Things like organizational culture and design can sound boring, abstract, or superfluous, but to build an organization that is going to last, they need to be considered from the outset. There are many tools for assessing the existing organizational style of your organization and/or learning how to adjust it.
In general, according to the principles of business management, organizations tend to exist on a spectrum from:
Flat/Non-Hierarchical <—> Pyramid/Rigidly Hierarchical
Collaborative/Relational <—> Individualistic
Harm reduction organizations tend to fall on the more collaborative end of the organizational spectrum, with an emphasis on being driven by mission or values. This is because harm reduction organizations, at their best, embody the principles of harm reduction – including the commitment to empowering those most impacted by the harms they seek to minimize.
It is essential for organizations to decide exactly where they want to fall on these spectrums and to talk about organizational culture openly and honestly. This transparency can set the stage for new leaders to emerge and for information and power to be more effectively shared.
Too often, leaders and organizations are reluctant to look objectively at the various kinds of power in their organizations for fear of “upsetting the apple cart”, losing power, or simply because they lack the time, framework, or mentorship to do so. But understanding the dynamics of power, objectively evaluating it in your organization, and making transparent decisions about who gets to have what power (and therefore make what decisions) creates a more functional culture for running the organization on a day-to-day basis.
Power is said to be held in several different ways and there are a variety of models to describe it. One of the most famous models was developed by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959. They described the following forms of power in organizations:
- Legitimate – power that comes from a shared belief that a person has the formal right to make demands because power has been conferred to them legitimately (for example through hiring or election).
- Expert – power based on a person’s skill or knowledge.
- Referent – power that is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness, and right to others’ respect.
- Reward – power that results from the ability to compensate someone for compliance.
- Coercive – power that comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.
- Informational – power that results from a person’s ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something.
Every organization uses a variety of these kinds of power. Objectively evaluating how power functions, and actively deciding how you want it to, can make a huge difference in creating an organizational culture that is more functional and healthier for all involved.