Organisations can become depressed. And leaders cannot do much about it. (Photo: Colurbox)

Can organisations get depressed?

It should come as no surprise that colleagues on the job can get depressed. But can entire firms be given a diagnosis? Do organisations feel?

“Yes, they can,” answers Jan Ketil Arnulf. He is an organisation psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at the Norwegian Business School BI.

Of course the answer isn’t all that forthright.

Organisations cannot think or feel. So how can we use the same concepts for systems as we do for individuals?

Arnulf thinks we can indeed, because concepts we use for brain function and mental condition are rather fuzzy anyway.

“The concepts we learn about in psychology, for instance depression, are actually just an external description of a condition in a complex system,” he says.

When we call something or someone depressed we can be describing brains, persons, teams, groups or institutions.

When the individuals in a group are negative and have lost their faith in positive results this will eventually impact the whole system. And contrarily: When for instance a team in a sport like handball gets its game in the right groove that affects one and all on the team. It inspires everyone to do well.

“We’ve seen this since the beginning of time. Groups of people reinforce one another’s feelings the same way as such processes occur within the brain,” says Arnulf.

Nothing helps in depressed organisations

So let’s say an organisation is depressed. What can we do to restore its health? Should we bring in a therapist or does it help to give the management the boot? Who is responsible?

Organisations, just like people, can become overwhelmed by the feeling that nothing is of any use.

But usually it will be individuals, a boss or an employee, who is blamed. Not the entire collective body.

Arnulf says that researchers think along the same lines.

“When an organisation has blundered grossly or is in a slump the problem is often reduced to one of poor management or reluctant employees.”

Cannot blame the staff

Nor can the employees be blamed, no matter how bitter and negative they might be.

“Most will tell you that they have grounds for feeling this way – the system has placed them in this situation. We see that the problem is not just a cantankerous individual that gripes no matter what,” says Arnulf.

He points out that everyone in a job needs to succeed in something every day. They have to see the results of their efforts and have tasks that are possible to solve. This is how professional pride takes root. Good managers will try to ensure this.

Companies can always go bottoms up

Arnulf points out that matters are a little easier for private companies and corporations than for public sector organisations.

For a private enterprise the solution might be simply to go bankrupt. Once depression sets in there may not be any cure. It can be hopeless.

Take many present day printed media firms, for instance. With declining circulation and advertising revenues and one cutback after another, a gloomy feeling of crisis can have permeated the air for years.

“We know that many of these are in dire straits. But newspapers could disappear without the world coming to an end. The same cannot be said for public institutions which carry out a number of vital, strategically mandatory social functions,” says the organisational psychologist.

For some companies the best advice might be just to grin and bear it – ride out the storm. Even though there are limits to what a leader can handle, maybe proper supervision and leadership is the best implement available?

“I’m not convinced that therapy can be applied to a firm, but it can be led,” says Arnulf.

Crazy to fire the coach

He thinks managers and society in general know too little about how organisations work.

“That’s why we see these ridiculous demands that a coach be fired when a team is doing poorly. This testifies to a simplistic rhetoric,” says Arnulf.

He points out that organisations are essential, professional tools that can be utilised to solve tasks, to create value, and they need to be cultivated.

“These aren’t something that the devil invented in a fit of anger. They’re something useful created to do things.”

Some organisations are better designed and more fortunate than others in this respect.

“An organisation might have straight forward and simple tasks and a clear identity. Institutions are like knots – the simpler the better,” says Arnulf.


Read the full article in Norwegian at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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