Inconsolable Organizations and the Tyranny of Corporatism

“Downsizing” by HF Stein

      What is happening
      Has not happened,
      And if it has,
      We do not want to know.

      People I worked with yesterday,
      Today are suddenly whisked away;
      No one asks where they go –
      Or even really wants to know.

      There is no blood to show
      For all their disappearance;
      They just are
      Not around any more.

      The signs all
      Read the same –
      On the highways, in the stores,
      On the elevators, in the halls:

      What is happening
      Has not happened,
      And if it has,
      We do not want to know.

The Triad of Change-Loss-Grief and the Tyranny of Corporatism

Since the early 1980’s the tyranny of corporatism in the United States has left in its wake widespread organizational inconsolability and despair. The triad of change-loss-grief characterizes the experience of all the forms of managed social change – except that mourning is short-circuited.

To begin to awaken from our cultural nightmare, it is vital to name and honor those organizational and personal experiences that would otherwise be lost, and unconsciously repressed. In this spirit, I offer three vignettes that typify our Age of Organizational Inconsolability. Following the vignettes, I discuss their broader implications for understanding organizational despair.

Vignette 1: Of Downsizing and Disappearance

My first vignette developed from an interview I had with a computer company’s chief financial officer during an organizational consultation. I will first provide some of her narrative:

Am I glad to see you today! Howard, the strangest thing happened Monday. I was off sick Friday. I came in to work on Monday morning and the office next to me was cleared out. There was a desk, a chair, a computer, a couple of file cabinets and bookcases, a wastebasket. And that’s it. Empty. I still can’t believe it, and it’s already Friday. It’s like there’s a big hole in this place. I knew the guy ten years. His name is Don. He was one of our numbers crunchers. A quiet guy, just did his work. It seemed like he was always here, always working. He is a computer whiz anyone in the unit could go to for a computer glitch. We aren’t – maybe I should say weren’t, since he’s gone ‑‑ weren’t exactly friends, but we worked together a lot on projects. He was kind of part of the furniture.

It’s so eerie. I’m numb over it. I keep going next door to look in his office expecting to see him. Maybe I’m imagining that he’s gone, and he’s not. But the place is so empty. I’ve heard of this kind of thing happening other places when people get RIFed. Here today, gone tomorrow. But I’ve not heard of this here. It’s like he disappeared. Like he never was here. Howard, I’m not being sentimental about him. He and I didn’t have something going – if you’re thinking that. I just can’t believe they’d do it – and the way they did it. I asked around the firm, and everybody gave the same story. Because it wasn’t just him. It happened all over the place. About five hundred people RIFed in one day.

I asked around, and nobody knows where Don went. No forwarding address or telephone number. It’s weird, Howard. Like he just disappeared. You wonder if you’re next. You try not to think of it. Work harder, maybe they’ll keep you. It’s ridiculous, because you know it’s not true. But you’ve got to believe that you’re valuable to them.

Events and experiences like this have occurred millions of times in American workplaces since the mid-1980’s. Forms of “managed social change” variously called RIFs (Reductions in Force), downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, offshoring, separation, and deskilling, when they occur, give those who are fired no warning or preparation – except perhaps gossip and rumor. They are experienced as terrifying, dehumanizing attacks. Sometimes they occur as unexpected letters of dismissal in the U.S. mail or as e-mail. Sometimes they take the guise of a fire drill, where everyone is supposed to leave the building, and those who are summarily fired are not let back in after the false drill is over.

However the firings are executed, they are designed to maximize surprise and to achieve a “clean break” from those who are cast away. They psychologically terrorize the workplace. People are suddenly and efficiently “disappeared.” There are no metaphoric bodies to see and step over. The carnage is attested to by absence, void. Those who remain are left with only images in mind. The symbolic kill is swift and clean. Work is expected to continue within this empty shell.

Frequently, security guards show up on a Monday morning or a Friday morning all over the plant at the offices and workstations of people who have been designated to be fired. They escort them to the big auditorium over in the corporate conference center. They don’t even tell them why they have to go, except that there is an important announcement. After they walk them in, they leave and lock the doors behind them. The CEO or CFO then enters and delivers a brief speech on how the company has to downsize radically in order to survive and be competitive. He tells them not to take it personally, that it’s just business, and maybe thanks them for their service to the company.

The security police escorts them back to where they worked, helps them clear out their personal belongings, then takes them down to administration to hand over all their keys and receive their last paycheck. The police walk them to their cars, and that’s the last they see of the corporation. They are told not to come back. They virtually disappear. They are rarely talked about. Management often justifies managing the firing this way because those who are about to be fired could not be trusted not to sabotage the computers, or to steal equipment.

Following the firings, employees, managers, and executives try to work at their jobs as if nothing has happened. They rarely speak of those who are now gone; still, they are haunted by their absence. Those who remain are told that they should be grateful they still have a job. They all know that they could be next, so they live in dread of the future, trying to do the job of two if not three people. Admonished to forget the (devalued) past and those who occupied it, many of those who experience themselves as “survivors” of the RIF are afflicted with the survivor syndrome, feel pangs of guilt for having survived, and then attempt to rid themselves of the guilt by finding fault with those who were fired. The thought of randomness is unbearable.

Those who remain behind with jobs often have “survivor guilt,” wondering why they were spared and others fired. Sometimes, survivor guilt is quickly repressed, rationalized, and projected in the form of saying to oneself and to others, “They must have done something to get fired.” And conversely, stories arise about the specialness and value to the organization of those who were temporarily spared. Often those who remain feel like the “living dead.” The sense of individual responsibility, culpability and guilt (“I must not be good enough”; “I must have done something.”) militates against any resistance or other collective action.

Whatever sense of vital and interconnected community existed prior to all the firings and rearrangement of people and tasks, there is little sense of “we” or “us” afterwards. In its place is a collectivity of frightened monads. Those “old timers” who knew whom to contact “to get things done” in the informal system of relationships, and those whose “Rolodexes” of contacts were once seen as the lifeline that kept the corporation going, have long been fired. Life proceeds now impersonally by protocol, “by the book.” Unable to mourn for whom and what all has been lost, those who remain become an inconsolable organization who try through pep-talks, admonitions, threats, and dogged productivity to console themselves.


Vignette 2: A Corporate Pep-talk: The Finger in the Waterbowl

I now offer a vignette of what might seem to be a tiny, discountable incident – but one that goes to the heart of the experience of downsizing and its wake. In 1999, following a presentation I had made about corporate downsizing and reengineering, I spoke with a secretary who had worked for many years for a multinational petrochemical firm that had undergone several waves of firings. First thanking me for validating her own experience during my lecture, she said that she wanted to offer an example of what I had been talking about. A new mid-level manager had arrived and was eager to make his mark on the organization. At a meeting of his supervisees, he admonished them: “We have a lot of work to get done here. Don’t think for a minute that you’re essential to this corporation. Everyone here is dispensable. There are a hundred people out there hungry for your job. And if you leave, your absence will be as noticed as a finger taken out of a bowl of water. They won’t even know that you’d been here.”

She and I both shuddered. We briefly mused on the effect of this meeting for worker morale: inducing, perhaps, identification with the aggressor, and feverish productivity, accompanied by chronic terror, indifference, and deep rage at such humiliation. We also wondered about the new manager’s own sense of vulnerability and expendability, and about the kind of childhood that might have set the stage for such drivenness. Does the conviction of inner worthlessness cultivate, via projective identification, worthlessness – and hopelessness – in others in order for one to feel superior and momentarily invulnerable? Here, a third managerial philosophy – management by terror – supplements the traditional distinction between “carrot” (reward) and “stick” (threat of punishment).

What in the workplace, we wondered, does the threat of symbolic homicide look and sound like? The employees were not only threatened with the loss of their job, but their very dignity and self-respect were also attacked. Even as they labored to increase their productivity to try to create the illusion of indispensability, they were thrown into inconsolable grief over the loss of self. They lived and worked in the knowledge that at any moment they could be made to disappear, and never be missed.

Under these circumstances of psychological assault and the expectation of assault, what happens to the organization and to the remaining people? The organization that remains behind can no longer contain the anxiety, dread, and even terror that management inspires. It becomes what Michael Diamond calls a “defective container.” The workplace is increasingly experienced as persecutory. A “paranoid-schizoid” atmosphere prevails, in which employees experience themselves as a “them” at the mercy of management “us.” An employee is expected to do the work of another who has been “downsized” as well as his or her own, and to do so not only without complaint, but with gratitude for still having a job.

For many employees, where once there was loyalty to a company, there is now the garnering of skills and the readiness to move on to the next job at a moment’s notice. One feels redundant even before he or she is fired. From the stockholder’s obsession with the next quarterly report to the employee’s uncertainty about tomorrow, there is only short-term planning and the palpable presence of symbolic death and loss. Meanwhile, upper management touts slogans of “excellence” and “higher productivity” as evidence of having “turned around” the organization. For middle management and employees, the picture is surreal.

Vignette 3: The Threat at the Christmas Party

My third and final vignette illustrates the nationwide (and increasingly global) psychological terrorizing of managers and workforce into capitulation and dependency upon corporate decision-makers. The process affects blue collar and white collar workers alike. Consider the following:

At one American Great Plains hospital’s mid-1990’s Christmas party, the invited speaker, a physician-administrator, admonished his largely healthcare professional audience to accept managed health care (HMOs, PPOs, etc.) as the inexorable wave of the future. He told the group to make up their minds that it was simply a matter of altering their thinking to conform to the changes that made them primarily responsible to the corporation rather than to the customers (patients). To make his point, he showed a cartoon depicting a steamroller smashing down one doctor in the asphalt, while another wisely sidestepped his destruction. The caption read: “You can become part of the solution or part of the pavement.” The physicians’ response was uncharacteristic of prairie decorum, in which you politely listen to someone with whom you disagree, then go about your business as you had been doing. Instead, several physicians got up in the middle of the talk and walked out in disgust.

A week later, a physician colleague who had been in the audience wrote to me: “Does this [cartoon, presenter’s haughty attitude] not instill a sense of helplessness? A sort of ultimatum? This doesn’t smack of fascism, does it?” What he inquires in the negative, he affirms in the act of asking. It is as if what is not supposed to be happening – in the caring professions, of all places – is in fact happening. It is a matter of trusting – and mistrusting – one’s senses and one’s emotional response. The heavy boot of managed health care promises to crush all opposition. The looming threat, the anxious wait, conspire to create an organizational atmosphere in the medical community at once of dread, rebellion, siege, resolve, and anticipatory, inconsolable grief at the prospect of losing their way of practicing medicine and their very autonomy as physicians.

Increasing numbers of physicians in the United States feel demoralized, robbed of their identity as professionals, and treated as disposable employees. Many become disillusioned, embittered, pulled to be more answerable to medical insurers and healthcare corporations than to their patients. What had begun for many physicians as a “calling” to care for sick people, has turned out to be a grueling job in which seeing as many patients as possible and income generation become the central corporate virtues.

The core value of the physician-patient relationship is replaced by the invisible industrial time-clock according to which each patient merits but 7 ½ minutes. The psychological control of workers studied and advocated a century earlier by Frederick Winslow Taylor triumphs in the practice of medicine. Many physicians feel trapped in their careers and betrayed by their employers. Physicians’ own proud individualism militates against effective collective action in their own behalf.

Discussion of the Three Vignettes

These three vignettes do not prove the existence of inconsolable organizations, but I think that they give the concept a certain plausibility. As illustrations, I think they provide at least preliminary encouragement for “inconsolable organization” as a working hypothesis. They also suggest that inconsolable organizations can occur in a variety of situations of organizational change: downsizing or RIFing, managed health care, and organizational crisis. At the conscious and unconscious level of what these organizations feel like, how they are experienced, and what they are like in the fantasies of their members, they are indeed the same phenomenon in different institutional forms. The vignettes offer support for the concept of inconsolable organization as at least approximating organizational reality.

In the first vignette, the CFO felt the horror of sudden absences that characterize RIFs, restructuring, reengineering, and other forms of radical organizational change. Here, people do not so much leave the organization as they are abruptly severed from it. Loss takes the form of vast holes, gaps, in experience, both in space and time. One day co-workers are present, performing their jobs, taking part in the everyday relationships of the workplace. The next day they are gone. There is no group-sanctioned transition for either those who are fired or those who remain behind. There is neither permission nor assistance to grieve the loss. Only work – productivity – counts. Here the living dead commingle with the haunting presence of those who vanished from sight. The atmosphere is thick with spiritual deadness. The absent ones wander the halls like the characters in Marc Chagall’s paintings. Inconsolable loss is experienced as horror.

The second vignette is the story of another hole in time. If in the first the void consisted of the sudden absence of others, the second is the undisguised threat of one’s own annihilation from institutional memory. The employees addressed in this surreal pep-talk are good only for productivity, and their very existence is already declared to be nonexistence. They are nothings now, and will be nothings if they are fired or leave. They will not be missed; their absence will not even be noticed. It will be as if they never existed. They will not be grieved over, for there is nothing, no one to mourn. Their very existence is already tainted with nonexistence. Their life already embodies the death that is projected into them. Here, someone else is not the hole, but one is the hole oneself. One is thrust into inconsolable, anticipatory grief over the loss of one’s self.

The third vignette is yet another surreal experience: a Christmas party that threatens death. Eerily, the “savior” the speaker touts is not the “Prince of Peace” (the Christ Child), but an Angel of Death who threatens to crush anyone in its path. One is “saved” as a physician if one joins the momentum of the steamroller – that is, if a physician, a healer, joins league with the agent of death! Managed care is depicted as an invincible juggernaut. The wave of the future of medical practice lies in identification with the aggressor and a repudiation of those “softer” values and virtues that characterized the covenantal relationship between doctor and patient. Paradoxically, if one chooses to “live,” one also chooses death-in-life. In the Brave New World of corporately managed health care, one loses, gives up, the allegiance to the patient and swears primary fealty to the corporation. Corporate totalitarianism creates and enforces clinical totalitarianism. I have heard many physicians despair over being ever again adequate to relate to their patients and to deliver thorough medical care. Beneath the frenzy of productivity and high “patient volume” and “patient flow” (a borrowing from the hydraulic model of physics) is inconsolable grief, a loss of professional vitality, spiritual death, and all-consuming miasma.

Is There a Way Out of the Tyranny of Corporatism and Organizational Inconsolability?

In order for an organization to get “unstuck” in inconsolable grief and miasma, it is first necessary for executives, manager, employers, and shareholders to acknowledge that something – and many “someones” – has been lost. Those who have been so cavalierly disposed of are not “dead meat” or “dead wood” or “fat to be trimmed” – to cite three widespread euphemisms of managed social change. Those who have been symbolically killed off, together with those who remain behind as survivors to perform the job of two or three people, are vulnerable human beings who are stuck in a miasma of grief and organizational despair.

Transition to a renewed future requires coming to terms with the past. To lessen the traumatic impact of the change, those who are to be fired and those who remain as survivors need to be emotionally prepared for what is going to happen to them. This will help them to feel as human beings rather than as disposable objects, and give them at least some sense of control. To help create a healthier and less haunted workplace, the names and identities of those who have been fired need to be uttered, remembered, honored, and assimilated into the evolving organizational identity. Instead of being told to “suck it up” and “Be glad you still have a job,” employees need to have their fears, dreads, and anticipatory loss acknowledged.

In place of acknowledging that great loss has taken place and collectively mourning it, the organization, from leaders to employees, attempts to negotiate, manage, and fix it through a frenzy of various magical remedies, ranging from frequent, peremptory firings to spasms of restructuring and reengineering. Beneath what Yiannis Gabriel calls the “organizational miasma” lurks an inconsolable organization that creates and sustains the miasma. Until the inconsolable grief can be thought, named, and felt; until the sense of guilt, shame, loss, futility, and hopelessness can be acknowledged, the miasma can only deepen.

To facilitate the recognition and mourning of losses, management and consultant need to create a safe and trusting interpersonal environment for the organization. Genuine organizational renewal does not come through endless waves of “sacrifices” – these only deepen the miasma of despair. Rather it comes about through recognition of the trauma that has been visited on the people who were and are the organization.

Genuine organizational renewal also rests upon group empowerment. This means that individuals would need to have the emotional capacity to make collective decisions rather than act as frightened, isolated monads who hold their heads down hoping they will not be noticed. In our cultural climate this will be difficult if not impossible. American individualism carries with it self-blame and guilt for losing one’s job or for not being able to find a better job. Misperceptions and indoctrinated cliches such as, “I must have done something wrong,” and “There must be something wrong with me,” make it difficult to recognize one’s corporate victimization and traumatization. Certainly, persecutory paranoia can play a role in any perception of victimization. And self-blame is a kind of wresting some sense of power over the acknowledgment of utter powerlessness. Notwithstanding whatever explicatory factors legitimize the RIFs, the beginning of personal, organizational, and cultural resilience is the courage to perceive and accept the reality of corporate traumatization and its decisive role in creating inconsolable organizations.

Suggestions For Further Reading:

Allcorn, Seth, Baum, Howell, Diamond, Michael., and Stein, Howard F. (1996). The Human Cost of a Management Failure: Downsizing at General Hospital. Westport, CT: Quorum Books; Ehrenreich, Barbara. (2006). Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. New York: Henry Holt; Ehrenreich, Barbara. (2009). This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation. New York: Henry Holt; Faludi, Susan. (2000). Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: Harper; Stein, Howard F. (1994). “Change, Loss and Organizational Culture: Anthropological Consultant as Facilitator of Grief-Work,” in National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA) Bulletin 14, “Practicing Anthropology in Corporate America: Consulting on Organizational Culture,” (1994), p. 66-80. Ann Jordan, Ed. Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association; Stein, Howard F. (1998). Euphemism, Spin, and the Crisis in Organizational Life. Westport, CT: Quorum Books (Greenwood Publishing Group); Stein, Howard F. (2001). Nothing Personal, Just Business: A Guided Journey into Organizational Darkness. Westport, CT: Quorum Books (Greenwood Publishing Group); Stein, Howard F. (2005). “Corporate Violence,” Chapter 23, in A Companion to Psychological Anthropology. Conerly Casey and Robert Edgerton, Editors. Blackwell. p. 436-452; Stein, Howard F. (2005). Beneath the Crust of Culture. New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi; Stein, Howard F. (2008). “Organizational Totalitarianism and the Voices of Dissent,” in Stephen P. Banks, Editor. Dissent and the Failure of Leadership. Cheltenham Glos, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 2008. p. 75-96. New Horizons in Leadership Studies; Uchitelle, Louis. (2006). The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. New York: Knopf.

  • Portions of this report were previously published in “The Inconsolable Organization: Toward a Theory of Organizational and Cultural Change,” Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 12 (December 2007): 349-368. © Palgrave Macmillan 2007. It has been revised for web posting. The writer would like to thank Gary Corseri for his encouragement and careful editing of the manuscript.
  • Howard F. Stein, a psychodynamically oriented organizational anthropologist and consultant, has taught at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center since 1978. He is an active member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations. He can be reached at howard-stein@ouhsc.edu. Read other articles by Howard.

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    1. Don Hawkins said on November 6th, 2009 at 10:06am #

      How strange it all seems who am I what is my purpose? Go shopping have something to eat. Maybe a cup of coffee and two million to start Capital one voice calm at peace voice loud and clear. A new way of thinking the truth the knowledge.

    2. Annie Ladysmith said on November 7th, 2009 at 2:14am #

      Your ‘vignettes’ were so long and boring i couldn’t possibly read it all. What is being downsized is the WHOLE country. Small towns are dissapearing just like that guy Ron, here for decades, gone in a month. They want people living in metropolises so they can be herded on the trains and buses and be taken away, never to be seen again. After they take over the food supply and distribution people will start ‘disappearing’ from starvation. This has little to do with corporate policy than it is a totalitarian passion to create a mass of people living in terror who’s personal lives mean absolutely nothing to the state, nevermind their personal liberties ‘guaranteed’ by a national constituion. CALL IT WHAT IT IS, MARXISM, PLAIN AND SIMPLE!