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General News    H4'ed 7/28/18

Totalitarian States of Mind in Organizations - Recovery of Humanity

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Message Blair Gelbond

We certainly can expect to find these "power-over" issues woven into the texture of our everyday lives - our relationships, family lives, and work lives. How many of us have had the experience of us have experienced misuse of power in the workplace, exercised by bosses or co-workers? Speaking of life in organizations today Wheatley has written that: "It is possible to look at the negative and troubling behaviors in organizations today as the clash between the forces of life and the forces of domination, between the new story and the old." (Berkana website, 9/98)

A fascinating perspective directly relevant to the concerns expressed by Wheatley can be found in an article entitled "Totalitarian States of Mind in Institutions." Its author, W. Gordon Lawrence (1995), blends a psychoanalytic group relations model with a socio-historic one in exploring ways in which such a "tyrannical mindset" manifests itself in contemporary businesses and organizations. Lawrence's incisive observations - here presented in some detail - add both depth and specificity to the general concerns raised by Eisler.

His working hypothesis is that - as our overall environment is perceived to be increasingly uncertain and complex (particularly in terms of economics), people at all levels of a given organization, find themselves resonating with a steadily building anxiety. In this milieu managers feel pressured to bring into being a variety of institutional structures which promise a sense of certainty.

Much as Morin and others have depicted, Lawrence describes daily life - especially in the modern world - being experienced within a context of "hyper-uncertainty." A primary antecedent of this phenomenon (also called "globalization") is "accelerated capitalism."

Reviewing some of the ways in which this is visible in the world today, he adds that, while these changes can be felt to be exciting or exhilarating, they are also frequently terrifying.

Being in business is experienced as "being at high risk" and it causes anxiety for owners, shareholders, and employees alike"as well as for the service industries with whom companies are also in business - suppliers, banks, accountants, etc. As capitalism accelerates at an unprecedented pace, managers find themselves on a psychological level being asked to "carry" much of this anxiety.

Lawrence alleges that managers are "used [by the groups and individuals they manage] to reinforce individual mechanisms of defense against [intense] anxiety." It is important to note that this is most often an unconscious, collusive process.

Lawrence is actually describing a circular feedback process through which a work-group attempts to holds its own anxiety at bay. In this scenario a manager typically ends up "holding" (or "being a container for") an enormous amount of unspoken and usually unconscious emotion. In addition, there are often strong demands coming from levels "above" the manager (in the organizational hierarchy) to present a facade of certainty, of being "highly knowledgeable," of being "able to handle things." In this light it is not difficult to see how such a role naturally attracts, not only authoritarian personalities (who already think about the world in black and white terms), but "narcissistic" people as well. He mentions that in actual totalitarian states this is called "the cult of personality;" in organizations he describes such individuals as "hubristic leaders."

Lawence reminds us of the reality that institutions have continuity specifically because one set of role holders chooses another set, who are then socialized to fill places in the hierarchy; this selection process has both conscious and unconscious dimensions. Due to survival fears, many businesses tend to select ruthless, ambitious leaders who are seen as individuals who will enable the institution to have a future. Yet, much of this process occurs at an unconscious level. Not surprisingly in such a climate, events in the environment are often interpreted in a paranoid way. In fact, for many leaders it is very difficult to hold on to any other perspective when all around them are demanding action.

Commonly, the imperative becomes very narrow: the company is losing its market share; avoid the threat of low or negative figures on the bottom line. Lawrence asserts: "The institutional culture becomes one in which you either get screwed or you screw others [and this in turn] feeds a paranoid/schizoid/narcissistic [approach to] leadership and [to a] collusive followership-matrix of institutional thought and authority relations."

Lawrence argues that when a "totalitarian state of mind" is present in an institution, the capacity for independent thought becomes diminished. This occurs, in part, due to a strongly felt need on the part of many people to "unconsciously defend" against intense disorganizing anxieties.

The price that has to be paid for this group (or "social") mode of avoidance is a rigid, authoritarian organization with its associated culture. The organizational culture limits its support and reinforcement to one type of expression: thought and speech that is "sure-fire" and "certain."

Whether stated explicitly or not (and usually it is not explicit), such organizations operate via the unspoken norm or rule that "there is no room for mistakes."

Ironically, (in terms of the organization's supposed goal of achieving success and creating superior outcomes) the sure-fire result of this fear of mistakes is that there is no possibility of learning from them. Meanwhile, a milieu is simultaneously generated in which it becomes dangerous to appear have thoughts which are different from the majority.

In this way it can be said that "the institution becomes the container of [all] thought;" there simply is no "psychic space" for original thought. Any alternative thought is construed (usually by a "silent" majority, and/or administrators) - as being an aggressive act. In such cases it is not a complex matter for management to offer its own authoritative translation of relevant occurrences, but in such a way which polarizes the work group against the complainer.

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I work as a psychotherapist with an emphasis on transformational learning - a blend of psychoanalytic and transpersonal approaches, and am the author of Self Actualization and Unselfish Love and co-author of Families Helping Families: Living with (more...)

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