The Thinking Trap at Work

The Thinking Trap at Work

Institutionalization is a well studied and known phenomenon afflicting the incarcerated.  Those who have succumbed to the institution have the belief that they cannot function or survive outside of the organization they are beholden to.  The character, Brooks, in the movie The Shawshank Redemption illustrates this phenomenon.  After spending many of his adult years in prison, Brooks is released and given a job as a grocery bagger.  Sadly, Brooks is not able to function in a free society and ends up committing suicide.  He could only function in the horrid, dysfunctional conditions of prison.  Have you ever wondered how the institution you work in affects you?  While the prison metaphor is somewhat strident, I have seen over the years how many corporate employees begin to believe they cannot function outside of their company.  Consequently, the employee will stay in a dead end job, tolerate a bully boss, and endure a dysfunctional work environment.  Once a corporate employee establishes some tenure in the organization they begin to believe in golden handcuffs; their salary is too high to leave.  In essence, the employee has lost his or her freedom becoming a prisoner of one’s own beliefs.

Finding Your Freedom

I really enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption because of the rich psychological metaphors pertaining to one’s own freedom.  Those who could maintain a semblance of sanity in the prison were those who could keep a dream alive; life outside of prison.  Those who survived the Holocaust have been characterized as not yielding their belief systems to the Nazis despite their imprisonment and torture.  In the Shawshank Prison, Red (Morgan Freeman) kept his dream alive to live in a small beach town in Mexico.  Andy (Tim Robbins), who was wrongly convicted of a two life sentences, kept his dream alive of escaping and joining Red in Mexico.  They played the game with the prison dysfunction to survive and kept planning for their freedom.  You could say, in corporate speak, they engaged in goal setting.

How to be Free at Work

Here are some ways you can approach your job to maintain your sense of freedom.  Keep your resume current and ready to present.  Your resume should be updated the first day of your new job.  Set a goal to update your resume quarterly.  Keep yourself relevant in your career by expanding your skill sets.  Keep current with technology and constantly improve your people skills.  If you think you cannot be paid as well in another job or that another company would not offer a more functional environment, examine and correct your underlying irrational thinking that keeps you trapped.  Engage networking with people in your organization and colleagues in other organizations consistently.  Be a lifelong learner and expand your mind by studying topics of interest outside of your career (enjoy the liberal arts).  If you have difficulty applying these ideas, talk with someone who can help.

To a Good Life,

Mark Hansen, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

Comment 1

  1. Mark
    February 2, 2016

    This is excellent advice Dr. Hansen.

    Updating your resume, your skills, and your life goals within your company and outside of it is sound advice. It is easy to become trapped within the “walls” of your own organization, especially if you are not reinforcing your self worth and awareness beyond your past experiences or your immediate surroundings.

    All of these ongoing growth activities would also better prepare you for those unforeseen changes, like upper management alterations, company sales, and layoffs. I, myself, would have handled similar changes in my work history if I would have spent more time preparing myself for change and the opportunities that come with it.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these important life and work lessons.


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