Addictive Organizations – My Introduction

Healthy people live with their world.
-Anne Wilson Schaef

It was a very significant turning point for me in my personal and professional growth to discover the book, The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss & Perpetuate Sick Organizations by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel (1988). It came right at the moment I needed help naming the situation in which I and others I cared about were stuck.

Some people had accused me of asking for too much from others, saying, “Your expectations are too high.” It was a major turning point for me when I could say, “My expectation is healthy; and healthy is not too high an expectation.”

In the opening chapter of their book, Wilson Schaef and Fassel summarize their own survey of the literature of “the past three years” (note, this is the late ’80s) and “a few themes” that stood out. Many of these themes are echoed in the steps of my journey of conscious evolution:

  • participation,
  • innovation, change and transition,
  • leadership, and organizational transition;
  • the feminist movement and women’s approach to leadership;
  • the addictions movement.

After listing these as major themes in the current literature of that period, the authors add their own observation that addictive behavior is not just confined to individuals, but shows up in organizational thinking, management, and personnel processes.

How can we identify the addictive organization?  Wilson Schaef and Fassel suggest that addictive behavior in particular is often evident in communication processes. The choice here is for communication methods that are indirect, vague, confused, and ineffective. “Written memos replace face-to-face confrontation on touchy issues.” In addition, “triangulation,” in which a third party is drawn into a conflict between two other people, is often present.

The ability to cope with change also is important. Wilson Schaef and Fassel point out that people writing in the field of organizational development back in the 1980’s were just beginning to take the position that “change is constant, only the rate of change and kind of change varies.” On the rate of change, they observe: “We know that change appears to be accelerating at a tremendous rate, and concomitantly our view of change is also changing. In the past, in the dominant system of culture, change was not considered ‘normal'” (p. 21).

In seeking to provide relief for people caught in organizational transition, the authors cite the work of William Bridges, author of Transition: Making Sense of Life ChangesWilson Schaef and Fassel summarize Bridges three phases in the human psychological process in response to change:

  1. letting go of the old situation and identity that went with it;
  2. going through a “neutral zone” between the old reality and the new reality;
  3. making a new beginning.

For people in an organization undergoing change their experience takes on a different dimension for each of these stages of transition, and can be experienced as:

  1. disengagement, disidentification, and disenchantment in stage one;
  2. disorientation, disintegration, and discovery in phase two;
  3. emergence of a new vision as they begin phase three (p. 23).

The importance of Bridge’s model for leaders is in knowing how to address people’s emotional needs as they go through the stages of this process. Wilson Schaef and Fassel write:

[The model] recognizes that structural changes are only part of the solution. People must always be considered, and their feelings and needs are part of the data that impacts the future. Also, the inclusion of grieving, which is felt in organizational transition, humanizes the company and keeps before it the realization that structures are not really external to the people involved. People and the processes they experience every day at all levels of their being are vastly important (p.26).

However, sometimes change does not follow quite so neatly the stages identified by Bridges. Instead, change may begin with “a seed” of the new, emerging future present in the old. The authors describe this seed as prompting a “crazy time” in which both the new and old paradigms are present (p. 25).

Wilson Schaef and Fassel acknowledge that organizational transformation can require a significant “paradigm shift.” Such a shift requires “a change in worldview, often accompanied by mourning, because the old worldview is felt to be dying and must be abandoned” (p. 26).

Coming across the naming of these dynamics by Wilson Schaef and Fassel added for me another very important element to the “systems” view of organizations. Their book helped me to name for myself the difference between a “healthy” and an “unhealthy” organization. After reading their book, I realized that I wanted to commit my professional life to empowering “healthy” dynamics in the organizations with which I was associated.

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Wilson Schaef, A. & Fassel, D. (1988) The addictive organization: Why we overwork, cover up, pick up the pieces, please the boss & perpetuate sick organizations. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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