Are you trapped in a psychiatric prison company?

Metaphors allow people to explore ideas and take action outside of their conventional way of thinking. In business, this encourages creativity and allows companies to focus on areas that involve productive criticism. In turn, this creates distinctive organizations and exceptional products.

What comes to mind when you think of the term psychiatric prison? It reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Shutter Island, in which psychiatric inmates were kept on an island to protect society, promote peace and avoid conflict.

The “psychic prison” is a metaphor created in the 1980s by Gareth Morgan, a business consultant and professor at York University (Toronto). The metaphor illustrates how an organization can be trapped in a way of thinking that prevents “going out” into new forms of reasoning.

These patterns restrict creativity, prohibit change, prevent new ideas, and make it impossible for companies to adapt for survival.

The psychic prison is the idea that organizations are created and sustained by conscious and unconscious processes, and people are imprisoned by the thoughts and actions that these processes give rise to.

In a company under the influence of a psychic prison pattern, the company favors thoughts that (artificially) abolish conflict and reaffirm peace to maintain its ecosystem.

How do you know if your company is trapped in the psychic prison pattern? Look at the following characteristics:

  • People avoid conflict at all costs
    People try by all means to avoid conflict. As mentioned before, conflict encourages creativity and enables companies to find new ways of doing things. If conflict is accompanied by periods of reflection, it promotes continuous growth. Lack of conflict leads to stagnation.
  • The thinking of the masses is followed to the letter
    People follow and conform to the thinking of the majority, because this is supposed to indicate the best way of doing things. After a while, people get used to following instead of having new ideas, or they create ideas that are just a reflection of a strict thinking model.
  • Similar behaviors are rewarded
    Even when they prove ineffective, standard behaviors are rewarded because they achieve peace by deviating from conflict. This favors uniformity, but homogeneity is the enemy of exponential organizations.
    The more diversity you have in the company, the more creative thinking will occur. Organizations that make the mistake of hiring people with a similar profile are exhibiting a characteristic of the psychic prison.
  • Predictive practices and dictated homogeneous policies are used
    Practices and policies established by someone higher in the organization are always seen as reasonable, even if they lack foundation or reason. This is difficult to change even if the policies demonstrate less business value for customers.
    People will adapt to follow practices and respect policies without questioning or improving the system. In many cases, the objective is to obtain rewards, follow the masses and avoid conflict. It is essential that people criticize the premises if they want to break the status-quo and achieve real change.
  • Avoid responsibilities that may lead to conflict
    If a decision could result in conflict, individuals will try to delay the decision or seek options that favor peace without subsequent discussion and introspection. This works against the integrity of an honest and truly productive system.

If you don’t help people see the organizational patterns that lead to these kinds of behaviors, it´ll be difficult for them to see the problem.

Gamification is a great technique you can use to move the company forward.

In any case, new and healthier behaviors should become the first option and should become viral inside the organization. To achieve that, you need to create structures that support the new goals.

Make it difficult to avoid positive conflict, and make facing conflict an easy option to allow teams growing.

Make sure teams have the space to go out of the box, and provide innovative ideas where everyone can safely experiment with a new tool, process, way of working or approach.

Organizing contests that challenge employees to use new ways of thinking is also a good idea to encourage the company to break with old habits and evolve.

Hiring new people with different mindsets can also be something to consider.

Finally, help people feel comfortable about having crucial conversations, and don´t forget to lead by example.

If you want to know more about creating great companies, check my latest book “Leading Exponential Change.

Thanks for listening,


Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1986.

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