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3.5.2 Handy’s four types of organisational cultures

Another model of culture, popularised by Charles Handy (1999) – and following work by Harrison (1972) – also presents organisational cultures as classified into four major types: the power culture, the role culture, the task culture, and the person or support culture. Handy’s approach may help you understand why you have been more comfortable in some organisations than others. Interestingly, although Handy chooses to talk about culture, he shows the structures associated with his culture types. This may be because of the difficulty of drawing something as diffuse as culture, but it also reinforces the fact that culture and structure are interrelated.

Power culture

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Figure 18 Power culture

Handy illustrates the power culture as a spider’s web (see Figure 18), with the all-important spider sitting in the centre ‘… because the key to the whole organisation sits in the centre, surrounded by ever-widening circles of intimates and influence. The closer you are to the spider, the more influence you have’ (1999, p. 86). Organisations with this type of culture can respond quickly to events, but they are heavily dependent for their continued success on the abilities of the people at the centre; succession is a critical issue. They will tend to attract people who are power orientated and politically minded, who take risks and do not rate security highly. Control of resources is the main power base in this culture, with some elements of personal power at the centre.

Size is a problem for power cultures. They find it difficult to link too many activities and retain control; they tend to succeed when they create new organisations with a lot of independence, although they usually retain central financial control.

This type of culture relies heavily on individuals rather than on committees. In organisations with this culture, performance is judged on results, and such organisations tend to be tolerant of means. They can appear tough and abrasive and their successes can be accompanied by low morale and high turnover as individuals fail or opt out of the competitive atmosphere. Working in such organisations requires that employees correctly anticipate what is expected of them from the power holders and perform accordingly. If managers get this culture right, it can result in a happy, satisfied organisation that in turn can breed quite intense commitment to corporate goals. Anticipating wrongly can lead to intense dissatisfaction and sometimes lead to a high labour turnover as well as a general lack of effort and enthusiasm.

In extreme cases, a power culture is a dictatorship, but it does not have to be.

Stop and reflect

What kind of manager do you think would be happy in a power culture?

Role culture

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Figure 19 Role culture

The role culture can be illustrated as a building supported by columns and beams: each column and beam has a specific role to playing keeping up the building; individuals are role occupants but the role continues even if the individual leaves. This culture shares a number of factors in common with Weber’s description of the ‘ideal-type’ bureaucracy.

This type of organisation is characterised by strong functional or specialised areas coordinated by a narrow band of senior management at the top and a high degree of formalisation and standardisation; the work of the functional areas and the interactions between them are controlled by rules and procedures defining the job, the authority that goes with it, the mode of communication and the settlement of disputes.

Position is the main power source in the role culture. People are selected to perform roles satisfactorily; personal power is frowned upon and expert power is tolerated only in its proper place. Rules and procedures are the chief methods of influence. The efficiency of this culture depends on the rationality of the allocation of work and responsibility rather than on individual personalities. This type of organisation is likely to be successful in a stable environment, where the market is steady, predictable or controllable, or where the product’s life cycle is long, as used to be the case with many UK public sector bodies. Conversely, the role culture finds it difficult to adapt to change; it is usually slow to perceive the need for it and to respond appropriately. Such an organisation will be found where economies of scale are more important than flexibility or where technical expertise and depth of specialisation are more important than product innovation or service cost – for example, in many public service organisations.

For employees, the role culture offers security and the opportunity to acquire specialist expertise; performance up to a required standard is rewarded on the appropriate pay scale, and possibly by promotion within the functional area. However, this culture is frustrating for ambitious people who are power orientated, want control over their work or are more interested in results than method. Such people will be content in this culture only as senior managers. The importance of Handy’s role culture is that it suggests that bureaucracy itself is not culture-free.

Stop and reflect

What kind of manager do you think would be happy in a role culture?

Task culture

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Figure 20 Task culture

Task culture is job-or project-oriented, and its accompanying structure can be best represented as a net (see Figure 20). Some of the strands of the net are thicker or stronger than others, and much of the power and influence is located at the interstices of the net, at the knots. Task cultures are often associated with organisations that adopt matrix or project-based structural designs.

The emphasis is on getting the job done, and the culture seeks to bring together the appropriate resources and the right people at the right level in order to assemble the relevant resources for the completion of a particular project. A task culture depends on the unifying power of the group to improve efficiency and to help the individual identify with the objectives of the organisation. So it is a team culture, where the outcome of the team’s work takes precedence over individual objectives and most status and style differences. Influence is based more on expert power than on position or personal power, and influence is more widely dispersed than in other cultures.

Task culture depends on teamwork to produce results. Groups, project teams or task forces are formed for a specific purpose and can be re-formed, abandoned or continued. The organisation can respond rapidly since each group ideally contains all the decision-making powers required. One example of a task culture is NASA, the US space agency, which in the 1960s had the specific task of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade and bringing him back safely. Individuals find that this culture offers a high degree of autonomy, judgment by results, easy working relationships within groups and mutual respect based on ability rather than on age or status.

The task culture is therefore appropriate when flexibility and sensitivity to the market or environment are important, where the market is competitive, where the life of a product is short and/or where the speed of reaction is critical. Against this must be set the difficulty of managing a large organisation as a flexible group, and of producing economies of scale or great depth of expertise.

Control in these organisations can be difficult. Essential control is retained by senior managers, who concentrate on the allocation of projects, people and resources, but they exert little day-to-day control over methods of working or procedures, without violating the norms of the culture. This works well in favourable circumstances and when resources are available for those who can justify using them. However, when resources are not freely available, senior managers begin to feel the need to control methods as well as results, and team leaders may begin to compete for resources, using political influence. Morale in the work groups tends to decline and the job becomes less satisfying in itself, so that employees begin to reveal their own objectives. This necessitates the introduction of rules and procedures, the use of position or the control of resources by managers to get the work done. So the task culture has a tendency to change to a role or power culture when resources are limited or when the whole organisation is unsuccessful.

Most managers, certainly at the middle and junior levels, prefer to work in the task culture, with its emphasis on groups, expert power, rewards for results and a merging of individual and group objectives. It is most in tune with the current trends of change and adaptation, individual freedom and low status differentials – but it may not be an appropriate culture for all circumstances.

Stop and reflect

What kind of manager do you think would be happy in a task culture?

Person culture

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Figure 21 Person culture

Person culture is an unusual culture. It is not found in many organisations, yet many people espouse some of its values. This type of culture is illustrated by a loose cluster or a constellation of stars (see Figure 1.10). In this culture the individual is the focal point; if there is a structure or an organisation, it exists only to serve and assist the individuals within it, to further their own interests without any overriding objective.

Clearly, not many organisations can exist with this sort of culture, or produce it, since organisations tend to have some form of corporate objective over and above the personal objectives of those who comprise them. Furthermore, control mechanisms, and even management hierarchies, are impossible in these cultures except by mutual consent. An individual can leave the organisation, but the organisation seldom has the power to evict an individual. Influence is shared and the power base, if needed, is usually expert; that is, people do what they are good at and are listened to for their expertise.

Consultants – both within organisations and freelance workers – and architects’ partnerships often have this person-orientation. So do some universities. A cooperative may strive for the person culture in organisational form, but as it develops it often becomes, at best, a task culture, or often a power or role culture.

Although it would be rare to find an organisation in which the person culture predominated, you will often encounter people whose personal preferences are for this type of culture, but who find themselves operating in more orthodox organisations. Specialists in organisations, such as computer people in a business organisation, consultants in a hospital, architects in local government and university teachers benefit from the power of their professions. Such people are not easy to manage. Being specialists, alternative employment is often easy to obtain, and they may not acknowledge anyone as being in a position to exercise expert power greater than their own. Position power not backed up by resource power means nothing to such people, and coercive power is not usually available. They may not be influenced by group norms or relationships with colleagues, which might be expected to moderate their personal preferences. This leaves only personal power – and such people are often not easily impressed by personality.

Stop and reflect

  • What kind of manager do you think would be suited to a person culture?
  • Which of Handy’s categories is closest to your own organisation or department?
  • Identify a successful colleague and consider how they got ahead.
  • To what extent does this colleague display the attributes Handy suggests are best suited to the culture of your organisation?
  • To what extent do you display those attributes? How useful do you find Handy’s model?

There are limitations to Handy’s approach. There is a tendency to take Handy’s four cultures as fixed or ‘given’ styles – something an organisation has, rather than something that is created, negotiated and shared by everyone involved in the organisation and which may evolve over time. None of the four types can claim to be better or superior; they are each suited to different types of circumstances. Most real-life organisations tend to involve a mixture of cultures, and in Handy’s view each is suited to different types of circumstances, including different types of personalities.

Theories of types of culture offer caricatures and simplifications of complex phenomena; the real world is always richer and more subtle. One way of gaining an insight into these complexities has been to explore the link between national culture and organisational culture. Before you consider this approach, you may find it helpful to reflect upon the two models you have considered so far.

Stop and reflect

  • How does Deal and Kennedy’s model compare with Handy’s?
  • What do their different approaches have in common?
  • Within which cultures, identified by the different authors, would you prefer to be a manager – and to be managed?

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