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 things 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.