What Is Your Organization's Personality?

By Natoli, Vincent J., Jr. | Public Management, March 2002 | Go to article overview

What Is Your Organization's Personality?


Natoli, Vincent J., Jr., Public Management


Organizations, like people, have personalities, but their traits or dimensions are not the same as they are for people. While an organization has reporting relationships, people do not. Traits of "authoritarianism" and "conformity" apply both to people and to organizations, while other characteristics, like "employee participation," are unique to organizational hierarchies and do not apply to people.

Five Organizational Personality Traits

The personality trait most relevant to an organization is authoritarianism, or the degree to which that organization can take control and hold authority in the workplace. Herbert A. Simon, a social scientist who won the Nobel Prize for economics, has stated that authority is the mode of influence that distinguishes an individual's organizational from nonorganizational behavior, with authority giving an organization its formal structure.

An organization chart is an authority structure showing how people in a position of authority have the formal power to distribute, withhold, or retract economic benefits from those lower in the hierarchy. The formal, psychological definition of authoritarianism includes three attitudinal clusters: aggression, submission, and conventionalism. For instance, organizations can be characterized as authoritarian if they use human resource (HR) practices--like personnel policies calling for discipline--that score high on these three behaviors, and as nonauthoritarian if they do not score high on all three.

Punitiveness relates to the extent to which employers punish employees, and it is a trait related to authority because authoritarians control people by punishing them. An employer inclined to control employees with HR practices that chastise them (by using discipline or by withholding or retracting economic benefits) is more likely to rate high on punitiveness and authority than an employer that controls employees through nonpunitive practices.

Employee conformity expresses the extent to which employers successfully move employees to their (the organization's) norms or standards of behavior.

Employee participation represents the extent to which employees share in the decision-making process. Employee participation can range from relatively minimal, whereby employers inform employees of what is occurring in the organization, to relatively extensive (which is not common in the United States), whereby employees sit on the board of directors and have an influence on major organizational decisions.

Organizational socialization is the process by which employers acculturate employees to their norms, values, and behaviors, although this author sometimes uses the term to mean the extent to which employees are socialized or acculturated to the organization's norms, values, and behaviors. Just as authoritarianism and punitiveness are related, employee participation and organizational socialization are related.

Research shows that when people are given input into the decisions that affect them, they become more committed to those decisions. This means that if employees are given input into the norms, values, and behaviors that affect them, they are more likely to commit themselves to them and thereby to become more highly socialized. The extent of socialization is important to employers because the more socialized employees are, the fewer bureaucratic mechanisms are needed to control them.

Three Ways Organizations Gain Compliance

The literature of organizational sociology advises that three types of organizations exist, as defined by how they gain the compliance of their members or employees. Coercive organizations, like prisons and custodial mental hospitals, are the most authoritarian and punitive and the least participative, with the least socialized members; they gain compliance by force.

At the other extreme, in terms of the personality traits named, are normative organizations, such as religious institutions and charities. …

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