will of the institution and institutional will


“The corporate ideology of the 1920’s contended that the consumer society would meet and neutralize the political opposition to capitalism. Utilizing the promise of material wellbeing, conscripting the notion of industrial democracy, capitalizing on the degeneration of traditional local authorities, corporate America associated itself with the tasks of the most critical forces within society – its opposition – while at the same time attempting to tame those forces.”

Captains of Consciousness


‘In complex ways that no model will ever capture, the system feeds back on itself, magnifying slight variances, communicating throughout its networks becoming disturbed and unstable—and prohibiting prediction, ever. Iteration launches a system on a journey that visits both chaos and order.’


“Society, community, family are all conserving institutions. They try to maintain stability, and to prevent, or at least slow down change. But organizations are organized with the intent to destabilize. Because its function is to put knowledge to work – on tools, processes and products; on work; on knowledge itself – it must be organized for constant change.”

Peter Drucker


Businesses, at their hearts of hearts, contrary to what Peter Drucker said, are stratifying conserving institutions. To be clear I believe Drucker said this as an aspirational statement and a belief in it is what makes a business effective WITHIN society <the juxtaposition of a non-conserving always evolving entity and a conserving societal infrastructure creates the successful tug of war necessary for a society-in-progress>. That said. Businesses shouldn’t be conserving in nature, but they have become institutions in and of themselves and inherently, increasingly, embracing of conserving rather than ‘constant change’. Time after time, decision after decision, most business institutions have elected to stratify their business and how they went about their business. I purposefully use stratification as a code word for – efficiency, replication, best practices, shared value & whatever characteristic of something exhibiting tightly consistent attitudes and behaviors within a tightly defined system. That said. Stratification encourages a type of bounded awareness, bias & compartmentalized thinking/belief systems which increases the tendency to exclude relevant information from common decision-making by placing arbitrary (or institutionally intentionally crafted) boundaries around the definition of the task/issue at hand. Bounded awareness enables systems failures at worst and, at minimum, creates the lack of highest potential of a system. That said. What bounded awareness does do is create a resilient functional replicable mediocrity which, in turn, prevents most people within the institution as seeing the institution as nothing more than an effective functional entity (not a moral one). To be clear, I am not suggesting functional and moral are oppositional in nature just that within the Will of an Institution one can become subservient to the other, i.e., functional effectiveness to reach the objective is the driving force in behavior within which the moral constraints get stretched to accommodate the functional necessities. In other words, winning the game supersedes interest in how you play the game. Now. You can debate me on the edges, but at the core I am speaking some harsh truth about businesses and particularly larger business institutions <albeit many mom & pops take on some characterizations because they view stratification as the way to solidify efficiency and ‘culture’ that enables that efficiency>. Business institutions, generally speaking, embraces replication above all as the path to sustaining success and resilience in dynamic markets <albeit that is flawed logic>.

Which leads me to the will of an institution and the institutional will.

Institutions are inherently constructs of ideas. And while there is a difference between the Will of an Institution and the Institutional Will what binds them together is ideas, or, the ideas that ground that particular institution’s idea of ‘the business of doing business’. That said. The Will of an Institution is driven by the idea of how it believes it makes its money. I purposefully use ‘believe’ because the wealth/profit outcome is typically a consequence of a set of beliefs or ideas, on how that wealth/profit is created. What that means is set aside ‘Purpose’ and even culture and get down to the brass tacks of how it makes its money and this includes desired behavior of people to make that money.

  • ** note: It may be a mistake on my part but I see behaviors as not culture, but rather indicative of culture. And I see culture as reflective of what a business permits/encourages. That said. Because this is business, I believe business is principally about ‘doing.’ Therefore, culture is always grounded in what you do, how you do it, how you speak about doing it and the coherence/symmetry between systems, humans, Will of the Institutional and, well, doing. That may sound a bit simplistic but doing begets profits and while profits may corrupt the mindset it will inevitably be the doing that will corrupt the culture.

This is important in that it leads into the Institutional Will – this is the ‘will’ of the institution to forge whatever mindset, attitudes and behaviors necessary to match the Will of the Institution. Once again, this is typically a process of stratifying ideas within the organization. This is usually done by ‘imposing its will’ <thru a variety of carrots & sticks>, but most major companies seek that the Will of the Institution be inculcated through all aspects of the business – process, intentions, attitudes, behaviors and even language. This can edge into cult-like or expand out to a more positive autonomy acting in coherent fashion. Circling back please note I began with ‘mindset.’ I point that out because one of the more insidious aspects of Institutional Will is propagating an ‘accepted mindset’ as part of culture <who we are as a business> which inevitably becomes code for who belongs and who doesn’t.

To be clear. The fundamental truth of business is that Institutions are powers and they decide how they want to wield that power AS they wield their ideas like blunt axes. We would be naïve if we didn’t understand that the most basic moral principle that governs any institution – a business, a government, a religious organization, a university – is its own survival. Since ultimately an institution, regardless of its claims of benevolence or at least compassion/empathy toward employees, must perpetuate its own survival. Therefore, the Will of the Institution means everyone who lives within its sphere of influence must actually “commit themselves to the survival of the institution.” Fundamentally each person with a relationship to an institution is expected, at least to some degree, to sacrifice himself or herself to the perpetuation of that institution, i.e., the idea, and ideas, OF that institution.

This suggests that organizations, traditions, corporations, nations, and all other powers, while ideally should serve humans and humanity by providing various social structures, will stratify their dynamics to the pursuit of survival and the Will OF the institution – not humans & humanity.

The Will of the Institution, if willed into existence, insinuates itself in the place of, as an example, God or faith in some form or fashion, or – eschewing religion analogies – any grander narrative vision, thereby subverting the thinking and actions of each moral being toward the Will of the Institution. The justification of humans within the institution is defined, or determined, by their commitment (or surrendering of) their “life” <I use this term in an expansive way> literally sacrificing themselves during work to the survival interest, grandeur, and vanity of the institution. This has even larger repercussions in a world in which work isn’t just an 8-hour day, but also expands out to a 24/7 ‘hustle culture attitude.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this is the antithesis of the belief that capitalism, or business institutions, rather than people/humanity being served BY the powers of the institutions <benefit from> they actually find themselves in servitude to the institutions.  The reality is most people within the existing systems do not flourish or optimize their potential because the institutions, while expounding on their virtues to & of humans, sell themselves as providers of meaning, hope, life and security – but in exchange for nothing less than worship/servitude while engaging in a relentless suppression of intrinsic individual purpose and meaning. Ultimately, the institutions have created a system which seeks to deceive people into thinking and acting as if the moral worth or justification of the person themselves is defined and determined by commitment or surrender TO the Will of the Institution. This inevitably leads to two types of corruption:

  • Corruption of self: your own ethical compass and even self-interests have become diverted to that of the institution. That does not always translate into ‘not being in your self-interest’ or even poor ethical decision-making, it’s just that your self-determination toward the good has been corrupted through some subservience to another ‘greater’ good.
  • Corruption in the Institution: institutional corruption exists when the institution formalizes and stratify a set of policies and practices that inevitably weaken the fabric of society. Even if no law is broken society actually begins to institutionalize that corruption as a ‘way of doing and being’ thereby distorting, corrupting, the fabric of good societal attitudes and behaviors.

In the end I imagine the Will of the Institution as what do I want to subvert mindsets to grasp in order to make the institution prosper and Institutional Will is what framework, with disincentives/incentives attached, I want to put people in to ensure the Will of the Institution is met. And while it is behavior it actually comes down to principles of behavior – the principles are important because within principles the organization careens between “how you play the game matters” versus simply “winning the game is all that matters”. Which leads me to say that I cannot think of one business which doesn’t have a ‘game’. You either play the game they want you to play or you start gaming the system to subvert it to your own self-interest. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many informal networks are created by likeminded people seeking to ‘game the system’ (sometimes to the benefit of the business and sometimes not).

Which leads me to the economy <within which an institution attempts to survive>.

Simply stating that the economy is simply the process by which society is materially provisioned is a meaningless statement unless one states how that process is identified in relation to psychological and behavioral aspects of the people. Broadly speaking it is a choice between the perspective of business considering the economics of development & survival versus as a socioculturalist <kind of a different version of socioeconomics> which is how the institution shapes the weave of society, in my words, the social contract. Regardless of where you begin your thinking inevitably there is a fundamental truth: the economy at all levels of material existence is a social process of interaction between people and their environment.

I believe it was Marvin Harris who posited ‘the economy has no Surplus’. What this means is that institutions, by themselves, will very rarely develop any surplus for a society. And what that means is consumer sustenance is an irrelevant demand reference point and satisfying scarce means is by no means the way to measure satisfaction. Criteria, once again in a very cold hearted view, is simply exploitation of the market to meet the Will of the Institution and its ‘wants’ <above its needs>.

To be clear. This is class exploitation with no real objective existence other than the institutional wants, what a business desires, not what people need. This puts the Will of the Institution on a slippery slope of societal relativism. Societal needs is not the priority or a function of a business, but rather the world is defined by the producer’s decision with regard to people’s livelihood and the business’s profits. I say this so starkly to say society’s economic destiny is played out in relation to the institutional pressure, or business pressure, applied to household economies <not the reverse>.

I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest here that ‘supply’ doesn’t just have to do with resources or even output, but also knowledge. Most institutions parse out knowledge almost believing if it is in too much surplus it clogs of the machine of productivity. They see intelligence as domination and therefore distribute knowledge as a means of power dynamics or to suit the will of the institution AND implement the institutional will.

Anyway. This type of thinking about economics and the Will of an Institution hearkens back to Marx’s belief of infrastructural determinism which refers to the mode of production as consisting of forces of production and relations of production. Once again, I lean back into stratified systems in that, within such a system, the forces of production dictate the relations of production. In other words, the Will of the Institution dictates the Institutional Will and how it is applied toward any sociocultural dynamics of an organization.

We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained.”

Derrick Bell

Which leads me to self-interest versus collective good. I have no doubt, absent any system, while people certainly have self-interest, they will continuously act within a mental framework of being part of a larger collective (society) kind of like a natural system of reciprocity.

The issue is we are not absent of a system and to the degree the system is stratified into, well, pick your group <subordinate/ordinate, economics, political, etc.> is the degree in which reciprocal exchange is prevented. This suggests that the power of the individual has limits within a system. In other words, an individual’s desire for reciprocal exchange may lack the necessary strength to reshape the system or the society. As a consequence, the stratified system increases the likelihood of conformity in behavior desired by the institutional system, not the natural inclinations of the individual <as well as human dissatisfaction driven by unsatisfactory exchange between parties>. And by declining the exchange of reciprocity the entire concept of societal reciprocity gets the oxygen sucked out of it and suffocates. Yes. Circling back to my earlier corruption point, responsibility at least partially rests upon the people within the institution who unknowingly permit corrupt, or corrupting, institutions to perpetuate. The path to changing it almost always begins with awareness and informed understanding, but almost ends with a wicked path where one has to run a brutal gauntlet of Institutional Will in order to change the system.

Which leads me to informal structures <networks>.

Informal systems create learned responses which play an important role in the evolution of not only social life, but culture. Now. “Culture” is a tricky word, but the truth is there is nothing that mysterious about culture. It does not come about into existence through some design, but rather it emerges as a by-product of the evolution found within multiple complex human connections and connectivity.

What this mean is a balance must be struck between the continuity and discontinuity of emergent forms and processes. Or sometimes I have suggested that effective emergence is actually a successful combination of divergence AND convergence <ponder that>. I sometimes believe we significantly underestimate how much culture is an emergent property. Culture emerges from a combinatorial effect of accepted behavioral innovations that are valued.

                          ** note: culture is not simply behaviors, yet, an organization’s behaviors reflect its culture. There are things a person will do, and things he/she will not do. It’s that complicated, and simple. The Will of the Institution typically creates the parameters for the doing/not doing. In other words, culture is typically driven by a combination of organizational business priorities (growth/profit/etc.), “how the game is played” (is how one plays the game subservient to winning) and rewards/incentives.


I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this is actually a looped relationship in which when the valuable becomes of no-value the culture will discontinue <or continue ineffectively if the Institutional Will is brought to bear on the continued use of no-value behaviors>. I hesitate to call this ‘behavioral reproductivity’ but it seems to represent culture and the idea of divergence + convergence + emergence. Circling back to my first point on stratification, informal networks that enable cultures within the Will of an Institutions tend to do so by enhancing values through social economics or even just simply meeting Institutional wants. I say that last point simply to point out these are socioeconomic consequences of a centralized industrial mode of production and productivity <under the guise of Institutional Will>.

Which leads me to Institutional Will and control.

Most institutions do not like informal networks despite the fact informal networks are most likely to be just the things making the Institution itself successful. While I could list a variety of reasons business institutions do not like them let me settle on this. The fact that social+functional groups (informal networks) drawn from a vast variety of a population, i.e., diverse, have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to acquire every conceivable aspect of the world cultural inventory. In other words, they accumulate the diversity into a formidable sub-culture – one that could easily challenge the ‘desired culture’ as stated by the Will of the Institution. Well. That is if the Institution were to permit it to be so. While, in principle, culture can change and evolve independent of simple ‘survival feedback’ the reality is within an Institution, and its Will, the evolution can be created (purposefully) by institutional feedback. Reflecting on that feedback thought probably accounts for many of the control-ish attributes we see in institutions today and a general reductionist attitude toward, well, everything. The point of Institutional Will is, and will almost always be, driving response alternatives to the smallest possible number of things compatible with the Will of the Institution <which they will suggest is ‘meeting desired culture’ objectives>. Yes. Institutional desires actually are a constraint on natural behavioral scale. In other words, the institution seeks to constrain a range of possible behavioral responses thereby suffocating the emergent aspects, by crushing the divergent aspects in the equation, so everything is ‘finely’ convergent.

“It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having a center of gravity. There is a shape where a moment ago there was none.”

Peter Elbow

Which leads me to unifying.

Unifying is different than uniting. We may not like to talk about it, but leadership comes from the bottom up. What I mean by that is ‘unifying’ is when people, and small groups of people, emerge in a common purpose with similar goals. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this concept is terrifying to most senior leadership wherein the power resides in the people, not the ‘leader’ or even the system. Which leads me to, on the other hand, unity is a socially constructed process in which social systems coalesce around some common abiding truths. What this means to an Institution is that these ‘truths’ are not constructed by some leader (or politician), but rather represent an agreement, maybe a collaboration, on an idea or ideas <of which values, if ideas or principles behaviors, can be included>. It’s not consensus or even an agreement, but it is an acceptance. I sometimes call this a coalition of the interested. Why interested? Well. Vision, Purpose, BHAG or any of the traditional leadership tricks are actually worthless unless people are interested in them. The only way to circumvent existing construct, and systems, is to actually have people interested in something enough that the existing system becomes irrelevant and they create a new system to support what they are interested in. as a corollary, the only way to activate an existing construct, to its fullest potential, is to actually have people interested in something enough that the existing system IS relevant to them. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out 90+% of the time Institutional Will has little interest in what the employees are interested in, but rather what the Will of the Institution is interested in.

That said, within an institution this unifying can happen in a variety of ways, but today I am discussing how it doesn’t happen. This is kind of a derivative of my piece called “Decentralization and Stop Signs” in which I point out that encouraging autonomy is more about placing stop signs in appropriate places. I mention that because if the Institutional Will is intended to free people, not cage them, it is a combination of removing stop signs <an unnatural action for most institutions> as well as placing some stop signs in places they do not naturally think of placing them. When done well it creates layers which limit the fear of destabilization or debilitating consequences. That said. One has to accept the unevenness and lack of single organizational pacing to accept the benefits of this type of layered system. I shared this thought about unifying because in today’s business world the Will of the Institution is mostly directed to ‘unity’ in some unhealthy ways for individuals, but to the benefit of the business institution <or so they believe>. Suffice it to say most businesses do not seek unifying, but rather seek unity and believe freedom can only exist if the cages, the freedom is given within, are secure enough to insure the Will of the Institution.

Which leads me to people.

Everything I have written to this point can sound bleak, but the future is not determined. The Will of the Institutions, the cages they have constructed, that dominate the business world are not absolute and the direction they seek, the Institutional Will, is not inevitable. The Will of the Institution is inevitably dependent upon a willing, or consenting, or compliant, conformity of people who support it. Without this support, no matter how blunt or strong the Institutional Will, it cannot go on. If enough people refuse to support the Will of the Institution and create a new path, there is actually hope for a new and better way. Just as we are all citizens which constitute a nation, we are all also citizens of an institution and, in fact, we are all leaders – if we elect to be. The truth is the community, the workers, hold the power whether they know it or not. I say this to focus our attention to power and authority in the individual, their values, rights, and responsibilities. I state this purposefully as a counter to an existing Will of the Institution universe in which we find ourselves more led than free, more consumers/workers than participants, more fearful/reactive than engaged/aspirational. Far too often we turn over our power and authority to others in the belief that they will always act in our interest and in doing so we have shrunk our vision not only of what could be, but also as humans with self determination of our fates and spiritual being.

“We have shrunk our vision. We have covered up our sensitivities in a drastic way. I will call everything multivalent because we find ourselves in a realm that after 5 billion years has not stopped unclothing itself and revealing yet another splendor. And, yet, in our conviction that we know what it is, namely, material to make into throwaway products, we are destroying it. we are destroying it because we are not aware of its infinite depths.”

Brian Swimme

To be fair to people, The Institution brings all the power in its Will to shrink us <under the guise of expanding us, i.e., “your growth”>. While the Will of the Institution and the Institutional Will seems to intersect with people, it does so with some fairly flawed beliefs. Generally speaking, institutions see people as of finite, not of infinite, depth. They seek to mine the finiteness through, well, its will. I imagine the first step in breaking the hold of its Will against us is to recognize the infiniteness within us and stop accepting a finite life.

Which leads me to where we can go from here.

Most people are simply going along with the Will of the Institution or being forced to go along for the ride <and, yes, many people do not have a choice>. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people attempting to create alternative institutions but, well, embedded institutions hold on to power with ragged claws – they are conserving institutions. It has been said that great evil requires great resistance. I am not suggesting all Wills of all Institutions are evil, but I am suggesting they may not be in the best interest of the people. Just as with almost anything societally meaningful, this institutional shift will demand the best of people. But maybe the important point is to recognize our need to overcome motivated blindness. What I mean by that is Institutional Will can often be brought to bear through reward/incentive mechanisms thereby motivating blindness to the less-than-ethical or undesirable everyday behaviors necessary to meet the Will of the Institution. We need to open our eyes, become self-aware and decide to do something.

“Moral commitment alone and organization alone do not build breadth. Shared delight, heavy laden with creative signs of a coming alternative future—this is what invites the many, encourages them to stand up in new solidarity to powers that rule by their spectacles of terror.”

Mark Lewis Taylor

The reality comes down to this; choose to stay as we are or to take responsibility for our business world and become willing to take action. Our “no” to this hollow business existence should be based upon our “yes” to a substantive meaningful working life which helps create a meaningful society.

Lastly, because I am a Hope person, I believe that resisting the existing Will of the Institutions and systems that destroy the earth and crush the meaning out of people and its subsequent poverty of social values & value, hope will arise. As we withdraw our consent to these powers, practicing noncooperation while finding or creating meaning-generating alternatives, what has seemed impossible becomes possible because we are willing to pay the price to make it so. But we need to play, or, as someone said, “only when we ourselves enter the game and bind our own life inextricably to the game’s outcome does hope arrive.”

Today’s business world driven by the existing common Will of the Institution, imposed by Institutional Will, is crushing society one person, one employee, at a time. Its time to push back and crush its Will and recreate it in a more positive form.


Authors’ Note:

This is a purposefully bleak view of business institutions and I can already hear the cacophony of voices highlighting exceptions and aspects where less bleak things are happening. The point of this piece is to make people think about those exceptions, as exceptions, and think about how dimensions of this bleak ideology are embedded with almost every global institution and many non-global businesses. Lastly, I am a cynical optimist who believes in HumanKind, but I find it helpful to paint the bleakness so as to never underestimate the challenge upon those of us who seek a better business world.

A special thanks to Fiona Tribe who read this in draft and made me think a bit harder on some things.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Written by Bruce