Because an understanding of unconscious processes has been almost eliminated from our social service systems, the problems that systematically plague our organizations, create enormous stress in the workforce, and undermine performance are largely incomprehensible. Problems in organizations are often attributed to specific trouble-makers and if only we could eliminate the problem people, everything would be ok. We organize our social institutions to accomplish specific tasks and functions, but we also utilize our institutions to collectively protect us against being overwhelmed with the anxiety that underlies human existence. We are, after all, the only animal that knowingly must anticipate our own death, fear loss and fear insanity.
In every organization there is the level of “what we say we do” and the levels of “what we really believe we are doing” and also “what is going on” – and the members of an organization may be completely unaware of this third level . Depending on what institution we are addressing, the more unconscious motivations vary. In the health care system, the third level can be addressed as “keeping-death-at-bay” and in a variety of ways denying that death will inevitably occur. In the mental health system, this third level presents in a variety of ways, all attempts to reject the enormous complexity of emotional and our relative helplessness in affecting cure: denying that there is anything but biological causality; idealizing the latest fashion and forgetting and denigrating ordinary forms of therapeutic caring; denying that there is anything but social causality; believing everything is due to trauma; believing nothing is due to trauma; believing that dissociation and multiplicity does not exist; believing that everyone has dissociative identity disorder; believing that people with mental illness are the “answer” to the problem; believing that people with mental illness have nothing to offer.
The collective result of this natural inclination to contain anxiety becomes a problem when institutional events occur that produce great uncertainty, particularly those events that are associated with insanity, death or the fear of death. Under these conditions, containing anxiety may become more important than rationally responding to the situation. But this motivation is likely to be denied and rationalized. As a result, organizations may engage in behavior that may serve to contain anxiety but that is ultimately destructive to organizational purpose [2-4]. One of the ways in which this happens is when a group feels threatens and projects the reason for their fear onto an external enemy who then becomes dehumanized. This is typically what happens in situations that are confusing and complex. We call these people deviants.
1. Stokes, J., The unconscious at work in groups and teams: contributions from the work of W. R. Bion, in The Unconscious at Work, A. Oberholzer and V. Roberts, Editors. 1994, Routledge: London.
2. Lawrence, W.G. The presence of totalitarian states-of-mind in institutions. in Paper read at the inaugural conference on 'Group Relations', of the Institute of Human Relations, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1995. Accessed November 23, 2006 at http://human-nature.com/free-associations/lawren.html. 1995.
3. Pyszczynski, T., What Are We So Afraid Of? A Terror Management Theory Perspective on the Politics of Fear. Social Research, 2004. 71(4): p. 827.
4. Pyszczynski, T., S. Solomon, and J. Greenberg, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. 2003, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.