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Journal of Management Education OnlineFirst, published on July 13, 2009 as


Organizational Culture and
Communication through
a Gyroscope Metaphor

Journal of
Management Education
Volume XX Number X
Month XXXX xx-xx
2009 Organizational
Behavior Teaching Society
hosted at

Ryan S. Bisel
University of Oklahoma

Amber S. Messersmith
James Madison University

Joann Keyton
North Carolina State University

To fill a critical void in organizational culture pedagogy, the authors present

an instructional system that employs the metaphor of a gyroscope to help
students understand implicit assumptions in culture research. Working from
Martins nexus approach to organizational culture and Fairhurst and Putnams
tripartite theory of organizational discourse, the system in this study illustrates three interpretations of the relationships between culture and communication implicit in the literature. Each relationship is defined, exemplified
with culture research, and critiqued. Pedagogical applications of the gyroscope metaphor are also outlined.
Keywords: organizational culture; organizational discourse; organizational
communication; pedagogy; agon

rganizational culture has become a standard component in management, business communication, and organizational communication
courses (Putnam & Conrad, 1999). Most textbooks introduce the topic to
some degree, and some universities and colleges are now offering organizational culture courses at advanced undergraduate and graduate levels.
Authors Note: The first and second authors are listed alphabetically and contributed equally.
An early version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the National
Communication Association in San Antonio, Texas, in November 2006. For supplemental
materials, see Address correspondence to Ryan S. Bisel, University of Oklahoma, Department of Communication, 610
Elm Avenue, Rm. 101, Norman, OK 73019; e-mail:

2 Journal of Management Education

Despite reviews and resources for scholars who study organizational culture
(e.g., Eisenberg & Riley, 2001), few materials exist for teaching organizational culture beyond an analysis of what content should be included in such
courses (e.g., Lundberg, 1996). Although notable summary texts exist (e.g.,
Deetz, Tracy, & Simpson, 2002; Keyton, 2005; Martin, 2002; Parker, 2000;
Schein, 1992), none has systematically provided a method by which to teach
the fascinating interdependence of organizational culture and organizational
As discussions and debates have evidenced, we are not of one mind about
positioning communication within the study of organizational culture (e.g.,
Corman & Poole, 2000; May & Mumby, 2005). Instructors must figure out
how to teach students who have limited awareness of scholarly conversations about competing philosophical ontologies and epistemologies regarding organizational communication. Stohl (2000) advocates enhancing
multiperspective fluency of students. The rich multiperspective approach to
organizational culture that fascinates communication and management
scholars may overwhelm students, particularly undergraduates, who are
accustomed to more straightforward presentations.
Similar multiperspective approaches also exist within the cultural metaphor for organizational communication (May, 1993). Thus, to meet the
standard instructional objective in a management or organizational communication course of encourage[ing] students to develop multiple perspectives
for understanding organizational events (Putnam & Conrad, 1999, pp. 145146), pedagogical models and activities for helping students engage these
differences are needed. Otherwise, students are likely to passively adopt
assumptions, particularly those found in the objective writing of so many
textbooks (May & Mumby, 2005, p. 265). Such passive adoption may have
unintended but significant consequences for reducing organizational culture to merely the identification of artifacts, values, and assumptions (Stohl,
2000, p. 185). Also, they may fail to acknowledge the different ways in
which communication is positioned vis--vis organizational culture.
Organizational culture is a dominant topic across management, organizational behavior, organizational change, and organizational communication
texts; therefore, it is a vantage point from which to introduce students to
contradictory explanations of a phenomenon (see also Lundberg, 1996).

Teaching Through the Competition of Ideas

An agonistic approach to teaching organizational communication and
culture is a useful method to help students unpack the relationship between

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 3

these concepts. In ancient Greece, an agon was a contest between competitors. Contests, ranging from wrestling matches to competitive debates,
were a cornerstone of Greek pedagogical practice. Priority was not placed
on the outcome of an agon per se but rather on the encounter between
competitors, an event that produced struggle and change (Hawhee,
2002, p. 185). Encounter was emphasized over victory because the former
allowed each competitor opportunity to improve and refine skills.
Similarly, the focus of an agonistic approach does not seek to privilege a particular perspective over others, nor is it meant to reconcile
divergent literatures and assumptions. Rather, the desired result is the
perspective gained from the encounter with divergent approaches competing with one another. Through such encounters, healthy tensions can
result and thereby provide understanding beyond any single theory or
paradigmatic lens (Lundberg, 1996).
Agonistic approaches have been found useful in the organizational culture literature to describe the ways in which culture can be understood from
diverse perspectives simultaneously (Martin, 2002). For example, Martin
offers a three-perspective theory of culture, which both highlights and hides
various insights provided by three perspectives of organizational culture
(i.e., integration, differentiation, and fragmentation). Martin, however,
writing from her position as a management scholar, does not theorize about
the role of communication relative to organizational culture.
Similarly, Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) also offer an agonistic approach
of three major orientations that catalog assumptions embedded in contemporary research on organizational discourse (i.e., workplace talk). First, the
object orientation refers to research that assumes the entity of the organization precedes organizational discourse. Second, the becoming orientation
refers to research that assumes the organization is constituted in discourse.
Third, the grounded in action orientation refers to research that assumes
discourse and organization are mutually constitutive; thus, there is a dure
or constancy to organizational life that is fixed in communicative activity.
Fairhurst and Putnam, however, writing from their position as organizational communication scholars, do not theorize about the role of organizational culture relative to communication.
Like Martin (2002) and Fairhurst and Putnam (2004), we use an agonistic approach for three reasons. First, agonistic approaches hold elements
constant (e.g., communication and organization), allowing scholars to view
different orientations of those elements. Second, agonistic approaches
make comparisons among divergent orientations possible. Third, agonistic
approaches allow scholars a multifaceted view of a phenomenon from divergent, competing orientations simultaneously. These features of agonistic

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approaches provide researchers and students with insightgained through

the orientations simultaneous encounters with one another.
Although Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) examined the relationships
between communication and organization, we use their framework to
investigate the relationships between communication and culture. We do
not imply that organization and culture are synonymous; rather, replacing
culture for organization within this model is a heuristic device. This heuristic replacement will encourage students to access divergent and opposing
literatures to better understand how communication might influence the
process or product of culture, or vice versa.
In the following section, organizational communication, discourse,
and culture are defined. Additionally, forces external to the organization
are discussed. Then, the metaphor of a gyroscope is described as a heuristic device to teach about three potential relationships between organizational discourse and culture. Next, this gyroscope metaphor is situated
within each of these dominant perspectives. As each ontological perspective is discussed, we include illustrative examples of organizational research,
followed by specific pedagogical recommendations and strategies. Our
hope is that the gyroscope metaphor, described from each of these perspectives, will result in a healthy tension among divergent, competing perspectives. This tension provides a foundation from which to explain the complex
nature of organizational culture research to students.

Defining Communication, Discourse,

Culture, and External Forces
Although not always recognized as such, both communication and culture are key, constitutive elements of every organization. However,
because of the frequencyand as a result, discrepancywith which these
concepts are used in both lay and academic arenas, it is first necessary to
describe each. In the following paragraphs, we sketch broad definitions of
communication, discourse, culture, and external forces as they relate to the

Why Communication?
The processes of organizational communication are notoriously difficult
to describe to students. Students often assume familiarity with communication and organizations, further complicating the problem of pedagogy.

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 5

Highlighting the relationship between communication and culture is a way

for an instructor to narrow students focus. For us, organizational communication is the derivation of meaning from symbols and messages within a
social network. Examples include, but are not limited to, employee handbooks, logos, mission statements, profit and loss statements, slogans, team
meetings, watercooler conversations, Web sites, and the other various forms
of formal, informal, verbal, nonverbal, written, and electronic communication found in organizations. Thus, the domain of an organizations communication consists of textual and spoken interaction among internal and
external audiences characterized by permeable boundaries (Cheney &
Christensen, 2001).

Narrowing the Focus to Discourse

More narrowly, discourse is language in use, an important subcomponent of organizational communication processes. Examples include, but
are not limited to, discussions, meetings, and speechesbasically, everyday talk. Communication is ubiquitous. Identifying and evaluating these
processes become overwhelming for researchers and certainly for students. Communication runs the risk of being everywhere and, thus, nowhere.
A focus on workplace talk provides a starting point for unpacking some
dynamics of communication as it relates to culture. Furthermore, discourse is
a particularly potent component of organizational communication. Most
communication originates in everyday talk, making it a significant form of an
organizations communication (Boden, 1994). For example, instructors could
show students an employee handbook from a recognizable organization.
Though handbook contents may physically appear as text, students could
speculate about the series of conversations and meetings through which the
handbooks contents were likely negotiated and refined before its publication. Additionally, researchers observe the bedrock status of everyday talk
(Atkinson & Heritage, 1984; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). They
argue that discourse is the most pervasive mode of interaction in social life
and consists of the fullest matrix of socially organized communicative practices and procedures (Atkinson & Heritage, 1984, p. 13). Clearly discourse
is a key, constitutive element of organizations, as is culture.

Clarifying Culture
As with teaching about organizational communication, students assume
familiarity with the concept of organizational culture based on its frequent

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coverage in the popular press (Keyton, 2005), as well as the common, everyday usage of the term (a product of discourse). For us, organizational
culture consists of the artifacts, values, and assumptions of an organization
(Schein, 1992). Because many of the tangible, observable artifacts of an
organization are under the purview of management (e.g., company logo,
physical arrangement of the office), management often believes it is
responsible for and in control of organizational culture. However, Keyton
(2005) extends the definition of culture, arguing that the elements of artifacts, values, and assumptions emerge from all organizational members
discourse and interactions. Furthermore, Krizek (2005) views culture as
patterns of meaning and interpretationwhether these patterns emerge
among management or employees. Though rarely articulated by popular
press usage of culture, these academic definitions of culture suggest the
strongest of links between culture and communicationa point that is
emphasized by our approach.

Identifying External Forces

In addition to communicative and cultural influences exchanged by
organizational members, external forces may or may not influence the
communicative and cultural makeup of an organization (Cheney &
Christensen, 2001). Examples of external forces include, but are not
limited to, economics, education, family, law, media, politics, religion,
and technology. Though such a list may appear to be a catchall, the concept of external forces illustrates the difficulty of identifying and tracking the sources and targets of influence in communication and culture
research. To make such a concept accessible to students, an instructor
can help them identify external forces in current events. For example,
despite promoting the organizational value of maintaining user confidentiality (i.e., culture), in 2006, America Online, Yahoo, and Microsoft
complied with the U.S. Justice Departments (communicative) request
for data (i.e., external force) on users search queries (Hansell, 2006).
Alternatively, in the case of mounting corporate scandals, Federal law
(i.e., external force), as a communicative action that transmits certain
values and assumptions, did not dissuade certain managers and accountants from engaging in and perpetuating unethical behavior and practices
(Berkowitz, 2004). Instead, it seems that their behaviors and practices
were influenced by a different set of values and assumptionsthe organizations culture.

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 7

The Gyroscope Metaphor

Metaphors are conceptual tools that generate insights by comparing
abstract objects with concrete objects. The use of metaphors for teaching
organizational culture was found useful by Leuchauer and Shulman (1998)
and Starr-Glass (2004). However, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) warn that the
insights provided by metaphors may also obscure important information.
Our metaphor for the relationships among organizational discourse,
organizational culture, and external forces is a gyroscope. A gyroscope consists of two major components: a wheel (technically, a flywheel) and an axis.
Usually gyroscopes are a wheel and axis assembly that spins rapidly
(Scarborough, 1958; Wrigley, Hollister, & Denhard, 1969). The rapid rotation of a wheel and axis generates a force that resists movement in directions
perpendicular to the axis. When the wheel and axis spin rapidly, the gyroscope seems to defy gravity. Common objects such as bicycles and childrens tops operate by gyroscopic force. For example, it seems gravity
would pull over a bicyclist riding on two parallel wheels. However, the rapid
rotation of the wheels and axes generates gyroscopic force that resists movement in a sideways direction. Similarly, a childs top, when spun quickly,
appears to defy gravity from pulling the top over on its side.
Using the metaphor of a gyroscope to describe three perspectives highlights the strengths and weaknesses of each. The resultant competing tensions encourage students to examine assumptions in organizational culture
research. The wheel, in our metaphor, represents organizational discourse,
whereas the axis represents organizational culture. External forces (e.g.,
Federal law, the economy) are represented by the force of gravity, which
the gyroscope, when spinning rapidly, appears to defy. No claim about the
direction of influence between wheel and axis (discourse and culture,
respectively) is inherent in this metaphor. Each of the following research
orientations advocates a unique directionality of influence.

Three Orientations
To encourage students to investigate divergent assumptions concerning
the relationships between communication and culture, the gyroscope
metaphor provides three orientations from which to view these relationships. We explain our gyroscope metaphor by adapting Fairhurst and
Putnams (2004) three orientations on discourse and organization; however, we apply their model to organizational discourse and culture. First,

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from the object orientation, researchers assume that organizational

cultures can be measured and changed to influence discourse. In other
words, culture exists before discourse. For example, a culture characterized as entrepreneurial would dictate employees conversations
about new ideas and projects within the company. Therefore, from this
perspective, the axis (culture) controls the spinning of the wheel (discourse) to generate or attenuate gyroscopic force. Second, the becoming
orientation considers discourse as constituting the culture. In this view,
discourse exists prior to the culture and serves an organizing function. It is
important to note the dynamism with which organizing takes place, as
indicated by the becoming label. Returning to the previous example, conversations and discussions about new ideas and projects, therefore, create
an entrepreneurial culture. From this perspective, the wheel (discourse)
controls the spinning of the axis (culture) to generate or attenuate gyroscopic force. A final perspective, the grounded in action orientation, considers neither discourse nor culture to be primary but views them as
mutually constitutive, influencing each other simultaneously. In the previous example, conversations about new projects are generated by the existing entrepreneurial culture; simultaneously, these conversations reinforce
a culture in which innovative ideas are privileged. Therefore, from this
perspective, both the axis (culture) and the wheel (discourse) draw from
and contribute to one another to generate or attenuate gyroscopic force.
The major tenets of these divergent approaches are laid out one by one.
After each orientation is conceptually defined, illustrative research reports
specific to that orientation are reviewed. Then, the gyroscope metaphor of
organizational discourse and culture is applied as a visual representation to
encourage student comprehension of these abstract ideas. Concluding each
discussion is a review of the strengths and limitations of the orientation.
Table 1 provides a summary comparison of the three orientations. Though
pedagogical recommendations are provided later in the article, the research
reports highlighted here can serve as the basis for an activity suited for
advanced students in which they examine and categorize each report from
its dominant perspective.
Object orientation. The object orientation argues that cultures can be
measured and changed to influence discourse. These researchers tend to ask
questions such as, How does the culture shape discourse? From this orientation, the culture is an entity existing prior to and independent of communicative activity. From the object orientation, the culture has definite
boundaries whereas discourse is merely an outcome. Therefore, these

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 9

Table 1
Agonistic Approach to Organizational
Communication and Culture by Orientation




Illustrative Research

Culture exists prior Emphasizes

to communication
features of
Culture is
phenomenon of
Culture shapes
Culture is static,

Tends to minimize
external forces

Emery and Barker


Tends to mitigate

Hylm and
Buzzanell (2002)

exists prior to

Tends to
the influence of
Tends to overlook

Directs focus to
importance of

and culturing are
choice in
shapes culturing
Culture is in the
in action


and culture are
Communication is
enabled and
constrained by

Culture is in past
and present

Directs focus to
the importance
of time
Emphasizes both
choice and
features of

Tends to
the influence of
past interactions
Tends to privilege
over culture

Pepper and Larson

Rosenfeld, Richman,
and May (2004)
Schrodt (2002)
Cooren (2004)

Eisenberg, Murphy,
and Andrews

Fairhurst and Cooren

Smith and Keyton
Zoller (2003)
Arnesen and Weis

Banks (1994)

Boden (1994)

Dougherty and
Smythe (2004)

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researchers examine organizational cultures that create, sustain, or hinder

successful and effective organizational communication.
Research conducted from this orientation assumes (a) culture is measurable, (b) culture produces discourse, (c) cultures can be managed, and
(d) changes to the culture will result in changes to communicative activities in the organization (e.g., Hylm & Buzzanell, 2002; Pepper & Larson,
2006; Rosenfeld et al., 2004). For example, Schrodt (2002) investigated a
large retail sales organization to determine the influence of its culture on
employees organizational identification (i.e., feelings of oneness with or
belonging to; Ashforth & Mael, 1989). Participants completed a survey
that captured six dimensions of the organizations culture: teamwork,
morale, information flow, involvement, supervision, and meetings (Glaser,
Zamanou, & Hacker, 1987). Each of these dimensions is inherently communicative; thus, by changing the culture, one changes the organizations
discourse. Schrodt (2002) determined that each of these dimensions was
significantly related to employees identification, though morale was the
only direct predictor. Notice, the mere presence of a predictor is consistent
with the object orientation because it presumes that culture dictates certain
communicative outcomes.
Similarly, Emery and Barker (2007) analyzed the effect of leadership
styles in the banking and food store industries on customer service representatives job performancein essence demonstrating how organizational
culture can influence employees interactions with customers and the public. When transformational leaders create organizational cultures of innovation and inspiration, their employees are more satisfied with their jobs and
provide better customer service. In contrast, when transactional leaders create organizational cultures based on a quid pro quo mentality, their employees are less satisfied with their jobs and provide worse customer service.
Thus, the implications of this study suggest organizational cultures can be
managed in such a way as to produce better communicative outcomes (i.e.,
customer service).
These illustrative examples of research conducted from the object
orientation can be used to describe the gyroscope metaphor of organizational discourse and culture. Recall the gyroscope metaphor, where the
axis is culture and the wheel is discourse (see Figure 1). From the object
orientation, we posit that organizational culture controls discourse; therefore, the movement of the gyroscopes axis influences the spinning of the
gyroscopes wheel. These cultural influences, if widely shared, will resist
external forces much like a gyroscope appears to resist gravity when spun

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 11

Figure 1
Gyroscope Metaphor of Organizational Discourse
and Culture From the Object Orientation

There are advantages to framing culture as the context in which all

organizational activity, including discourse, occurs. First, this conceptualization emphasizes the structuring of culture over organizational members
choices to do otherwise. For example, an ethical culture could dissuade
organizational members from participating in unethical communicative
practices. Or, an organizations culture could powerfully lead employees to
always respond to customers with a smile, despite how employees may
genuinely feel (Hochschild, 1983). Second, this conceptualization provides
limits to the phenomenon under investigation. In other words, boundaries
exist and serve to clearly identify that which is inside as well as outside of
the culturethe advantage of such a perspective may become clearer when
seen in opposition to the other perspectives.
However, the object orientation also has disadvantages. Despite the
advantage of conceptualizing culture as able to persuade organizational
members to engage in ethical behavior, the opposite is also true. In the
event that ethical standards are breached by organizational members, this
orientation mitigates their responsibility and tends to push responsibility
toward the organization (qua management) as represented by its policies

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and procedures. For example, in November 2008, the CEOs of three major
American automakers were criticized for taking private jets to Washington,
D.C. (Ross & Rhee, 2008). The purpose of the trips was to plead with
Congress to grant the auto industry $25 billion in taxpayer money so
that Chrysler, Ford, and GM could avoid bankruptcy. Despite their
respective companies being in financial peril, the CEOs still made use
of a lavish company perk: private jet transportation. Their trips cost an
estimated $20,000 each. In this case, the organizational cultures encouraged the CEOs poor decision making, which communicated irresponsibility to Congress. When questioned in Congress about their transportation
choices, the CEOs would not comment.
Second, although a researcher in the object orientation thoroughly
examines the cultural aspects inside the container of the organization, the
boundaries may blind him or her to outside influences, such as economic,
legal, political, and societal forces. These forces may affect the culture in
profound ways, even though they do not originate within the container.
The gyroscope metaphor viewed from the object orientation focuses on
organizational culture as a cause of communicative activity. Most significantly, this orientation does not address how culture is initiated or changed.
From the object orientation, the cultures ontology is embedded in or
framed by the policies, procedures, and will of management.
A major caution for students examining organizational culture from this
orientation is the tendency to overlook the role of discourse. When students
identify the culture created by policies and procedures but do not link it to
communicative outcomes within the organization, they have moved away
from the link between discourse and organizational culture and even away
from this agonistic approach. Popular press tends to take a perspective on
organizational culture that is most similar to the object orientation (e.g.,
Lencioni, 2009). However, the object orientation as a scholarly position
still emphasizes discourse in ways that the popular press does not.
In summary, the gyroscope metaphor viewed from this object orientation emphasizes the influence of culture over discourse. The culture, created by the sum of organizational procedures and policies, enables and
constrains the communicative action of organizational members.
Becoming orientation. Some scholars who reject an object orientation
assume discourse exists prior to culture. These scholars who assume a
becoming orientation tend to ask, How is discourse culturing? The
assumption of this simple question is that discourse possesses culturing
properties and that, as a result, culture is always in a state of becoming and

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 13

is never fixed. From the becoming orientation, the cultures ontology is in

the dynamic processes of discourse. Therefore, these researchers seek to
uncover properties of discourse and linguistic forms that create, sustain, or
challenge culturing.
Research conducted from this orientation assumes culturing is a process of discourse (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1998; Smith & Keyton, 2001;
Zoller, 2003). For instance, Fairhurst and Cooren (2004) analyzed an
emergency dialogue between a dispatcher and a police officer. The study
revealed that discourse (a) structured relationships between organizational
members, (b) routinized organizational interaction in such a way as to prescribe shared procedures of action, and (c) governed turn taking during
exchanges. Each of these findings suggests an inherently organizing property of discourse. Additionally, each of these findings also suggests an
inherently culturing property of discourse in that the organizing properties
are normative assumptions and values about what is expected in this type
of organizational interaction.
Scholars observe the organizing (and culturing) property of discourse in
traumatic events, as well as more mundane interactions such as common board meetings. Cooren (2004) analyzed the conversation of a
nonprofit board meeting. Board members engaged in a process of
coproducing and cocompleting utterances in a system of defining problems and their solutions. He argued that the understanding generated by
the discourse of the group could not be reduced to mere individualistic
mental processes. Rather, this research revealed organizing properties
of the groups discourse in that group members coproduced collective
understandings. Coorens observations of the organizing properties of
discourse may be considered similar to culturing because board members
communicatively constructed both cultural assumptions about what the
problem was as well as the cultural value of an appropriate solution.
These illustrative examples of research conducted from the becoming
orientation invoke a different gyroscopic metaphor of organizational discourse and culture. Because the becoming orientation posits that discourse
precedes culturing, the movement of the gyroscopes wheel, representing
discourse, influences the rotation of the axis, representing culture (see
Figure 2). These communicative influences, if highly shared, will resist
certain external forces much like a gyroscope appears to resist gravity.
There are several advantages to conceptualizing culture as primarily
influenced by the discourse that precedes it. First, this conceptualization emphasizes organizational members communicative choices. In
other words, from this orientation, organizational members have the free

14 Journal of Management Education

Figure 2
Gyroscope Metaphor of Organizational Discourse
and Culture From the Becoming Orientation

will to reinforce or challenge existing culturing, thereby altering the direction of a cultures progress turn by turn, word by word. Second, and similarly, the becoming orientation directs our attention to the change producing
capacity of communication. A clear example of this is any new business
venture. As an entrepreneur has an idea for a company, discusses it with
others, and moves the new organization through the necessary legal and
financial structures, the culture of the new organization is produced with
each discussion and decision. There was no organizational culture prior to
these communicative processes.
From this orientation, every organizational member possesses responsibility, especially regarding unethical behavior. A whistle-blower, through
his or her complaint (i.e., discourse) of unethical practices to management,
changes the culture, however slightly. Perhaps the result is a culture
marked by openness, honesty, and a desire to operate morally. If the
whistle-blowers discourse is suppressed, punished, or ignored, the resultant
culture is now one marked by the acceptance of wrongdoing. Even intentional silence is a form of communicative choice, which may reinforce or
challenge culturing because silence often suggests implicit approval. Third,

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 15

this orientation redirects attention to the importance of discourse in cultural

studies, an insight that is often overlooked in management studies.
Conversely, there are disadvantages of conceptualizing organizational
culture in this manner. Despite the assumption from this orientation that an
organizational member can challenge organizational culturing, some organizational members perceive material and communicative barriers. For
example, consider a single mother who fears losing her job and a steady
income (i.e., material barriers). The need to provide for her family may
cause her to interpret her choices as limited. Likewise, consider the same
single mother who perceives that supervisors will not listen or may even
mock her for reporting sexual harassment (i.e., communicative barrier).
Although language in use may be important, material and communicative
barriers may also be an important focus warranting students attention.
Indeed, one organizational member challenging organizational culturing
through communicative activity may not be nearly enough to create a sea
change in an organizations culture.
A caution for students examining organizational culture from this orientation is the propensity to view past discourse as culturing and neglect
present discourse that continues to shape and organize. A central focus of
the becoming orientation is the dynamic culturing property of each new
interaction, moment to moment. When students focus on past interactions,
they could be confounding the becoming with the grounded in action orientation. To overcome this problem, instructors should encourage students
to identify how any one snapshot of an organizations culture is incomplete because current and ongoing discourse continues to shape organizational culture.
In summary, the gyroscope metaphor viewed from the becoming orientation emphasizes the importance of communicative activity as it enables
culturing. Organizational discourse possesses culturing properties, which
dynamically reinforces or challenges the organizations culture, turn by
turn and word by word.
Grounded in action orientation. Some scholars argue that the becoming
orientation ascribes too much free will to the individual organizational
member and that the object orientation ascribes too much influence to the
culture of the organization. Rejecting these orientations, these scholars
assume that discourse and culture are mutually constitutive. Scholars who
take a grounded in action orientation tend to ask, How are the constancies
of organizational culture fixed in the dynamic flow of discourse?
Fairhurst and Putnam (2004) observed that although the grounded in

16 Journal of Management Education

action orientation may seem to combine the object and becoming orientations, the grounded in action orientation is distinct in that it treats action
and structure as mutually constitutive. Thus, the organization never assumes
the form of an identifiable entity because it is anchored at the level of social
practices and discursive forms (p. 16). From the grounded in action orientation, the cultures ontology is found at the level of everyday interaction as
enabled and constrained by past interactions. Therefore, researchers seeking to uncover how constancies of organizational life are fixed in everyday
talk will investigate how actors appropriate the rules and resources gained
from previous interactions in their present conversations.
Research conducted from this orientation assumes that past interactions
create a culture that enables and constrains present interactions and interpretations (e.g., Dougherty & Smythe, 2004). For example, Banks (1994) investigated flight attendants public safety announcements as they both recreated
and resisted airline institutions. In performing public announcements (PAs),
flight attendants achieved multiple goals. They accomplished the essential
function of preparing passengers to follow their directions in an emergency,
whereas at the same time they minimized the seriousness of the announcement to comfort themselves. Banks noted, In performing PAs, flight attendants achieved multiple goalspersonal and professional, institutional and
culturalwhether consciously or not (p. 262). Here, the flight attendants
recreated and also resisted airline institutions and culture. Although individuals consciously or unconsciously understand some expectation (i.e., culture)
for their behavior based on previous interactions (i.e., discourse), individuals
can communicatively act in the present to challenge the culture, thereby
affecting (however slightly) future organizational culture.
Similarly, Arnesen and Weis (2007) outlined strategies for developing an
effective company policy for employee Internet and e-mail use. Personal
Internet and e-mail use by employees is a two-edge sword. On one hand,
personal use, such as online banking, may enhance employee productivity
by increasing their physical time spent at work. However, on the other
hand, devious personal use of company Internet and e-mail may expose
organizations to sexual harassment violations and decrease employee productivity. The authors recommend controlling employees mediated discourse by instituting appropriate company policy. However, their insightful
contribution originates in their suggestion to encourage a collaborative and
participative construction of company policy by employees themselves.
Thus, Arnesen and Weis suggested a grounded in action approach. They
argued for discourse about technology usage (i.e., talk among employees)
to create company policy and norms (i.e., a specific kind of organizational

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 17

Figure 3
Gyroscope Metaphor of Organizational Discourse and
Culture From the Grounded in Action Orientation

culture of technology use) to produce effective change in organizational

members communicative outcomes (i.e., how employees were interacting
on company communications technologies).
These illustrative examples of research conducted from the grounded in
action orientation can be used to describe the gyroscope metaphor of
organizational discourse and culture. From this orientation, both discourse,
as the movement of the wheel, and culture, as the movement of the axis,
mutually influence one another to generate the gyroscopic force that can
resist external forces (see Figure 3). Furthermore, this orientations emphasis on the development of social patterning over time may be similar to the
inertia of a gyroscope. In other words, inertia is the tendency of an object
in motion to remain in motion. Previous rotations of the wheel and axis
have the tendency to generate new rotations, which continue to resist external forces. However, without renewed spinning, energy eventually attenuates and the gyroscope succumbs to external forces.
There are several advantages of conceptualizing present organizational
culture as influenced by both discourse and past culture. First, this orientation emphasizes both the constraining features of past interactions on
present ones. Second, this orientation emphasizes the responsibility of
each organizational member in creating his or her environment with other

18 Journal of Management Education

members of the organization. Third, this orientation is able to achieve

more balance between the responsibilities of employees and management
in creating culture than the object or becoming orientations. Fourth, this
orientation redirects our attention to the importance of discourse and culture as they emerge over time.
Despite these advantages, disadvantages still exist. First, even though
this orientation balances the responsibilities of employees and management
better than the object and becoming orientations, some argue that the
grounded in action orientation still privileges discourse over culture
(Conrad & Haynes, 2001). This orientation may tend to direct focus so
heavily on assumptions embedded in discourse that the influence of policies, procedures, and management as important sources of cultural influence may be overlooked. Conversely, another disadvantage of this
orientation is that it may tend to overemphasize the influence of past interactions on current ones, thus mitigating the role of present discourse.
One caution for students investigating organizational culture from this
orientation regards its partial emphasis on moment-to-moment social interaction. There may be a tendency to minimize the importance of other
organizational conversations that enable or constrain moment-to-moment
conversations across time. When students focus only on present interactions, they are investigating organizational discourse and culture from the
becoming orientation. As a result, it may be easy for students to confuse the
grounded in action with the becoming orientation.
In summary, the gyroscope metaphor viewed from the grounded in
action orientation emphasizes the mutual influence of discourse over culture and culture over discourse. Organizational members interactions are
simultaneously enabled and constrained by the culture while, at the same
time, the culture is reinforced or challenged with every new interaction.

Applying the Gyroscope

Metaphor to Culture Pedagogy
We know of no other materials that so comprehensively help students
explore the potential relationships between organizational culture and communication. Our gyroscope metaphor helps students tease out competing
assumptions that are hidden in some research and highlights assumptions
addressed in others. By describing the gyroscope metaphor from each of the
dominant perspectives, an instructor can present organizational culture without advocating one particular orientation over another. With this approach,

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 19

students can examine various orientations and definitional assumptions for

themselves. For more advanced students, instructors can use the model to
help students test the effects and implications of assumptions. In the following paragraphs, we discuss how our system may be presented through
lecture, activities, and case studies.
An instructor can begin by first presenting the three orientations and the
central tenets of each via lecture format. To depict the gyroscope metaphor
visually, a series of short videos and PowerPoint presentation can be
shown to students during lecture. These instructional materials are available online free of charge at the following link: http://www.joannkeyton
.com/TeachingOrganizationalCulture.htm. The Web-based videos may be
shown with or without audio, depending on the level of the course and
purposes of the instructor.
To apply and extend the class material, an instructor can incorporate any
number of activities and assignments. For undergraduate students, group
activities can be a productive way in which to grasp abstract concepts.
Morgans (2004) active learning presentation exercise in which students in
small groups explore original research . . . as a means to discover more
about organizational cultures (p. 130) requires each group to investigate
and present a cultural form (e.g., ceremony, metaphor, ritual, story, symbol)
from one scholarly article about organizational culture. The gyroscope
metaphor could extend this learning opportunity if students were required to
assess the orientation of the study and the impact of that orientation on the
studys findings. The instructor could further enhance learning about organizational culture by facilitating a cross-group comparison of the orientations
manifested in the research articles after all groups have presented.
Additionally, the gyroscope metaphor could highlight the grounded in
action orientation that serves as the basis of Shapiros (2006) balloons in
the air activity. The balloon activity simulates for students the discourse
required to perform the organization and its primary activity (i.e., keeping
the balloons in the air) and, hence, the organizations culture. The instructor
could further enhance students learning by pointing to how different
research orientations would view the organizational culture they created
depending on how their activity was studied.
Consistent with the purpose of a communication, management, business
communication, or organizational behavior course, teaching organizational
culture should foster students understanding and appreciation of the topic
as they prepare to enter the workforce. The becoming and grounded in
action orientations underscore the idea that every organizational member
contributes to the culture not just those in managerial roles. The instructor

20 Journal of Management Education

could invite a representative of a local company (perhaps a recent graduate

who has not yet been promoted to the managerial level) to talk to the class
about his or her organizations culture and his or her own workplace experiences. The class could create, in advance, a series of questions to ask of
the speaker. To help students brainstorm, the instructor might share a few
sample questions, including the following: Who do you speak to at work
most often and why? What do you talk about most often at work and why?
Describe your culture. How do you suppose management would describe
the organizational culture? How do you think this compares with how the
average employee would describe it? In the class period after the guests
visit, the class could discuss which orientation best describe the guests
implicit assumptions about culture.
In another effort to underscore the role of communication in culture,
students could be given the following scenario. Students could be given the
goal of crafting a message to employees in an effort to improve the cultural
workplace situation.
You are the local site manager for a successful branch of your organization.
Your boss, who is located eight hours away at company headquarters, is
deeply concerned with the culture of the entire company. She has told you that
when she visits branches, she sees few employees who are excited about their
jobs or the corporate mission. She has tasked you with changing your branchs
culture from a pessimistic culture to an optimistic one. Given the recent economic downturn, she is convinced an optimistic culture is the only way to
survive. Craft a message you will deliver to your branch (and/or whomever
else you want to single out). Following your message, analyze each word (or
phrase) and explain why you chose it to achieve the desired goal of encouraging an optimistic culture among employees. Use theories presented in class
and the textbook (and not your own intuition) to support your explanations.

After students have written and presented their messages to the class, the
instructor can facilitate a discussion with the class about how effective they
think each message will be in changing the culture. Throughout this discussion, connections to the three orientations should be made. Specifically, the
facilitator could demonstrate that a manager should attempt to encourage
optimistic interaction by and among employees and discourage pessimistic
interaction by and among employees. According to the grounded in action
orientation, the aggregation of these interactions comes to shape culture,
which, in turn, comes to shape how employees interact. An example of an
excellent message that seeks to enhance optimistic interaction by and
among employees may be the following:

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 21

I know many of you are concerned. You are concerned about the fate of your
jobs, your coworkers, and this branch. But we must turn that negative
energy into proactive energy. We cannot allow our negativity to become
self-fulfilling. This company has succeeded in hard times before. The way
to ensure our job security is to work harder, to innovate more, and to exceed
our clients expectationsall of which begins with a positive attitude. From
this point forward, I no longer want to hear pessimism and gossip in these
offices! No more. From this point forward, we need to be encouraging. We
need to tell each other when we have done a good job. When your coworker
is down, encourage him. When your coworker innovates, praise her. We
need creative ways of doing business more profitably than ever before
because all of our jobs depend on it. Jill, when you figured out how to
reduce our insurance expenses, that was a stroke of genius. Well done! Alex,
when you stayed late last Friday to complete an order, that was hard work
in action. Well done! Thats the innovation and tenacity we need and thats
the sort of encouragement we need. When your coworker gets it right, they
need to hear it from you because thats the kind of attitude that will ensure
we will remain a successful branch.

To extend this discussion, the instructor could ask students to speculate

how issues of power, organizational change, learning and innovation, and
technology could be aspects of organizational cultures, which may need to
be influenced by managers strategic communication.
In another application of the orientations, instructors could assign students
to investigate the manner in which organizational culture is presented in the
popular press. A number of companies have been recognized in the press for
their organizational cultures, including Best Buy, Cargill, Cisco, Google,
SAS, and Southwest Airlines. Students can easily find cultural information in
articles from the business press, Web pages, or video; they could be charged
with identifying the orientation implicit in each source. After comparing class
members findings and impressions, the instructor could facilitate a discussion about the framing of culture within popular press.
For upper-level students, a similar activity could be facilitated using
empirical studies of organizational culture. Drawing on articles such as
those in Table 1 or articles located by students, the instructor could assign
students to prepare papers in which they identify the researchers assumptions about the relationship between discourse and culture. Assignment
questions could include (a) Which orientation best describes the relationship between culture and communication? (b) What evidence do you have
from the study to confirm this? (c) Which groups of organizational members are most responsible for the creation and maintenance of culture? and

22 Journal of Management Education

(d) How, if at all, is culture or communication being leveraged positively

(i.e., for employee well-being, organizational success, or societal benefit)?
Upper-level students could also benefit from reading popular press
pieces as described previously. The assignment could be made more challenging by asking students to identify an aspect of a well-known companys culture (e.g., Googles structure, which stresses employee autonomy),
then apply and explain that same aspect within each orientation. This
activity could easily be turned into a writing assignment or classroom
debate as well.
A final activity for students involves combining organizational research,
application of the three orientations, and analysis of actual communication
within an organizational context. Before class, students could be assigned
to investigate the organizational culture of the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA). Then, a 7-page transcript of the Friday,
January 17, 2003, meeting of the Mission Management Team (see http:// could be distributed
and read aloud in class. This transcript details the discourse of NASA
employees representing a variety of NASA departments who were involved
in a teleconference the day after the space shuttle Columbia was launched.
In the transcript, organizational members give status reports as well as
discuss the shuttle crew, problems with the shuttle itself, and how the
employees intended to solve these problems. Columbias 28th mission,
STS-107, ended in tragedy on Saturday, February 1, 2003, as the shuttle
disintegrated on reentry, minutes before its scheduled landing.
After reading the transcript, students could be grouped to scrutinize the
transcript for indicators of organizational culture from within the meeting
talk. Again, by using each orientation as a tool of analysis, students could
make arguments for the most appropriate relationship between discourse
and culture. The activity closes with a discussion or a writing assignment
in which students speculate about the steps NASA could take to prevent
future disasters, paying particular attention to how communication and
culture are relevant.

Turning contradictory perspectives that spawn interesting academic
debates into reasonable pedagogy for our students can be difficult. We answer
the oft-heard call for more suitable strategies for translating abstract and
disparate theoretical assumptions into teaching materials by presenting three

Bisel et al. / Organizational Culture through a Gyroscope Metaphor 23

interpretations of the gyroscope metaphor. We know of no other perspective to date that more directly outlines the potential relationships among
these crucial elements of our social world. The agonistic approach and
gyroscope metaphor allow us to add communication to Martins (2002)
model of organizational culture while allowing us to add culture to Fairhurst
and Putnams (2004) model of organization and discourse. We believe that
the relationships among communication and culture presented as a metaphor of a gyroscope is heuristically useful for teaching undergraduate and
graduate students about these difficult and abstract concepts. Using this
approach, students will be able to more easily identify each orientation and
its strengths and weaknesses. For more advanced students, instructors can
use the three interpretations of the metaphor to help students identify and
test the effects and implications of assumptions embedded in organizational
culture research.

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