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Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Erving Goffman once wrote, “When they issue uniforms, they issue skins.” Arlie Hochschild suggested we add "two inches of flesh".

What does this mean?

Goffman was criticising how the organisation shaped the man. That once you signed up for work, you owed your soul to the company. It determined how you should act. How you should think. How you should be. You became, as William H Whyte put it, The Organizational Man. Hence, the skin. 

Hochschild was interested in emotional work. When you were expected to fake emotions in service of customers. In her most famous work, The Managed Heart, she used airline stewardesses as an example. And there's nothing much more fake than a stewardess's smile to a tipsy customer leering at her at three in the morning!

She argued that if you faked emotions on a consistent basis, you lost touch with your real self. You couldn't tell the difference between real and faked emotions. The organisation took control of your inner self as well as the outer. Hence, the two inches of flesh. 

These are two of my favourite writers on organisations and management. What they have to say is extremely important. And becoming more and more relevant. You can see their themes creeping into the world of practice. 

But it is being interpreted badly. And it is hurting us. 

Culture & Engagement: Live Organisational Values

Historically, the self was shaped by traditional institutions. The extended family. The community. Churches. 

But things have shifted. Families have broken up and live apart. Communities are dead as the dodo (when's the last time you and your immediate neighbours socialised in a big group?). Church attendance is falling dramatically.  

The postmodern worry was that the self would be shaped by new institutions. We would see the rise of corporate and organisational selves. People that only cared about the company. How well it did. Its profit margins. And not about society in the slightest. 

The strong culture movement of the 1980s aimed to do just that. Have modern organisations assume the place of traditional institutions. Build men and women in the corporate image. Make them loyal, committed and hard-working. And the loyalty would be emotional. A genuine attachment. Not driven by monetary reward. But a deep internal desire that the company succeeded. 

That spread into relationships with the customer. You had the live the company's vision. Be its brand. Sell it with your heart and soul. 

I'm sure most people recognise a few corporate initiatives in the above. Have sat through cultural value programmes. Have taken part in a brand engagement exercises. Been asked to live the company's ethos. Or have been criticised for exhibiting thoughts that don't align with the above. 

If I've struck a nerve, please read on. 

The Organisational Psychology Backlash
For those of you who've read my blogs before, you will pretty much know where I'm going here. These visions of companies staffed by enthusiastic, hard-working and loyal employees delivered the opposite. Cynical, sarcastic employees. Disengaged, ironic workplaces. A generation of "entitled" job-hopping youngsters. 

  • 86% employee disengagement
  • 70% of everyday organisational activity adding no value
  • 66% of Millennials looking for another job

Most people blame their managers for the above, with 75% of people stating their manager is the worst thing about their job. That's not really fair. Being a manager in this kind of environment sucks. Really sucks. Really, really sucks. 

Corporate initiatives you know don't work on one side. Pissed off employees on the other. You in the middle!

So, having delivered an environment of deeply unhappy people doing deeply meaningless work, what do we do? We can't let them drown in nihilistic angst. After all, there's money to be made. So, we turn to organisational psychology for the answer. Which is a pretty fair call. Psychology has been promising to deliver healthy selves for a while. Pretty aggressively marketed itself. As a relatively new scientific discipline is wont to do. 

And organisational psychology has jumped on authenticity. From a great height. Have authentic emotions rather than faked ones. Be an authentic self at work rather than an organisationally designed one. Find an organisation with values that perfectly align with yours so you don't have to job hop. Be purposively passionate at work.  Find a community of like-minded souls and be happy. 

Have a familiar ring?

It's the same promise as the cultural one. Just from a different direction. Find the organisation that aligns with your identity, rather than adjust your identity to the organisation's demands. And it is harming us!

I'm not going to take aim at the usual suspects. That Myers-Briggs is untrained housewives interpreting an unproven assumption. That Theory X is a pointless extension of Maslow's "commonsense" guess about human motivation. That the most rigorous 360-degree leadership analysis is used almost nowhere while other less scientific ones proliferate. That strengths-based leadership is an evidenceless theory. It would be like aiming at a barn door with a cannon!

I'm taking aim at the organisational psychology that is about finding your inner self. Working out who you truly are. Being authentic at work. 

Why? Three reasons:

  1. The idea that you must discover some authentic inner self is a modern one. It emerges from and sustains the psychological movement. It does not talk to other interpretations of human behaviour And it certainly doesn't understand the philosophy of authenticity. 
  2. Because of the above, it is actively stripping us of the very things we require to survive and thrive in the workplace. The elegant masks and fake selves that stop organisational demands overwhelming us. The artificiality of behaviour that accompanies any complex culture. 
  3. By telling us complex, elegantly created, multiple selves are inauthentic, we also strip away the veneer of culture. Being authentic means not having to obey cultural rules. Just obey the demands of your authentic self. As long as you do that, then nothing else really matters. 

You can probably see where that leaves us. Stuck in a toxic gap between organisational culture and a highly personal authenticity. And the two can't mix!

Where it is authentic just to be yourself. To obey your own highly personalised understanding of yourself. To set your own rules.

And inauthentic to conform. To follow the expectations of others. Or to follow the rules of a sophisticated culture. Such as civility.

Organisational psychology has left us stuck in a terrible place. How can we organise when the very core of organisation is replaced by a focus on the inner self? How can we engage when there are no rules of engagement? How can we lead when there's no reason for all these inner selves to follow us? 

The Solution Has Always Been With Us

Which returns me to Goffman and Hochschild. They both rail against putting your heart and soul into organisational living. Predict the environment many of us find ourselves in. But they didn't expect the response to be this intense focus on the inner self. 

Goffman would reject there even is such a thing as an inner self. For him, there is a "holding company self." A mindless automaton that comprises a multiplicity of vibrant selves. Which we can call on in different situations. Embracing and distancing from role requirements with no psychological stress. 

Hochschild would agree, but accept the reality of emotions and feelings. Add that faking them under coercive demand for a long time is psychologically damaging. But not that all fakery is bad. A balance between fake and real emotions is necessary. It's not either/or. It's both/and. 

Can we really understand ourselves via the reductionist search for the inner self? We are more than electro-chemical stimuli. More than primal motivations and fears. More than a collection of identity labels. More than mundane. 

We are actors on the world's stage. We laugh, dance, sing, cry. We have altruistic motivations. And selfish ones. We can be a caring mother and a hard-nosed boss. In the same skin. We can be a radical for one cause. A conservative in another. 

We can change our minds. Be illogical. Hold onto ridiculous biases. Deceive ourselves. Improve ourselves. Believe incredible things. Or find meaning in minutiae. We can rise to the very top through our strengths. And because we believe in them a little too much, sink all the way back down again. As Walt Whitman might say:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

This messy, paradoxical, glorious humanity has always been captured in the arts. Tragicomedies. Romances. Epics. Melodramas. Sentimentalist trite and noble prose. They teach us how to act. How to be. And they sustain our soul. 

The dramatic arts do not just capture our realities. Merely turn them into stories that resonate through the ages. They give us protective psychological clothing against the external world. 

Historically, there was nothing wrong with putting on different masks for different audiences. Embracing an array of dramatis personae for our interactions with the world. This has all been forgotten in the ruthless search for normalcy. A race for the next quirky mental health stigma. 

But it's more than that. There's not just nothing wrong with them. They were and are necessary components for living an authentic life. 

Soren Kierkegaard, the foundational thinker of authenticity, in public lived the life of a dandy. A fop. A ne'er do well. Wrote his books via a vast array of pseudonyms, poetic characters, comedic masks and horrific visages. 

Whilst, in private, producing a body of ethical, authentic literature that can best be understood through Walter Kauffman's quote:

I know of no other great writer in the whole nineteenth century, perhaps even in the whole of world literature, to whom I respond with less happiness and with a more profound sense that I am on trial and found wanting, unless it were Søren Kierkegaard.

Imagine that. The person who imagined authenticity. Living his life as a dramatic actor. Through a plethora of carnivalesque masks. Hiding his ethical  "inner self" from everybody. 

How did that colourful, fabulous way of creating a life become a mechanical stripping away of vitality to reveal a mundane inner self? Why should we live this way? 

Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living
You work with Irony in Management! WTF?

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Saturday, 04 July 2020

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

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