Is a “corporate” personality disorder making you explode?

Hands up. How many of you have ever described your organization or another place as “greedy, friendly, mean, caring” or “hostile?” We easily attach human characteristics to animals, motor vehicles, hurricanes, and various inanimate objects. So it’s no surprise that we use human terms to describe our workplace and organizations in general. Why not? Applying a human trait or tendency to non-human a screamthings and species allows an easy way for us to share how we feel–our emotional and visceral reaction that in turn very much affects our attitudes. Just check out how many human metaphors you find in the marketing of products from snazzy cars to soap.

Ascribing human traits and behavior to non-human things goes back about 40,000 years when our cave ancestors drew figures that combined both human and animal forms. The word anthropomorphism was first used in the mid-1700s to describe our giving human characteristics to non-human entities.

So, let’s agree that we find it easy to ascribe human terms to inanimate objects as well as organizations. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (used by psychologists and psychiatrists), a personality disorder is described as thus:

A personality disorder in an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early childhood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

Since we agree that it’s easy to align human personality traits with organizational behavior, then how about my definition of a Corporate Personality Disorder, defined as follows?

A corporate personality disorder is an enduring pattern of organizational experience and behavior that deviates from employee expectations, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in early organizational development, is stable over time, and leads to employee distress and impairment.”

Now some will get boiling red and argue that organizations are not human! That they are comprised of org charts, systems, processes, rules, and a mountain of paperwork. I say, with respect, that such a counterpoint is thickly sliced baloney. Organizations indeed behave in ways that affects us emotionally and physically. To the point that they can injure and kill. And our characterization of them as having human personality traits is usually a very accurate representation of the collective behavior of those in positions of control and/or leadership.

I am left wondering if, rather than dismissing organizational anthropomorphism, we accept it as one way of exploring the relationship between human and organizational systems. Are cuckoo corporations and workplaces driving us crazy? What is the cause of Corporate Personality Disorder? Is there a couch somewhere where we can stretch out our dysfunctional organization and bring it to a state of self-awareness and inner calm? What questions would be ask?

I need your help.




11 thoughts on “Is a “corporate” personality disorder making you explode?

  1. Eli–I like your metaphor and find it useful. (although I am personally appalled that our Supreme Court considers a corporation as a “person” in some respects, that is a sidebar.)
    I believe that any metaphor that can assist people in understanding what is happening to and around them can be useful. At Nortel, very early on, I referred to our culture as “sick,” which I describe more fully in my new book, “No Fear: Tales of a Change Agent, or, Why I Couldn’t Fix Nortel Networks.”
    –Where I do disagree with your definition is your emphasis on “employee expectations,” as I think these can, and sometimes should, be shaped, addressed or replaced even, if an employee is not on board. I would prefer that you focus on “customer expectations,” as they are the receivers of the value that is created by the organization. Indeed, one of the factors that brought down this once might company was the inability of the leaders and employees to adapt to the changing expectation of the marketplace.

    Best regards,


  2. Looking forward to your book Tim, and thanks for the post. I see your point that customer expectations are of vital importance to a corporation. Although an argument can be made about just how far does a company go to to meet what may be unrealistic expectations? Nevertheless, a strong focus on customer expectations met through strong employee performance where their expectations ultimately support the purpose of the company is a desirable combination. Frankly, I’m seeing less of that these days. Thanks for the tip on your book!


  3. Indeed. My experience came out of a big push we once did focusing on Employee Satisfaction, and we discovered, that you could sometimes get high ESAT at the expense of CSAT. To put it another way, we found that you can get happy employees without happy customers, but not for a prolonged time, whereas when you focus on getting happy customers you almost always need happy employees to accomplish that and that is the direction that the measuring and focus should go towards.


  4. I do think we are seeing less of that these days, and I do think it might be a major drag on the economy. The customer experience is relegated to profit, and, as consumers, we now suffer through voice mail hell menus, weak customer service, strong arm tactics to purchase unnecessary extended warranties etc. There is a probably a research project and a book in this field waiting to happen. What, exactly, is the impact on economic growth from how hard it is to trust our suppliers??


  5. I really like your concept of characterizing organizational pathology as a “personality disorder,” much in the same way that we do in mental health with individual personality disorders. And I think it’s entirely valid, as organizations have “personalities,” though the terminology in vogue is that of “organizational culture.” I think it’d be an interesting thought experiment to envision a comparison table listing each of the criteria of a selected personality disorder on the left column (e.g. antisocial, or narcissistic, or even schizoid) and then the organization or industry on the adjacent right column.

    One component on which I disagree, though you may have used the criterion only for quasi-clinical demonstration purposes, is that of the genesis of the syndrome. Not all corporate personality disorder necessarily has roots in corporate childhood. It may. But what I’ve observed is that organizations and systems can start out fine – healthy and upstanding – but that over time, a cascade of events occurs that changes the organizational environment, e.g. new boss; changed values; toxic merger-acquisition; cut-throat capitalism etc. I believe the same happens to family environments. A fine case would be a reasonably intact family progressively torn apart by one member’s toxic alcoholism, or the experience of catastrophic assault ….


  6. @rumikern. Right on comment about the genesis of corporate personality disorder! Indeed it can present itself at any stage of an organization’s existence–and the influential factors you list (“cascade of events”) are excellent and true, from my experience. Your parallel to a family environment is also excellent, and provides lots of food for thought. I like your idea of developing a comparison table illustrating “corporate personality disorder” traits and comparable human traits. I’m now developing just such a table, and look forward to your and othrs input.



  7. Eli: I did enjoy this article!

    I had a discussion recently with someone who sells tech devices; the discussion centred around ‘why wouldn’t corporations want to hire someone like you to ensure that the culture was one of engagement and a healthy one-isn’t it in the best interests of everyone in the organization to have that ability-the healthy EQ-i for example?’ It was centred around how would you sell this to a corporation-so my analogy as to why some corporate decision makers would not access this went something like this:

    “As a sales person, take several different Apple products into the Microsoft HQ Executive Suite and try to sell them those products” – What do you think the reception will be? How would you sell those products to those executives?”

    So, how would you sell a healthier work environment to decision makers that require a clear financial ‘proof’ that the benefit is measurable in terms their performance is rated by?


  8. Thanks again for another outstanding question, Karen, and one that is gnawing away at many providing such valued services as yours. My observation and experience is that decision makers start to notice the importance of so-called “soft skills” when it can be positively demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between employees who are emotionally well, fully engaged in their work, and have great levels of morale and the more “bottom line” measures of the organization, be it financial targets, client satisfaction, or in the public sector–public confidence and trust.

    The good news is that just such correlations can be, and have been, widely produced. It is pretty well established today that a strong, positive correlation exists between how you feel and how you do. I won’t bore you right now with the metrics involved and examples, but my own work has focused on establishing just just strong correlations in the data.

    The “sales job” is certainly easier when it can be scientifically demonstrated through the cold and impersonal process of valid and reliable statistical analysis that warm emotions and especially intrinsic motivators are also good for business–on many levels (achievement of goals, employee retention, employee recruitment, etc.)–and that the failure to accept this is very bad for business.


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