Harnessing the Collective Unconscious to Understand Organizational Culture


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups, from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

Process improvement requires that we understand and influence human behavior by helping people improve the way in which they perform their work. By understanding the organization's collective unconscious, you will be more capable of designing effective process improvement strategies that are aligned with the corporate culture.

Process improvement requires that we understand and influence human behavior by helping people improve the way in which they perform their work. Sometimes this involves identifying sources of error, and other times we are simply helping team members strive for the next level and continuously improve.

We have discussed in several articles how positive psychology can help us understand effective behaviors, including leadership, that are essential for successful organizations. But positive psychology is primarily focused on the individual, and we have learned that understanding the ecosystem of the organization, along with its culture, is essential for our success.

In practice, this means we usually focus on helping teams improve their configuration management best practices, with particular attention to communication-related factors, and often we are asked to assess existing practices and then form a plan for a long-term process improvement initiative. These initiatives will only succeed if they are aligned with the organizational culture and the overall environment within which the team must operate. This means our approach for a defense contractor may be very different from that of an Internet startup or a large international bank. To succeed, we first must understand the basics and then adapt our approach to the organization itself.

To the outsider, many organizations may appear to be mired in bureaucracy, impeding any attempt at making things better. It is at just such times that it can seem impossible to overcome resistance to change and get the team moving forward. When things get really bad, catastrophic mistakes occur, and this is when the senior managers of these organizations call for help. You may find yourself in just such a situation, especially when starting a new job—if you are very lucky, this might be exactly the reason that you were hired in the first place. To be successful, you need to understand not just the technical processes and structures within the company, but the organizational culture as well. We encourage you to embrace the opportunity but to go in with the understanding that you need to size up the situation pretty quickly in order to be effective.

We have found from experience that psychotherapist Carl Jung’s construct of a collective unconscious can be very helpful in getting a basic understanding of how and why folks behave the way they do in a particular organizational environment. Dr. Jung believed that we are all products of patterns of behaviors that he called archetypes. Archetypes provide the structure of a collective body of knowledge that defines basic human behavior and situations. Dr. Jung’s view considered many factors, including images, symbols, and public knowledge that everyone in the culture “just seemed to know.”

Our approach is to listen to the “rhythm” of communication within the organization. Recently, we noted that several engineers in different groups all seemed to be afraid to offer their opinions outside their direct responsibilities. With a little probing, we found that these colleagues were each smart and knowledgeable, just very cautious to speak out of turn. Management consultant W. Edwards Deming noted that organizations need to drive out fear.

In other conversations, we found team members who acted as if they were in competition with each other, and they were not motivated to really help each other out. We later learned that promotions were indeed competitive and these guys were actively fighting against one another to attain the next pay grade. Another team in the division had been acquired as part of an organizational merger. Many of their colleagues had been let go during the transition, and they were the “survivors,” left to cope with a distracting mix of feelings, including worry, fear, and guilt.

You may not be able to modify every cultural challenge in the organization. But understanding what you are up against may help you form a strategy that can encourage and promote initiative in even the most stifling organizations.

I believe that most organizations operate based on a type of collective unconscious. If you can listen carefully to the rhythm of their communications, you may find that you are much more capable of designing effective process improvement strategies, from change control to release management, that are aligned with the corporate culture.

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