a framework for organisational
diagnosis and development
Richard Pech and Bret Slade
Graduate School of Management, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Keywords Change management, Organizational development, Organizational behaviour
Abstract This paper examines the concept of memetic engineering as a means of facilitating
organisational diagnosis and development. It draws lessons for managers and organisational
development specialists from current and topical examples of powerful organisational memes.
Using a process of memetic mapping through the three elements of meme ﬁdelity, host
susceptibility, and level of resonance, managers may develop a heuristic for diagnosis of memes
and their impact upon organisational culture and execution of the mission. Potentially, using this
dual memetic engineering framework, managers may be able to calculate both the ﬁtness and effect
of the meme against existing and desired organisational culture and mission. It is argued that
memetic engineering is a practical process for protecting the organisation from toxic memes and
as a means of heightening awareness of potential threats in the cultural environment or the
mindscape of the organisation.
The modern business and public sector manager may view the organisational
construct as existing for the purpose of work-related goal achievement, as a vehicle for
surviving on a competitive landscape, and/or as a vehicle for achieving personal
aspirations that may bear no relation to the goals of the organisation. Numerous
management approaches, systems, policies, and procedures are developed and
implemented to facilitate effective and efﬁcient goal achievement within these and a
variety of other mental constructs that may be held by the stakeholders who have
inputs into the achievement of the greater organisational goals. However, there lurks a
hidden and complex phenomenon within the organisational machinery that has the
power to inﬂuence goal design and achievement, competitive behaviour, personal
aspirations, and numerous organisational idiosyncrasies – without the authorisation,
consent, and sometimes even knowledge of management. This phenomenon can be
identiﬁed through staff attitudes, their level and quality of work effort, their
demeanour, the individual and collective morale, and a variety of other symptoms.
These symptoms are often reﬂections of employee mindsets and these mindsets are
sometimes conveyed in messages or packets of information that can be termed memes.
Selected memes, or cultural replicators, may guide the organisation. Yet some memes
are also toxic, reﬂecting undesirable mindsets that could be responsible for lowering
morale, increasing operating costs, or inhibiting performance in some other way. Toxic
memes can be transmitted virus-like from person to person and, as will be
demonstrated, can undermine the greater organisational mission, even in some
situations, putting lives at risk. There are currently few diagnostic tools for identifying
such memes or their methods of contagion. Also, no satisfactory frameworks exist for
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received August 2003
Revised February 2004
Accepted March 2004
The Leadership & Organization
Vol. 25 No. 5, 2004
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
facilitating the re-engineering of such memes. The following discussion will introduce
a dual framework designed to identify the level of resistance that a meme may have
toward change. It also facilitates the identiﬁcation of a meme’s level of effect, and
whether this forms a positive or negative contribution to the organisation. If found to
be of a toxic nature, this process will guide organisation development (OD)
practitioners and managers through a memetic engineering process designed to
neutralise or alter destructive memetic inﬂuences in the organisation. The aim is to
enhance the organisation’s ability to achieve its mission efﬁciently and effectively with
a minimum of conﬂicting messages, destructive attitudes, and undesirable behaviours
that may be attributed to the presence of toxic memes.
Managers prefer to see the organisation as a cooperative alliance that occurs at a
conscious level. Research by Anderson and West (1998) has demonstrated that group
norms can be developed through group alliances that can compel workers to behave in
a particular fashion, including the adoption of behaviours that are innovative and
entrepreneurial. Conversely, norms may develop that are counter-productive, Riggio
(1999) gives the example of “rate setting” where workers consciously reduce output for
fear of being laid off as a result of production rates being higher than expected. Human
alliances are formed that exist beyond the instinctive survival pacts that are found
amongst numerous other species. Such pacts can be witnessed in the behaviours of
antelope herding together in order to avoid being singled out by predators, the hyena
pack cooperating to bring down an adversary that could never be confronted alone, or
termites building a complex structure for the purpose of housing their colony.
While the above examples describe successful cooperative behaviours, an even
higher-level of cooperation and coordination is expected within the construct of the
human organisation. Complex equations referring to the willingness of people to
participate in cooperative systems are expected as the joint effect of inducements
offered and burdens imposed (Barnard, 1938). Sometimes however, these resulting
equations amongst sentient beings are not of an entirely “sentient” or controlled nature.
Organisational dysfunction may occur as a consequence of undesirable memetic
stimuli. The authors will attempt to address a gap in the literature describing the
impact of memes and their potentially persuasive, and sometimes damaging, effects on
organisational performance and development.
OD is described by French (1969) as a long-range effort to improve an organisation’s
problem-solving capabilities and its ability to cope with changes in its external
environment. It is argued that the minimisation of the occurrences of undesirable
memetic inﬂuences should be a key item on the ongoing OD agenda of every
Memes – understanding the concept
“Mimeme”, the Greek word for a unit of imitation, was shortened by Dawkins (1998) to
“meme”. Dawkins, an evolutionary theorist, sought a word like “gene” that would
represent coded, replicable and transmittable units of information that he believed
travel from mind to mind. The meme became “the unit of cultural inheritance” ﬁrst
coined in 1976 (Dawkins, 1998, p. 302). The concept of thought contagion, or self
replicating ideas and their impact on culture and society, predates Dawkins
popularisation of the topic (Burrows, 1966; Cloak, 1975). As replicating units of
behaviour, memes cannot be considered in isolation. Memes form complexes of memes,
or a “memeplex as it has been called” (Dawkins, 1998, p. 306), that can be quite intricate.
These memeplexes are a cooperative cartel of memes forming a culture or a tradition.
The memeplex may take on a character that becomes quite different to the nature of its
components. Consider e
´lite sport and its power to inﬂuence national pride. A runner
may enjoy the sport of running. This could be part of a ﬁtness meme that is replicated
throughout many particularly Western nations. A speciﬁc runner is better than most
other runners and wins often. Initially the athlete’s team cheers for each winning run.
The track athletics competitions increase in signiﬁcance and after every win, those who
were once competitors now cheer on the runner as they identify with the group the
runner represents in succeeding competitions. Finally, this formerly unknown runner
becomes the national champion and represents the nation at the Olympic Games. The
runner’s personality and ability combine to attract a huge following. Any resulting
victories will result in swelling national pride that can have a variety of results from
sudden swells in attendance at athletics’ meetings through to the spin off effect of
increased consumption of alcohol during televised competitions. Research by Cialdini
et al. (1976) demonstrates that self esteem can be reinforced by associating oneself with
the success of others. Those others become part of our self-concept and this
identiﬁcation process can lead to a stronger belief in the group than would normally be
possible. In this example, what may have begun as a ﬁtness meme, has coalesced into a
memeplex that attracts like memes associated with pride, entertainment, self esteem,
and conﬁdence. The runner is now under enormous pressure as the competitions are no
longer simply an avenue for achieving a higher personal level of ﬁtness. The greater
memeplex is now controlling aspects of the life of the runner as well as inﬂuencing an
entire nation with its invasive tendrils of emotion and self esteem.
A meme by analogy is a packet of information that replicates from brain to brain,
via any available means of copying. Such memes may occur in the transfer of
knowledge, the adoption of values, behaviours and attitudes. Blackmore (1999,
pp. 15-16) discusses memetic transfers and their reasons for success or failure. She
suggests that successful transfers can be attributed to two categories of explanation:
(1) human beings are excellent imitators; and
(2) memes “struggle” in an evolutionary sense to “be heard” to “be copied”,
suggesting that their composition is designed to be ﬁrstly attractive, and
secondly to make them worthy of replication.
Consider the small child, so often imitating the language and mannerisms of her
mother or father; from the earliest of years her brain has been structured to receive new
information and to use this information to engage with another person (Greenspan,
1998). As the child grows older she learns not only to receive information but also to
discriminate between its effects and its value, for example, she will observe various
behaviours and ask herself, does this result in happiness, does it produce fear, does it
punish or reward? Successful memes are those that have “found” a ﬁt between our
ability to imitate and our ability to discriminate. This state of “ﬁtness” makes some
memes more attractive than others as they ﬁnd a natural accord with aspects of our
Neurologists Kohler et al. (2002) describe the existence of mirror neurons within the
human brain. A mirror neuron has the capacity to capture and interpret information
and reﬂect this as action. This forms the neurological basis for an argument
encompassing copycat behaviour, such as that reﬂected in the memetic information
packet. Bradshaw and Mattingley (2001) describe the condition of allodynia where
mirror neurons in one individual will reﬂect the discomfort exhibited by another,
particularly in relation to physical and emotional pain. The brain appears to possess
neurons that ﬁre in sympathy to visual and aural stimuli and through an empathetic
process, sometimes replicate or mirror the symptoms, behaviours, or emotions
witnessed in others. This appears to be a part of the brain’s cellular hardwiring.
Some examples of recent memes have been popularised through the media and
include terms like, “Axis of Evil”, “Deputy Sheriff”, “Islamo-terrorists”, “Boatpeople”,
“Saddam”, “9/11”. Each of these memes has allowed the successful spread of a complex
set of information and, as it were, embedded cultural judgements, all within the
transmission of a few brief words. For some, these memes have greater meaning than
for others. Notably, the adoption of a meme does not necessarily involve learning
through investigation. Rather, and communicated virus-like, the meme itelf is without
intelligence but still self-organising, it may not be under the control of the conscious
mind. It may in some instances be seen to smack of predetermination and loss of
control as some memes may inﬂame the emotions of people who are more susceptible
to a particular element of its message.
Memes – understanding the implications
There is however a positive side to the apparently sinister self promulgation of the
meme. Memes may be managed to replicate fashionable behaviours throughout the
organisation and perhaps achieve desired ends. Williams (2000, p. 275) describes how
management “explanations when linked to extraordinary performance of
extraordinary persons can assume a mythical quality and be almost impossible to
doubt”. The challenge is to identify and eliminate undesirable or toxic memes within
the organisational context.
De Jong (1999) has argued that undesirable memes existing in the organisation may
operate in direct opposition to the accepted or desired organisational culture, which he
has described as the subliminal chatter of the organisation, and is separate to the
memeplex established by those in power. The threat for organisations lies in the
potential for a meme or greater memeplex to operate against the organisational mission
and intent. Management, in recognising the existence of the memeplex, will attempt to
use mechanisms that direct it toward both mission and intent. Unfortunately, not all
memeplexes are visible, and even those of a visible nature may not be easy to manage,
as will be demonstrated in later examples.
Some memes may pose a threat to the organisation’s ability to achieve its goals.
Cultural memes can also reveal a darker side in their interpretation. From a semiotic
perspective they may implicitly convey a less attractive attitudinal quality than was
originally intended. The personnel within Australia’s Special Air Service (SAS) form a
useful example of the counter meme that exists within the greater memeplex of the
military organisation. This unique special forces (SF) unit characteristically draws to it
men who are selected for their “individuality ... someone who is a bit of a misﬁt.
Someone that doesn’t want to polish his boots or march in line – but he wants to be a
soldier” (McKay, 1999, p. 11). Potentially, these memes are in discord with the
established organisational culture and provide military managers with a conceptual
Gordian Knot. Within the greater military memeplex the desire for the collective and
uniform behaviours of regular military units lies in counterpoint to the mission, intent
and culture of the SF. SF operatives have acquired greater kudos and proﬁle in the
theatres of war that have demanded the use of a scalpel rather than a broadsword. The
SF meme then replicates itself, outside of the organisation for which it has been
intended, and with potentially disastrous consequences.
When the meme matches the purpose of the organisation, facilitating the meme
becomes a simple task. When it resonates with basic notions of success, bravery, and
intelligence it becomes strongly supportive of the organisational mission. In the
example of the SAS, the memeplex positively supports the ability of the individual to
operate independently or as part of a very small team when located deeply within
hostile territory. Yet, with this veneration of the SF operative come the potential risks
of imitative behaviours, and the spreading of memes to other parts of the organisation.
An example of the tragic causal link between veneration, and in this case consequent
adoption of the SF memeplex, may be seen in the US Army’s experience in Somalia
during 1992. The incident, documented by Bowden (1999) and popularised in the recent
Hollywood motion picture “Blackhawk Down”, relates to events surrounding the
downing of two US Army helicopters during peacemaking operations late last century.
The precursor to this unfortunate and painful experience for the US military was the
mixing of elite Delta Force units with a Ranger Company, resulting in idolisation and
mimicry of the former by the latter. As Bowden (1999, p. 33) writes, the Rangers “who
worshipped them and called them D-Boys” quickly began to imitate Delta behaviours.
This was initially and harmlessly shown in the Rangers’ admiration of the weapons
and equipment carried by the Delta Force, who were outﬁtted “by non-issue gun
manufacturers and suppliers like Nike” (Bowden, 1999, p. 59). The Delta Force became
well known to the Rangers who shared living quarters with them and in particular
liked the egalitarian behaviour evident in Delta Force, where “ofﬁcers and non-comms
treated each other as equals. They called each other nicknames and eschewed salutes
and all other trappings of military life” (Bowden, 1999, p. 33). Other characteristic and
unconventional Delta Force behaviours included shooting pigeons within the
accommodation hangar for sport, and commandeering helicopters on a whim for
buffalo and boar hunting expeditions.
The leadership of the Ranger Company appeared to have failed to recognise a
resultant breakdown in organisational discipline amongst its soldiers. Symptoms of
this could be seen in the games of Risk played by the Delta Force in small mixed rank
groups. Inevitably the Ranger Ofﬁcers and other ranks adopted both the game and the
associated behaviours demonstrated by the Delta Force and began “teasing each other
and yelling at each other just like a regular bunch of guys” (Bowden, 1999, p. 154). The
error of leadership here lay in misinterpreting the adoption of fashionable Delta Force
behaviours for esprit de corps. For example, Delta Forces’ propensity to take only “the
weapons they thought they’d need” (Bowden, 1999, p. 152) into the area of operations
was soon copied by the less experienced Rangers with what were to be disastrous
consequences. Other self-replicating behaviours included the removal of ballistic
armour from bullet-proof vests, the failure to carry water and rations into action, and
the discarding of night-ﬁghting equipment before entering the area of operations. The
Rangers at all ranks had little hope of resisting the infectious SF memeplex. They
worshipped the Delta operatives, whose behaviours and values resonated so deeply
with their own, and were a magniﬁcation of the macho image they sought to replicate.
Led by a commander who was an SF operative himself, there was little hope that any
controls would be applied to the organisation to change their behaviours.
On this rich landscape of interacting and self-replicating behaviours involving self
esteem, values, ambitions, and needs, organisationally unsanctioned and sanctioned
behaviours are generated within the organisation. For management this epitomises the
double-edged nature of the memeplex. Memes are demonstrated in the behaviour of the
host. The danger in the unfettered spread and infection by a meme lies in its potential
to compromise the organisational mission rather than support it. The initial challenge
for OD practitioners lies in making management aware of the memeplex that pervades
the organisations. The second, and more complex, challenge is to actively promote and
reinforce organisational intent through desirable attitudes and behaviours, whilst
controlling or eradicating those memes that may be of a detrimental nature. This
means reducing undesirable behaviours and activities, particularly those spawned out
of a process that replicates and appears to self-organise. Control of, or inﬂuence over,
the memeplex will enhance the shaping role of OD practitioners.
Initially Blackmore (2000) provided a loose deﬁnition of memes describing them as
both explained and deﬁned by whatever they imitate. A more functional deﬁnition
appears later in Blackmore (2000, p. 1) where Wilkins (1998) is cited as explaining that
the meme is “the least unit of socio-cultural information relative to a selection process,
that has favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous
tendency to change”. Embedded in the puzzle of the memeplex are two memetic
elements as described by Blackmore (2000). This explanation deﬁnes two essential
characteristics of the meme:
(1) the size of the meme is not ﬁxed; and
(2) ﬁdelity, or resistance to change, possessed by the meme.
Dawkins (1998, p. 305) also saw memes as self-selecting and that “Individuals who are
predisposed ...toward imitation are on a fast track that may have taken others a long
time to build up”. The notion here is that memes transfer themselves from mind to
mind, and encourage replication through the imitation of the behaviours that
individuals see as desirable, particularly in role models. This is graphically portrayed
by Bowden’s (1999) Blackhawk Down example of Rangers imitating Delta Force
operatives to the detriment of the peace-making operation. In addition to his notion of
replication, Dawkins (1998, p. 306) states “a mind can become prepared by certain
memes to be receptive to particular other memes”. This can be described as creating
resonance within the neural network, by consciously or subconsciously ﬁnding
commonality with the message of the meme through emotional or other associations
already established within the mind. Pech (2003) has argued that the level to which a
meme, or an element of that meme resonates with the basic wants, needs, or desires of a
host will improve its level of ﬁtness, longevity and subsequently increase its
opportunity for replication.
A meme may evolve in order to maintain ﬁtness. This can be seen in fashion memes,
where individual fashions are adopted, but have a limited lifespan and give way to new
fashions; the meme that encourages the individual mind to follow fashion trends is
sustained and strengthened with positive feedback rewarding fashionable behaviour.
It is important to recognise that the existence of the meme is demonstrated through the
behaviour of the host adopting a fashion, while the fashion in itself is not a meme.
Dawkins (1998) makes the analogy between genes and memes by describing the
information held within a meme as a single packet which may be communicated as an
image, a phrase or even a single word. As with the gene, it is the content of the
information carried that makes the meme unique. Ridley (1999) explains that if the
information carried in a gene could be likened to words in a book, a gene, which would
easily ﬁt on the head of a needle, would require the volume of 800 bibles to convey the
breadth of information it contains. Similarly, a meme, although often easily labelled
with one or a few words ... “protestor”, “radical”, “conservative”, or “genius”, may
contain an immense amount of information, some of which may resonate with the host,
become self-organising and self-replicating.
The toxic meme
The concept of resonance has been mentioned previously. However, within the
memeplex, memes that achieve resonance with both basic human motives and the
existing memeplex are quickly adopted by a host and their spread, under Dawkins’
deﬁnition, is rapid. For managers seeking to inﬂuence behaviour, meme theory
becomes a powerful instrument. Conversely, if managers ignore the effects of memes
that manifest hostile or rogue behaviours, the inherent power and ability of those
memes to inﬂuence decision processes will open the organisation to an undesirable
degree of risk. A toxic meme, or a meme that is an expression of an undesirable
attitude, strengthens every time it is used and will quickly pervade and dominate the
group, culture, or nation with its undesirable message. Toxicity, for the purposes of
deﬁnition in this context, may refer to attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, and values that are
reﬂected through behaviours that range from those that detract from or subvert the
organisation’s strategic intent, to self-replicating behaviours that are in opposition to
the success of the organisational mission. Toxicity can also refer to circumstances
where an entire organisation, or section thereof, has gone “astray” such as the example
of WorldCom, described retrospectively by Boyd (2003) as a company without
substance or soul. Toxic memes, where behaviours that encourage the leveraging of
organisational resources to ensure individual advantage, typically spread through an
organisation in a copycat fashion. Consequently as like memes gather, the phenomenon
of direct emergence may form a memeplex of time stealing, minor fraud and equipment
theft that bleeds the host organisation of vitally needed resources.
Reﬂecting on these explanations, it seems a third element must be added to the
memetic equation, that of the susceptibility of the recipient. The key issues are: ﬁrst, in
order for a meme to replicate it must be imitable; second, it must have a high degree of
ﬁdelity, and third the recipient must have a level of susceptibility to its message. The
meme must resonate at a level of basic human need or want, be it the need to belong to
a group, or admiration of the characteristics of another individual, or with a basic
cultural assumption such as the warrior culture found in the military. This effect
through resonance might be termed a “pull effect” where the meme invades its host as
a result of susceptibility to the message. Of signiﬁcance is the argument that a meme is
highly invasive in nature. The host may not necessarily willingly adopt it or be
consciously aware of its impact. For example, Vogelstein (2003) makes the claim that
search-engine company Google has developed a reputation for arrogance, that it is
disorganised, and that some of its executives are frustrating to deal with in
negotiations. He claims that the founders of Google deny that the company is arrogant.
The arrogance demonstrated by Google’s staff is something that only outsiders appear
to be aware of. The roots of this problem will possibly lie in the cultural memes that
have been allowed to evolve and replicate within the company. The risk for Google is
that these toxic memes may continue to proliferate, and like a contagion infect the
employees until Google’s reputation becomes irreparably damaged. The competitive
business landscape is not very forgiving when organisations fail to learn from their
A large and complex organisation may contain numerous undesirable but
compelling memes in its greater mindscape. It is argued that some of these memes pose
a danger to the health and longevity of the organisation and that they need to be
identiﬁed and re-engineered to minimise their destructive potential. While the founders
at Google seem unaware of the problems highlighted by Vogelstein, the presence of an
identiﬁcation and analysis process that regularly sweeps the organisation, or is built
into the managerial mindset, may facilitate greater problem awareness without the
damage inﬂicted through public exposure. The following describes a meme mapping
process that can identify active memes and their impact on the organisation.
Mapping the meme
It has been argued that complementary memes will cluster to form memeplexes, thus
forming their own centre of gravity and thereby attracting further complementary
memes – and possibly repelling those that are non-complementary. For heuristic
purposes, and to demonstrate memetic elements and possible effects, a conceptual
model is required that describes factors governing the potential to replicate
demonstrated by the individual meme. Memes and their potential power over groups
and individuals and their resistance to change can be mapped using the diagram
shown in Figure 1.
The block arrows in Figure 1 describe the three memetic elements of susceptibility
(level of openness to the intent of the message within the meme) of the host, ﬁdelity (the
meme’s ability to resist change and its ability to replicate) and resonance (the
convergence between the message communicated through the meme and the
motivations of individuals and groups within the organisation). Managers and OD
practitioners can use these memetic dimensions as the initial basis for a diagnostic tool
when analysing the power of various memes and their ability to inﬂuence change.
After listing memes that are prevalent within the organisation, each of the three
dimensions should be marked high or low to indicate whether the memes are powerful
or powerless to resist change and whether they have the ability to inﬂuence OD
initiatives. At this stage the identiﬁed memes have not been categorised as being of
either a useful or a toxic nature. If a particular organisational meme is rated highly in
all three elements of susceptibility, ﬁdelity, and resonance, it will be more difﬁcult to
eradicate. For example, Fisher (2003) reports that 48 percent of middle managers in the
USA are either looking for a new job or plan to do so the minute the economy recovers.
Evident here is a meme reﬂecting the desire to migrate, it is grounded in a desire to
survive and better the circumstances of the individual. These managers are susceptible
to new job offers (high susceptibility), their views on loyalty to the ﬁrm are probably
difﬁcult to change (high ﬁdelity), and the possibility of a new job ﬁts with their views
for the future (high resonance). For these managers it could be surmised that there is
little sense of loyalty toward their current employers, therefore it could be hypothesised
that they have a strong belief in a “me-ﬁrst” or a migratory employment meme. If the
organisation attempts to implement changes that these managers ﬁnd unpalatable, it
may speed them on their way out of the organisation with little more than a backward
glance. The identiﬁcation of the existence of such a meme should inspire organisation
development programs that focus on staff retention and strengthening of
employer-employee loyalty. The fact that 48 percent of middle managers are
prepared and expecting to leave, possibly indicates a level of toxicity within the culture
of many US organisations. Senior managers should be aware of this situation and OD
specialists should be alerted so that diagnostic and preventative measure can be put in
place. This is an example of a destructive or toxic meme that may be deeply rooted and
very powerful. How can decision makers be certain that a meme is toxic?
Figure 2 asks four simple diagnostic questions adapted from Drucker’s (1954) early
work on the measurement of human performance. Once the organisational diagnosis to
identify all of the memes within its culture or its mindscape has been completed, the
listed memes that demonstrate high susceptibility, high ﬁdelity, and high resonance
with some if not all of the organisational members should be placed within the quad
arrow in Figure 2. The analyst should then ask the following of each meme:
.Does the meme reﬂect or inspire motivational behaviours?
.Does it generate opportunities for the ﬁrm or its employees that enable or
complement the organisational mission?
.Does it enhance or sustain performance ability?
.Does it provide the desired direction and/or guidance?
Elements for mapping
meme ﬁtness and
resistance to change in the
In this manner, the analyst can formulate a memetic equation that demonstrates the
power of a meme as well its potential level of either benevolence or malevolence within
the organisation. The following equation will describe a powerful meme if each factor
in the equation is rated as high. A powerful meme will be highly resistant to change:
SðsusceptibilityÞþFðfidelityÞþRðresonanceÞ¼meme highly resistant to change:
Now add the diagnostic questions to identify whether the meme:
MmotivatesÞþOðprovides opportunitiesÞþAðenhances or sustains abilityÞ
This MOAD formula is not a scientiﬁcally rigorous tool. It is designed to facilitate an
awareness creation process that may indicate the presence of an undesirable or toxic
meme; positive answers may indicate a benevolent meme. The means for altering or
extinguishing a toxic meme may be identiﬁed by asking the following questions:
.Who is susceptible and why?
.What part of the meme provides the high ﬁdelity aspect and where is it most
vulnerable to change?
.Why does the meme resonate with some people, and where is the convergence
between the meme and their motivations and ambitions?
The central section of Figure 2 describes a meme with high susceptibility, high ﬁdelity,
and high resonance. A diagnosis may indicate a deep resonance between the meme and
the host’s basic motivations. As a result of the meme’s attractiveness and its resistance
to change, it could be expected to “enjoy” long-term survival within the organisational
Mapping the toxicity level
of memes in the
culture. In the case of desirable memes, such resistance to change may be useful. For
example Farson and Keyes (2002) point out that companies such as Royal Dutch Shell,
Monsanto, and 3M encourage their employees to collaborate so that information is
shared and dispersed throughout these organisations. The authors argue that these
organisations have learned that innovation does not necessarily occur through
competition, where employees feel compelled to hide mistakes such as was part of the
problem at Enron where, according to Vinten (2002, p. 5), many of the most signiﬁcant
transactions were designed to achieve favourable ﬁnancial statement results rather
than to achieve bona ﬁde economic objectives. This example reﬂects behaviours that
could be associated with a meme that encourages individual survival mechanisms
above the intent of the organisation. In counterpoint Farson and Keyes (2002) point out
that success comes through the act of open forums, where different points of view can
be shared, debated, and discussed. Still very much related to survival, this process
allows for the management and ﬁltration of memes, providing a mechanism for
neutralising potentially toxic behaviours. Using the same device, memes that enhance
performance can be retained and exploited.
A meme may vary in its degree of ﬁdelity. As it is susceptible to change, it may be
expected to survive for a short time before being absorbed and modiﬁed, or eradicated,
by the stronger organisational culture. The copying behaviours described earlier in the
Blackhawk Down example could be placed in this category. The young and
impressionable Rangers attempted to copy the behaviours of the elite Delta Force
specialists. These behaviours would not be permanent and could have been managed if
recognised, but in this instance they were allowed to proliferate throughout the unit
unchecked, resulting in the direct emergence of a variety of undesirable self-organising
behaviours. If these replicated behaviours had been plotted using a diagnostic
framework such as is described in Figure 2, they would have been quickly identiﬁed as
being of an undesirable nature. While the young soldier may have felt motivated by
copying the elite Delta Force, their behaviours would not have provided them with
opportunities, enhanced their ability, or provided direction that would later result in a
higher level of performance. It would also have been quickly demonstrated that these
soldiers were highly susceptible to the inﬂuence of Delta’s modus operandi, and this
may not have formed a contributing factor for a successful mission outcome.
Memes may be encountered in the organisation where the potential host, perhaps as
a result of the joint effects of personal motivations, culture, intelligence, and/or
educational factors, is simply not susceptible to its adoption and transmission. Low
resonance will be the result and the meme will have little penetration into the
organisation. It may experience a subsequently short-term existence. This could be
likened to the sweeping inﬂuence of a particular management fashion such as strategic
partnering. Although fraught with dangers and the research ﬁndings that strategic
partnering is often found to be unsuccessful (Burgelman et al., 2001, p. 194; Vos and
Kelleher, 2001), this meme is still actively promoted, thus demonstrating its high level of
ﬁdelity. Experienced managers will however be aware of its limitations and weaknesses
and avoid invoking its message where they perceive the risk to be high, demonstrating
their low susceptibility to the message inherent within the strategic partnering meme.
A meme cannot reasonably be expected to penetrate or survive where it lacks
ﬁdelity and the host, as a result of the factors mentioned above, lacks susceptibility or
does not resonate on any level with the meme. Some memes may resonate to an extent
that dominates the behaviour of the host causing the individual to reject anything
resembling an opposing meme. This rejection can be seen in business organisations,
many of which for example need innovation as a means of survival and growth. This
may be a difﬁcult concept to nurture amongst members, including those senior
members responsible for devising the ﬁrm’s strategic direction (Gomez-Mejia et al.,
1987). While the talk is of innovation, the risk associated with it is perceived to
endanger career progression and comfort, and as many organisational reward and
recognition systems are still focused on the performance of the individual rather than
the group, the individual’s energy remains focused on risk avoidance, routine actions,
and internal competition rather than innovation and cooperation. De Jong’s (1999, p. 2)
...arguments which are either not produced, which remain latent or which are discussed but
ignored when it comes to decision-making and which do not comply with the criteria deﬁned
by those “in power” in the institutional system. They are relegated to the “recessive complex”,
a discourse remaining mainly under the surface.
Describes a situation where the memetic shift that is required to change such managers
from a conservative mindset to one that is more entrepreneurial is almost impossible to
make. At times this is due to the type of people the organisation has recruited, yet it is
not unreasonable to suggest that this rigidity in style can be attributed to the memes
that have been allowed to dominate the mindscape. As Greiner (1998) points out,
management practices that work well in one phase of growth may bring on a crisis in
another. The organisation must be able to employ the mindset and the methods that
best match its needs, and a starting point may be in the recognition of the memes that
dominate the organisation so that they can be altered when required.
A manager mapping memes may be able to achieve indicators of durability, and the
ﬁt of the meme to the existing organisational culture and mission. The beneﬁts gained
from such “memetic mapping” include:
.the early detection and isolation of toxic memes;
.the encouragement and fostering of positive memes;
.the identiﬁcation of memes and their resistance to change as well as identifying
their most vulnerable constructs; and
.the development of techniques for reducing resistance to change.
These two frameworks form the basis for the process of memetic engineering within an
organisational context. Memetic engineering will facilitate development and
acceptance of memes that enhance the organisation’s performance and it can be
used as a diagnostic aid to identify and eradicate memes that inject toxicity into the
Memes are potentially powerful, self-replicating, and sometimes dangerous packets of
information that move through copycat behaviours amongst willing or vulnerable
hosts susceptible to their message; they include but are not limited to the “adoption of
dress, diet, ceremonies, customs and technologies” (Blackmore, 1999, p. 6). Some
memes demonstrate a virus-like ability at self-organising and self-replicating. The
presence of a negatively dominant memeplex can result in a toxic organisational
culture, promulgation of counterproductive attitudes and behaviours, and an
undermining of the organisational mission. Memetic engineering has been suggested
as a process for embedding desirable cultural traits into the collective minds of the
organisation’s human resource towards achieving the best possible organisational
outcome. Using a process of meme mapping that identiﬁes levels of memetic ﬁdelity,
levels of susceptibility of potential hosts, and levels of resonance within each meme,
managers may develop a diagnostic tool to aid the change management process.
Potentially, using this heuristic framework, managers may be able to identify memes
“lurking” in their organisational mindscapes. The intent resides in the measurement of
the impact of memes against desired organisational outcomes, and their impact on the
organisational culture and achievement of the greater mission.
Although the literature concerning memetics is now well beyond its infancy stage,
there still exists a large gap, particularly related to issues of practical application. The
two frameworks described in this paper only describe introductory application tools
for memetic engineering. The potential for further research of the impact of desirable
and undesirable memes is enormous and estimated to be of considerable value to
managers and practitioners of OD. This is especially relevant to researchers in the
ﬁelds of organisational and industrial psychology and also linguistics. Memetic
replication most commonly occurs in the form of verbal communication, in which case
it involves interplay between emotive and calculating cognitive receptors that ﬁnd
resonance with the semantics and/or the intent conveyed by the meme. Research into
causes for resonance with speciﬁc memes is recommended as a means of further
advancing the study of memetics and its relationship with the practice of OD.
For the practising manager, memetic engineering can, in simpliﬁed terms, be
described as the “management of thought”. Now that is a concept worth passing on!
Anderson, N.R. and West, M.A. (1998), “Measuring climate for work group innovation:
development and validation of the team climate inventory”, Journal of Organizational
Behavior, Vol. 19, pp. 235-58.
Barnard, C. (1938), The Functions of The Executive, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Blackmore, S. (1999), The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Blackmore, S. (2000), “Do memes make sense”, Free Inquiry, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 42-4.
Bowden, M. (1999), Blackhawk Down, Bantam Press, London.
Boyd, D.P. (2003), “Chicanery in the corporate culture: worldcom or world con?”, Corporate
Governance: International Journal of Business in Society, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 83-5.
Bradshaw, J. and Mattingley, J. (2001), “Allodynia: a sensory analogie of motor mirror neurons in
a hyperaesthetic patient reporting instantaneous discomfort to another’s perceived sudden
minor injury”, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, Vol. 70, pp. 134-5.
Burgelman, R.A., Maidique, M.A. and Wheelwright, S.C. (2001), Strategic Management of
Technology and Innovation, 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.
Burrows, J.W. (1966), Evolution and Society, Cambridge University Press, London.
Cialdini, R.B., Borden, R.J., Thorne, A., Walker, M.R., Freeman, S. and Sloan, L.R. (1976),
“Basking in reﬂected glory: three (football) ﬁeld studies”, Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, Vol. 34, pp. 366-75.
Cloak, F.T. (1975), “Is a cultural ethology possible?”, Human Ecology, Vol. 3 No. 3, pp. 161-82.
Dawkins, R. (1998), Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, New York, NY.
de Jong, M. (1999), “Survival of the institutionally ﬁttest concepts”, Journal of Memetics –
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, Vol. 3, p. 18.
Drucker, P. (1954), The Practice of Management, Harper and Brothers, New York, NY.
Farson, R. and Keyes, R. (2002), Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of
Innovation, Free Press, New York, NY.
Fisher, A. (2003), “Am I just spinning my wheels at a ﬁrm that’s in turnaround?”, Fortune,
Vol. 148 No. 8, p. 238.
French, W. (1969), “Organization development: objectives, assumptions, and strategies”,
California Management Review, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 23-34.
Gomez-Mejia, L.R., Tosi, H. and Hinkin, T. (1987), “Managerial control, performance, and
executive compensation”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 30, pp. 51-70.
Greenspan, S.I. (1998), The Growth of the Mind: and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence,
Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA.
Greiner, L.E. (1998), “Evolution and revolution as organizations grow”, Harvard Business Review,
Vol. 76 No. 3, p. 55.
Kohler, E., Keysers, C. and Umilta, M. (2002), “Hearing sounds, understanding actions: action
representation in mirror neurons”, Science, Vol. 297, pp. 846-8.
McKay, G. (1999), Sleeping With Your Ears Open: On Patrol with the Australian SAS, Allen and
Unwin, St Leonards.
Pech, R.J. (2003), “Memes and cognitive hardwiring: why are some memes more successful than
others?”, European Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 6, pp. 173-81.
Ridley, M. (1999), Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate,
Riggio, R.E. (1999), Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology, 3rd ed., Prentice-Hall,
Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Vinten, G. (2002), “The corporate governance lessons of Enron”, Corporate Governance:
International Journal of Business in Society, Vol. 2 No. 4, pp. 4-9.
Vogelstein, F. (2003), “Can Google grow up?”, Fortune, Vol. 148 No. 12, p. 102.
Vos, E. and Kelleher, B. (2001), “Mergers and takeovers: a memetic approach”, Journal of
Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, Vol. 5, available at: http://
Wilkins, J. (1998), “What’s in a meme? Reﬂections from the perspective of the history and
philosophy of evolutionary biology”, Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of
Information Transmission, Vol. 2.
Williams, R. (2000), “The Business of memes: memetic possibilities for marketing and
management”, Management Decision, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 272-9.
Army – The Soldiers’ Newspaper (2003), No. 1074, 22 May.
Blackmore, S. (1998), “Imitation and the deﬁnition of a meme”, Journal of Memetics –
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, Vol. 2, p. 11.