#30 Organizational Life Through Four Lenses

One of my favourite frameworks for understanding organizational life is supplied by Bolman and Deal (2003) in Reframing Organizations. They articulate four lenses through which to view and understand organizations. Boleman and Deal capture each lens with a metaphor:

  • Factory
  • Family
  • Temple
  • Jungle



Organizational Life seen through the factory lens

Through the factory metaphor we understand organizational productivity: there are organizational inputs and outputs. The more valuable the outputs compared to the inputs, the greater the productivity of the organization. Outputs can be steel, a software product, or the administration of a Government activity such as education – the whole gamut of what organizations do. In general, greater efficiency leads to greater productivity.



Organizational life seen through the family lens

Through the family metaphor we acknowledge that treating people merely as cogs in a machine leads to conflicts. Social interaction is fundamental to the health of most people and since we spend large amounts of time at work, it is important to both encourage and take advantage of caring relationships. Organizations that recognize the value of constructive relationships and healthy team dynamics gain effectiveness and competitive advantage. A healthy organizational family is reflected in client and customer satisfaction.



organizational life seen through the temple lens

But, supportive working relationships and the satisfaction of productivity are not enough in themselves. Human beings have a spiritual side and so do organizations. When that core of both individuals and the collective is honored and nurtured, peak performance becomes possible. Truly, an organization is also a temple of meaning. Hence there has been a shift in recent decades towards articulating purpose, developing culture, and fostering employee engagement.

Unfortunately, much of the work that attempts to construct an organizational temple is counterproductive; the results are frequently only a manifestation of how people like to think about their organization. When the organizational culture and sense of direction is not conscious, clear, and not linked to practical decision-making, destructive conflict is more likely.


organizational life seen though the jungle lens

Most commonly denied, hidden, or not discussed is the organizational power jungle. There is a difference between the tidy hierarchy of an organizational chart and the actual politicized power relations that are operating in decision-making. Behind the scenes and beneath the surface, organizations are a sea of differences in how employees strive to move individual and team agendas forward.  Where power is applied collaboratively, the differences are a rich source of creativity and strength for the organization. But when fear takes over, or where abilities are lacking, coercive uses of power damage working relationships, stunt productivity, and tarnish inspired intentions.


Study and awareness of organizational life is relatively new.  Boleman and Deal point out that the factory metaphor was dominant at the beginning of the 20th Century. The family metaphor came into consideration following the Second World War.  In recent decades there has been considerable attention paid to the temple. I believe the jungle is still a frontier. We all know there are power dynamics and coalitions at play in most organizations. Participants in my classes are always eager to talk about power in organizational life. I would like to have a more satisfying set of tools for analyzing and understanding power, as well as acknowledging and making better use of it.


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