No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Hidden Games of Organizations

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (ed.) (1986), The Hidden Games of Organizations, New York: Pantheon Books.

This is a collection of articles that explores the patterns of interaction within organizations and offers insights for psychologists working with these systems.


The Complexity of Organizations and the Role of Psychologists

Organizations have a structured system that is complex with more components and variables than other groups, such as families. Organizations thus have distinct features that require specialized approaches from therapists and researchers. The term "hidden game" is used metaphorically to refer to the implicit, often unspoken, and sometimes dysfunctional rules, roles, and behaviors that govern interactions within an organization. An organization's game starts long before the specialist has arrived, and previous experiences with other psychologists could affect the current specialist's work.

Recurring Patterns in Organizational Dynamics

Psychologists working with organizations have identified recurring patterns in different situations. Pattern A involves appointing experts or professionals to solve problems but instead using them to label employees as "clinical cases", which is observed in companies, hospitals, and schools. Pattern B involves creating expensive structures that promote the appearance of change but do not implement any real changes, which is observed when organizations want to show a desire for change but assume that changes will take time. The existence of these patterns is anchored in the relationships between organizations and their environments. These relational games evolve with external and internal changes, as seen in examples of a losing party seeking an ally and the political conflict between Party A and Party B in the reorganization of an In-Service Training Center. It is crucial to understand the origins of such situations and who initiated them, as they often have more layers than initially apparent.

The Psychologist's Active Role in Interactions with Organizations

The psychologist is an active participant in their interactions with the organization and must examine the development of these interactions to bring about desirable changes. It is crucial to pay attention to relational styles and methods of communication employed to acquire self-knowledge. Morin's epistemological concept of observation highlights the importance of observing oneself while observing the system to avoid vicious circles and increase learning possibilities. The psychologist's past and present experiences shape their approach to work, and they must engage in a learning process that involves trial and error and systematic training to verify hypotheses. Personal beliefs and ideological overtones may impact their professional attitude, and they must consider their role and personal history when approaching new work environments. Shortcomings in training may lead to professionals relying solely on book learning instead of concrete experiences in the field. Perpetual context markers are important in context recognition, and the concept of equifinality highlights that similar causes can lead to different results, and different causes can lead to similar results. Classic studies emphasize the importance of relationships, and psychologists must understand their own learning context to define their character and bear this in mind in their professional life.

Hierarchy and Contractual Possibilities in Large Organizations

Large organizations, such as companies, hospitals, and schools, have a formalized hierarchical structure with different levels, functions, and relationships between them, and rules governing their interactions with the environment. This structure limits members' freedom to define relationships. Psychologists working in institutions must be aware of the limitations imposed by the hierarchy and the contractual possibilities left open to them. They should not mistake their assigned authority for autonomy and must be cautious not to define their competence based on the organization's past experiences.

Case Study: Psychologist's Role in Examining Conflicts Within an Organization

In a case study, a psychologist was appointed by a company president to examine conflicts within the organization, with the implicit request to exclude the partners from analysis. The psychologist agreed to focus on the employees' personal problems and examine the organizational context in which these problems appeared, but not analyze the behavior of the partners due to hierarchical dependence. However, at the request of a research group, the psychologist broke the agreement and focused on the game played by the president and vice-president. The psychologist attempted to stop this game, but the effects were disappointing. The psychologist then directly sent a report to the partners, breaking the rules governing the hierarchical structure and placing himself in an incompatible position of dependency.

The Psychologist's Role as a Catalyst of Functional Communication in Organizations

The research group concluded that the psychologist's role is to act as a catalyst of functional communication and maintain relationships in flexible equilibrium to avoid repetitive games. The psychologist's competence should be placed at the disposal of the organization or subgroups that require it. Suitable initiatives, such as lectures, courses, and personnel selection, can be organized. Psychologists should center their programs of intervention on content, i.e., their technical expertise, but they are not precluded from intervening at the relationship level. The authors highlight the importance of avoiding being drawn into denied coalitions. It’s important to build alliances while respecting hierarchic channels.

N-adic Models of Communication and Interactional Complexity in Systems

In the context of interactional complexity within systems, N-adic models of communication are described as a development of Watzlawick's Dyadic Model of Interpersonal Communication, which considers the aspects of content (X), relationship (Y), field (N), and time (T) of every communication. The four factors interact, exponentially increasing the number of relationships to be considered, and requiring N-adic models of communication to match the interactional complexity of N-person games. Time is a crucial parameter that often remains undefined but can have a significant impact on communication. The expression C = (X, Y, N, T) enables every communication to be described using the same units of measurement as other basic concepts of organizations, such as role. Moreover, every communication involves a selection among alternatives, conveying what has been excluded.