Martin’s Weblog

“High Anxiety” – Anxiety as a dimension in organisational culture

Many organisations appear to exhibit irrational behaviours and loss of function – this blog explores the application of psychological ideas about anxiety to the issues of organisational culture and change

Anxiety is the feeling of fear we all experience when faced with threatening or difficult situations. It helps us to avoid dangerous situations, makes us alert and motivates us to deal with problems. People have different responses to anxiety but for as many as 18% of Americans it can be a debilitating condition resulting in irrational behaviours and loss of function.

Recent research from Tel Aviv University  looked at abnormal behaviour of wild animals when held in captivity. “In the wild, animals perform automated routines, not rituals, but in captivity, the animals’ attention focus is on persevering rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance – just like they had OCD.” I wondered how productive it might be to consider the artificial environments of organisations as “zoo like” – a “naked ape” type approach to organisational culture from the perspective of anxiety responses.

People at home, “out in the wild” can be quite willing and able to engage with new things, ideas and technology, yet at work, “in the zoo”, responses to similar things can be quite different – often defensive, avoidant and phobic or learned helplessness type responses to new things and change.

Processes are necessary for organisations to function but it seems to be the natural progression of organisations to add processes and process layers over time (bureaucracy). Many processes become rigid, self reinforcing and difficult to change and in some (or many) cases could be regarded as ritualistic with “attention focus is on persevering rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance” rather than function – just as if the organisation had OCD  (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As with OCD, organisations worry about not performing their rituals – they take comfort in the rituals themselves and make them increasingly elaborate (bureaucratic) over time.  It can be quite striking that ritualistic behaviour can be reinforced through process measures – marking and grading according to the performance of the rituals rather than the function – organisational “comfort blankets”.

Phobic and OCD responses are common but become a problem when they interfere with function – anxiety disorders often become problematic and evident with a change trigger event. Organisations also experience change trigger events which can expose anxiety like behaviours that interfere with necessary functional responses to change. Organisations need to be able to adapt to changes to their environment (competition, regulation, technology, economics etc) but for some organisations anxiety disorder can make them too rigid, phobic and ritualistic to change appropriately.

Organisations differ in their responses to change – for some it is a crisis yet for others it is an opportunity. The approach here is to look at this difference through the lens of anxiety – the argument is to reduce organisational anxiety using the techniques psychologists use to reduce anxiety with individuals.

The key problem with anxiety is the avoidance of situations which the sufferer   thinks will induce anxiety. The key behavioural treatment in this is to break the cycle of avoidance and demonstrate to the sufferer that “nothing bad happens”. Shock tactics make things worse, instead the sufferer is incrementally exposed to the anxiety inducing situation – building confidence and getting used (habituating) to the new situation. This technique is called ERP  (Exposure Response Prevention).

The common traditional organisational response to anxiety disorder like symptoms is either more avoidance (rituals, phobias and bureaucracy) or the high anxiety shock tactic – the “you are dysfunctional and must change” speech followed by command and control, top-down large scale process changes to do something to the organisation. Sometimes these approaches work but other times they can make things work.

Here I argue the case for low anxiety approaches to organisational culture and change. 

Some suggestions to reduce “organisational anxiety”

Change is often dealt with in big sudden jumps (the big initiative) like being thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim – this will usually lead to fear, anger and even trauma.

If change is managed in small achievable steps it is less feared and can even be enjoyed – learn how to swim in the shallow end first.

Change should be part of everyday life for everybody. Everyone is capable of trying something new – no matter how small. Explore and experiment “try it – you might like it”.

Fear of failure causes the anxiety sufferer to avoid trying and reinforces problems. Big change programs have big risks and big fears – as projects they often have problems due to anxiety responses that generate rituals and bureaucracy. Even worse however are the projects that don’t take place when people fear the consequences of failure.  

Smaller projects have smaller risks – if the consequences of failure are smaller then the risk of failure is smaller and people will be more willing to try. Also, if the consequences of failure are smaller then the amount of risk can be higher and the project more radical. 

Characteristics of a high anxiety organisation

Anxiety disorders are often accompanied by symptoms of fatigue and depression. A high anxiety organisation is rigid, defensive, tired and depressed; “running round in circles” performing comforting bureaucratic “rituals” and blaming others for failures. Once in this state it can be difficult to recover.

Characteristics of a low anxiety organisation
A low anxiety organisation is flexible, energetic and self-motivated. It has low bureaucracy, is willing and able to change and try new approaches. 

Background Research

General information about Learned Helplessness 
General information about Anxiety disorders
General information on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)  
General information on Phobia 
Video – Polar Bear in zoo exhibiting OCD like ritualistic behaviour
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) 
Exposure and Response Prevention 

February 1, 2009 - Posted by | business |


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