Addictive Organizations

Many people in organizations are in emotional pain. The suffering is sharp and searing–deep in the souls of so many. The source of much of this unnecessary anguish is, I believe, a worldview that alienates people from others, themselves, and the natural world.

To continue this unnatural, inauthentic, and destructive behavior, men and women must lie to themselves. People then become sincerely deluded; they believe their lies. Their pain becomes normal, and they become the walking dead characterized by anger, cynicism, indifference, and disengagement. Soon men and women fear their inner voices because the voices tell them the truth about what they are doing to themselves and others.

People are able to deceive themselves and numb their pain through denial. In The Birth and Death of Meaning a Perspective in Psychiatry and Anthropology Ernest Becker wrote, “If everybody lives roughly the same lies about the same things, there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves normal.”

Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel wrote in The Addictive Organization, “An addiction is any process over which we are powerless. It takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive. A sure sign of an addiction is the sudden need to deceive ourselves and others to lie, deny, and cover up.”

We think of addiction to substances like heroin, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or cigarettes. We can also have process addictions. Process addictions are addictions to a series of events or relationships that together form a process. Examples of process addictions are money, power, status, competition, quick-fix change programs, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Addictive behavior in organizations prevents mindfulness, blocks authenticity, and separates people from their values and beliefs. Addictive behavior obstructs the formation of relationships with others, represses emotions and intuition, and blinds people from processes and patterns that embarrass and/or threaten behavior.

Addictive organizations do not allow feelings. People lose touch with their pain, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. This separation from themselves leads to separation from others. If people felt their emotions, they would want to tell the truth, and there’s no room for truth, about many things, in addictive organizations. People who are honest about what they feel are, in many organizations, a threat to denial and are expelled from the system–literally or figuratively.

Addictive organizations hold out new promises for the future to distract people from the present. In recent years, grand visions for the future driven by quick-fix program after quick-fix program provide the temporary relief, and the distraction from self, that some want. Little really changes, except the level of pain in the organization. At the same time, these organizations absorb into their destructive essence anything that promises to be healthier.

The addictive system moves from crisis to crisis. Most people are kept too busy and too confused to challenge the system. Those who do challenge the behavior of an addictive organization are neutralized and marginalized. Change agents who challenge the status quo are often demonized and scapegoated. Often this neutralization takes the form of fabricated personality conflicts that allow the truth put forth by the change agent to be discounted.

Values and ethics are the ultimate victims of an addictive organization.

Transformation is a recovery process as much as it is a journey. Recovery requires a commitment to seeing the world and ourselves as we are and an intense desire to become who we can be.

4 thoughts on “Addictive Organizations

  1. It sounds like addictions are prime motivators. I’ve just come back from a visit to Maui where Wayne Dyer lives. I heard him on PBS speak about our thoughts creating what we are. A thought can be changed at any moment. I also got a dose of Louise Hay’s books on healing. Mantras are powerful. I would like to see more emphasis on the positives in our lives. Best wishes, Margaret Eubank


  2. Tom,
    Sadly, from personal experience, I know what you are talking about. Unfortunately, such organizations seem to dominate today’s business landscape in the USA (and likely all other “advanced” societies in the world).


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