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Recently I have been running into an interesting organizational phenomenon. It took me a while until I could process it into words, but afterwards it became obvious: it was Organizational Fear.

The way this phenomenon was visible in the ongoing dialogues was quite ordinary. In fact, it was so ordinary that it was first hard to even notice. I was participating several meetings where people discussed about various aspects of product making. In those meetings I could see several arguments where the reason for actions being rejected wasn’t that the action itself was bad but instead that some person “would be pissed off if we’d do that”. At first I thought it was more of a figure of speech, but then this same pattern was repeated in various occasions by different people. There were several different meetings where people said they agreed to take initiatives, “not because it would benefit the product-making, but to get certain people off their back”.

This would have suggested that there were some “bad apples” behaving aggressively and raising fear in their colleagues. However, I began to doubt that this was really the case. For me it seemed implausible. I started to think that perhaps this was more of a cultural thing. People seemed to be so used to this kind of talk that the whole phenomenon seemed to be a totally normal way of operating in the organization.

The last piece of the puzzle was put together when I was planning an intervention (response) for this phenomenon. My idea wasn’t perhaps the best possible one, but the argument against it wasn’t about the effectiveness of the intervention itself. Instead the argument was about how some managers might react to it. They might question my whole role and existence in the organization if I’d raise this topic. It would be better to focus on the “concrete” things and not to these kind of organizational issues. For me, it became clear that we were talking about a wider thing than just few bullies behaving badly. There seemed to be a culture of Fear in the organization.

“Me” – “I” dialogue

During the dialogue I was having about my intervention proposal, I reflected upon what was really going on. I began to think about the “me” – “I” dialogue that G.H.Mead was talking about. He made this genious insight that the “self” and it’s relationship to the social environment are one unseparated process. “Me” is how we see others to respond to our existence and acts in the specific environment. “I” is how we react to this “me”.

In the example I presented, I was trying to figure out how the people in the organization would respond to my intervention. There were more than 100 people in the organization, so of course I could not predict how all the individuals would respond. Instead I formulated what G.H.Mead said to be the “generalized other”. In other words, I reflected upon how my acts would be seen generally and how some specific people would respond. In effect, I was formulating the “me” in this specific moment and situation. My decision about how to proceed was then the “I” (the react to the “me”).

So, in effect, I was also caught in the organizational games where my own identity was under negotiation. I was sensing a fear of losing credibility and opportunities of engaging in the organizational games if I would proceed in certain ways. Of course these fears were still hypothetical – it wouldn’t be possible to know exactly how people would react. But it was also evident that people were used to certain ways of thinking in this organization. They were used to think carefully about how the “generalized other” and perhaps also few specific individuals would react to their acts. There was a tendency that their “I” reacting to their “me” was limiting the possibilities to act (instead of widening them). And this tendency was been taught to me also. The best word to describe this patterning is “Fear”.

Fear in the Organizations

After pondering on this case, I made an insight that fear is nothing but “I” reacting to the “me”. It is a constrained way of reacting (i.e. thinking/acting), which tries to avoid any conflicts between the people. It might be a reasonable way of reacting especially if one fears to lose his job (or life, etc). However, it isn’t the only way to react. Another pattern of reacting would be Courage. Instead of constraining the thinking/acting, one has a possibility to break that pattern and widen the possibilities to think/act. There is no guarantee that it would lead to better results (it might even lead one to really lose his job), but what is guaranteed is that courage enables more possibilities to think and act. So, in practice, the fear in the organizations is a tendency to constrain the thinking/acting. Courage would be a tendency to widen the perspectives and see multiple different ways of thinking/acting.

This question of Fear/Courage inevitably leads one to think about the ethics – the values we live by. Fear and Courage are always dependent on each others. If there is only one way to go forward, there’s no reason to fear anything. Only the possibility of selecting between different actions can raise fear to constrain the available actions. And the other way around – there are no Courage in selecting between acts that don’t have risks. So, whenever we face fear, we are in a situation of selecting between multiple different choices.

Cult Values and Functional Values

Douglas Griffin writes extensively about the cult values / functional values of G.H.Mead in his book “Emergence of Leadership“. The cult values are the values against which we compare ourselves when we are dealing with a specific society. These values might be positive or negative. They might include things like “openness”, “transparency”, “honesty” and “respecting people” – and they might include things like “obedience without questioning”, “secretion of misbehavior” and “money over people”. The cult values of organizations are usually in accordance with the cult values of a larger society (Western values, European, national, religious, etc) unless one is part of an actual cult that is separated from the rest of the society. In practice the cult values are against what we compare our “me” with.

However, in practice it is often impossible to function like these cult values suggest. The cult values are idealized generalizations, but in reality we often have limited possibilities to choose from. An example of cult value in hospitals would be “giving the best possible care for the patients”. In reality there are always questions of resources and budgets that needs to be addressed. This leads to situations where people are not given the best possible treatment, instead they receive compromised treatment. A nurse might be in a situation where she has dozens of patients and only very little time for each of them. Instead of giving elderly people the assistance they need to get into toilet, they are given diapers. An example in the SW business would be the agile value of “in-built quality”. In reality the deadlines and organizational politics are often running over the possibilities of e.g. making extensive testing.

Mead also formed a concept of “functional values”. Functional values are the real values that people are utilizing in their daily activities. Sometimes they are well in accordance with the cult values, but more than often they are not. This conflict between the cult values and the functional values is what we perceive as ethical dilemmas. There is also a tendency to hide behind the “organization” when this conflict becomes visible. It is often said that the benefit of the organization/shareholders requires managers to make hard decisions, which are often conflicting with the cult values of e.g. “respecting the people”. However, it is only in the local interaction where we can behave ethically. In order to maintain our ethics, we can’t hide behind abstractions like “organizations”, etc. The functional values are the real ethics we perceive, while the cult values only describe the socially acceptable ethics.

How the fear emerges in the organizations?

Also cult values are always changing and under negotiation. The “me” – “I” dialogue gives possibilities for people to respond to their situations in different ways. The respond of “I” to the “me” is always somewhat unpredictable, even though one can perceive also certain predictable patterns. These patterns/tendencies to act in certain ways are perceived by people in the local interaction. People are using these perceptions to build “generalized others” (cult values) of the organization. If, for example, taking initiative is usually been punished in the organization, it is creating a cult value of “obedience over initiative”.

Curiously, this seems to be quite well aligned with Erik Erikson’s third development stage: Initiative vs. Guilt. Erikson saw that children usually go through this stage at the age of 4-5 years. Depending on how well this stage goes, the child either learns to take initiative or to feel guilt which suppresses his ability to take initiatives. It is easy to see the resemblance with organizational fear, which also suppresses people’s ability to take initiative. In fact, what else is guilt but internalized fear of being punished for taking action? The good news is that Erikson saw that guilt was quite easily compensated with accomplishments. He also thought it is possible to go through these stages in the later age again more succesfully. So, even though there might be people in the organizations who have had problems with this development stage, it is possible to change this pattern.

How to overcome organizational fear?

The answer for this question is quite simple. But it is also really hard one. The answer is “Courage”. Only way to change the cult values of “obedience over initiative” and others like it is to take ethical responsibility for oneself and start acting accordingly. That is how the cult values are changed. It is of course easier to “talk the talk” than “walk the walk”. Fear is a really strong force in our selves. In certain situations it is what keeps us alive, but in social setting it is often what keeps us from living.

When we encounter ethical dilemmas, we might be tempted to hide behind some abstractions like “organization” or “processes” or whatever. But in order to maintain our selves, our identity, we need to take ethical responsibility for our acts. We must face what our functional values really are. If we do this, it is possible see through the fear and widen our possibilities to act. And like I said, there is no guarantees of what happens. It is possible that questioning the “cult values” or the “game”, like Pierre Bourdieu said, is responded in destructive ways. But that is what Courage is all about, taking risks and doing the “right thing”. For me, the biggest risk is to lose our selves if we are not taking responsibility of our ethics. Losing one’s job or career opportunities is a small risk compared to that…

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