No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Organizational metaphors

Exploring Organizational Metaphors: The Machine, The Game, and The Theater

Organizational metaphors provide a way to conceptualize and understand how organizations (might) function. Three popular organizational metaphors are the machine, the game, and the theater (Kühl, 2011).


The Machine Metaphor

(Illustration: Dall-E)

The machine metaphor of organizations has been a popular way of understanding how organizations work since the early 20th century. This metaphor sees organizations as machines that operate in a predictable and efficient manner. It highlights the importance of structure, roles, and responsibilities within organizations, and how each part of the organization needs to work together in a coordinated and synchronized manner to achieve the overall goals and objectives.

The machine metaphor of organizations also stresses the need for rules and procedures that govern how work is done within the organization. These rules and procedures are designed to ensure that the work is done in a standardized and predictable way, which is essential for achieving efficiency and effectiveness. However, the emphasis on rules and procedures can sometimes lead to bureaucracy, which can slow down decision-making processes and make it difficult to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances.

In addition to rules and procedures, the machine metaphor also underscores the importance of feedback loops within organizations. Feedback loops allow organizations to monitor their performance and make adjustments as needed to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Just like a machine needs regular maintenance and adjustments to keep it running smoothly, organizations need to monitor their performance and make changes as necessary to stay competitive and achieve their goals.

While the machine metaphor has been a useful way of understanding organizations, it is not without its limitations. The metaphor can sometimes lead to a focus on efficiency and predictability at the expense of creativity, innovation, and flexibility. It can also lead to a view of employees as interchangeable parts in the organizational machine, rather than as individuals with unique skills, perspectives, and motivations.

Some professionals might focus too much on making sure everything runs according to the rules, which can make it hard to know who is responsible for a particular decision or outcome. This can be a problem because sometimes the rules and regulations can become too bureaucratic, which can get in the way of achieving the organization's goals. When this happens, people within the organization may have to ignore certain rules to keep things running smoothly. For example, simply having an “Authority to Stop Work” policy in place does not guarantee workers will feel safe to stop work in the event of an unsafe situation. Several factors, such as supervisor and colleague support, clear safety rules, and fatigue management, can play a role in workers feeling empowered to stop work when necessary.

Organizations often try to find a balance between formal and informal structures. When formal rules and expectations are put in place, informal networks may develop to help people navigate the limitations of the formal system. People in organizations have to decide whether to follow the formal rules closely or to take a more informal approach. By separating formal and informal structures, organizations can be more flexible and respond to the specific needs of their members. However, informal processes are usually not suitable for public display as they may not align with the organization's values or image. In comes the next metaphor…

The Theater Metaphor

(Illustration: Dall-E)

Think of organizations like a theater performance. Just like actors on a stage, people in an organization play different roles and have to present a certain image to their viewers. They might dress a certain way, act a certain way, and speak in a certain way to control the impression they make on others. Just like there is a frontstage and a backstage in a theater, there is also a public image and a private reality in an organization.

Organizations often use facades or external appearances to present a certain image to the public. For example, they might say that safety is their top priority, even if their actual practices don't match up with that statement. This is because organizations have to manage conflicting expectations from different groups of people. They might want to make a profit, but also keep their workers safe. To do this, they might use different language or create specific roles for spokespersons to manage these expectations.

However, just having a facade isn't enough to effectively manage an organization's image. They also need to have clear values, communication strategies, and practices that match up with their public image. For example, if an organization says that safety is their top priority, they need to have practices in place that actually prioritize safety. Otherwise, there will be discrepancies between their public image and their actual practices.


The Game Metaphor

(Illustration: Dall-E)

The game metaphor is often associated with competition and power struggles within organizations, but there are also positive features to this metaphor. In the game metaphor, organizations can be seen as dynamic and adaptive, with the ability to respond to changing internal and external conditions. Game-playing within organizations can allow for flexibility, creativity, and innovation, as people and groups compete for resources and power.

Effective communication channels and processes are crucial in any organization, and the game metaphor highlights the importance of understanding the implicit and unspoken rules that govern how people interact within an organization. For example, culture change initiatives may be met with cynicism and game-playing. By really understanding why these hidden games are played, organizations can identify and address systemic issues.

Balancing bureaucratic and team-oriented elements within an organization is also important, as social systems are inherently unstable. The game metaphor highlights the importance of finding a balance between clarity and uncertainty, which is essential for the health and success of an organization. While game-playing can have negative consequences, it also allows for necessary power dynamics within organizations, and can lead to positive outcomes when understood and managed effectively.


Balancing the machine metaphor with the game metaphor and the theater metaphor helps to keep a holistic and nuanced view of the organization. All three metaphors have strengths and weaknesses, and organizations may use a combination of them to meet their goals. It is important to understand the interrelatedness of these perspectives and to consider all three together for a comprehensive understanding of the organization.



Bosetzky, H. (2018), Mikropolitik – Netzwerke und Karrieren, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everday Life, New York: Doubleday.

Kühl, S. (2011), Organisationen – Eine sehr kurze Einführung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (ed.) (1986), The Hidden Games of Organizations, New York: Pantheon Books.

Waring, J., Bishop, S. (2019), Safety and the Professions: Natural or Strange Bedfellows?, in: Le Coze, J.C. (ed.), Safety Science Research - Evolution, Challenges and New Directions, Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Weber, D.E., MacGregor, S.C., Provan, D.J., Rae, A.J. (2018), “We can stop work, but then nothing gets done.” Factors that support and hinder a workforce to discontinue work for safety. Safety Science, Volume 108, Pages 149-160.


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