Organizational Panic Attacks

Panic attacks include crippling, extraordinarily intense, sudden fear of a general/specific nature, pounding obsessive thoughts as well as  physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating and increased heart rate. As  the French Canadians say, c’est pas un cadeau or loosely translated- it’s no great fun. (Literally, not a gift).

Individuals with panic disorders are treated by drugs and counselling. The therapies lessens the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks and in many cases, eliminate them entirely if one adheres to therapy. Panic attacks however are not limited to individuals.

Organizations also have panic attacks. Sensing either an intense internal or external threat,  an organization can loose  its judgement and  respond to  threats with irrationality,  often damaging itself more than the perceived threat,

When an organization panics, its response to the untrained eye may appear as routine managerial precaution. However, to the trained eye this is not the case.

In my experience, constant reorganizations, ongoing resizing, overly obsessing about values like religious fanatics, incessant  aggressive finger-pointing and a culture of constant escalation indicate an irrational response to threat. Furthermore, when “what do we need to do” is not proceeded by “how do we need to think differently”,  it is highly indicative of an organizational panic attack.

There are other responses to panic attacks that organizations have: throwing bodies at a job, intense time pressure, self deception and looking for one silver bullet.

Sometimes consultants are commissioned to implement inappropriate responses to panic attacks.

My suggestion is to work the management to identify triggers to anxiety, and map out effective and not effective coping mechanism for the rampant irrational fears which characterize organizational life.

Learning to discern panic and its triggers and developing healthy responses to threats  is a critical component of an advanced organizational skill set.


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6 thoughts on “Organizational Panic Attacks

  1. One major cause is that those elevated to senior management suffer from the same attitudes and dysfunctions as the ones already there, who, after all, pick and promote them. They then send panic through the layers below them.

  2. Very interesting. Just as an individual (say, Tony Soprano) can have panic attacks due to underlying fears, an organization (i.e. its senior mgmt leaders, as Paul says in his comment) can experience a similar reaction to its own underlying fears.

    Just as Tony had to seek out a capable therapist, and commit to a lengthy process of psychological counseling, where he had to dig deep and confront his fears, an organization (i.e. its leaders) needs to be honest with itself.

    I’m thinking of an organization (here in NJ, that I know very well), where a recent leadership debacle has led to the installation of a new leader. I don’t think that this organization has faced itself honestly yet.

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