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Individuals and institutions


Society is organised in terms of institutions. It is those institutions that regulate our activities together: companies, churches, schools, political parties, law courts, the army, the medical profession, football clubs, hockey teams, associations, families, as well as many informal groupings of people. Institutions are made up of individuals, yet they are much more than a group of individuals. They handle such key assets as power, communication and knowledge. Yet institutions don’t always work well. They are often ineffective and frustrating when they are not incoherent or even pathological. Institutions frequently disempower and disqualify individuals - wasting key resources - and can be downright harmful. Much of the dysfunction of institutions springs from the way we enact them. I’d like to look at some aspects of institutions and examine the relationship between the individual and the institution so as to get a first idea of why institutions don’t always work so well.


If we think in terms of freedom of the individual, institutions and individuals are necessarily at odds. Yet “freedom” of the individual is a misleading concept in a society where the individual is invariably part of many differing institutions and where being a part of such a complex society necessarily restrains individual behaviour. All sorts of individuals go to make up an institution. Some are quite satisfied to do what they are told and not to be inquisitive about what happens elsewhere, lest it be to enjoy the company of those around them. Others have a broader interest in the institution and its workings, even if they are not part of those responsible for the institution. Many of them have a pretty good overview of what is happening and often have access to information that those in a position of authority lack (see below about communication). Yet as supposedly “powerless” individuals they don’t always have constructive means to intervene and make their voice heard. The underlying impression is that institutions are somehow flawed and that we need to rethink them. When I was a student, I once worked in a paper mill. One day I had a vision that all the people working there were tied in chains of their own making. When I think of the dysfunction of institutions, it makes me think of those chains and the arbitrariness of the constraints they, or rather we impose. Do we not tie ourselves up in the most uncomfortable of situations?

The definition of the activities

An important aspect of an institution is that it is partly defined in terms of its activities and how it carries out those activities. Once the decision has been taken to limit the activities of an institution, that definition takes on a life of its own in the minds of the members of the institution. It becomes vested with a certain power, if not “holiness”, that makes it difficult to question. The degree of irreversibility or the sacrosanctity of the definition of an institution’s activities may depend on the character of the institution. Let’s mention two possible forms that an institution could take in terms of defining its activities. The first is characterised by a flexible attitude towards the work done which leads to greater innovation and adaptability but also potentially to greater competition between institutions (and possibly less collaboration or co-ordination). The second attitude involves a more rigid definition of work done which potentially reduces competition and enables planned collaboration but seriously impedes innovation and flexibility. In the second type of institution, should an individual, who is not in a position of authority, come to the conclusion that circumstances require a redefinition of its activities, he or she is likely to meet considerable opposition. That opposition can take the form of a refusal to discuss the issue or could extend to the subtle disqualification of the individual with such as statements like “it is not your role to decide” or “you don’t understand the complex issues at stake” when in fact the person is painfully aware of the issues and acts in what he or she sees as the interest of the institution.


When the relationship to the institution is contractual, the signature of the contract implies not only that the individual signs away part of his or her time and knowledge but also a part of his or her “authority”. This may seem counter-intuitive given the insistence with which we are told that authority flows from the top to the bottom, but in fact, each employee relinquishes authority over certain of his or her own acts to the institution (and to those appointed as “authorities” or bosses). Some of that authority may then be handed back as responsibility within the institution. Authority can take many forms, but let’s look at it from the angle of decision-making. An institution rarely takes a decision. Rather it is one or several individuals within the institution that decide. The acceptance of a decision depends on how individuals react to it against the back drop of what is “expected” of them. Here too, institutions vary. At one extreme there are those institutions that clearly stipulate what has to be done and by whom. The price of such “clarity” and the possible reassurance of employees is a rigidness that is ill-adapted to the growing need for flexibility and innovation in a complex, fast-changing world. At the other extreme, there are those institutions where all is implicit. On the surface, it would appear that the absence of written rules would be conducive to a more flexible approach in which people can adapt to the needs of the circumstances. But often, written rules are replaced by a web of tacit expectations shored up by undercurrents of fear if not barely articulated threats. Decisions are taken by individuals, even if they are camouflaged as decisions of the institution. And individuals, for all their authority within an institution, can be misled by their own quirks and whims. What are people to do with their critical perception of their superior and his or her decisions. What should you do, for example, if you are aware that the failure of your boss to take action is due to his innate fear? As with the definition of activities of an institution, the authority vested in certain people within an institution is very difficult to challenge. The individual is not allowed to change the contract in which he or she gave away his or her authority to the institution. In the main-stream conception of authority, a person in a position of authority can’t afford to be wrong. Challenges to their authority are perceived as attempts to wrest their authority from them. Reactions to troublesome individuals range from dismissal to more or less “subtle” mobbing. But what if the person in authority really is wrong in his or her judgement? What should the individual do with his perception of the situation? One of the soundest ways to test one’s hypothesis is to confront it with other people’s perceptions and experience. Generally, as it is not possible to voice such perceptions in public (see the following point), they either go underground in subversion or spring up as negativeness in the complaining employee or are forcibly withheld leading to reduced motivation and finally to a zombie-like state.

The circulation of information

Another important aspect of institutions is how they handle the circulation of information. In most institutions, there are limits to how members are allowed to talk “publicly” about the workings of the institution. Differences do exist in institutional culture about such questions, but generally communication is quite strictly controlled even in non-formal settings. There are also tacit rules about what one may talk about within the institution. Institutions can be characterised in terms of their attitude to the flow of information. At one extreme, there are those institutions that are bent on keeping a tight rein on information. One result of this policy is that most employees have no overview of the institution’s activities and can’t judge the appropriateness of measures taken nor understand their own activities in the wider picture. Such a policy often goes hand in hand with control over what employees may have to say amongst themselves about the activities of the company. This has the advantage that all energies within the institution tend to move in the same direction. It has the disadvantage that it leaves no possibility for employees to express legitimate diverging perspectives and bars the way to innovation. Institutions generally have a great deal of difficulty handling multiple perspectives. A paradoxical result of the desire to control communication is that those not in a position of authority often have exclusive access to important information that those vested with authority can’t have. The other extreme would be (and I say “would” because I don’t think it exists so frequently) is an institution that thrives on openness and the free flow of information. Participants are encouraged to exchange ideas and to make suggestions. Exchange and collaboration are an integral part of their work. In a knowledge economy, where what people know or are capable of learning are the most important assets, care needs to be taken to encourage informal exchange between peers which is increasingly seen as the key to individual and institutional learning as well as innovation.

The handling of skills and abilities

Finally, institutions can be examined in terms of how capable they are at recognising, encouraging, developing and integrating the knowledge, skills and abilities of their members. One of the major shortcomings of many institutions is their failure to identify and fully employ these skills and abilities. If an institution is incapable of providing sufficient recognition for the abilities of the people working for it, this can be a serious source of tension, declining motivation and even ill health. Seen from the perspective of a knowledge economy, it is also extremely wasteful. Many people are required to do things they can’t do well and are barred from doing the things they are good at. Many people are made to feel incompetent when in fact they are simply not being used for the skills they possess or are struggling to compensate for the incompetence of their superiors or colleagues. Even those people who are competent in their work are often forced into incompetence by the denigrating attitude of their superiors or their colleagues.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: January 29th, 2006 - Last up-dated: January 29th, 2006