Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ruminating on "Doubt" and the roles people play in organizations

Epic stories are powerful because they mirror profound insights about life through their characters and plot. A week or so ago, I watched the movie, Doubt—probably not an epic story—but one that spoke prophetically to me. Doubt illuminated the common roles people play within institutions, especially religious ones, and the undercurrents that influence many organizations.

Set in the confines of a Catholic school and church, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a priest; Meryl Streep plays a nun and principal of the school; and Amy Adams plays a nun and teacher in the school. The movie gets it’s title from the undertones of doubt laced throughout the movie—doubts related to the characters, their motives and actions, and what has really happened.

As I have reflected on the story, it names four characters in every organization of which I have been a part.

The Reformer
Hoffman’s character is a priest, but one of a new order. Through his honest, penetrating sermons and his kind, relational leadership, he is trying to reform the school and parish and lead it into a new era of life-giving ministry and increased potential.

The Guardian
Streep embodies the character of a rigid, controlling principal who squelches reform in favor of maintaining the status quo. Her character is the “watch dog” of the institution--one who confronts and exposes any who break the rules, commit indiscretions, or tolerate nonconformity.

The Idealist
Amy Adams plays a young school-teaching nun who, in the beginning, has an innocent love of life and learning which she hopes will spill over into her classroom. Unfortunately, she unwittingly becomes seduced by the wind of doubt, struggles to know and keep her own heart and stand up for what she truly believes.

The Wind
Finally, a fourth “character” in the movie, oddly enough, is portrayed by an erratic and blustery wind, suggesting a sinister, disruptive force, invisibly at work, yet sowing the seeds of doubt. Call it the spiritual forces of darkness or quantum physics, I have never worked in an environment where I didn’t notice, at times, an underlying current of negativity that often contaminated even the most innocent by-standers.

These characters created the cast for a perfect storm of doubt, projection, negative transference and harmful dysfunction. What can we glean from this movie/story? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Which role are you playing in your organization right now?
  • Of which role do you have the most conflict?
  • How are you being seduced by an undercurrent of negativity in your organization?
  • In what way has it influenced you to project doubt onto others?
  • Is your doubt really founded or is it projection or negative transference?
  • How can you help reform your organization while maintaining it's core values?


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