Corporate culture as pathological?

A while ago I wrote a number of posts relating to what I described as ‘corporate pathology’, and linking this closely with the ‘toxic’ environment that seemed to pervade the financial industry.  However, as I argued in one of these posts[1], the concept of a ‘pathological’ corporation or organisation is not without its problems – both conceptually and clinically.  Another way to pose the question is to ask if corporate culture can be described as ‘pathological’.

If we start with the word ‘pathology’ it can either mean a branch of medicine dealing with disease, or a deviation from a healthy or normal condition.  If we keep to the medical definition for a moment then I think it’s difficult to see how a corporation can be ‘diseased’ – unless, of course, we are talking metaphorically, which is essentially how the second definition is being used.  But even using ‘pathology’ as metaphor we have problems: an organisation or corporation can be extremely ‘healthy’ in many ways, for example through making vast profits, and yet still be causing a great deal of distress to the people who work in it.  If we were to define a ‘pathological’ organisation as one within which most or all of its members are showing signs of some form of psychopathology then strictly speaking we are still looking at individual psychopathology rather than some form of ‘collective’ or ‘organisational’ pathology.

Might it therefore make more sense to talk about corporate pathologisation?  In other words, to look at the pathological effects that some corporations or organisations can have on their members.

But does it matter?  Most people are used to medical metaphors and analogies being (mis)used to describe social structures and processes, including organisations.  However, this creates a number conceptual problems which can have serious practical and clinical consequences.  To start with it means the focus of attention shifts from the people who make up the organisation to the corporation or organisation as a ‘person’ – ‘the corporate body’.   And this brings us back to the original problem of how an organisation can be thought of as ‘pathological’.  It also raises the question of what do we mean by ‘organisation’ or ‘corporation’ in the first place.

Furthermore, treating the organisation as the subject of pathology can, somewhat ironically, lead to a particular form of reductionism; by this I mean that in order to explain the ‘pathology’ of the corporation it becomes necessary to posit a cause – and some might argue that the cause is something to do with the people who make up the organisation.  This could be a problem with the way people relate to one another within the organisation; something about the psychology of particular people, especially those in positions of power; or a combination of the two.  But this is essentially to admit that the problem resides with the human subjects that constitute the organisation in the first place.

Of course, it could be argued that the ‘pathologising’ effects on the organisation come from elsewhere, for example from the environment within which the organisation operates.  However, this begs the question of how ‘the environment’ can be ‘pathological’ and how this ‘pathology’ manifests itself within a particular organisation.

But what about the practical or clinical consequences of talking about pathological corporations or organisations – as opposed to the pathological effects of an organisation?  It seems to me that the most obvious consequence relates to the subject of the pathologisation; if it’s the organisation or corporation then what exactly is the nature of the intervention to try and ‘cure’ such a pathology?  It’s at this point that, in larger organisations at least, legions of management consultants are brought in with a remit to ‘restructure’ part or all of the organisation, to introduce new systems and processes, to look at new forms of working practices, and so on.  The problem here is that this might just make things worse for the people who actually make up the organisation – or it may make no difference at all.  Of course, there are many advantages in focusing on the organisation as (pathological) subject; the main one being that it shifts the emphasis away from how people in the organisation suffer the (pathological) consequences of this approach.  It’s also quite comforting to deal with abstractions such as ‘systems’ and ‘processes’, which can be subjected to statistical modelling and represented in colourful diagrams and tables.

But what if we focus on the individuals who make up the organisation as the subjects of (psycho)pathology?  Then we are in the realms of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, clinical psychology and psychiatry.  Some at this point might argue that this lets the organisation off the hook, because the focus shifts from the social to the individual.  It also opens the door for approaches to therapy that focus on ‘adjusting’ the person to fit the organisation, which includes ‘adjusting’ their perceptions of the organisation and the people who work in it.  And there is a whole industry of counsellors and psychotherapists that make good money out of this approach, especially in the corporate world.  The problem here is that this is to negate the subjectivity of the individual; instead the focus is on ensuring that the (human) subject adjusts to the needs of the organisation, which is the subject that really matters from this perspective.  In fact one might argue that the pathological or pathologised individual is regarded as a ‘disease’ which is ‘infecting’ the ‘healthy body’ of the organisation, and therefore the aim is either to ‘cure’ such a disease or ‘eradicate’ it.  This certainly seems to be the underlying ideology that informs a great deal of management thinking and practice.

  1. []