The Organizational Theorist Gareth Morgan first published his book ‘Images of Organization’ in 1986, in which, through the prism of eight metaphors, he attempts to describe the nature and complexities of organizations. A metaphor is a “figure of speech which makes an implied comparison between things which are not literally alike” (Webster, 1961). Morgan also uses the related literary devices of allegory and analogy to illustrate his theories. One such powerful metaphor is that of ‘The Psychic Prison’.
Introducing Plato’s ‘Cave’ allegory, where confined prisoners cannot conceptualize the outside world, the author contends that people can become “imprisoned in” organizations through conscious and unconscious processes which have been created during formative phases and varied human experiences in their lives. The implications of these phenomena for organizations and the repercussions for individuals can be serious and profound; leading to negative outcomes for society as a whole and these issues require in-depth research, description and management for progressive development of both organizations and people.
For example, the phenomenon of groupthink in organizations is of crucial significance. It occurs when organizational, social and cultural traps develop in groups, fostering a sense of “assumed consensus” (even in the face of contradictory evidence), alienating dissenting opinions, retarding problem-solving, inhibiting the expression of doubts and suppressing the conception, discussion and action of alternate options. Decision-making becomes skewed in such a scenario and can lead to negative, unethical or disastrous results. A prime example of groupthink is the recent financial crisis in Ireland where banking institutions and the Department of Finance believed in the “efficiency of financial markets” (Nyberg Report, 2011) to regulate themselves which ultimately proved detrimental to the entire nation.
The origin of ‘The Psychic Prison’ phenomenon is traced to the human unconscious. Morgan describes a (non-exhaustive) list of psychological factors which contribute to the differing nature of relationships that people have with organizations, including theories of sexuality, family dynamics, mortality, anxiety and other, more obtuse hypotheses (such as ‘artefacts’, ‘archetypes’ and ‘shadows’) which have been propounded by renowned experts including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. He concludes his dissertation by highlighting several strengths and limitations of the metaphor and praises the window of “critical thinking and awareness” of organizational issues that it opens while acknowledging that its complexity does not make it conducive to providing any “easy answers and solutions to problems” for managers.
Department of Finance (2011). Commission of Investigation into the Banking Sector, Misjudging Risk: Causes of the Systemic Banking Crisis In Ireland (Nyberg Report). [online] Available at: <http://www.bankinginquiry.gov.ie/Documents/Misjuding%20Risk%20-%20Causes%20of%20the%20Systemic%20Banking%20Crisis%20in%20Ireland.pdf> [Accessed 31 Mar. 2012].
Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization. 2nd edition. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.
Webster’s (1966). Webster’s Dictionary. 3rd edition. Springfield, Massachusetts, USA: Merriam-Webster.