Friday, August 31, 2012

Authority and the human psyche part 1: why administrators are evil

Authority is power that is linked to the roles and organizational structure of institutions. Authority is a characteristic of artificial systems of human social control. It is not a feature of the natural world or an emergent property of human social evolution. It is a technological contrivance. 

Our evolved psychology is attuned to relatively simple patterns of dominance such as those seen in other primate social groups, where submission to a more dominant member of the group does not entail any permanent reduction in my autonomy. In fact, at any point I have the choice as to whether I submit or refuse, or simply walk away. And in a society with limited technology, the latter option is almost always a viable one. 

The hierarchically ordered mechanisms for power dispersion in technological society follow a different sort of pattern than the dominance relations to which we have evolved. When presented with the commands of a person in authority, I still have the choice to submit or refuse, but noncompliance almost always represents a threat to my access to resources. And in the densely structured and ubiquitous technological order of modern civilization, the choice to walk away has been for all practical purposes entirely eliminated. 

From a psychological standpoint, I have no way of processing this situation other than in terms of my evolved sensitivities for primate dominance relations. That is, there is a mismatch between my actual situation, embedded in complex systems of impersonal power and authority, and my evolved capacities to interpret and accommodate my situation, based on (intimately personal) group dynamics in a small (largely) egalitarian foraging band.  

The mismatch between our evolved social expectations and our coerced interactions with artificial systems of authority can have a profoundly negative impact on our psychological state. Our psyche is simply not designed to be organized by technology; the role of institutional servomechanism is foreign from the point of view of our authentic human nature—we can do it, but not without experiencing the friction of mismatch.  

Institutions (government agencies, small businesses, multinational corporations, colleges and universities, etc.) are organizational technologies. People employed by institutions—the overwhelming majority of common working folk in the Western World—are forced to maintain a psychological state on the job that mirrors many of the pathological features of a condition psychiatrists call dissociative identity disorder, more colloquially known as split personality. It is not uncommon for there to be conflict between what a person believes or desires in a given situation and what their contrived role within the institutional framework demands that they do. 

This can be particularly true for those employed in middle management. Regardless of the institution in question, the manager’s prime purpose is to reduce and eliminate any threat to efficiency. Human nature is almost always a potential threat to efficiency. Whenever the goals and needs of people are in conflict with the “goals” and “needs” of the institution, it is the manager’s job to see that institutional “goals” and “needs” are met. Human needs are not just relegated to secondary status, they are to be removed from the equation if at all possible. And when not possible, for example, people need to eat and attend to other biological functions, the satisfaction of human needs is systematized in a way that causes the least possible reduction in efficiency (e.g., scheduled and time-restricted lunch and restroom breaks).

Managers are people too, however. But while they are playing their role as manager, their authentic human motives are to be pushed aside. They are gears in the institutional machine. Their job is to see that the machine gets what it must.  It’s nothing personal—literally. This bifurcation of roles, human being versus institutional servomechanism, has the potential to create substantial cognitive dissonance. The military, of course, has had to deal with this situation from the very beginning. The military solution is to simply eliminate the human component entirely. You are a soldier, not a person. You are a mindless unit in the fighting machine and you will do what you are told when you are told and without question. The popularity of PTSD and military suicide suggests that the military solution is not so effective at eliminating the human after all.

Corporate functionaries in middle management do not usually face combat-scale moments of self-doubt. If there is some minor cognitive dissonance that emerges from a conflict between their humanity and their institutional role, it is quickly eliminated by simply reducing their humanity, by blurring their role as manager and their place as a member of the human community. Being a manager is a way of being human, they tell themselves. And so the line between corporate servomechanism and human being is blurred into oblivion.

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