The Purpose of Organizations vs. People

20151104_145251The world, not just the world of OD has a consistent and continuous habit of anthropomorphizing; defining and understanding a thing as if it were human, or having human characteristics.  The OD world does this all the time with things like the organization itself, culture, purpose, change, strategy and more. The organization, or aspects of it is treated like a giant individual person, with selected characteristics of a human being.

A practical benefit to this habit is that it makes it easier to actually talk about something like an organization.  Our words simply go together better when we do this.  I will be doing this later in this post and ongoing.

In terms of understanding organizations however, this habit is primarily helpful as a metaphor and unfortunately we seem to have all too often lost the metaphor.  We actually talk and think of organizations as living entities in their own right. However, I do not know of any organization that will exist if the people leave. If the people leave you just have buildings, equipment, computers and other ‘things’ just hanging around waiting to decompose. There is no culture, no change, no purpose. This means all these ‘things’ are a result of people, and more specifically, people interacting.

Organizations are only ‘alive’ because of the people who make them up.  For example culture is not a thing to be found, it is the repetitive patterns of interaction between people that has become stable over time. Culture in an organization is the left loop of people who hang out doing things under the same company name.

Interaction Model

Yet our habit, our pattern of interaction, our left loop in this regard has come to see organizations as if they were people, as if culture can be found somewhere, as if strategy  is a thing to be aligned with, as if change was something like changing the oil in our cars.

If you want to change culture, change strategy, even just change anything, you change interactions, nothing else.  If you want to understand an organization to some extent you try and understand the left loop, the stable patterns of interactions that constantly go on day after day.

One of the areas that our habit of anthropomorphizing organizations causes real problems is the idea of purpose. This is one of those things that brings the ferocious out in me no matter how hard I try to balance it with the gentle!

By anthropomorphizing organizations we have come to think that the purpose of organizations is the same purpose that people have.  By purpose I mean a fundamental driver of meaning and behavior.

I believe this perspective causes more shame, blame and guilt than almost any other typical and current perspective in how we understand organizational life.

And the OD world overwhelmingly supports this perspective.

I think there is a basic difference between the purpose of an organization and the purpose of a person.

  1. The purpose of an organization is to be a viable economic entity.
  2. The purpose of a person is to express identity.

I am going to go into more depth on what I mean by these in the next couple of posts but for now, the primary point I want to surface is that I think there is a huge gap between these two purposes. When we do not recognize this gap, when we treat and understand organizations as people, we create a reaction, in people, that is characterized by feelings and behavior related to shame, blame and guilt and all the defensive, aggressive and problematic responses that come with these feelings and behaviors.

Before we go into more depth in the next posts I would ask that you just reflect on those two purposes noted above. For now I would ask that you suspend judgement on their ‘correctness’ and just think about them in terms of the interactions you have and experience in your organization and outside your organization.  Is there a difference? If so, what is that difference?  What is your purpose?  Is it closer to being a viable economic entity or expressing identity?

Let’s just see what emerges.


4 Responses

  1. Within an organization I find that to be successful there are times one needs to suspend their values and beliefs to succeed. Too often individuals faced with three decisions: prostitute the values and beliefs to get along, quit and stay, leave. It is important to know the organization’s purpose and values before commuting to join.
    As someone who has worked inside organizations and have consulted into organizations, I would suggest that an organization exists to provide a service; to do so it must be a viable economic entity. No viable purpose, no organization.

    • Very important comment Dale, thanks for posting. I think you are absolutely correct with your first statement and the response many people make. The big problem I see is that when people experience the need for suspension of values and beliefs they also experience some form of shame, blame or guilt. They blame the organization (or boss) for causing this compromise of values, they feel guilty about the compromise they make or they may feel shame, or shame others.

      However when you acknowledge that there is a big difference in the purpose of an organization and the purpose of a person, this suspension of values and beliefs is quite a normal thing in our organizational lives. And when we see this as normal, we can treat it much more objectively and rationally than treating this dynamic with blame, shame and guilt.

      Also, since so many of our values and beliefs are influenced by the ‘spin’ of organizational rhetoric, most of which are wholly unattainable, we experience personal compromise far greater than what is realistic or even conscious!

      And in my opinion mainstream OD feeds this dynamic with all the rhetoric about finding deep purpose in your work, being highly engaged etc. etc. etc.

  2. […] noted in earlier posts I think the purpose of a person is to express […]

  3. […] choose to look at it this way. As I have noted in previous posts there is a fundamental difference in the purpose of organizations and the purpose of […]

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