Addictive Organizations

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.
with Diane Olson, Ph.D.


Many people in organizations are in emotional pain. The suffering is sharp and searing--deep in the souls of so many. The source of much of this unnecessary anguish is, I believe, a worldview that alienates people from others, themselves, and the natural world. Instead of feeling their heartache and acting to end much of it by changing their beliefs and behavior, people separate themselves from their inner lives and pursue mechanically the promises of Newtonian science: power, control, certainty, and security. To continue this unnatural, unauthentic, and destructive behavior, men and women must lie to themselves. People then become sincerely deluded; they believe their lies. Their pain becomes normal, and they become the walking dead characterized by anger, cynicism, indifference, and disengagement. Soon men and women fear their inner voices because the voices tell them the truth about what they are doing to themselves and others.

People are able to deceive themselves and numb their pain through denial. In The Birth and Death of Meaning A Perspective in Psychiatry and Anthropology Ernest Becker wrote, "If everybody lives roughly the same lies about the same things, there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves normal." Denial allows people to become indifferent, to ignore what happens right in front of them, and to create and sustain a false version of reality. Denial diminishes life and blocks from consciousness what is real. Denial is the alternative to transformation and is a primary defense of addiction.

Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel wrote in The Addictive Organization, "an addiction is any process over which we are powerless. It takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive. A sure sign of an addiction is the sudden need to deceive ourselves and others to lie, deny, and cover up."

We think of addiction to substances like heroin, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or cigarettes. We can also have process addictions. Process addictions are addictions to a series of events or relationships that together form a process. Examples of process addictions are money, power, status, competition, quick-fix change programs, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Addictive behavior in organizations prevents mindfulness, blocks authenticity, and separates people from their values and beliefs. Addictive behavior obstructs the formation of relationships with others, represses emotions and intuition, and blinds people from processes and patterns that embarrass and/or threaten. Addicted leaders are irresponsible and unaware of their impact on others. Like the alcoholic, they need to be confronted with their behavior.

Addictive organizations do not allow feelings. The Cartesian split separated our minds from our bodies, and addiction drives emotions underground. People lose touch with their pain, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. This separation from themselves leads to separation from others. If people felt their emotions, they would want to tell the truth, and there's no room for truth, about many things, in addictive organizations. I recall a senior vice president who said after a major reorganization, "we didn't have time for feelings." I recall a panicked vice president who said, "I don't want to deal with feelings." Both, I believe, feared the reality that the honest expression of emotions would have brought forth. People who are honest about what they feel are, in many organizations, a threat to denial and are expelled from the system--literally or figuratively.

"Shooting the messenger" is a form of denial common in organizations. A senior manager in an organization questioned executive behavior that violated the values of the company. Three months later, the president of the company took the manager to breakfast and asked him derisively, "Who do you think you are? The keeper of the values?" The behavior the manager challenged was not discussed.

Another common form of denial in organizations is the refusal to apologize for mistakes. I once worked for a vice president and a senior vice president both of whom made their share of mistakes. People confronted them, but they could never apologize. I wondered what was wrong with these men? What made them so afraid that they could not say, "I am sorry, let's fix it"? The refusal to apologize is a denial of our impact on others. The ability to apologize is a prerequisite for transformational leaders who will make many mistakes. Apology builds mutual trust.

Addictive organizations hold out new promises for the future to distract people from the present. In recent years, grand visions for the future driven by quick-fix program after quick-fix program provide the temporary relief, and the distraction from self, that some want. Little really changes, except the level of pain in the organization. At the same time, these organizations absorb into their destructive essence anything that promises to be healthier. Successful empowerment programs are sabotaged by those who say they support such things. Often those who yell the loudest for change, resist it the most. They don't want to change: they want to be catered to (another addiction).

The addictive system moves from crisis to crisis. Most people are kept too busy and too confused to challenge the system. Those who do challenge the behavior of an addictive organization are neutralized and marginalized. Change agents who challenge the status quo are often demonized and scapegoated. This behavior is so common that it is considered archetypical behavior of organizations. Often this neutralization takes the form of fabricated personality conflicts that allow the truth put forth by the change agent to be discounted.

Values and ethics are the ultimate victims of an addictive organization. Scott Peck defined evil as the use of political power to destroy others "for the purpose of defending or preserving the integrity of one's sick self." With this definition, there is much evil in organizations.

Addictive organizations don't learn things that advance their growth. The addictive system is a forgetful and non-learning system with a selective and distorted memory. Addicts learn only about how to protect their addictions. Perhaps our primary addictions are to nonliving, helplessness, and powerlessness. Our addictions will worsen until we reconnect with others, nature, and ourselves.

Transformation is a recovery process (from the damage done by a mechanistic worldview) as much as it is a journey. Recovery requires a commitment to seeing the world and ourselves as we are and an intense desire to become who we can be. Recovery requires many moments of metanoia as we bring forth a new worldview and heightened consciousness. Transformation restores people to health, wholeness, and a more natural way of being. With commitment and courage each of us can consciously evolve ourselves.

Other writing by Tom Heuerman:

A More Natural Way Leadership for Sustainable Organizations--a book (in manuscript form) about leadership and organizational transformation viewed through the lens of quantum physics and the learnings from the study of living systems (including chaos/complexity theory).

The Adventurers--In-depth interviews with four women and men leading intentionally from the metaphors of quantum physics, chaos science, complexity theory, and life sciences. Application of leading-edge theory to real-life leadership.



Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. and Diane Olson, Ph.D. are organizational consultants in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Phone 612-931-3909; Fax 612-931-3002

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