge and experience in tackling one’s job tasks. The Athenian culture is marked by teamwork and the achieving of the organization’s common goal. This culture’s chief advantage lies in its flexibility and ability to adjust to changing conditions. Work groups are created to handle specific tasks and are dissolved when the task is over. The same individuals create new teams tailored to the latest needs. As such this culture is capable of rapid actions, i.e. organizational change or in reacting to problems. Effectiveness is ensured by quickly moving around individuals and resources to projects that have a need. This type culture has “leaders” rather than managerial bureaucrats.

Then we have the Dionysian “person” culture. Dionysus was not an Olympian God as he was half mortal. He was the God of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of “ritual madness and ecstasy.” Dionysus had two extreme natures to his personality–he could shift from bringing bliss and relaxation, which then transitioned into bitterness and anger. Dionysus personified the nature of wine–when used reasonably it can be pleasant, however, if misused it can provoke negative effects. He also represents the typical behavior swings one finds in the average organizational sociopath.

In a Dionysian culture, individuals are focused only on achieving their own career goals and that is particularly true for the organization’s management team. These companies exist to satisfy the requirements of the particular individual. This model of behavior starts at the top of the organization with the head sociopath. The “games people play” to torpedo fellow employees runs rampant in this type organization and people are judged, and thus are successful, based on their ability to always come out on top of their colleagues. The Dionysian culture can lead to disruptive wars among its management team thus keeping them from focusing on common organizational goals. From the job duty perspective, employees see themselves as independent contributors who have temporarily lent their skills and services to the organization–this also being a defense mechanism.

The utopian workplace culture does not exist–all workplaces cultures (including hybrids) are modeled after one of the above. Which culture attributes are dominant are like pure dysfunction–it is all relative and a matter of degree. Lastly if you believe that you are saddled with the “Boss from Hell,” which, by the way, you’ll find in any and all of the above cultures, then you’re in a special type culture. In the past few weeks I’ve written much about these “special” cultures from the perspective of them being Hell–where the people that make them so end up once they depart this world. I’ve also detailed how they can make your daily workplace life a living Hell while they’re still on this Earth. This type workplace thus becomes a “Hades Culture.”


One Response to “The Mansions of the Gods”
  1. Bridgette Swan says

    Very good post! We are linking to this particularly great post on our site. Keep up the good writing.

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