Tragic Organisations

behaviour organisation Nov 02, 2020
Tragic Organisations

One of my obsessions is developing a model that predicts a company's decline. Thereby allowing corrective action to quickly take place. Saving the company and delivering a better way of working.

Which is why I'm interested in the structure of tragedy and comedy.

In its simplest form, organisational tragedy occurs when the methods that made a company great begin to undermine it. But as everybody is so invested in these methods, they can't do anything else. In fact, they try to correct the decline by doing more of them. Which makes things even worse. So the hero falls.

In comedy, the opposite occurs. What seems to be utter foolishness to the characters invested in these methods turns out to be the saving grace. The seeming jester or buffoon as the hero.

The below is an outline of the character types that should become very noticeable when an organisation enters decline. They are stock characters of Greek tragi-comedies. In which one-time heroes fall while the audience laughs at their foolish inability to see what's in front of their nose. And new heroes are very much needed.

A Request before Reading: Although I have data for all the types, I am looking for more examples and stories about such characters to flesh out the model. I would really appreciate people posting stories that these types trigger in the comments below. If it is too sensitive, please contact me via messaging or email. I promise complete anonymity. If you don't want to comment, I hope the types give you at least one chuckle of recognition.


Senex Iratus (Heavy Handed Father Figure) - Usually the founder or CEO.

He should be the originator of the culture who preserves its ethos and actively promotes its ideology. 

  • He should be extremely proud of the company's achievements.

  • His presence should be everywhere; in recorded messages at official events, on video monitors dotted throughout the organisation, in the company magazine, and the wider press.

  • He should be regarded as being firmly in control, “a legend in his time” and “the company personified.”

  • He should have a darker side; an authoritarian, dominating figure, with the threat of going to him used to put the fear of God into underperforming managers and employees.


Milites Gloriosi (Boastful Soldiers) 

  • Usually senior management or somebody aspiring to senior management.

  • They should exhibit similar levels of pride in the company and its achievements as the Senex Iratus.

  • They should explicitly expect others in the organisation to display similar feelings of pride in their work and the company as they do.

  • They should use threats and coercion if employees do not seem to be working hard with the right attitude.

  • They should brag about the greatness of the company and their role in it during out-of-work hours or at informal functions.


Learned Cranks 
- Usually in HR, PR or marketing.

  • They should fund and censor ways in which the company message is delivered to employees and customers.

  • They should deliver findings and courses that complement and substantiate senior management’s objectives and ideas.

  • They should demonstrate their knowledge by quoting company heroes and high-status outsiders (e.g. management gurus).

  • They should claim they have a neutral stance, despite being biased towards developing strong emotional ties between employees and the company.

  • They should find evidence that supports claims that management's activities enhance performance and economic success.


Obsessed Pedants 
- Usually lower-level management or aspiring managers.

  • They should design and deliver numerous iterations of proposals, hold countless meetings and spent many hours debating the appropriate formulations of organizational practice.

  • They should produce overt culture-loving displays and studies that provide in-depth detail of the formal and informal rules and regulations of the company and its culture.

  • They should write documentation in the form of highly detailed points or lists about the day-to-day experience of working at the company.

  • They should arrange culture boot camps and workshops.

  • They should be obsessed with senior management's “super quotes”, jargon sayings and corporate buzzwords.

  • Their enthusiasm should often be perceived as incongruous and discomforting.

And that's it. The four stock types of Greek Tragedy in organisational form. I hope they aren't painting too accurate a picture of your organisational life. Even if they did, I hope they made you laugh rather than cry.

A final note: I presented these character types to an employee of a supposed technology platform operating in the corporate real estate market. He suggested that I’d hacked into their server and discovered their hiring criteria. A couple of years later, this company’s performance is suggestive that one or two too many of these types might have been hired.