March 1, 2009

I have a friend who is a designer. When he talks about a company’s product he has the habit of saying things like “look what he’s trying to do here, it’s very clever, he’s obviously thinking of …”. This is for a product that is certainly not the production of a single person. My friend thinks design, so to him it makes sense to project a single, personalized, creative consciousness that he can relate to.

Here’s a recent message from another friend of mine: “I have concluded that my company does not deserve an employee like me. I have worked hard all these years, doing the best I can for each project, taking pride in everything I do. But I got passed over for promotion because I ‘did not show leadership qualities’. They are blinded by people who bullshit their way into getting their promotion. I’m done.”

My friend did not appreciate my coldly analytical comment that in his resentment towards his company he was acting like it was a real, single person who was out to get him. His anger is about his company, not just specific people, and he is angry about the way it treats him, as if its behaviour were both intentional and accountable.

Does it make sense to think of social bodies such as organisations like they were real people? The analogies from the more corporeal aspects of our existence seem to reap productive insight, as several comments to my previous posts attest. But when we get into trying to make a leap from the mental life of people to that of organisations, it’s a harder jump to make.

We obviously want to. We fall into this pattern of thinking all the time. When Sir John Birt joined the BBC as director general, he famously said that it was like joining an organisation in the middle of a nervous breakdown. The psychiatrist Erich Fromm thought that even societies could be called sane or insane.

But Fromm’s 1955 book The Sane Society looks at the sanity of societies almost exactly in the way you would look at the sanity of a person. He identifies the disconnects between the achievement of political maturity and widespread democracy in a century which had killed millions of people in horrific warfare and associated atrocities. He contrasts the economic advancement of western societies which has increased productivity hundredfold while reducing average working hours, with a system that distributes the wealth of society unequally, with whole swathes of population left in grinding poverty. He places side by side the incredible advancements in information, educational and communications media, with the “trashy” sadistic and frivolous purposes to which it is put. He pointedly asks, if you saw a person who simultaneously acquired such capacities and engaged in such behaviours, you would surely question their sanity.

The problem with this is that social groups do not have a single brain, and while multiple brains firing off communications and information at each other might seem to mirror the firing of neurons and lead us up the path of thinking about “meta-brains”, we are far too loosely and unreliably connected, I believe, to legitimize a strong analogy between a single person’s mental life and the mental life of an organisation or other social group. We can’t expect a social group to act like a tightly integrated organism with a single brain, however much utility that mental model may have in channeling our emotions and responses. Sanity and mental health in organisations is not the same thing as sanity and mental health in individuals.

It might be true in theory that organisations have a higher order mental life which is accessible to itself in the way that the minds of human individuals are accessible to us. But it’s hard to see how such a higher order mental life could be any more accessible to us than our mental lives are accessible to the cells in our liver. If there were such a higher order consciousness, we could only imagine, and imagine poorly.

It’s an ancient suggestion (which surfaces again in a comment to my first post) that we can use the idea of an organisation’s leader as being analogous to the brain’s role in the body. But to my mind three factors pose an insurmountable challenge to this: accessibility, tightness and reliability of the commitment of the parts to each other, and competition from other brains.

In a body, the brain has immediacy of access to its parts, and conversely its parts to the brain, several orders greater than that between a leadership and the individuals that comprise the body corporate. We are not the Borg. Empathy may help us to see some things indistinctly through the eyes of people very close to us, but we do not see through the eyes of people out of eye or trust shot.

Much of our commitment (by which I mean a combination of affiliation and co-dependency) to social groups is mental or virtual, as opposed to the completely physical commitment of organs and tissues of the body to each other. Each of our identities, as employee, as community member, as family member, as political affiliate, as interest group member, as friend, brings with it a corporate belonging of some kind. In some groups we are parasites, in some symbiotes, in some parasitized. We juggle between these affiliations constantly, the chief measures of our commitment being time and (decreasingly now with technology) physical presence. No liver cell disperses its loyalties, attention and presence so liberally.

And while psychology has demonstrated that the human mind is not as unitary and coherent as we like to think it, we do not have in our bodies hundreds or thousands of brains in competition with each other for perspectives, perceptions, feelings, insights and responses, as we do in organisations. In fact, the prima facie consequence of accepting a tight analogy between the mental life of a human and that of an organisation would be an instant diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The slime mould supplies a better analogy than the human body for how organisations really seem to work, although even that analogy has its limits. Slime mould exists in normal circumstances as single celled organisms. Where food is scarce, however, slime mould cells will be attracted to others, bind themselves to each other, and will synchronise their movements to migrate en masse just like a single unitary organism to an area with greater food potential, where they can disperse again to their natural state.

Organisations, it seems to me, work very much like slime mould aggegrates, with the two major differences that they are ridden by leaders that attempt to direct the mass in more than instinctual ways, and that the cells can belong simultaneously to different organisms pursuing very different agendas.

This suggests very strongly that if we want to understand organisations and their patterns of behaviour, the whole fascination we have about quality of leadership in organisational has limited value. Leaders are not a proxy for how the organisation thinks and behaves, and while they may have strong influences on the organisations they (attempt to) direct, those influences and the efficacy of leadership cannot be fully understood by looking at the source (the leaders themselves), but on the pattern behaviours that result, and the depth and durability of those pattern behaviours.

This is not to say we should not seek to improve and understand the quality of leadership, but that its value for enlightening us on organisational life is very limited.

Thus far, I have been extremely skeptical about the value of a tight analogy between the mental lives of organisations and the mental lives of individuals. I don’t think we can learn much by transitioning so easily from one to the other, however strong and instinctual our habit of doing so.

However, if we accept a much looser relationship between the minds of people and the organisational mind, I do think there are general ideas about sanity and mental health that can provide useful insight.

There is a lot of disagreement about just how mental health in humans can be defined, even – perhaps especially – among the people in white coats, but one of the enduring group of ideas circulates around dissociation, coherence, injury and wellbeing.

Dissociation is considered to be a breakdown in relationships: this could be relationships between the internal aspects of a personality, or social relationships, or relationships between perceived reality and actual reality – ie the world. The idea of coherence is the positive counterpart to dissociation, and expresses what we as human beings seem to be obsessive about achieving, it is the root driver of all our sensemaking activity.

Mental health is said to be degraded when dissociation and loss of coherence, whether internal or external, results in injury and/or loss of wellbeing. This looks like a productive set of ideas to help us model what the mental health of an organisation might look like, ie if it is about maintaining coherence and reducing dissociation (a) internally (b) in relation to other social groups and (c) in relation to the world we inhabit.

This does not just mean coherence within each class of relations, but across all three. Strong internal coherences that exhibit injurious dissociations between group and other societies or group and world are characteristics of mobs, cults, and dangerous and diseased societies.

Indeed, our earlier recognition that organisational life is intrinsically dissociative might help us step beyond the simplistic appeal to unitary leadership, and might help us begin to understand why normally decent well meaning people when combined in organisations can become so easily dysfunctional and destructive in relation to other members, in relation to society, and in relation to the environment.

The ideas of well-being and injury are useful pattern markers for the consequences of organisational activity, and the identification of dissociation as a primary driving factor immediately begins to suggest possible remedial strategies.

I’d like to close with the idea of sanity and how it relates to organisational life. Specifically I’d like to reflect on why sanity is a harder idea to apply than that of mental health when it comes to social groups.

One of the ways in which sanity is distinguished from mental health is in law where a sane person is held to be of sufficiently sound mind to be held responsible and accountable for their actions.

Now responsibility is a very interesting notion in relation to organisational life, increasingly so in recent years. Yet we have not succeeded in making responsibility stick at the organisational level. When it comes to law, damages and accountability, it is always people who are summoned for reckoning. We might say it’s the organisation, but we deal with their human representatives as a poor proxy. Some organisations have been “punished” with extinction, but most of their constituent people have not.

It would be incredibly useful to humanity if we could figure out how to move from individuals’ responsibility for what they decided and did or failed to do, to the responsibility of the social group as a whole. To be able to do so might create, curiously, a greater sense of individual responsibility when participating even passively in a highly destructive social system.

Unfortunately the inherently dissociative character of organisational life makes it difficult for the sanity analogy to stick. Organisational minds at the aggregate level don’t look (to us) coherent, sound, or sufficiently self aware. Perhaps Fromm was right, social groups are of their nature insane. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no hope for improving their mental health, and maybe one day we will have a notion of organisational sanity that we can apply productively in the world.

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