"I favor general use of the psychic-prison metaphor to free people from the traps of favored ways of thinking and to unleash their power and creativity."
--Gareth Morgan
"We cannot just remodel the prison. No, we've got to get out of it."
--W. Edwards Deming

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ritual loss of creativity

Howard Schwartz writes about how the ritualization of work leads to a loss of creativity:
The Transposition of Work and Ritual
When work, the productive process, becomes display, its meaning be comes lost. Its performance as part of the organizational drama becomes the only meaning it has. Accordingly, the parts it plays in the organization's transactions with the world become irrelevant. When this happens, work loses its adaptive function and becomes mere ritual.
At the same time, the rituals that serve to express the individual's identification with the organization ideal, especially those connected with rank, come to be infused with significance for the individual. They become sacred. Thus, reality and appearance trade places. The energy that once went into the production of goods and services of value to others is channeled into the dramatization of a narcissistic fantasy in which the organization's environment is merely a stage setting.
Consider how this shows up in the matter of dress. One can easily make a case that patterns of dress among organizational participants often have some functionality. But when the issue comes to be invested with great meaning, one must suspect that ritual has supplanted function…
The dynamics of the ways in which ritual comes to assume the importance work should have help to explain the dynamics of the ritualization of work. For the willingness to allow one's behavior to be determined by meaningless rituals comes to be justified by an idealiza tion of the organization that elevates its customs above and discredits one's values--one's sense of what is important.
Loss of Creativity
The delegitimation of one's sense of what is important gives rise to a special case of the ritualization of work--the loss of creativity. Schein (1983) describes the condition of "conformity" that follows from an insistence by the organization that all of its norms be accepted as being equally important. Under that condition, the individual "can tune in so completely on what he sees to be the way others are handling themselves that he becomes a carbon-copy and sometimes a caricature of them." Consequently, Schein notes: "The conforming individual curbs his creativity and thereby moves the organization toward a sterile form of bureaucracy" (1980).
The lack of creativity, since it is a lack of something, cannot be positively demonstrated. As an experience, it makes itself known as a feeling of missing something different that has not occurred, even though one does not know what the different element would have been.
When the devaluation of the individual’s sense of what is important is enforced by organizational power, this can constitute a form of abuse. Emily Bassman writes about the same unmeasurability of something that is lacking:
It should be clear that organizations make unmeasurable sacrifices in productivity and profitability by tolerating employee abuse. What makes the losses unmeasurable is the concept of opportunity costs. One cannot measure something that isn’t there; no one knows how productive a person can be under different circumstances. As Ryan and Oestreich (Ryan and Oestreich 1991) point out, in organizations where fear is prevalent, the organization generally will survive and may even be reasonably successful. The important question is, how much more successful could it be? No one can say, because lost opportunities cannot be measured, especially if their possible existence is not even considered. (Bassman 1992)
Schwartz continues about the loss of creativity:
In benign times, one may experience boredom: the consciousness of a sameness, a lack of originality. When circumstances are harsh, partly as a result of the lack of creativity that the organization needed if it was to have adapted, one may simply experience the intractability of the situation….In the hard times, I suspect, one rarely comes to recognize that the ideas that the organization needed in order to have avoided its present hopeless state may have been upon the scene a long time ago. But the individuals who had them might have been passed over for promotion because they were not "team players," or perhaps they were made to feel uncomfortable because they did not fit it in, or maybe they were scapegoated whenever the organization needed a victim. Indeed, ironically, the very ideas that were needed might have been laughed at or ignored because they were not "the way we do things around here." (Schwartz 1990)
Schwartz writes about the horror of a working life where one’s own creative self must be repressed. Further than this, what happens on an individual level when the scapegoating he mentions becomes full-blown workplace mobbing, or on a broader scale when the opportunity costs happen to encompass major unmet societal needs? Who else out there is asking these kinds of questions?