Wednesday, January 2, 2019

OD Managers and the unconscious of the organization!

"I represent the unconscious of this organization!", said the Organization Development (OD) Manager. "That is why we have so many nightmares!!", retorted the business leader. 
 
In this blog, we have been exploring the many hats worn by the OD Managers (see Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters, The OD Quest series and Architects of Meaning for some of the examples).
Coming back to the conversation that we started this post with, it can definitely be said that tapping into the unconscious of the organization and bringing more of that into conscious awareness is part of the OD role. As Carl Jung said, “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious”. One of the key functions of OD is to facilitate greater awareness, integration and authenticity.
Before we go deep into our discussion, let's look at a fundamental question. Does it make sense to talk about the unconscious of the organization? If we observe behavior of organizations (internal functioning and external response) and people in organizations (as individuals and as groups), there is a lot that can't be explained by purely rational models of organization behavior(that assume that that a person works to earn money and to satisfy the need for material possessions). Organization behavior appears to be mysterious, unpredictable or even irrational. It appears that our thoughts and actions are influenced also by energies that are outside our conscious awareness. Hence, ‘unconscious of the organization’ is a 'useful model' for understanding and influencing the behavior patterns in organizations ('All models are wrong; some are useful!').

In a way, the employees don't leave their ‘inner drama’ at the door when they come to work. Also groups are held together not only by formal structures but also by stories/fiction, ’group think’ or even by 'convenient collective delusions' . Some of this fiction is unconscious. Organizations behave as if they have a ‘personality’ - sustained patterns of behavior internally and externally - often referred to as the organization culture. If we look at the most popular model of organization culture (Edgar Schein's model), the deepest level of culture is that of the ‘basic underlying assumptions’ that are deeply embedded in the organizational psyche and are experienced as self-evident and unconscious behavior (and are hard to recognize from within the organization). 
Now, let's look at this question from the point of OD Managers. When they come across this kind of strange behavior  patterns in organizations the OD/HR Managers are aware that something peculiar is happening  but can’t understand what exactly is happening and why. This can cause them to feel ineffective, uninformed, and helpless in many dynamic organizational situations such as meetings, team building, and leadership interactions. That is why 'psychodynamics' of the organization (that is essentially based on the unconscious, at individual and collective levels) become useful for OD Managers for understanding, predicting and influencing organization behavior. To put it in another way, since OD is essentially about facilitating change, OD interventions often have to tap into this unconscious level of organization culture. 
The unconscious in the organization manifests in terms of ‘apparently irrational behavior’, myths, stories, metaphors, images, symbols, artifacts etc. All these can be useful starting points for exploring the unconscious of the organization. For example, understanding unconscious patterns can happen through exploration of the organization’s (defining) myth. Myths are based on the inter-subjective reality in the organization and they can be 'more powerful than history and can resist or distort facts with great tenacity'. 
Repression of uncomfortable facts, thoughts, ideas and experiences causes organization members to resist change and become trapped in dysfunctional behavior patterns. OD Manager can enable the key relationships between organization members to be more effective by revealing the hidden, unconscious and inter subjective dimensions of organization life. The collective unconscious of the organization can be influenced by the use of 'generative metaphors' (that help to alter the socially constructed organization reality) and by re-purposing the prominent stories in the organization (retelling the stories to convey a different 'moral of the story' that is aligned to the new change agenda). Hence, tapping into the collective unconscious of the organization is very useful not only for accurate diagnosis of the problems in the organization but also for facilitating organization change and renewal.
In business organizations, OD often degenerates into a series of initiatives. But at the most fundamental level, OD is about facilitating better conversations that can help the organization to better understand what really is happening and to find better solutions. Hence, giving voice to the unspoken and even the unspeakable is very much part of the OD role! Apart from enabling better solutions, it would also lead to better buy-in and ownership and avoid passive resistance. It can also be said that OD Managers are in a better position (as compared to HR Business Partners who are embedded in the different business units) to do this task.

Yes, this process of making the unconscious conscious can bring out some of the ‘uncomfortable truths’ and that in turn can create quite a few ‘headaches’ (if not nightmares) for the business leaders. This can also destroy some of the convenient collective delusions in the organization. The discomfort created by this process is most problematic during the initial period, before the fruits of the integration of the unconscious with the conscious of the organization like higher levels of integrity in the organization (in terms of integration of thought, words and deeds) and  increased creativity and organization effectiveness become apparent.That is why the OD Managers need some sort of ‘diplomatic immunity’ similar to that was enjoyed by the Court Jesters. This diplomatic immunity and some sort of ‘licensed stupidity’ (the license to ask child-like or even naïve questions) is also important for the OD Managers to act as coaches for senior leaders.
So where does this leave us? There are recurring patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that are evident in the behavior of individuals, groups and organizations and sometimes they don't make sense- especially to an outsider. Tapping into the individual and collective unconscious in organizations can be highly beneficial both for addressing dysfunctions and for enhancing creativity and authenticity in organizations. In the elegant words of Carl Jung, 'until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate'!

The OD managers (especially those who have expertise in the psychodynamics of organizations) can add a lot of value in this domain. Yes, the OD managers should develop a high degree of self-awareness, apart from understanding the psychodynamics of organizations, to meaningfully intervene. They should always keep in mind that OD is an invitation (and not compulsion) for change and that it is the responsibility of the OD Manager to help the client see the potential value in the exploration. Yes, the OD Managers also need some sort of 'diplomatic immunity' or 'licensed stupidity' to make all this work!
Any comments/ideas?

4 comments:

Unknown said...

Lovely prasad...you just helped me interpret something

Srividya Ivaturi said...

Great Article Sir! It felt like my confusions are wonderfully articulated. Can you also suggest, where and how to begin in such situation? And especially, when the organization has an open and transparent culture. I feel, Somewhere, too much of openness and transparency also might also effect organizations.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Srividya. A good starting point is patterns of behavior in organizations that doesn't make logical sense to an outsider. Other clues are found in the stories, metaphors, images and artifacts used in the organization. Unstructured team interactions, projective exercises during development programs, non-directive coaching and ways of responding to stressful events also throws up useful insights on the unconscious motivations. Regarding your question on transparency, let me just say that open discussions and communication are essential to build a psychologically healthy organization. Of course, confidentiality (e.g. of sensitive data) and transparency (e.g. of the decision making process) can peacefully co-exist!

Unknown said...

As a non-HR, plant operation guy was knowing so far Operating Discipline as OD. Thank you Prasad, to introducing me to this very important other OD, widening my perspectives...