Let’s talk about stigma. Specifically, let’s talk about the stigma organisations feel in admitting there’s anything wrong with them. I mean, customers will feel disturbed and anxious, won’t they? How would you feel if one of your suppliers admitted they weren’t perfect? That admission might come as a shock. If they hadn’t ‘fessed up to it, you would still be thinking they were perfect, wouldn’t you? Deflated illusions, shattered dreams. Heroes with feet of clay.

Or maybe we should just be more realistic? It’s an old adage of therapy that folks who don’t admit to a problem rarely make much progress in dealing with their issues.

Tough, Man

Traditionally, organisations seem to think that they must promote a Marlboro Man ideal – tough, independent and unemotional. And incompatible with even the consideration that there might be scope for improvement.

I have heard folks express disconcert at the very idea that there might be something “wrong” with their organisations, that they might need therapy. These concerns are widespread, and real – if rarely voiced.

Out of Touch

Organisations have emotions, and emotional states. We’ve all heard folks describe their organisations as e.g. “happy”, “sick, “dour”, etc.. And, almost by definition, organisations are rarely in touch with their emotions. Being out of touch, most organisations do not even realise that they are, for example, depressed or otherwise emotionally challenged. Maybe we can co-opt the term “normative organisational alexithymia” – literally “without words for emotions” – to describe this phenomenon?

Received Wisdom

Many organisations learn from their peers that they are not supposed to show vulnerability, or imperfection. They learn to suppress or hide their inadequacies, so much so that they are genuinely unaware of both their emotional state (not to mention their relative effectiveness) and how to express that emotional state in words.

Even when an organisation comes to awareness of its emotional state, and the effect this state is having on e.g. effectiveness, employee engagement, customer relations, and the bottom line, it is still unlikely to seek help – and highly unlikely to seek any kind of therapy.

To benefit from therapy, an organisation must admit that it needs help, must form a bond of trust with the therapist, and must openly discuss and express emotion. These requirements…conflict with traditional ideals of what it means to be in business: toughness, independence and absence of emotion.

Social Norms

Some organisations may also worry that customers, peers, and even society at large, will look down on any organisation that can’t “tough it out” on its own, and that seeking – or even needing – help is not “normal”, “healthy” organisational behaviour. Even organisations who do seek therapy may worry about what others think of their choice.

In general, organisations are much more likely to seek help with problems that they think are normative – that is, problems that many other organisations share (and seek help with).

If an organisation perceives that being depressed or otherwise dysfunctional is not ‘normal,’ then even if it does try to get help it may feel shamed and aberrant. So, instead, it might try to keep its depression or dysfunction(s) quiet, and maybe self-medicate with merely palliative interventions.

What Can We Do?

One way to convince more organisations to seek help, then, is to demonstrate that the things they need help with are “normal.” In this regard, we might take a cue from the erectile dysfunction drug industry:

“Men are going in to see their doctors much more about erectile dysfunction now, after the ads for Viagra and other drugs, because there’s so much more awareness”

This, in a nutshell, is what Rightshifting is all about. Demonstrating that ineffectiveness is normal, and increasing organisations’ awareness of what effectiveness means.

We can also work to make more palatable the words we use in describing therapy, and emphasise e.g. self-help, organisational capabilities, and achievement.

Is it reasonable to expect that organisations will ever acquire the capability to self-counsel and self-treat? Maybe some, now, and maybe in a hundred years, more. But until the majority do, there will be a role for specialist therapists, and a need for organisations to seek help.

What are the contexts that influence organisations to seek help, and why? That’s the challenge for us all to figure out, in terms of both theory and practise. Right now, we don’t seem to have even the beginnings of the answers.

– Bob

Further Reading

Helping Men to Help Themselves – How help-seeking is gender-related
Therapist Self-Disclosure Decreases Stigma of Therapy for Clients – Online article
Don’t ask, Don’t tell: The Stigma of Going to Therapy – Online Article
The Stigma of Therapy – Online article
Is There a Social Stigma Associated With the Words Psychotherapy, Therapy, and Counselling? – Blog post

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