Institutionalized: Have You Become Stuck in Today's Business World?

This post was co-authored by Brenda Forde

Warden Samuel Norton: "Do you enjoy working in the laundry?"

Andy Dufresne: "No sir, not especially"

-The Shawshank Redemption

Feeling stuck? Can't change what you are doing? Can't move up? Can't move on? Can't get out? Welcome to today's business reality for many American workers. Have you become institutionalized?

The Same Place With Few Options

The word "institutionalize" may conjure up some pretty negative thoughts. How can this be descriptive of today's business climate? The actual definition is to put someone in a place, such as a prison or a hospital for a long period of time. The concept and outcomes of institutionalization was brilliantly documented in the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption. Recall that the movie explained how after Brooks Hatlen was released from prison, he had a difficult time coping with life on the outside and eventually committed suicide. The movie showed us how vulnerable a human can be when in the same place with few options.

Institutionalization is a process of becoming so accustomed to life in a certain place that it is difficult to resume a normal life after leaving (if you are so lucky). It is a mental outlook that can lead to a slowed reaction to change and hinder the ability to adapt to new circumstances.

A Distressing View of Workers Today: Disengaged, Dissatisfied and Demoralized

Is it possible that a rather dismal and distressing picture of "institutionalized" American workers can be true? Let's think about our current economic climate that suffers not only from unemployment but also from a severe case of underemployment -- those either working in jobs beneath their competencies or for wages that are substantially below what they would have been making prior to the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond. Data shows that close to 25% of our working population are in those two categories.

Couple that with the disengaged, dissatisfied and demoralized worker who, like the energizer bunny, just tries to keep going, and there is a large majority of the working population that is feeling stuck.

Overlay this with a possible new recession on the horizon, with a burgeoning national debt, with the fragility of the global economy, with the possible continuing political gridlock post the Obama election and with a world still in turmoil, no wonder many workers feel an increasing sense of desperation and fear.

Institutionalization and Fear Paralyzes a Workforce

How does a sense of institutionalization and fear manifest itself in the workplace? It is fear of losing your job, fear of being demoted, being asked to take a pay cut, and fear of continuing to work in a job that is less than satisfactory. Once fear takes over the psyche of the worker, we begin to see patterns of behavior that include followership, instead of leadership, taking the easy path, instead of taking the right path and doing the bare minimum necessary to survive rather than extending to go above and beyond.

Above all, when fear strikes, resistance to change goes up and adaptability to new situations goes down. Fear can paralyze. Certainly, individuals operating from a place of fear may be highly unmotivated to transform a business and reluctant to introduce new ideas. It can and does lead to inaction, indecision, and going sideways, or even down.

Overcoming Institutionalization

So, if this description fits you, what do you do? How do become unstuck? Here are five guiding tips.

1. Take action. Overcoming fear requires a conscious, intentional effort to put it aside. This might require a giant leap of faith and being a bit more uncomfortable before you overcome your fears. But change requires action, and action takes guts. You might need a mentor, a friend or a coach to help guide you and support you through that change.
2. Find what's missing. Look for the root cause of your institutionalization and you might uncover a new skill or new competency that can release you and advance you. Are you stuck because you never got that certification, advanced skill or education? Can you improve your chances for moving on through an investment in building your vocational prowess?
3. Talk with your colleagues. Not only are you not alone with these fears and feelings, but there is also both solace and power in interacting with others. As you discuss your plight, you will feel better by being heard. You may be stimulated to action. You may also find that light, that ray of hope, which will set you free to change.
4. Control the controllables. Without trying to sound like a 12 step program, realize that there are certain things that are just out of your power and control. Instead of trying to solve macroeconomic, global problems, focus on those that are within your domain. After all, you can walk away. That is the ultimate control. You are the boss of you.
5. Be positive. Above all, maintain a positive attitude. Be patient. Keep the dream of becoming unstuck and leaving the institution in the forefront of your mind. As Red (played by Morgan Freeman) said in one of the most poignant lines in The Shawshank Redemption, "I find I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope..."

Jim Finkelstein is the president and CEO of FutureSense, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in people and organizations. He is the author of Fuse: Making Sense of the New Cogenerational Workplace (Greenleaf Book Group, October 2011).

Brenda Forde is a visiting professor at Keller Graduate School of Management as well as several other colleges and universities where she teaches in both the undergraduate and graduate business programs. She is a former vice president with American Express Company.