Metaphors are great. They help us conceptualize things that maybe aren’t terribly easy to understand otherwise. There are oodles (a very scientific word) of metaphors floating around for organizations. Depending where you look, you can see them referred to as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons (I’m not making that up–Gareth Morgan did in his book Images of Organization), instruments of domination (another Morgan concoction), and so on.
One metaphor that I especially like is the idea of an organization being like a community. It seems somehow more humanizing to me. Less of an emphasis on corporate cogs and more of an emphasis on unlocking the potential in groups of humans. In his book Love and Profit, Jim Autry explains it this way:
“By invoking the metaphor of community, we imply that we in business are bound by a fellowship of endeavor in which we commit to mutual goals, in which we contribute to the best of our abilities, in which each contribution is recognized and credited, in which there is a forum for all voices to be heard, in which our success contributes to the success of the common enterprise and to the success of others, in which we can disagree and hold differing viewpoints without withdrawing from the community, in which we are free to express how we feel as well as what we think, in which our value to society is directly related to the quality of our commitment and effort, and in which we take care of each other.”
The idea of an organization functioning as a community rather than a strict hierarchy has overarching themes of human equality and servant leadership; these themes, when explored, tend to run at least somewhat contrary to more conventional notions of referring to fellow humans as “subordinates” while referring to others as “bosses” (though I understand some degree of that is purely due to semantic habits).
Sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to consider different understandings of how roles relate to each other within a group setting. It is incumbent on organizations to find ways to encourage collaborations and partnerships—more organic work communities, in other words—instead of allowing more traditional notions and hierarchal language to continue to be the norm.