Friday, November 16, 2012

Organisations as Defenses against Anxiety

This was one of my favourite piece in my first book, "Understanding Organisations:  Organisational Theory and Practice in India" (Chapter 11, Section D), where I could slink in my existential concerns...
The most popular view of organisations is that they are socio‑economic entities, which are meant for producing goods or providing services in the most efficient and effective manner. Moreover, so pervasive is their influence in our lives that one tends to unquestioningly accept their existence as almost natural and given. In accepting this view, however, we neglect the basic truth that, organisations are man‑made, simulated, controlled and ‘artificial’ environments, which also serve some deep psychological purposes in the lives of their members (managers, staff members and workers).

At the most obvious level (as we noticed in Jefferson’s observation about the Shell executives), organisations, with their emphasis on rationality, reliability, control, etc., provide excellent mechanisms for warding off uncertainties and ambiguities of human condition. They help people to regulate their lives, to experience a feeling of predictability, and to derive a sense of mastery over themselves. In this sense, they serve as useful psychological defenses, which are often quite functional (in a task‑related sense) as well. Menzies (1960), for instance, described how the depersonalised work systems, procedures and practices related to a nurses’ job (e.g., strict “professionalism”, structuring work in precise routines, referring to patients as “bed number”, etc.) are aimed at increasing  their interpersonal distance from the patients. Such psychological distancing may also be necessary for the nurses to do their jobs effectively.

The fact, nevertheless, is that organisations do provide legitimacy to defensive behaviours, and so help people to avoid coming in touch with their deep‑seated emotional or existential anxieties and dilemmas (Jaques, 1970; Chattopadhyay, 1986). Kets de Vries (1980) noted how people create structures and roles to avoid coming in touch with their deeply experienced feelings of alienation and emptiness. Behind the conscious concerns with tasks, responsibilities, obedience, etc., may lie the unconscious interpersonal anxieties aroused by close contact with people. In fact, Morgan (1986) showed through his analysis of the life of Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management, how the unconscious concerns for controlling one’s impulses can get translated into socially legitimate aims of controlling organisations (see also Chowdhry and Kakar, 1971). He points out how Taylor’s life provides:

...a splendid illustration of how unconscious concerns and preoccupations can have an effect on organisation. For it is clear that his whole theory of scientific management was the product of a disturbed and neurotic personality. His attempt to organise and control the world, whether in childhood games or in systems of scientific management, was really an attempt to organise and control himself.

At a much deeper level, the very construction of organisations can be seen as a social defense against the anxiety of death. In his book, The Denial of Death, Becker (1973) argued that all the efforts of mankind (religions, ideologies, institutions, culture, etc.) are aimed at denying the finite and transient fact of human existence. The fact that we will all die is a fact which makes our existence devoid of any permanent meaning, and creates anxiety. In building organisations and institutions, and in identifying with them, we create something which is more durable and larger than life. Our roles and work activities, give us a sense of continuity, and make our existence real to us. In the introduction of their book, In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman (1982) quoted Becker: “What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance... Ritual is a technique for giving life.” They go on to say: “In other words, men willingly shackle themselves to the nine‑to‑five, if only, the cause is perceived to be in some sense great.”

The implication of this defensive nature of organisations, is again for the accuracy of the perception of reality. If the involvement of the decision‑makers and organisational members is based on the unconscious motives of warding off deep‑seated anxieties, then they are less likely to accept psychologically threatening realities. Janis (1982) pointed out how decision‑making groups develop filters and shields (illusions of invulnerability, stance of self‑righteousness, stereotyped perception of the problem and the “enemy out there”, etc.), which do not allow the members to come in contact with an unacceptable reality, and reinforce a process of groupthink. Similarly, Argyris (1970) noted how in the organisational change process, managers tend to neglect, deny, and distort dissonant information:

...the clients may tend to forget controversial information suggested by the interventionist and recall in its place the information from the past substitutes for the controversial 0information. It means clients will expose themselves to learning the information that maintains their present degree of self‑acceptance... (and) will tend to interpret relatively threatening information in line with their values...

According to Pauchant and Mitroff (1992), these distortions result from the bounded emotionality of the managers, i.e., from the defects in their capacity to feel and experience certain emotions. They found that these inadequacies in the emotional capacity of the decision‑makers (i.e., their faulty and unhealthy mechanisms of dealing with their own feeling and impulses) were significant contributors in making organisations crisis‑prone. One only has to look at some of the major industrial disasters and organisational failures (e.g., Bhopal gas tragedy and the Challenger shuttle accident) to realise that in all these cases, there were individuals (sometimes, even everyone involved) who were aware of the possibility (or certainty) of the crisis, but somehow they “decided” to ignore it. What is also significant is the fact that these defenses are, by nature, unconscious, and do not yield (in fact, often become more rigid) in the face of crisis and failure. As Starbuck, Greve and Hedberg (1978) noted:

Denials that crises are developing and that strategic reorientation is needed arise, to no small degree, from sincere conviction... (managers) really do believe that they should act only on the basis of reliable information and that communi-cations should flow through channels... it is a normal human characteristic to adhere to one’s prior beliefs, inspite of evidence that they are incorrect.


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