Organizational Patterns Across Cultures

September 17, 2020 | 1 comment

When you think of your favorite tree, how are the parts of that tree related to one another? How are they organized? Let me guess that you are thinking. . . .

            Your favorite tree has a set of roots that tie together hundreds of tree trunks. . . . right? Isn’t that what you had in mind when I talk about how a tree is organized?

            Or maybe you thought about one long stalk that points up to the sky with a frond of leaves at the top. 

            Perhaps you thought about one individual trunk from which come branches and leaves. 

If you thought of any of these, you are right!  Aspen trees are amazing – some stands grow from their roots underground but are truly all interconnected as one single huge organism. The trunks are all part of one another. These single organisms can be acres across. (Look up the Pando Aspen on your favorite web browser). Palm trees go straight into the air with a whirl of leaves at the top. Hardwood trees with trunks and branches are also a form of organization. Any one of these, plus many other possibilities, are possible ways for trees to “organize” their growth.

What is the connection between trees, organizations, and cultures? 

My culture’s idea of organization is a hierarchy that combines leadership, management, and work. We like a hierarchy with vision-directed leaders at the top, skilled managers as department heads and workers at the bottom. In our churches, businesses, and government, this describes what we consider to be a well-organized system. 

Our sports teams have departments: sales, general manager, coaches. Our churches have senior pastors, boards and department heads (Sunday School, Music, etc.). Business, social clubs, government, all share this pattern of organizational leadership. 

The way people organize themselves in my homeland looks a lot like a hardwood tree with small branches coming off a central trunk.

But there are other ways that people organize themselves! Cultures vary in how they organize so that many people can work together.  

Some cultures organize around a strong leader who simply gives instruction directly to all the people who work for him or her. 

Some cultures do not organize around individual leaders at all but have a group or committee that provides direction for the personnel of the group. Often there are no individual opinions expressed by the committee; the voice of the group is presented as a shared, unanimous voice.

The interesting thing about patterns is that they repeat!  

The culture that prefers to have a strong leader in government will often favor a strong leader for church and business. The culture that organizes around a committee will often develop churches with plural leadership. The culture that prefers a hierarchy leadership whose vision is advanced by a group of department heads will often repeat that pattern in churches, clubs, businesses, and government. 

Patterns of organizational leadership repeat within a culture and vary across cultures!

What does this mean for you? Part of your calling to serve in another culture includes learning and adapting to the patterns of organization and leadership of that culture. Here are four ideas of how to do that:

1. As you move into a culture that is new to you, learn how people organize themselves!  Observe, ask, imagine that they may have a structure of cooperation that is quite different from what you are used to. What you see in government or schools is likely going to be repeated in churches and businesses, too. Look for organizational patterns in many different parts of life. Can you find the patterns?

2. When you think you have seen the pattern, talk it through with people from inside the culture. Imagine that you were going to propose an idea to the church or business; given their organizational preference, how would you do that? When you think you have an idea—a guess about the right way to work with that organization—then ask someone from inside the culture about your plan. If you have predicted the right way to enter the organization, your learning is on track!

3. Build new organizations with the patterns you see in the culture! If you are launching a school, use their administrative organization patterns instead of importing the administrative patterns of your homeland. Work in a way that is familiar and comfortable to your hosts.

4. Work from inside the system, not pushing from outside! You probably feel less confident of the organization of your host culture than you feel about your home culture’s organizational patterns. That is natural. But you are working with people who want to build for their culture! Learn to work within their systems!


In these uncertain times, cross-cultural workers on a home assignment, furlough, or sabbatical might wonder where to even start. Start here. The Sabbatical Journey Course adapts to any length of sabbatical and is divided into four quarters: rest, refuel, reequip, and refocus. The course closes on September 23rd–enroll today, before it’s too late.

Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of CultureBound. Husband. Life-long learner.

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1 Comment

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    Thanks for drawing my attention to this! It’s really helpful to think about the organizational pattern of the place where I’m at.

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