The emotional vulnerability of organizations

Marcelo Manucci

Organizations face a new space where the dynamics and speed of economic, social and
technological processes have increased the instability of context. This transformation of the context
is manifested in three aspects: greater heterogeneity of the actors involved in social situations,
faster interaction with deeper structural changes and the exponential multiplication of new
All living systems are very sensitive to environmental conditions, because this sensitivity defines
their permanence. Fundamentally, all living systems are able to recognize something that appears
as "new" in their environment. These disturbances activate warning signs that are necessary to
redefine the responses to these new living conditions. Human systems are sensitive to the context
conditions, like other living systems. But human systems have the singularity that our sensitivity
does not have mechanical or genetic neutrality. Our singularity is composed by interpretations,
ideas, emotions, perceptions and values. This means that the context for people is an incomplete
puzzle (which permanently changes), which defines an unfinished picture of reality (because we
always have to resolve empty spaces). The interesting thing is that only humans can understand
that they are taking everyday decisions based on a context that has the scope of an incomplete
jigsaw with unfinished images.
The responses of human systems to something "new" depend on how they describe their living
conditions. Therefore, depending on what we see, what we feel, what we think and what we project;
decisions will be more or less attuned to the facts. Each contingent on the context introduces a gap
in the subjective images that people have of the context. The essential factor for survival depends
on how those gaps are filled. This means which ideas, emotions, concepts, experiences, memories,
etc., complete the internal image to give meaning and significance to these external aspects.

In organizations, vulnerability begins with rigidity and an inability to generate new responses for
new situations in the environment. Organizations keep a state of vulnerability when they approach
the present based on the past. This situation is exacerbated in contexts of transformations.
Why do organizations fall into the paradox of failure? When decisions are based on outdated
paradigms that do not correspond to the dynamics of this interaction, their decisions not only
enlarge the problems, but also strengthen the structural vulnerability of the system (organization,
company or society). In this context, the everyday routine of organization is focused on managing
the constraints, rather than the generation of alternatives and possibilities for development.
The cycle of vulnerability in organizations is caused by three structural conditions: 1) when the
organization suffocates in its own routines and transforms everyday processes into a compulsive
stereotyped sequence of actions; 2) when its activity is based on structural symptoms which
transform the possibilities of development into a set of hypochondriac behaviors and 3) when
organization becomes emotionally fragile and reduces its movements to a territory of hostility and
threats. These conditions create the cycle of vulnerability, which could be expressed in a formula
that involves:


(the difficulty of responding to something new),


(the impossibility

of transformation) and RESISTANCE (the fear of disintegration):

inefficiency + inertia + resistance = vulnerability
AN ORGANIZATION BECOMES INEFFICIENT because of the weaknesses in its structure when responding
to the demands of its environment. The inefficiency is related to the collapse of the rigid design that
leaves the organization without a repertoire of responses against the characteristics of the current
context. Inefficiency is a survival response. Therefore, inefficient systems (those that turn away from
their designs or do not fulfill the established set of instructions) have more freedom to generate
adaptive structural alternatives that allow them to move and rehearse possible answers.
The paradox of the "effectiveness of inefficiency" consists that these inefficient behaviors, although
dysfunctional, are usually the best possible answers for a system that has not found another mode

of action. The problems are exacerbated when the ineffective responses are set as operational
standards. That is, when the adjective "inefficient" becomes a noun that defines the dynamics of a
system. The effectiveness of inefficient performance is an adaptive response of permanence. This
means that human systems become ineffective in order to maintain the efficiency of the interaction
with the context.


if it does not know how to address the new conditions of life.

Inertia is caused by fear caused by "the unknown". Thus, human systems become inert because
they do not know how take a next step in front of a context that defies their living conditions. Inertia
involves the internal contradiction of moving towards new conditions of life but making every effort
to go back to known structures.


the new conditions of life because it cannot find meaning and perceives

these "unknown factors" as a threat to its existence. This situation impacts on the motivation of
people and their commitment to a process of transformation. Emotions depend on a chemical
equation that prepares the body for a definite answer. Emotions are activated upon recognition of a
certain situation. That chemical equation when mixed with thoughts generates personal
experiences that define the responses and daily behaviors.
The clarity and technical accuracy of the instructions do not guarantee the effectiveness of
implementation. Between design and implementation there is an emotional, cognitive and
subjective process that defines a performance gap. These models are manifested in production
processes, which are reduced to a set of instructions that collapse under the emotional availability
of people to implement or develop those instructions. In human systems, technical processes
collapse under the conditions of this chemical-symbolic structure. Therefore, forcing the
implementation of the instructions does not ensure there is an adequate chemical equation that
supports the interpretation, understanding and acceptance of certain tasks.

Emotional territories
The interpretations of our daily lives are supported by a subjective script that distributes characters,
organizes the sequence of events, and defines results over time. This personal script reshapes the
past, defines the experiences in the present and makes projections about future results. This
personal script is consequence of our history, our experiences and our habits. Our personal script is
a reconstruction process based on fragments of images, interpretations, explanations and
experiences. The past unfolds in thoughts and emotions and both generate a particular emotional
territory. Experiences delimit the context by emotions and thoughts. In the case of organizations,
the context of relationship has other conditions. The context is related to internal structure of the
organization and the rules that define roles and linkages in this space.
Changing the quality of relationships with the context involves changing subjective experiences with
the context. A larger ductility experiences generates a greater diversity of landscapes. The ductility
of experiences enables greater possibilities for adaptation to the changes in the context. We are
surrounded by situations that are not interest us, when we focus on a particular context, “we trim”
the territory from two processes:

PERCEPTIONS are associated with personal images about the context. From these images,
the context can be seen optimistically as a


space for personal opportunities

and development options, or these images can also represent the context as a


space with limitations and threats to personal growth.

RESPONSES are related to personal modes of decision. People may have a


responses focused on the impact of actions in the context with results the long term, or
people may have a


responses focused on solving personal emotion turbulence in

short term.

The articulation of modalities of perceptions and responses generates four particular moods. These
emotional states are temporary positions that people assume when facing specific features of the

context. Each mood synthesizes the relationship between specific experiences in specific contexts
and is reflected in different behaviors as shown in the following matrix.

Distrust and weakness

Hostility and control

“Refuge from hostility”

“Fight for it”

Acceptance and adaptation

Commitment and creation

“Get the best out”

“Reach an objective”





These states are dynamic because they depend on changes in personal perceptions of the context
and modes of decisions. We can describe these moods in four combinations:



From this position,

the context is experienced hostile and threatening. This perception creates a high level of
anxiety that produces reactive responses in people in order to resolve quickly their
emotional situation. This combination (RESTRICTED -


subtracts alternatives of

movements because people feel they have no chance of transformation on their reality.
Therefore, they have a sense of permanent failure and try to avoid or escape from anything
new. Their choices are focused on refuge from hostility to protect themselves and maintain
survival conditions.



In this position,

people have reflexive decisions, but this attitude is based on a perception of restricted
context. From this combination (RESTRICTED -


people are focused on the

limitations and they neglect their potential development. Therefore, their choices are
oriented to control of the context to fend off the obstacles hampering their permanence. Any
disturbance is perceived as a threat to be controlled to maintain the context within known



From this position,

people have an open view about the possibilities of the context, but their decisions are
based on keep stability without major challenges. They understand the dynamics of events,
and accept "the rules" of context, but their choices are limited to trying to get the immediate
benefits. This combination (STIMULATING - REACTIVE) reduces their choices because they are
focused on the short term perspective and they mobilize when they feel their stability is



In this position, people

have a positive outlook about their future possibilities and development alternatives.
Additionally, they have a reflective attitude that gives more choices to address the
possibilities of context. From this combination (STIMULATING –


they see the

future as an opportunity for transformation. This perspective leads them to create initiatives
and engage with new development alternatives, because they feel their movements and
decisions influence the course of events.
The heart of the model is focused on the relationship between personal experiences and
environment characteristics. Each of these moods is a "package" that synthesizes the relationship
between perceptions and responses at specific contexts. The purpose of this model is creating a
favorable environment for development of people at the organization.
How to transform the emotional territories to move people from unfavorable mood? For the design
of favorable development contexts and move people to a performance focused on the commitment
and creation, we focus on four points of intervention:


Vulnerability appears with the sense of threat or danger. In order to transform

vulnerability to determination, it is necessary for people to be clear about the goals of the
organization and integration values in the system. In this regard, it is important to: share a
clear picture of the strategic direction, manage the integration of people in a shared project,
and design a framework to guide responses and adaptation movements the context.



This point is related to


Emotional capital is critical for performance, to encourage participation and cooperation in
groups. The quality of relationships determines the level of trust, security, and cooperation
of the people. In this regard, it is important to: strengthen diversity and the integration of
heterogeneous points of view (professions, gender, age, philosophies, etc.), create an
environment of respect and shared learning to hold the symmetry of relations, and maintain
a solid emotional capital and a clean working atmosphere.



This point is related to the



people assume. The greater the significance of personal contribution, the greater the level
of commitment and creativity in the task. To develop this purpose, it is necessary to: set
meaningful goals to achieve new areas of development, generate innovative solutions to
address everyday challenges, and recognize the participation and contribution of people in
the development of corporate purpose.



This point refers to the


and the impact of individual behaviors in others person’s life. Each person can

contribute significantly to the transformation of life of others. To maintain the importance of
people as agents of change it is necessary to: expand personal leadership and knowledge
sharing, broaden participation and commitment to different social groups, and define longterm goals and objectives of social transcendence in everyday acts.

Reshape experiences
In times of change, new points appear outside the emotional territories. New life circumstances
pressure people to integrate a new point outside their map of experiences. Unpublished landscape
causes uncertainty and, in many cases, leads to stereotypical reactions to “fit” the new in past
experiences. Between the known world of our experiences and the new space of unknown places
there is a threshold that defines the movement of transformation. This threshold is critical because
is the transition point to new realities. The way that people face this threshold defines if people are
open to new experiences or closed in the past.
How do we transform perceptions of threats into alternatives of development? How do we transform
resignation into determination? How do we expand the limits of personal territory? How do we
generate alternatives movements? To transform these (and others) experiences, we must
restructure the emotional territories to expand opportunities in the present and extend more
alternatives in the future. People live in a virtual reality that defines everyday movements. The
transformation of daily life depends on an emotional connection with the events. To reshape reality
is necessary to transform the experiences that define the characteristics of the environment where
they live. The relationship with the everyday facts is a relationship with subjective interpretations
and explanations of everyday facts. The landscape we face daily is a virtual reality supported by a
neural network connected by chemical components that define the "color" of these images. In the
virtual reality, the subjective meaning of the world generates an emotional impact. And, at the same
time, the emotional impacts also affect the meanings.
Emotions regulate behaviors through chemical discharges that emerge as responses to contact
with certain facts. All living systems, from unicellular to social, respond to the dynamic of context.
But in a case of people, these responses are mediated by the personal experience of events. In
other words, the characteristics of the context are based on our personal interpretation, which more
or less is connected with reality and facts. Interpretations define the meaning of events which are
emotionally colored by certain molecules. This combination of chemistry and meaning sets the way
each person experiences everyday events.

Emotions are the chemical component of our behaviors. Emotions are complex programs of
actions, usually automatic, inherited by evolution. 1 In fact, there are a set of universal emotions, not
learned, that can be recognized in all cultures. Our experiences are not neutral images. 2
Experiences are “subjective packages” arising from the articulation of two processes: the content
related to certain situations and emotional position regarding this content. The frame of contents is
defined by cognitive interpretations of events (what). The other process responds to chemical
answers that define the emotions related interpretations (how). Both processes operate as a unit
approach to daily events.

The relationship between these two processes is described by the

following formula:

content + emotions = experience
Cognitive interpretations

Body responses

Subjective representations

In personal experiences there is a direct relation between interpretations (meanings) and emotions
(chemistry). Subjective interpretations can change the chemical components of emotions. Similarly,
chemical reactions can change subjective interpretations. A thought can change brain chemistry, as
well as a physical event in the brain can change a thought. 3 Feelings are emotions associated with
certain thoughts. The sequence is as follows: an external or internal stimulus triggers a specific
chemical discharge, which generates a specific emotion (fear, joy, anger, sadness, etc), depending
on the type of molecule involved. This is a natural reaction of the body when facing certain
situations. But in the case of people, the emotions take a particular meaning from thoughts that
generate specific feelings. Feelings are a combination of chemical reactions and thoughts. The
experiences can be triggered both by an emotion or a thought. But at some point, both processes
begin to reinforce each other, generating global feelings. Feelings are made up of a set of

Damasio, Antonio. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Vintage Books. New York, 2012


Davidson, Richard – Begley, Sharon. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the
Way You Think, Feel, and Live. Hudson Street Press. New York, 2012.

Gazzaniga, Michael. Mind Matters: How Mind and Brain Interact to Create Our Conscious Lives.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). Boston, 1989.

simultaneous processes: the stimulus that generates reactions in the brain, the response in the
body and ideas that accompany this reaction. 4
To transform experiences is necessary to change the conditions that create those experiences. In
this context, the transformation of experiences in the organizational context has a dual approach:

that defines the interpretations and


that define emotional responses. Let's see how to address each of these aspects to

develop a process of transformation.


This dimension refers to the management of content that influence personal

interpretations and collective explanations for certain situations that affect organizational life. This
area of intervention aims to generate a coherent framework of processes and shared situations.
These ideas should be clear and simple to constitute a reliable reference on living conditions in the
organization. To manage this framework of content, there are three important aspects:



To maintain clarity of ideas is necessary to have consistent answers

about the reasons and justifications for the movements of the organization: external and
internal. It is important to define a few simple ideas to share. At the same time it is
necessary to clear rumors and reviews the content circulating in different media to keep the
relevant information at different levels of the organization.



This point is related to the management of the explanations of the

events that affect the organization. This requires expanding the spaces for dialogue to
enable care for the quality of the contents, simplify information access points, and
generating processes for managing participation and opinions of people.



This point aims to define the organizational

expectations on certain roles to guide the actions of people in their workplaces. Excessive
bureaucracy and indiscrimination role, cause responses that have no relation to the
demands and needs of the context. Organizations often transmitted isolated ideas,
generating confusion, poor performance, and weakening confidence in people. This

Damasio, A. Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. Avon Books, New York, 1994.

fragmentation and incoherence decrease the responsiveness of organizations and teams. It
is necessary to provide details on the characteristics of the processes, the personal role in
every process and organizational goals with those roles defined.
KEEP THE QUALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS. This dimension refers to the management of relationships that
define the emotional positions of people in their workspace. The approach in the quality of
relationships aims to maintain an appropriate emotional environment for integration and motivation
of people. To address these emotional conditions are necessary three aspects:

REDUCE HOSTILITY AND THREAT. The threatening contexts activate the neurobiological circuits
of fight or flight. Consequently, the body prepares for attack and all biological processes are
oriented to survival. Cognitive activities weaken. Thoughts become automatic, negative and
compulsive. Anxiety affects decision processes. Reduce hostility creates a favorable
emotional context to think, create and decide. This requires maintaining the threat alarms at
manageable levels. Alarms are activated against an unknown context of unexpected
movements and uncertain consequences.

ENCOURAGE THE PARTICIPATION AND INTEGRATION. This process activates the neurobiological
circuits of empathy, cooperation and reward. This facilitates self-management performance
through neurobiological processes that enable autonomy, concentration and determination
on personal goals. This requires building learning environments that allows integration and
cooperation between people, reinforce positive experiences and enhance communication
and empathy attitudes.



This process activates the neurobiological

circuits that allow positive mood and personal enthusiasm. These neurobiological
conditions encourage creativity and the development of ideas, decreases anxiety levels and
strengthens resilience facing pressure situations. To activate this circuit is necessary to
maintain levels of long-term challenges in people and teams, encouraging diversity in the
working groups and generation of new experiences.

Emotional Gap
The concern to maintain economic performance and personal well-being is a topic of major interest
in most organizations. On the one hand, it is clear that there is a limit to growth rates in many
sectors in all regions of the world. On another hand, due to global interdependence, instability is
present in all decisions. In pursuit of an improved quality of life, organizations have generated a
variety of responses. The dynamics of the current context pushes human systems to innovate.
These decisions are related to restructuring the patterns of life in order to maintain the capacity for
response to new conditions of the context.
All decisions in human systems are based on a purpose. In the human system, this purpose is
symbolic and constitutes the framework for actions that make sense and give coherence to
decisions and choices. Without a purpose, decisions become random (compulsive) or stereotypical
(reactive). The consequences in both cases is that lost response capability. This gap between
environmental demand and the ability to the system to adapt and respond generates symptoms. In
a system that has lost its ability to make decisions, symptoms decide for the system.
When the machines overcome their structural capacity, they are broken. When organic systems
stray from their biological commands, they suffer transformations and mutations. Human systems
become ill when their lives become meaningless. What keeps the dynamic cycle in life is the
purpose of the system. When the human system loses its purpose, the growing cycle stops and
begins to spin in a vicious cycle that leads to collapse.
Therefore, dysfunction gives meaning to the system in the absence of meaning. In the case of a
lack of purpose, dysfunctions order and organize the daily life of the system. Symptoms visibly
emerge from a system that is stopped in its transformation to a new order of internal complexity.
Organizational design and management have had, from the beginning, a principle based on the
efficiency of the processes, but isolated from the dynamic context. This self-referential design that
generated the great development of industrialization, in this century, is collapsing due to three
factors: a) the conflicts in its functioning, b) the difficulties in responsiveness, and c) the impossibility

of sustainable management models. In the first case, the mechanical design is a rigid structure that
conflicts with the nature of human systems: open, dynamic, and paradoxical. The dynamics of
machines do not correspond to the dynamics of human processes and generate deep conflicts in a
team’s performance. Second, in the current context of increasing volatility, this rigid design has no
appropriate responses to changing environments. Inflexibility does not guarantee adequate
responses, which intensifies the difficulties in operation and performance. Finally, mechanistic
management models are designed to "win", they are not intended for system development in all its
dimensions. This principle defines the decisions and movements that focus on the exclusion of
actors (market or community) and resources exploitation.
Today, these factors create a wide gap between the volatility of the world, with its unprecedented
and unforeseen changes, and the structural capacity of organizations to respond and act in this
context of transformation. When it is difficult to respond to the dynamics of the context,
organizations force their structure to sustain results, pressing on the human system. The cost of this
pressure is the collapse of the emotional quality of its people, which also involves low performance
and productivity. The result is a vicious cycle of despair, pressure, and deterioration in working
conditions that enlarges the emotional gap.
Human systems do not get sick from external attacks, but rather become sick because of the
difficulty or impossibility of processing external shocks. In this context, what we commonly call
"symptoms" are often responses to "patterns of life" that have a function in the system. When
symptomatic conditions persist, these become an alternative that prevents the collapse of the
system (disintegration). This means that the symptom is necessary to maintain the structure of the
system. In social systems, the role of dysfunction is to maintain system integrity. Symptomatic
manifestations are manifestations that express the difficulties of transforming the system. Social
symptoms are a response when there are no other answers. Faced with the impossibility of
generating other living conditions, symptomatic structures are a factor of an internal organization.
Symptoms "entertain" the system into the dysfunction by not addressing the impossibility of its

In this frame, symptoms represent the nodes of transformation for human systems; these are nodes
of transition to a new organization of life. A symptom shows that the system can’t take a leap of
transformation. A symptom shows what a system cannot do, does not dare to do, or does not want
to do. These are different versions of impossibility. This means that "there is a threshold that the
system can’t cross." The symptom is a mask, which hides features while demonstrates difficulties.
Therefore, the function of symptoms, or the function of dysfunctions, is to maintain the permanence
of the system without causing structural modifications. This is the paradox of the symptom: on the
one hand, it makes life more painful (dysfunction), but it also allows for the benefit of inertia (the
survivor function). This postulate is a key point in addressing dysfunctions because attacking the
symptom presses the system's vulnerability. Attacking the symptom reinforces its dysfunction and
increases the level of vulnerability. Therefore, the system closes to the possibilities of
The magnitude of a dysfunction depends upon the magnitude of its function, which requires
support. The risk of dysfunctional operation in human systems is that, if there is no transformation,
the symptom engulfs the entire structure. That is, dysfunction engulfs the function. This is the
paradox of suffering and possibility that exists between destruction and creation. These are two
faces of the same mask. Symptoms sustain our structures in order to show the difficulties within

Marcelo Manucci ©2015

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