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Is Organisational Psychology Harming Us?

Source | linkedIn : By Dr. Richard Claydon

Erving Goffman once wrote, “When they issue uniforms, they issue skins.” Arlie Hochschild suggested we add “two inches of flesh”.

What does this mean?

Goffman was criticising how the organisation shaped the man. That once you signed up for work, you owed your soul to the company. It determined how you should act. How you should think. How you should be. You became, as William H Whyte put it, The Organizational Man. Hence, the skin. 

Hochschild was interested in emotional work. When you were expected to fake emotions in service of customers. In her most famous work, The Managed Heart, she used airline stewardesses as an example. And there’s nothing much more fake than a stewardess’s smile to a tipsy customer leering at her at three in the morning!

She argued that if you faked emotions on a consistent basis, you lost touch with your real self. You couldn’t tell the difference between real and faked emotions. The organisation took control of your inner self as well as the outer. Hence, the two inches of flesh. 

These are two of my favourite writers on organisations and management. What they have to say is extremely important. And becoming more and more relevant. You can see their themes creeping into the world of practice. 

But it is being interpreted badly. And it is hurting us. 

Historically, the self was shaped by traditional institutions. The extended family. The community. Churches. 

But things have shifted. Families have broken up and live apart. Communities are dead as the dodo (when’s the last time you and your immediate neighbours socialised in a big group?). Church attendance is falling dramatically.  

The postmodern worry was that the self would be shaped by new institutions. We would see the rise of corporate and organisational selves. People that only cared about the company. How well it did. Its profit margins. And not about society in the slightest. 

The strong culture movement of the 1980s aimed to do just that. Have modern organisations assume the place of traditional institutions. Build men and women in the corporate image. Make them loyal, committed and hard-working. And the loyalty would be emotional. A genuine attachment. Not driven by monetary reward. But a deep internal desire that the company succeeded. 

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