Entitled organisations and fearful organisations

In her 1995 book, Danger in the Comfort Zone, the psychologist and management writer Judith Bardwick applied the Yerkes-Dodson model to teams and organisations (Bardwick, 1995). She described organisations and individuals at the left-hand, low-stress end of the curve as suffering from a sense of entitlement. She argued that businesses at this end of the curve seem more interested in avoiding risk than adding value. In such entitled organisations, the staff feel that their jobs are safe and that to earn a salary they simply have to turn up and look busy. Employees are more interested in maintaining a quiet life than doing a good job. They are rarely held to account for the quality of their work performance, and so they often don’t perform particularly well. Instead, they become complacent (“Anything for a quiet life”) or apathetic (“No one cares what I do here anyway, so why bother?”). This type of organisation is usually more prevalent in the public sector than in the private sector. However, it’s also noticeable in banking, where in some sectors people are paid massive bonuses irrespective of results.

At the other end of the spectrum to entitled organisations are those that are exposed to too much stress - these are the fearful organisations. People work long hours for little appreciation. They over-work because they’re terrified of losing their jobs. This has an emotional impact on the workforce. People become anxious, resentful and cynical. Morale slumps and along with it, performance and productivity.

The best companies to work for are those that lie in the centre of the curve - organisations where there is a sense of energy and enthusiasm and buzz, where there are opportunities to achieve and where employees have a sense of control over their work and feel appreciated and valued for what they do. This medium level of pressure pushes performance, productivity and general well-being massively upwards.

Burnout and mental health problems emerge in the context of an organisational culture. At an individual level, burnout emerges in the context of an individual employee’s personality. That is what I will explore in the next chapter.

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