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Psychic prisons

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Organizations as Psychic Prisons



Chapter Seven "Exploring Plato's Cave:  Organizations as Psychic Prisons" describes the idea that "organizations are ultimately created and sustained by conscious and unconscious processes, with the notion that people actually become imprisoned in or confined by the images, ideas, thoughts, and actions to which these processes give rise.  The metaphor encourages us to understand that while organizations may be socially constructed realities, these constructions are often attributed an existence and power of their own that allow them to exercise a measure of control over their creators" (p. 207).  Morgan's idea of the psychic prison comes from Plato's The Republic allegory of an underground cave where people are chained so they can't move and can only see the cave wall in front of them.  In the cave dwellers reality, there are only the shadows on the cave wall, the sounds from outside the cave, etc.  They construct their reality and truth from what they can experience from their limited perspective.  If someone from the outside came in and attempted to describe what the world was like outside of the cave, the cave dwellers would have difficulty finding meaning in this new knowledge and would likely cling to their familiar way of seeing the world.  This would be their psychic prison.  Morgan uses this metaphor to describe how people in organizations can "be trapped by favored ways of thinking" and "by unconscious processes".  This metaphor does much to help us understand why organizational change is so difficult.



Morgan discusses the relationship between the conscious and unconscious in terms of 1) organization and repressed sexuality (the application of Freudian theory),  2) organization and the patriarchal family (how patriarchy operates as a kind of conceptual prison that gives rise and dominance to males and male values), 3) organization, death, and immortality (understanding organizations in terms of the quest for immortality), 4) organization and anxiety (looking at the impact of childhood defenses against anxiety on the adult personality), 5) organization, dolls and teddy bears (understanding the significance of transitional phenomena in organizational life), and 6) organization, shadow and archetype (the application of Carl Jung's work in terms of understanding the "general relations between internal and external life and the role that archetypes play in shaping our understanding of the external world" p.231).



Morgan sees the role of the unconscious as both a "creative and destructive force" (p. 234).  As leaders we need to understand the role of the unconscious in organizational life and learn to use its energy in transformational ways.  Morgan describes the psychic prison as a "powerful image" because it "encourages us to recognize how we may be caught in a self-sealing environment.  We see each other, and we see the world around us.  But what are we really seeing?  Are we seeing an independent world?  Or are we just seeing and experiencing projections of ourselves?  Are we imprisoned by the language, concepts, beliefs, and a general culture through which we enact our world?" (p. 235).


Morgan outlines the strengths and limitations of the psychic prison metaphor.  A major strength is its contribution to understanding the "dynamics and challenges of organizational change" (p.236).  Change is seen as profoundly personal.  Another strength is that this metaphor shows how we have "overrationalized our understanding of organization" (p. 237).  We need to understand the links between the rational and the irrational because they are part of the same phenomenon.  Morgan believes that the psychic prison metaphor encourages us to "find ways of achieving better integration and balance" (p. 238).  Finally, this metaphor requires that we take a look at the ethical dimension of organization.  Limitations include 1) the need to pay attention to all the ideological processes that we use to create and sustain meaning, not just the unconscious, 2) an overemphasis on the cognitive processes in creating, sustaining, and changing organizations and society, 3) the encouragement of utopianism, and 4) raising the idea that one can manage another's mind.


Application of Handy's Six Concepts for Understanding Organizations



Motivation: Inthe psychic prison metaphor, the concept of motivation becomes evident as Becker describes organizations in the context of a quest for immorality. Furthermore, Becker asserts that individuals spend much of their lives attempting to deny the oncoming reality of death by pushing their morbid fears deep into the recesses of their own unconscious.(p.220)  Henceforth, Becker affirms the Freudian concept of repressed sexuality within organizations.  Another aspect of motivation is evident by Klein's notion of Unresolved Persecutory Anxieties.  This concept inhibits organizations and individuals from learning and growing because they prevent people from accepting any form of criticism and correcting their mistakes.  Furthermore, a culture of tension and defensiveness is usually created. (p.227)  Morgan characterizes the Freudian concept of anality as a motivational factor within organizations.  Furthermore, organizations can become motivated to unconsciously teach the virtues control, discipline, obedience, duty, and rule following in an anal manner to its subordinates.   


Roles:  In the psychic prison metaphor, the concept of roles become evident critics of Freud counteracted his repressed sexuality platform with organization as a patriarchal/family paradigm.  From a Western standpoint, there are a wide range of organizations that appear to create structures that give dominance to males and traditional male values.  (p. 218) Formal organizations typically build upon characteristics associated with Western male values and historically, have been dominated by males, except in those jobs where the function is to support, serve, flatter, please, and entertain. (p. 218)  Women, until recently, have been socialized to accept roles placing them in a subordinate position, as in nursing, clerical, and secretarial work, or roles designed to satisfy various kinds of male narcissism. Furthermore, so long as organizations are dominated by patriarchal values the roles of women in organizations will aways be played out on "male" terms. (p. 219)  


Leadership:  In reference to the psychic prison metaphor, leadership is recognized and addressed in several facets.  For example, Freud characterizes the leadership of Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management, as anal and compulsive.  This was based on Taylor's methodical ways and means of approaching tasks and aims that appeared to be unconventional.  Taylor's work ethic, discipline, obedience, and attention to detail was rooted in his Puritan values and upbringing.  Much of Taylor's life reflects an inner struggle with the Puritanical discipline and authority relations of childhood. (p. 214)  Morgan also reflected on the concept of collaboration and mutual problem solving within organizations from a western standpoint.   Morgan characterized the leadership insecurities of President Kennedys' cabinet during the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961.  Morgan asserts that the President's charisma and sense of invulnerablity set the momemtum for all kinds of self affirming processes that produced conformity among key decision makers and advisors. 


Power and Influence:

In the psychic prison metaphor, power and influence would be seen through one or more interpretations of the unconscious.  For example, application of Freudian theory would consider driving ambition, acquisitions, mergers, etc. as institutionalizing anality.  Application of the concept of the patriarchal family would view the organization as an unconcious extension of the family where authority and influence belongs in the domain of the male.  The lens of organization, death and immortality would view the use of power and influence as an attempt to create the myth that we are actually in control and that we are more powerful than we really are.



Group dynamics are all influenced by individual and/or collective unconscious dimensions in the psychic prison metaphor.  Morgan discusses the concept of "groupthink" as a phenomenon of the psychic prison.  Groupthink is a "term coined by Irving Jarvis to characterize situations where people are carried along by group illusions and perceptions that have a self-sealing quality" (p. 211).  Morgan considers the Bay of Pigs invasion as one of the most famous examples of groupthink.  This illustrates the prisonlike qualities of culture that can define groups in this metaphor.  Through the interpretation of organization and anxiety, analysis of group behavior can be described as regressing to childhood patterns to protect themselves from the real world.  Research by Bion has shown that when problems occur that challenge a group's functioning, the group reverts to styles of operation that are defenses against anxiety.  Bion describes these styles as dependency, pairing, and fight-flight.



In the psychic prison metaphor, culture and subculture would also have an unconscious significance.  According to Morgan, "the common values that bind an organization often have their origin in shared concerns that lurk below the suface of conscious awareness" (p.226).  These underlying impulses can be destructive.  For example, people may sabotage the success of one of their colleagues because of a fear that they will be seen as not as competent even though this undermines the entire team.  "Culture, like organization, may not be what it seems to be" (p.227).  Morgan believes that the idea of managing culture has to take into consideration the unconscious aspects.  We must learn to understand both the rational and irrational aspects of culture.  We cannot ignore the unconscious human dimension when trying to create or develop a different culture.  "Culture gives us our world.  And it traps us in that world!  The psychic prison metaphor alerts us to pathologies that may accompany our ways of thinking and encourages us to question the fundamental premises on which we enact everyday reality" (p.211).


Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 11:19 am on Jun 1, 2007

No offense to Kathy and Dan, but that's the coolest picture related to the topics!

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