What is an institution? An institution is a structure that sustains a social movement; a movement that is focused on a cause or solving a problem in society. Historically, movements light up in society to create change. They are like bursts of fire. Sustaining a movement over time is difficult. Eventually, movements transition into institutions that provide structure to keep the fire burning.
A member of a congregation discovered that teenage women who gave birth while in high school were more than likely to drop-out. She started offering free childcare to help these women graduate. The need was greater than one person could manage, so she enlisted the help of her congregation. Eventually, people from the community volunteered for the program. As the program grew, policies and procedures were adopted. A board of directors was established. Voila! A movement becomes an institution.
While we can often bemoan the existence of institutions (with their bureaucratic structures and their slow pace of change), their existence is important. When it comes to addressing social problems, institutions provide a framework for developing best practices and ethical responses to a problem.
Institutions use best practices that are proven to be effective in serving a specific clientele. Public institutions have long championed the use of best practices. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they focus on what has been successful. If you attend a training in your field, more than likely you will hear something about best or standard practices.
I’ve written extensively about the challenges congregations have in adopting best practices. While “experts” in congregational development might have some common agreement on what might constitute “standard practices” for congregations, there is no clear standard for all congregations within a particular faith. It doesn’t exist. Leaving that aside, the main problem seems to be that best practices are not transferable. That is, what is successful in one congregation cannot be easily replicated in another. No one has adequately explained the reason for this. It is still elusive.
Institutions practice ethical responses to a problem. Ethics in this context is defined as protecting staff from doing harm to their clients and protecting staff from doing harm to themselves. Anyone who has worked or volunteered in social services knows that one can quickly become overwhelmed by the demands and needs of helping others. Institutions find ethical solutions for meeting needs without exhausting their staff while at the same time providing quality care that does not harm their clients. For example, nursing homes structure themselves to manage the risks inherent in caring for the elderly. Staff rotates, tasks are divided up, and rules are followed to protect staff from burning out and protects clients from being underserved. Nursing homes vary in their ability to manage both well.
The question remains, does a focus on best practices that are ethical help institutions improve their quality of care or do they perpetuate a much deeper problem? Whenever social problems like poverty, food insecurity, economic opportunities (to name a few) continue to be a problem while there is an ever-expanding field of social services, it’s important to ask the question, “what is missing from our understanding of the problem?” The answer, it turns out, is the role institutions play in perpetuating the problems they are trying to solve.
When it comes to helping others, Dr. Murray Bowen observed that people can unintentionally do harm to others by doing too much. He was aware that underneath our individual behavior is a deeper emotional process embedded in a relationship system. Here is what he had to say:
“. . . A triangular emotional process through which two powerful people in the triangle reduce their own anxiety and insecurity by picking a defect in the third person, diagnosing and confirming the defect as pitiful and in need of benevolent attention, and then ministering to the pitiful helpless one, which results in the week becoming weaker and the strong becoming stronger. It is present in all people to some degree, and by overcompassion in poorly integrated, overemotional people, powered by benevolent overhelpfulness that benefits the stronger one more than the recipient, and is justified in the name of goodness and self-sacrificing righteousness. The prevalence of the process in society would suggest that more hurtfulness to others is done in the service of pious helpfulness than in the name of malevolent intent.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p 434.
When is helping not helping? Or, what do you do when helping others does not solve the problem? This is an institutional problem. The response to this ongoing problem has been the development and management of best practices and ethical procedures. Yet, despite best practices, institutions become stuck when they are not able to accomplish the very thing the original movement championed. The reason they become stuck is that they do not address the underlying emotional process. The emotional process is fundamentally about anxiety. Anxiety is a part of the family emotional process. Therefore, all social problems are ultimately family problems.
Institutions have historically tried to take responsibility for problems in the family. But what if institutions changed their approach? What if they became resources to the family without attempting to solve family problems? What if institutions helped families by equipping family members to solve their problems? What if institutions redirected themselves to support the family’s efforts to come up with a viable plan for the family and the individual members? What would this look like and how could an institution organize itself to be oriented in this direction?
So, what would a more responsible caregiving position look like for an institution within the context of the family? Here are some more questions to consider:
- What are individuals and families capable of doing for themselves?
- How does one determine what one can do for self?
- What are realistic expectations for functioning?
- As a staff person or leader, what am I willing to do or not do for an individual or family?
- What facts are needed to make a thoughtful decision about this?
- Is the institution putting the client’s needs first or the needs of the institution?
- How does one tell the difference?
- When tension in the relationship system of an institution goes up, who is more likely to bear the brunt of the tension? The clients or the staff?
When an institution overfunctions in caregiving, they undercut the motivation and agency of the individual and the family. The idea of stepping back as an institution, by letting clients take the lead, creates anxiety for the institution which is evidence of the institution’s tendency to overfunction. It’s worth noting that when I talk about institutions, I’m really talking about a relationship system of leaders and workers. Each person in the system brings a level of anxiety and functioning to their work that is based in their family of origin. Some institutions manage their problems better than others, depending on the functional level of the leaders and to some extent the staff.
Thinking systems can provide a deeper awareness of the emotional process at play in the family and in the broader society. Thinking systems is an alternative to being overly focused on best practices and ethical behavior. Institutional leaders who can think systems do a better job of addressing societal problems because they take responsibility for their part in solving the problem and empower the leaders in a family to lead.