Handy's Four Types of Cultures

Choosing the Best Culture for Your Organization

Handy's Four Types of Cultures - Choosing the Best Culture for Your Organization

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What type of corporate culture will give your organization the lift it needs?

Organizations are similar to countries: they each have a unique culture based on values, beliefs and common expectations. Each culture has its strengths and its weaknesses.

Many organizations resist changing their culture once it's developed. But organizations grow and change over time, just like a living thing, and the culture must grow and change as well for it to succeed in the long term.

The most successful organizations have the right culture in the place for what they're trying to do. When these elements don't align, productivity, morale and efficiency can all suffer.

In this article we'll look at Handy's Four Types of Culture, a model that describes four unique organizational cultures. We'll explore each culture in detail, and we'll discuss how you can try and move to one that best fits your organization's current needs.

About the Model

Charles Handy, a management consultant and professor at the London Business School, developed the Four Types of Culture and published them in his 1978 book "Gods of Management."

Handy's theory describes four distinct management styles, each with its own values. Over time, these values and expectations create a culture within the organization. The four cultures are: Club Culture, Role Culture, Task Culture, and Existentialist Culture.

From "Gods of Management" by Charles Handy. Published by Oxford University Press, 1996.


In Handy's original theory, each culture was associated with a Greek god, to help people understand and remember them. Here are the four associations:

  1. Club Culture: Zeus.
  2. Role Culture: Apollo.
  3. Task Culture: Athena.
  4. Existential Culture: Dionysus.

Your organization is unlikely to fit neatly into one of these four cultures. The most successful organizations are those that exist in balance – they have a blend of cultures, or call upon one or more in specific situations or roles.

Applying the Four Cultures

Before you begin, take time to understand your organization's primary culture. Think carefully about which of the four cultures reminds you most of your organization. Use the Cultural Web or Deal and Kennedy's Cultural Model to analyze and understand your organization's current culture.

Next, read carefully and think about which of the following Handy's Four Cultures resonate with you the most. What culture would best suit your organization or team? Bear in mind that culture change isn't easy and it takes time to get right.

Below, we provide more detail about each culture, and we include some strategies that you can use to start moving your organization or team to the most appropriate one.

1. Club Culture

The club culture is built on power, connections and respect. It's often found in organizations with like-minded individuals and a charismatic entrepreneur at its center.

This culture thrives when speed is more important than accuracy. In it, managers and teams make decisions based on what the CEO wants to do. Empathy with the organization's leader is essential.

If your organization experiences rapid growth, or a series of crises, this culture might be the best choice to work toward.

To align your organization with this culture, work on building trust with your colleagues and team. Trust is the foundation of the club culture and you won't be able to make much progress without it.

In the club culture, individual relationships often count for more than the validity of your arguments or ideas. To handle this you'll need to understand the needs of your allies, as well as the key stakeholders in the organization. Make sure that you gain the support of both of these groups, as this will be essential to pushing your projects and ideas through.

Encourage your team members to learn from other successful leaders in the organization, so that they can move easily within the club culture. Where you can, set them up with a mentor or coach from the senior leadership team.

Next, help team members to overcome their fear of failure, so that they feel comfortable if they make mistakes. Although this might sound counterintuitive in a club culture, the leaders in these organizations often learn by "doing." Encourage your team to take well-considered risks and to learn from their mistakes.

2. Role Culture

The role culture is often found in large, hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations. The organization's approach to work is based on a person's role, or a specific task that needs completion. Stability, efficiency and predictability are valued more than individual needs.

The role culture is most effective when you work in a government agency, within an industry that experiences very slow change, or for an organization with a long history of offering a successful product. This culture is also useful in industries or situations where it's important for team members to follow particular rules, policies and procedures.

If your organization has experienced recent safety or quality issues, or if you need to increase efficiency or streamline work processes, you may want to work toward a role culture.

First, write a job description for all of your team members, and make sure that they fully understand their role and responsibilities. Create a team charter that defines the group's objective, roles, rules and other key parameters.

This role culture depends on having the right rules and procedures in place – this is important where equality is of particular concern, and where there can be significant problems with health and safety. Take time to explain to your team why the rules exist. When they understand the purpose of the rules and procedures, they're far more likely to follow them consistently.

If quality has been an issue in your organization, use quality management strategies such as kaizen, zero defects or total quality management to uncover and address problems. To address inefficiencies, strategies like kanban or the 5S system are helpful.

It's often difficult to implement large-scale change within a role culture. If you have an idea that will improve efficiency or benefit your organization, our article on Overcoming Barriers to Change has tips and strategies that you can use to conquer common cultural resistance to change.

3. Task Culture

In the task culture, the organization judges people's performance by their results and on the number of problems that they solve. Their expertise, talent, creativity, and problem-solving ability are valued and rewarded. This culture often has high levels of engagement and enthusiasm, and the organization is typically staffed by expert professionals who have a sincere desire to help it grow.

The task culture is often useful in industries where solving problems is the primary objective. Examples include research and development, marketing and advertising and consulting. This culture is also valuable when an organization undergoes expansion or seeks new products or services for development.

To move your organization to a task culture, use task allocation strategies to make sure that you have the right people in the right role. A mismatch can slow productivity, as well as reducing the entire team's ability to solve problems effectively.

Next, encourage everyone on your team to build expertise within their jobs. In a task culture, experts are highly valued and everyone should devote time to learning and building on their experience. So help your team members keep up-to-date on the industry and subscribe to trade magazines. Ask them to schedule in development activities and make sure that they have the resources and training opportunities needed to build new skills.

Meetings are important in a task culture, because experts need to discuss and debate ideas. Create spaces within your organization that promote spontaneous conversation. In meetings, get everyone involved in brainstorming sessions by using tools like Crawford's Slip Writing Method or rolestorming.

To motivate your team in this culture, challenge them with new projects or cross-training opportunities. Give them the chance to use their skills and expertise in new or unexpected ways. If you stimulate their intellect, their engagement and productivity will follow suit.

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4. Existentialist Culture

In the first three cultures, people are considered to be subordinate to the organization; they are there to help it achieve its goals. In existentialist culture, the organization exists to help people achieve their higher purpose. Here, individuals' talent and skills are the organization's greatest assets.

The existentialist culture is best for organizations that depend entirely on the talent or skill of expert professionals and "star" performers. For example, virtual companies that employ a diverse mix of contractors and employees are often existentialist. Many start-ups and partnerships also adopt an existentialist culture.

This culture is a good fit when your organization needs to attract the best talent possible, or when you work within a group of equals, such as a partnership.

Personal freedom is the foundation of an existentialist culture. So give your team members the autonomy that they need to do their jobs as they see fit. If possible, allow them to work from home or to set their own schedule. You just might find that if you take a step back, their engagement and productivity will improve.

Next, understand the psychological contract that each individual has with your organization. When you know each person's unspoken expectations, you can tailor your motivation and reward approach to meet those needs.

In this culture, everyone has a say on decisions. Encourage your team members to speak their mind in meetings, but stress that they're not obliged to do so.

Last, learn how to manage this diverse group of professionals. Our articles on Managing Freelancers, Managing Contractors and Managing Knowledge Workers have strategies that you can use to motivate, manage and reward each of these unique groups.


See also our articles on Deal and Kennedy's Cultural Model and the Competing Values Framework for other useful cultural models, and see our articles on the Cultural Web and the Congruence Model for useful ways of understanding company culture.

Key Points

Charles Handy developed the Four Types of Culture and published them in his 1978 book, "Gods of Management." The four types of culture have their own values and "personalities," and if you use these styles consistently over time, they will help you create a culture that you want within your organization.

These four cultures are:

  • Club culture.
  • Role culture.
  • Task culture.
  • Existentialist culture.

Each culture has its own advantages and disadvantages. You can work toward adopting one of these cultures to fit a specific situation or need or you can move your team or organization to one of these cultures permanently.