Is Your Organization Trapped in a Psychic Prison?

by Chris Young

Years ago, in college, I was introduced to an organizational metaphor developed by Dr. Gareth Morgan suggesting that organizations can act as and become psychic prisons.

Tweet: Break your organization free of your psychic prison. #sales @therainmaker Break your organization free of your psychic prison. 
Tweet: How many traits of a psychic prion does your organization have? #sales @therainmaker How many traits of a Psychic Prison does your organization have?

If you have not heard the term "psychic prison" before, your first reaction is probably a negative one that invokes images of worker drones toiling away mindlessly in a dimly lit factory for as far as the eye can see. I guess I cannot blame you as that was the first thing I thought of when I was exposed to the idea. 

Rather than being fodder for a proletariat labor revolution, the purpose of the psychic prison metaphor is to illustrate how an organization can become trapped in a favored way of thinking to keep peace, which restricts creativity, prohibits change, and limits its ability to progress into the future.


Organizations which have become trapped in a psychic prison, often share a common set of the following traits:

  • Group think is pervasive – Humans have a natural tendency to conform.  When team members conform and do not deviate from what the rest of the group thinks, ideas or processes are never challenged.  Group think occurs to keep the peace, but keeping the peace is not always productive, which leads to the next trait of a psychic prison. 

  • Conflict is avoided - Conflict in the workplace has gotten a really bad rap in recent years, and the avoidance of workplace conflict has had some pretty negative consequences. The truth is that productive conflict in the workplace is critical to the success of any business and helps prevents bad ideas from being implemented without serious discussion and consideration.

  • "We've Never Done it like that Before" – If these seven deadly words frequently find their way into the corporate board room, there is a good chance your organization could be trapped in a psychic prison. If this is the case any attempts to create meaningful change are typically devoured with incredible voracity.

  • The "You're Gooder" Syndrome  This ties closely to group think and the first sign, but differs in an important way. Rather than consensus based on the avoidance of conflict, ideas are implemented as a result of a culture of brown nosers that lacks candor, honesty, and the courage to say what one really thinks. It sounds something like this:

    "Your idea is good" "No, yours is good" "No, yours is gooder"

Bad grammar aside, I think you get my point.  The truth is that both ideas were probably flawed, but nobody had the internal fortitude to say so.

  • An inbred culture –It's great to promote from within as a means to motivate and reward stellar performance. However, when promotions are given based on loyalty and years of service rather than a record of exceptional performance big problems arise. This results in a leadership team rank with incompetence that only serves to breed more incompetence

  • Arbitrary is the word of the day... everyday - Key directives and policies are determined by top management with unrelenting randomness and absence of reason. This is often a clear sign that the leadership of an organization has become disconnected and lost touch with what is really happening within the organization. For better or worse, the orders of top management are usually carried out. If an organization is trapped in a psychic prison, this is almost always to the detriment of the company. Like it or not, the culture of an organization is usually determined by those who lead it. 

Have you ever worked for an organization trapped in a psychic prison?  How did it manifest itself?

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