Get back in the Box: Nurse Ratched is Alive and Well
by Dr Stewart Hase
In the famous book and movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched thoroughly runs the roost. From a Jungian archetype perspective Nurse Ratched represents the dominating and emasculating mother. Her main modus operandi is to manipulate the male patients into believing that their welfare is her primary concern and that everything she does is for their benefit. With this backdrop of apparently caring intention, she holds tightly onto control in the guise of benefactor and protector from the evils of the world. The most mischievous component of her behaviour, however, is to build up expectations for rewards in the form of activities, treats or even positive attention from her as a projection of their mother, and then shatter them at the last moment. It is consummate controlling and deeply obsessive behaviour. When McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in the movie) challenges Nurse Ratched by emancipating the patients and shows signs of winning the battle for control, he is lobotomised.
Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched character is based in reality. I actually saw this archetype in the real world when working in a psychiatric hospital in Western Australia in the early 1970s. In my case Nurse Ratched was a male. So, what follows is equally applicable to both sexes but I refer to Nurse Ratched as female throughout to be consistent with the fictional character and, hopefully, not for any other unconscious desire.
Some recent research I have conducted with colleagues suggests that the Nurse Ratched archetype is alive and well in organisations other than psychiatric institutions. It appears in various configurations and degrees but has the same end game, which is to control the inmates: to keep them in their box. This reinforces Nurse Ratched’s sense of power, strengthens the mask that hides a deep-seated insecurity, a poorly developed sense of self and a sense that all is not well with herself, and, hence by projection, the world. Nurse Ratched has developed a set of behaviours that serve to protect her from seeing her true self and the maintain the illusion that others can’t see it either.
Nurse Ratched is a micromanager. Nothing is left to the deliberations of others. Of course there are committees, although one might find precious few of them and they are functionally impotent. This impotence is openly reinforced by Nurse Ratched who frequently overwrites their decisions using an unwritten but thoroughly understood power of veto. All decisions no matter how minute and trivial such as office allocation and travel claims are made by this manager: nothing is left to chance.
The archetype is surrounded by supplicants who have been handpicked to ensure that they do not challenge in any real way. Most importantly they all toe the party line. Dissidents are seen as not being loyal and either micromanaged or managed out. Members of the management group are found on most committees in the organisation. Committee membership has less to do with expertise and more to do with ensuring control. Loyalty is much more important then ability to be appointed as an acolyte. Even the most appalling manager and bully will be supported as long as they are loyal, get the job done and make Nurse Ratched look good.
Nurse Ratched makes sure that appointments are carefully managed. Selection panels are small and consist of herself, a couple of acolytes and a rep from HR. It is important not to have someone on the committee with expertise in the area of the appointment. Lower levels of staff are never involved in the selection process. It is not unusual for Nurse Ratched to veto an appointment and tap someone on the shoulder either within or from outside the organisation. Nepotism is so commonplace that it is taken to be normal. It is one of the rare instances where the manager does not employ a clone of self. There is room for only one Nurse Ratched in an organisation.
Information flow is carefully managed by our archetype. Most critical information is held by the management group and does not filter down: there is a hard communication barrier between senior management and the inmates. The acolytes realise that their survival depends on making sure that only selected information is sent upwards. Meanwhile Nurse Ratched is fed a diet of misinformation from employees dotted around the organisation that are the result of the nepotistic and political appointment processes. There is nothing like pillow talk to sink an upstart’s reputation.
Nurse Ratched likes to make sure the inmates are busy: extremely busy. Staff levels are kept to a minimum, performance expectations are high and there is little room for diversion from the key tasks of the business. This archetype depends on looking good in front of the board or shareholders and this is achieved by ensuring positive business outcomes no matter what the cost to people or organisational climate. There is a Calvinesque austerity and lack of celebrations of success are rare and token. Nurse Ratched depends on an efficient and well-run ward. In the movie McMurphy’s joie de vive is a major irritant and is finally silenced by reducing him to a vegetable. With such a threat people become malleable.
The result of this archetype’s behaviour is an adversarial, ‘us and them’ culture. The ‘management team’ interpret any discontent as being due to the implicit failing of the inmates and not the result of dysfunctional leadership and a toxic culture. The inmates should be grateful: let them eat cake.
Widespread cynicism pervades the organisation underpinned by powerlessness. Some inmates, like the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, find a way to escape-he throws a water cooler through the window and runs away. In less potent expressions of their disappointment, the more imaginative and stronger personalities soon see the organisation for what it is and fly the coop. There are others who don’t quite understand the culture and innocently push back. But they are soon put in their box one way or another by being micromanaged to death, assigned meaningless tasks, and/or subtly bullied. Many are trapped due to circumstances and suffer the same pathology as Seligman’s dogs, learned helplessness that manifests itself as depressive behaviour. Denial and rationalisation of their situation help maintain a tolerable level of mental health in many.
People being people, they will in even the most adversarial environment find a way to let their creative juices flow and mostly find satisfaction in doing well what they often love doing. This is tolerated as long as the widgets continue to be churned out and there is not too much dysfunction. In fact Nurse Ratched rewards this behaviour with acknowledgement, which is gratefully received from inmates starved of recognition and positive reinforcement. But beware if the light shines too bright or the irrelevance of the activity to Nurse Ratched’s agenda is brought to her attention, the tit-bits are quickly withdrawn. After all, it is for the inmates’ own good.
This is the most toxic aspect of the culture that Nurse Ratched presides over and is the hallmark of the ultimate bully: the manipulation of the human need for recognition. The bully keeps the other in a state of constant desire for acknowledgement by maintaining a high level of disappointment, an air of disapproval. The victim’s diminishing self-esteem cries out for recognition and is occasionally, momentarily rewarded. The rush of pleasure increases desire for more and the person works even harder even as the tsunami of disappointment washes them away yet again.
Such is the dark side of organisations.
Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com