a. Organisational Pathologies

Organisational Pathologies

The fundamental entity in social systems theory is the organisation. That is, any group of people who work together for a common purpose. An organisation may be an individual, a club or society, a business, a charity, a sector, a nation, or the global community. An organisation can also exist temporarily to carry out a short-term project or it can have a longer-term function. This series of articles discusses the ways in which organisations can fail and ways of avoiding this.

The articles also approach the topic from a systems perspective. Every organisation is also a system. It comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. Everything that is not part of the system is its environment. However, for organisations this terminology translates into that of social science. Processes are the needs of the organisation. Inputs are the satisfiers and contra-satisfiers of those needs. Outputs produced by its processes are the purpose of the organisation. That is, the provision of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers for others.

Figure 1. Systems and organisations compared.

Organisations do, however, have two additional features not held by systems in general.

Firstly, outputs are traded for inputs. That is, satisfiers or contra-satisfiers for others are traded for those required by the organisation. This is what binds us together into society. The word “trade” is used in a very general sense and applies not only to businesses but all organisations. Trade is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Its basis is the search to satisfy human and organisational needs. The term is derived from economics, a branch of social science that focusses on the trade of goods, services, and money. However, many regard economics as a specialised branch of psychology. It does, therefore, provide terminology that can be usefully employed in a more general sense. For example, we trade satisfiers for other “non-economic” needs such as relationships and personal growth. We do so in a way that is no less rational than the trading of goods, services, and money.

Secondly, an essential component of an organisation is its control component, i.e., leadership or management, without which the activities of other components cannot be co-ordinated, and without which an organisation does not exist.

Many factors are necessary but only together are they sufficient for an organisation to function satisfactorily. The organisation must receive its necessary inputs, i.e., the necessary satisfiers for its needs must be present, and any contra-satisfiers absent. The control component must carry out its function satisfactorily. There must also be satisfactory communication between it and the other components. The organisation must operate and maintain its processes satisfactorily. It must deliver its outputs of satisfiers or contra-satisfiers for others. Finally, it must adapt to any changes in its environment which impact on these factors.

This means that there are many more ways for an organisation to fail than succeed. In systems theory the causes of systems failures are known as system pathologies. In social systems theory they are, therefore, referred to as social systems pathologies or organisational pathologies. These pathologies can be categorised according to the aspect of the system in which they occur. They are summarised below.  

The System’s Environment

  • The VUCA World (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous)

The Control System

  • Self-interest vs. Collective Interest
  • Leadership Competence
  • The Corrupting Effect of Power
  • Contra-Social Leadership Behaviour
  • Psychopathic Leaders
  • Narcissistic Leaders
  • Dark Empathic Leaders
  • Governance, Culture & Ethical Standards

Instability and Self-maintenance

Adaptation to Environmental Change

Vertical Communication

  • Knowledge of Processes
  • Feedback and Monitoring
  • Misinformation
  • Delayed or Absent Response

Inputs & Outputs

  • Mismanagement of Resources
  • Function & the Identification of Needs
  • Equitable Trade
  • Relationships
  • Protectionism and Blocking


  • Poor Process Design
  • Process Inflexibility
  • Unregulated Feedback

Multiple Causes

  • Extractive Institutions

The articles that follow will discuss each of these pathologies in turn. They can occur in any organisation irrespective of its size and function. However, the name used to describe the same pathology varies between types of organisation. The articles will, therefore, describe the effect of each pathology on a range of organisations of different types, from a small club to a nation.