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Organizational Cages

We sometimes, willingly or not, place ourselves in professional and organisational cages, recognisable by their impressive comfort. These trap us in organisational routines and professional environments where some are at worst exploited, others at best resigned, many obviously un-inspired, a conformity of repetitions with little to no added value or satisfaction, ignoring our potential contribution, denying us career prospects, and just possibly, completely misaligned with our aspirations. The cage, in fact, is made of the bars, the constraint which anchor and hold us in these professional environments, but they also provide comfort, security and prospects of their own. Rust free and dressed in glitter, these constraints seem to become thicker with every passing year rather than being worn down by age, both protective and limiting. Here are a few examples of such constraints: 

  • A salary covering recurring important personal commitments to you and those around you.

  • The comfort and predictability of a regular, fixed salary, income or successful business plan.

  • Social status: Where we see ourselves in the order of things, and how others see us.

  • Concerns, not always, legitimate about finding better opportunity elsewhere as the landscape outside the cage looks glum.

  • Legitimate need for recognition of time, loyalty, initiative, success, and attractive corporate salary incentives encourage expectations of exit packages or other forms of compensation that would provide seed capital for shifting gears or changing vehicules as we drive our career forward.

The bars of our corporate gilded cage, protective as they may seem as barriers against a fast changing landscape, are far from harmless and are in fact constraints which can poison our professional life and transform our career into an endless nightmare. I do not suggest ignoring these constraints as we look past them to the outer world, but, on the contrary, suggest we take a closer look at them, the bars of our cages, and submit them to simple yet rigorous cost/benefit analysis.

As a consultant, I have rubbed shoulders with a number of managers working in very conservative environments where unmovable corporation and their unstoppable ambition constantly converge, sometimes dampening initial enthusiasm, hopes, or ambitions; some lose their spark, some a piece of their soul. Careful consideration has lead all of them to believe the case for leaving is solid, yet many are reluctant to take the leap while in fact, focused on a final pay off proportionate to length of their time in an environment they have resigned themselves to. This could be seen as penance for a pay off, a sacrificial investment of self, or a reasonable and justified reward for hard toil, all the more legitimate as the pay off date approaches.

On the other hand, if the pay off is distant, the danger lies in underestimating both the negative impact of constraints and the positive impact of our strengths, our resources, our capital. Looking back, we all want to be able to say we made the best informed decision and acted efficiently and successfully on it. The trick, then, of course, is to play the cards you're dealt and harness creativity to imagination in aligning resources with objectives while juggling blindfolded on a bicycle. But at the very least, even if we have no desire to spend much time outside the cage, and are justifiably or not content with what we have, we owe to ourselves to map out both the safe path to that final pay off, and the path to the pay off we could build for ourselves.

We all at times seek the safety of a familiar environment, but this does not mean we have to be bound by it either. If we believe happy is more productive than grumpy, that in realising ourselves we bring more to bear than what constraints impose on us, we should focus on delivering value in our professional and personal life. Success breeding success, what would our self made pay off look like? We must of course consider how realistic this path is, and may sometimes have to be able to transform failure into success. After all, in an ocean of dangers and opportunities, are we not better off in a ship than in a canoe? But then again, in an age of disruptive innovation, what is, realistically, the long term likelihood of survival of this safe corporate environment. Let's look back to our life ten years ago and compare to it today's world, and then consider the world ten years from now. Is the corporate ship we're on heading for a storm it probably won't survive, that our pay off will sink with it? Do we want to be on that boat? Would this port be a good place to leave the ship? In fact, focusing on constraints can distract us not only from opportunities but also from dangers.

Clearly, to make informed decisions about our professional career, it pays to carefully sort constraints from objectives and take a long hard look at constraint cost rather than benefit, and weigh both in light of our challenges, our strengths and our opportunities if we are to design a trajectory of our choosing, one we can live with. We should at least once remove our minds from the cage to look at it from the outside.

I believe it also pays to not overestimate benefits. Despite our widely different circumstances, we are all tempted to forget that glitter is not always gold. What would this final pay off truly entail? What would it include, and exclude? If we know the cost now of these future benefits, what will their final professional or personal cost be at delivery? Ultimately, it boils down to perception and how acutely we train it to distinguish constraint from comfort.

Obviously, precise one-size-fits-all advice is impossible for those who seek to change cages or break free and take to sky on the wings of their own venture. None the less, a full cost analysis of perceived comforts and advantages, a rigorous nurturing of strengths, and a critically examination of each objective of staying in a 'cage' to ensure it is not a constraint in disguise, would of be of crucial importance in informing your decision. As an exemple of approaches to help you flourish, Positive Psychology recommends taking up weekly routines in line with your 5 favoured strengths, with results achieved through recurrently updating, refreshing and developing strengths along the way. This is just one of many structured approaches to identifying the path to success and the path to exit an eventual "Organizational Cage". If you would like to have your own strengths measured and weighed, you can contact me and I would be pleased to share with you an access to take the Positive Psychology test which was co-created by Martin Seligman (co-funder of the Positive Psychology). The outcome of the test is a ranking of your top strengths among a list of 24 items so that you can eventually focus on the top 5 elements.  

By Farid Yandouz


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