Do Organizations Have An Unconscious?

Many psychologists are quite comfortable with the notion that individual people’s actions are often less than rational. They say that this can be accounted for by “unconscious” drivers. The nature and scope of speculations regarding the so-called “unconscious” have gone through many iterations over time — whether by Freud, Jung, or modern brain researchers– though they remain in discussion after more than 100 years.

Regardless of the theoretical base associated with the “unconscious,” what remains as evidence of the influence of ideas, images, and emotional notions of which we are unaware is the repeated effectiveness of uncovering these invisible drivers and robbing them of their power to distort behavior by recognizing them in the light of day. Resolution of unconscious drivers seems to free people to new actions and orientations that weren’t available when the unconscious driver was operating effectively and invisibly.

Could the same principle apply to organizations (an entity comprised of people)? Could there be an organizational “unconscious” providing invisible lines of force that shape activities and outcomes in ways that are less than rational and often less than ideal?

And could making the unconscious material conscious and aware dissolve its power to negatively shape active business orientations and outcomes?

Before moving to provide evidence for these ideas being the case, let us first take note that if unconscious drivers having powerful effects is indeed the case, a major competence is currently missing in organizational management and leadership. If common sense says one is addressing rational, self-determining people in an organization, and one addresses them as such, an unseen and unaddressed world remains in place shaping and distorting people’s actions. And given that the existence of this unseen and unaware world is held as unaware (and unaware that it is unaware), the opportunity to have the power to resolve unconscious issues remains missing (and missing that it is missing).  Cover stories are then made up to account for the failure to have power regarding what remains unseen, and basic competence in dealing with the unseen remains missing.

More strongly said, it would be a step forward in power for the leadership and management of organizations to acknowledge that they are currently not competent to listen for, read, and resolve unconscious drivers within their organization. At least by doing so, one would expect things to go awry in surprising ways and for standard interventions to miss the mark of what is driving the difficulties. One could then take on learning  to perceive this invisible world, and over time to have some power to address it.

Let me offer a piece of evidence for an “organizational unconscious” that came from consulting work done with an entire division of a large organization. A quite competent and experienced General Manager inherited this division. He spent a couple of years trying to turn around the performance of that division, yet his efforts were often met with bitterness and divisiveness that he knew he didn’t deserve. My company was called in to resolve this state of affairs.

While this division consisted of smart and mature people, the overall behavior of the division was that of a petulant child —  unwilling to work well together with management until they got their way (which way was unsaid). They seemed stuck in the past, as well they were. If one were to ask people as General Manager to Supervisor, or as Supervisor to Team Member whether they were working in present time, they would surely receive the answer “yes.” It took very little interviewing in a safe setting to find out that this was not remotely the case.

This division had been subjected to an abusive General Manager for a number of years prior. That manager was only removed after many direct complaints and quite a bit of time. There followed no discussion of what had happened and no accounting for the failure to protect and take care of those who worked there. (That this was part of a secret legal settlement didn’t do much to resolve the trust issues of the workers.) What was left in place and unannounced, that lived unawaredly and shaped people’s actions, was that “they were abused and couldn’t trust management” — either the General Manager (and this one had done nothing abusive), nor Senior Management (which may well have changed by this time) “to oversee and look out for the workers in their relationship with their General Manager.” If the unconscious moods and imagery could be given voice, it would have said the following: “We have been abused and disrespected. No one has apologized nor made up for it. We lack trust, and we aren’t going to offer it until this horrid situation is owned and made right.”

A division-wide conversation was held in which we brought the history and its resolution to light, distinguished the new General Manager from the old, and the present time opportunities from the past abuses. The willingness of the new General Manager to relate to what had happened, his promise to see that it didn’t happen again, plus his willingness to hear about the depth of abuse and bring compassion to it, allowed what had been secretly running the division to dissolve. It also allowed for a clean slate for him to earn and keep the trust of his workers, and vice versa. That division moved on and their results took off consistent with going from a dysfunctional relationship at its base to a functional and trusting one.

Clearly, no one left a note for the new GM to say, “either acknowledge the past abuses or we don’t move on until that occurs.” Nor did the GM recognize that people’s responses to him came from another time and relation and had nothing to do with him. It looked like that was just the kind of people they “were.” The entire situation could all be seen through common sense as if this is just what “those kind of people” were doing.

Yet the remarkable turnaround from a single two-day set of meetings, as well as the instant improvement in the functioning of the division argues for “invisible lines of force that were unaware, that dissolve when acknowledged in the light of day.”

While this example may be extreme, it is worth wondering how much of the unworkability within organizations comes from people not being free to respond to the realities facing them because they are being shaped by old, outdated, irrational images and stuck stories that have little to nothing to do with what is actually being talked about aloud.

It is also worth wondering what new levels of power and sound relations could be established by leaders and managers that were both aware of “invisible lines of force” distorting the work relations and had the competence to resolve them in favor of realistic, present-time functioning.

Neither of these questions will be answered until first there is an admission that part of what runs the company or organization is unconscious, invisible, and unspoken — and that there is power in exploring and resolving that dimension directly.


About Ken Anbender

Kenneth Anbender Ph.D. has spent the last 50 years working with more than a hundred thousand people directly on the principles and methods that support the fulfillment of a human life -- in community and at work. He has developed a body of work that is licensable called The Contegrity Approach.
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