In a mechanistic model of organizational life, the goals and directions for the way the organization functions are imposed from outside or above. Authority and power are centralized, and authoritarian leadership is generally viewed as good leadership. Decisions are made above and communicated as instructions to those lower in the hierarchy—or as it is usually referred to, the chain of command. Control is the primary job of managers, and there are clear lines of authority with everyone lower in the hierarchy expected to be obedient to those higher and to expect obedience from those below. Tasks are clearly divided, work is broken down into its smallest part, and each person specializes in those individual tasks that are controlled through detailed rules and regulations and a hierarchical system of supervision. When something needs to be fixed, somebody has to fix it.
Machines do not have emotions, so in a machine model engendering trust is not essential but control and order are. It is not necessary to feel for a machine, to be concerned about the machine’s welfare, or to empathize with either the machine’s joy or suffering. Machines do not feel. To the extent there is a recognition that these are people, not machines, emotions are not so much to be respected as to be manipulated. Fear is seen as vital to maintain control and order.
Other emotions are a bothersome complication of dealing with human beings and thus are largely ignored. Stress is seen as inevitable and any parts of the organization that cannot handle the stresses of operation should be replaced. Knowledge, information, and the power that accompanies it are held at the top of the hierarchy that exists. Dissent is unwelcome and information is distributed on a “need to know” basis. Decision making is bureaucratic, inflexible, rule bound, and hierarchically determined. Communication is seen as a source of power and is highly controlled. Secrets abound. Conflict is suppressed to the extent that it interferes with the proper function of the individual or the organization. Justice is retributive and punishment is designed to inflict pain and arouse fear, thereby setting an example to others that obedience to authority is necessary. Violence is used as necessary to obtain and maintain power and control. Social injustice is tolerated and even encouraged or simply ignored. Since human attachment is only marginally important, loss of those attachments is not recognized or honored. Since traditional solutions to problems are preferred, the compulsive reenactment of previous failed strategies is both compulsive and unrecognized. There is a focus on past success, entrenchment and a tendency to only respond—not prepare—for crises. Over time, the system wears out, degrades, declines and sometimes fails.
In a machine, there is no concept of awareness, consciousness, or the unconscious. There is no part that is not known. If a part breaks, replace it. If you have a part that is no longer needed, eliminate it, ignore it, work around it, or even promote it. In a mechanistic model of organizational life, the goals and directions for the way the organization is to function are imposed from outside or above.
People are not expected to learn; whatever they need to know will be told to them, and if they follow the rule book all will be well. Supervision is strictly hierarchical, with every lower level reporting and responsible to someone in the hierarchy above them. There are detailed rules and regulations to direct everyone’s behavior, and work is broken down into the smallest parts. When you hear people talking, you are likely to hear command and control language with mechanistic metaphors: slot to fill, reengineering, insubordination, precision, speed, efficiency, and productivity. People are hired to operate the “machine” and everyone is expected to behave in a predetermined way. The machine is owned by someone and machines do not learn . People who spend the most time with the clients are frequently called “line workers” referring originally to workers on assembly lines.
There are some conditions that make this kind of mechanistic model the ideal approach: when tasks are very simple and require a high level of precision and efficiency, when the exact same outcome is desired every time, when human “machine parts” can be expected to be compliant and obedient (rare, but possible). This mechanistic mental model is the one that dominated the entire organizational landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating the Industrial Revolution. Although many areas of industry have had to change their operating style in order to survive, this mental model still dominates the educational, health care, and social service environments today.
The problem is that when an organization must constantly adapt to a changing environment, when learning and creativity are essential components of achieving organizational goals, and when the tasks are complicated, interactive, and complex, then applying a mechanistic way of working can be devastating to organizational function.
For a comparison of viewing an organization as alive vs. as a machine, this table can be helpful.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. and B. Farragher (2010). Destroying sanctuary: The crisis in human service delivery systems. New York, Oxford University Press.
1. de Geus, A., The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment. 1997, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.