In the Sanctuary Model we make the case that instead of being seen as living systems, mental health programs and other social service and health care environments are seen as machines and treated as if organizational change could be “engineered”. One of the key mental model changes in the Sanctuary Model is recognizing that organizations are not machines but living systems.
A system can be defined as a set of interrelated elements that respond predictably and where the nature of the interaction is consistent over time. As a result, change at any one point will eventually have an impact on the total system and its component parts . The hallmark of life is interrelatedness and interdependence and an understanding of these characteristics became known as “general systems theory” .
There is a different way of looking at and operating organizations – a different mental model than the one we have become accustomed to. The newer model is that of organizations as alive, possessing the basic requirements of living systems [3, 8]. In the business world, unlike the social service sector, this new mental model has been itself emerging in part due to the enormous pressures of globalization. Some strong proponents of this emergence point of view have claimed that “the 20th century gave birth to a new species – the global corporation… a life form that can grow, evolve, and learn”. In this new paradigm, individual consciousness becomes even more – not less – important so that “the key challenge is to apply inner knowledge, intuition, compassion and spirit to prosper in a period of constant and discontinuous change” (p.6).
Another characteristic of living systems is “emergence” which occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, in your body, organs emerge from combinations of cells, and an organization’s collective identity emerges out of the combined individual identities of everyone within the organization.
Living beings have both conscious and unconscious processes. For a living organism to be consciously aware, all the time, of everything that is going on would require brain power not available to individuals or organizations. So over time, and in the course of development, much activity that may at one point been conscious, deliberate, and strategic, takes on a kind of life of its own, outside of conscious awareness.
The longer an organization has been in operation the more likely it is that much of what occurs in the organizational culture is happening at the level of unconscious norms and basic assumptions, built on mental models that are completely out of view. Any challenges to these basic assumptions – which provide our individual and shared organizational minds with stability and security – are likely to give rise to anxiety and to “social defense mechanisms”.
Chronic and unrelenting stress has had and continues to have extremely detrimental effects on the overall functioning of the health and human services. As a consequence of exposure to toxic stress, individual workers within the organizations, managers and leaders of organizations and of systems, are likely to become more primitive, inflexible, aggressive, authoritarian and punitive and therefore unable to grapple with the level of complexity that characterizes every organization.Destroying Sanctuary describes the long-term, toxic effects of treating living systems as if they were emotionless machines.
The objective of the Sanctuary Model is to prescribe the ways in which living systems – families, groups, organizations, systems and societies – can begin restoring themselves to health.
- Napier, R.W. and M.K. Gershenfeld, Groups: Theory and Experience, Seventh Edition. 2004, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Von Bertalanffy, L., General systems theory and psychiatry, in American Handbook of Psychiatry, Volume One: The Foundations of Psychiatry, S. Arieti, Editor. 1974, Basic Books: New York.