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Anomie: Lost in a World of Constant Change

April 25, 2011

Updated April 4, 2012

Guest post by Greg Tricklebank

I’m pleased to have a guest post by Greg Tricklebank, MA, CMC. Greg is a Principal with Delta Partners, an Ottawa-based consultancy. As a seasoned social science professional, he has been largely responsible for developing Delta Partners’ practice in organizational development and change management, including organizational culture change. Greg’s original post appears on Delta Partners’ website.

Some time ago, in a paper describing the important distinction between organizational climate and culture, I used the term ‘anomie’ as one of the dysfunctional states of culture. But, what is anomie and why should you care? I would argue that some of the seemingly most intractable challenges facing today’s manager may be the result of anomie.

What is it?
Anomie is a state of normlessness–a condition in which there is an absence of clear societal norms or values that would guide the behaviour of individuals and groups in order to achieve success. This has been associated with rapid social change.

It was first suggested as a sociological phenomenon in the late nineteenth century to explain, in part, the higher rates of suicide that accompanied the industrial revolution in parts of Europe. And it is apropos today because the current information revolution is, arguably, at least as socially disruptive as the industrial revolution was in transforming the entire social structure through the reorganization of work and capital formation.

Why should we care?
It is assumed that the ‘normal’ state of affairs is one of equilibrium at the macro level. In this state of equilibrium, culturally sanctioned goals are aligned with the legitimate means of attaining them. Another way of viewing this–if we follow the standard way of speaking, acting, and working within our own culture, then we have a reasonably good chance for success in life.

However, when fundamental changes occur that disrupt this relationship between meeting cultural expectations and success in life, then people are left unfulfilled and generally unengaged.

On the large scale, the result may be a period where society at large must go through a time of learning and adjustment before coming back to a state of equilibrium.

Lost without a compass
The real problem is for individuals and particular groups. Due to this state of normlessness and a sense of not knowing what to do, many are left behind–lost without a compass. Because so many of the ‘rules’ that govern our behaviour are embedded deep within the culture, they are not accessible for rational debate – we’re screwed.

Use your Imagination
It helps if we can view our personal situation through the lens of a ‘sociological imagination’ (as described in the sociological literature classic by C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination).

How, for example, is the information revolution affecting you and your employees and co-workers? If, for example, you are a stock broker or travel agent, you are probably looking for a new career. If you have lived long enough, as I have, you will have noticed that today’s expectations of you are markedly different from those into which you were born and which shaped your view of the world.

How have you adjusted?

Managing in the Vortex
If you are a manager, whether in a business enterprise, government department or not-for-profit organization, you now have the additional responsibility of helping your employees cope with the impact of these social adjustments while maintaining functional work groups.
Not only must you manage change, but you must manage in a changing socio-economic environment that may have unseen consequences for the climate in which you are trying to do your job. For example, how is the level of trust amongst your employees? How buoyant is the morale?

I am not suggesting that anomie is the only cause of these problems. However, it is a likely contributor at a time like the present, when global change is occurring at an unprecedented pace with consequences that are impossible to predict.

Implications for Change Management
The malaise caused by a changing social environment can be multiplied in intensity where the organization is undergoing internal changes as well.

However, the formal organizations where most of us participate – the businesses, governments, NGO’s, associations, and unions – these can continue to provide a ‘safe haven’ for the individual caught in the vortex of rapid societal change. They can provide clear standards and norms for the behaviours and actions of the individual. This can result in the development and/or maintenance of mutual trust between the organization and the individual.

My practical suggestion for anyone who is planning a workplace intervention would be to make sure that your communications acknowledge the sweeping changes that are taking place at a societal level and the impacts you expect that they might have within your workplace.

Managing in the Multi-generational Workplace
This general line of thinking also has a place in multi-generational workplace management.

In this case, the perspective of the twenty year old will differ markedly from that of the sixty year old.

As always, mutual trust is built upon open dialogue. Always acknowledge and include in your communications the differing impact of life experiences associated with changes in the larger macro environment. Avoiding this discussion will only serve to reinforce the differences between these groups and the magnitude of the impact that these large societal changes will have on them.

How are you doing?
I would invite interested readers to share their thoughts on this topic. It might be particularly interesting to read some of your answers to the questions posed above.

• How is the information revolution affecting you, your employees, and co-workers?

• How, if at all, have you adjusted to changing expectations over the last fifty years or so? You don’t really have to be over fifty years old to contemplate this if, for example, you are influenced by the expectations of your parents.

• How is the level of trust and morale amongst your employees? Might this be influenced by uncertainty around expectations?

Post Script
It should be noted that the concept of anomie, like most sociological constructs, has generally failed as a rigorous ‘scientific’ explanation of social/cultural dysfunction.

So, if this is the sole standard by which you judge the merit of an idea, it will not appeal to you. However, the learning point in this would be to understand the sense in which the scientific standard is, itself, a culturally sanctioned set of ends and means. You might ask yourself how well it is working for you.

Thanks Greg for an enlightening post!



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