What is “Organisational Life” and Why is it Important to Understand?

The disconnect between our jobs and what constitutes organisational life frequently comes up as a subject in management development, leadership development and executive coaching. Organisational life is what happens at our place of work where we interact with groups, and is distinct from what takes place in other groups we are part of.

Groups can have a profound effect on the way a person behaves, and self-awareness that allows you to notice the way in which you are affected by a group can be an empowering discovery. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) model of group behaviour: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, is an excellent example of applied group and organisational psychology and has been immensely useful to those setting up new teams or small groups. He saw three stages of group development before the group could reach the performing stage, by which time dislikes of other group members, boundary testing, and psychological safety issues had been resolved – all aspects of what human beings go through when they join an ‘organisation.’

Will Schutz (1925-2002) created the FIRO Psychometric, which examines our fundamental group needs and is based on evolutionary psychology. Our need to be part of a group or organisation meant survival against animals and other tribes. Survival meant we needed to be included by a tribe. We needed a place within it, and the best way to secure a place was either to be very good at something the tribe needed or to be in charge of it.

And finally, as human beings we need love and affection in varying degrees. According to Schutz, regardless of our sophistication, these fundamental needs remain and we seek to have them met. In organisational life we often see conflicts that are hard to understand, and often ascribe reasons for them, taking sides based on our interpretation of visible behaviour. More often than not, conflict is the product of one person’s interpretation of another person’s behaviour rather than the truth.

Organisational life is simple really – it’s us! When we are at work, we continually make sense and meaning of what is going on around us. For many people this can become a preoccupation and gets in the way of the sole reason for being in the organisation – which is to get on with the task. Social psychologists are concerned with how people operate within group settings and how behaviour can be affected within a group. Does the way you behave change when you are in the presence of a group? How do you feel when you have to explain an idea of yours to one person at work compared to how you might feel if you had an audience of seven others?

First, we join an organisation to perform tasks that enable it to achieve its outcomes. Whilst work can satisfy some of our social needs, these organisational outcomes are the reason for its existence and its success depends on the competence of its workforce. As simplistic as this sounds, this is the sole reason we have jobs. What is less simple is the way organisational life affects us and can get in the way of what is a simple premise.

One of our first experiences of organisational life outside of our family, is school. Most people can remember school experiences which relate directly to some of the same issues that adults in organisations experience and how we handle group situations may be the way in which we handled them then. Few of us can be truly independent. We have to rely upon others and their cooperation, how we gain acceptance, approval, and maintain our self-concept are all part of group life.

Organisational life requires that we get along with people to maximize collaboration and harness the power of the group that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, and it is this creation of a social reality that is at once the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of organisational life. Organisational life is about small group and team communication. It is about how we find a place and gain acceptance within a group, manage our judgments of others and our self-criticism. At work we allow our rules about how people should act decide whether we approve of them or not, we allow our defense mechanisms to protect us from justified or unjustified criticism and we switch on our safety radars that tell us whether or not someone is well intended towards us.

Organisational life is simple really, it’s about tasks to achieve outcomes. The other stuff gets in the way. Politics is another reality of organisational life and involves handling our emotions at work. Our emotions are involved in how we respond to praise and what we perceive as threats, how we need guidance and accept criticism, how fragile our self-image is and how robust our self-worth is.

According to Schein (2010) “The process of stratification in human systems is typically not as blatant as the dominance-establishing rituals of animal societies, but is functionally equivalent in that it concerns the evolution of workable rules for managing aggression and mastery needs. Human societies develop pecking orders just as chickens do, but both the process and the outcome are, of course far more complex and varied.” Political games are a manifestation of some individuals’ insecurities where a belief that dominance leads to safety produces Machiavellian behaviour rather than hard work and completion of tasks. Smoke screens and displacement activities played by some people within organisations to secure their place in a pecking order causes a great deal of anguish for many people when all they want to do is get on with the job,  to complete the task, to achieve the organisation’s outcome.

Organisational life depends on those at the top not only being concerned with organisational outcomes, but also with establishing how things should be run. Most organisations begin with founders who establish how things will be run and establish rules about how authority will be determined and aggressive behaviour is to be managed. Successful organisations are self-aware and have leaders who recognise that organisational life has a life of its own and needs to be managed so that everyone can get on with the task at hand and achieve their outcomes. And, of course, the success of organisations today rests upon their ability to work collaboratively in all aspects.

Written by Denis Sartain, a facilitator at IMNZ and director of International Coaching Development UK and a visiting Executive Fellow at Henley Business School, University of Reading UK.


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