On the Psychodynamics of Organizational Disaster:

The Case of the Space Shuttle Challenger

Howard S. Schwartz

How could NASA, an organization with a reputation for successful management, communication, and great engi­neering achievements, succumb to setting unattainable goals, block vital communication, and engage in self-delu­sion? NASA abandoned reality for fantasy. This paper examines the organization ideal as a type of ego ideal and the commitment to both real and fantasy organiza­tions. Implications of these narcissistic tendencies are drawn for other organizations.

Columbia Journal of World Business. Spring 1987




IN THE AFTERMATH of the Rogers Commission report on the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion a con­sensus appears to be emerging con­cerning the causes of the disaster. According to this view, NASA, under pressure to maintain its overly ambitious launch schedule, and deluded by their history of success into think­ing that they could not make a mis­take, launched the shuttle despite the misgivings of lower level personnel, who could not manage to make their concerns about the safety of certain components known to top manage­ment.

But while, as a first approximation, this analysis is certainly correct, at a deeper level it raises perhaps as many questions as it answers. For it leads us to ask how an agency with NASA's expertise could get itself into such a mess in the first place. For example, the schedule NASA set out to meet was, after all, self-imposed. At this stage it seems incredible that an organization like NASA, with its clear history of successful manage­ment, could have locked itself into a schedule that it had no chance of meeting. And how could an organi­zation known for its own communi­cation have blocked the transmission of such vital information? Perhaps most generally, how could an agency which had demonstrated the sober concern for facts that was necessary for its great engineering achievements have succumbed to self-delusion? Moreover, the popular account does not explain what to me, at least, was the most striking aspect of the in­vestigative process: the apparent con­tradiction between the revealed facts about the disaster and the apparent attitude, on the part of NASA offi­cials, that those facts must be some- how mistaken and that, somehow or other, the accident never happened. Taken together, these features form an image of an organization that had abandoned reality and chosen to live in fantasy—an organization in which fantasy had become a central organi­zational process.

If this were the case, we would expect to find that the problems of NASA were of a systematic order. Indeed, this is the picture that emerges from the Rogers Commis­sion report. We learn there of a large variety of problems with the shuttle hardware: brakes, steering, turbine blades, fuel valves, to men­tion only a few. And we learn of shortcomings throughout the whole space flight system: in training, in maintenance, in spare parts avail­ability, in quality assurance, and else­where. Indeed, the Rogers Commis­sion strongly suggests that if the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) joints had not been the cause of disaster, inevitably something else would have been.

The picture of NASA as an orga­nization that had abandoned reality for fantasy leaves us with a perfectly adequate explanation for the Chal­lenger disaster. The physical world is not an "enacted environment." It is not the external dramatization of our wishes and whims. On the con­trary, it possesses a resilience and recalcitrance which will mock the dreamer. An organization like NASA whose business involves dealing with physical reality has only a very limited margin in which it can in­dulge itself in fantasy before disaster becomes inevitable.

But having said that, we have to note that every organization makes a product or a service that has to be transported out beyond the capacity for the organization to define it. How long, therefore, can any orga­nization that has turned away from reality and toward fantasy exist with­out inviting disaster? Thus, it appears that the conclusions of our analysis of the Challenger explosion may not be limited to the understanding of a single shortcoming in a single orga­nization, but may instead point to a general theory of the features of organizations that lead to organiza­tional disasters.

The question then becomes, what sort of an organization was NASA? This turns out to be, from the stand­point of organization theory, a diffi­cult question, since it is not easy to see NASA in any of the standard forms. Consider, for example, how NASA made decisions. It is obvious, in the first place, that NASA is not to be understood on the model of Weberian (1947) rationality, in which fantasy plays no essential part. But neither does it appear that NASA can be understood in terms of the model of the intendedly rational actor, oper­ating within a framework of bounded rationality (March and Simon, 1958), in which fantasy may perhaps fill out the limited perspective that each actor employs. For in the case of NASA it appears that fantasy did not merely fill out a perspective within an intendedly rational approach to the world, but in fact it pushed ra­tionality aside and became dominant over it. Finally, we cannot find NASA in a political model of orga­nizations, such as is put forward by Pfeffer (1981), in which each actor rationally pursues self-interest and fantasy is used to cool-out the power­less. For here it is the powerful who are taken in by the fantasy, not the powerless. As Richard Feynman (NYT June 11) put it: "they fooled themselves."

This paper will use Schwartz' (1987a, b) theory of the organization ideal to explain how fantasy can form the central feature of organizational process. The picture that will emerge is not intended to be a general picture of all organizational life. Obviously, not all organizations are like this. Nonetheless, it will be a picture of a powerful tendency that does exist in all organizational life and to which all organizations, especially those which have had a history of success are prone, and against which serious and concerned organizational partici­pants need to be continuously on guard.


The theory of the organizational ideal is a theory of organizational commitment. On the one hand, it is an attempt to understand how, why, and what it means for individuals to develop strong attachments to an or­ganization. On the other hand, it looks at the object of that commit­ment—at the idea of the organization that participants are committed to. I argue that this idea of the organiza­tion, I call it the organization ideal, is not the organization at all, but rather a projection of the possibility of a return to the state of being the center of a loving world that con­stituted the experience of the indi­vidual's happy infanthood.

Freud (1955, 1957) refers to the state of being the center of a loving world as "narcissism." In it, the sep­aration of the limited, vulnerable, mortal individual from the infinite, powerful, immortal world outside is overcome without the individual hav­ing to give up his or her own exis­tence as an individual. Anxiety, which is the experience of this sepa­ration (Lichtenstein, 1977; Schwartz, 1983) disappears. The person is perfect. He or she behaves sponta­neously and purely out of desire, and the world loves and protects the per­son in his or her doing so. The world, in fact, has its meaning in being the loving reflection of the person.

Freud (1955, 1957) calls the projection of the possibility of return­ing to narcissism the "ego ideal." If I become a person of a certain sort, we are told and we tell ourselves, the world will revolve around me and love me as it did when I was an in­fant. The person one holds oneself responsible for becoming, on the as­sumption that if one does so, one will return to narcissism, is one's ego ideal.

At this point we may make two observations which may stand as the rudiments of a theory of fantasy as an organizational process. First is that the ego ideal is implicitly a social concept. It involves the re­action of others to me. They are parts of the world whose love I am trying to attain. Thus, the forms that the ego ideal takes are implicitly social structures. When the ego ideal takes the form of an organization, specifically a work organization, I call it an organization ideal. This makes it possible for us to understand the concept of organizational com­mitment. Commitment to an organ­ization is the taking of that organiza­tion as one's ego ideal. It derives its energy from the desire for perfec­tion, for the end of anxiety, for the overcoming of the tension between self and other, that narcissism repre­sents.


Second is that the organization ideal, as with any ego ideal, cannot be attained in reality (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). Attaining it would mean overcoming mortality, vulner­ability and limitation. But mortality, vulnerability and limitation are exis­tential facts of the human situation of each individual (Becker, 1973; Lichtenstein, 1977). This fact has the most important consequences for committed participants. Given their need to believe in the organization ideal, and given the unrealizability of the organization ideal in reality, it means that fantasy, and the denial of reality, can become the motivational base of organizational life for com­mitted participants.

For the committed participant, some way must be found to maintain the fantasy of the possibility of a return to narcissism while at the same time accounting for the failure of narcissism to return. One way in which this is accomplished is through what I have called (Schwartz, 1987a, b) "ontological differentiation," in which certain individuals are thought to be more important to the organiza­tion, and therefore to be more the ego ideal, than others. In the most gen­eral case, these people are those who are higher within the organizational hierarchy.

When this happens, the paradox occurs that in the name of maintain­ing the belief in their own return to narcissism, those lower in the hier­archy have to believe that those higher up in the organization are in­deed the center of a loving world. Then organizational life becomes the acting out of the narcissim of those in power—the dramatization of the fantasy of the perfection of the power­ful.

We need to differentiate this phe­nomenon from the case of following the charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders, as Freud (1955)  says, have a relatively small gap between their ego and their ego ideal. They have preserved a large amount of their original narcissistic self-complacency. In this case, others take them, per­sonally, as their own ego ideal.

What we are talking about in the case of commitment to the organiza­tion is something else. Here, the indi­vidual comes to be taken as the organization ideal by having risen through the hierarchy of the organiza­tion, a process which typically in­volves giving up one's original nar­cissism. Here, it is the organization which continues to be regarded as perfect, with the individual attaining perfection by becoming the organiza­tion. Thus, there is a twofold fan­tasy here. First is the fantasy of the perfection of the organization, of the organization as the center of creation. Second is the fantasy that high offi­cials of the organization are embodi­ments of this perfection since they embody the organization.

In the case of an organization like NASA, the fantasy of the perfection of the organization is greatly facili­tated by the attribution of perfection on the part of society. Society ele­vates a part of itself as what it really is and therefore asserts its own per­fection. This is another case of "ontological differentiation," in which the differentiation takes place within society as a whole.

Actually, in this case, it does not go too far to say that the business of NASA had become the creation of the image of American society's per­fection. This provides an answer to the question raised earlier, how an organization with NASA's history of success could get itself into such a mess. It appears that it was largely because of its history of success, and the attendent attribution of perfection, that NASA developed the "can't fail" mentality that John Glenn and others have rightly associated with NASA's catastrophic degeneration. This is partly an analysis of what it means to say that complacency had developed. But in this case it is more than that. I am saying that when the business of NASA became the generation of the image of perfection, making demands on the environment for adequate re­sources by raising the possibility of failure became impossible. Thus, ad­mitting the possibility of failure be­came a failure.

The second fantasy, which takes its organizational form in the dramatiza­tion that high officials embody the perfect organization and are therefore perfect, will be our primary focus in the next part of the paper. Here, though, it may be worthwhile to note the obvious point that, for the power­ful, the dramatization of their perfec­tion invokes a great temptation to­ward rejecting any who do not con­form to the story. It was after all, the pursuit of perfection that brought these participants into commitment to the organization in the first place. In this way, organizational power may become enlisted in the process of fan­tasy.


This part of the paper will show how the psychology of the organiza­tion ideal led to the explosion of the space shuttle.

Technological Russian Roulette

The idea that NASA officials were playing a strange game of Russian roulette is due to Commission member Richard P. Feynman. Here is the account as given in the New York Times of April 4:

Dr. Feynman . . . said that typi­cally in flight readiness reviews, conducted a week or two before launchings, space agency officials would "agonize whether they can go" even though the seals may have eroded on the previous flight. But then, if they decided to launch and the flight occured safely, he said, on the next flight they lowered their standards a bit because they "got away with it the last time." He described the process as "a kind of Russian roulette" or a "perpetual move­ment heading for trouble."

Putting the matter in terms of the theory of probability brings out Feyn-man's point most clearly. In the case of Russian roulette, with one round in the cylinder, the odds are one in six that a pull on the trigger will fire the

round. If the round does not fire on the first pull, and the cylinder is spun, the odds are again one in six for the next pull on the trigger. To some per­sons unfamiliar with the theory of probability, it may seem that the odds with each successive pull would be greater. This is of course wrong. But it is equally wrong to suppose that the odds will be less with each suc­cessive event. This is what the NASA officials appeared to believe. The ques­tion is, how can it have happened that NASA officials, knowing full well the laws of probability, could have made such an error?

My answer is that NASA officials were engaged in the calculation of two very different sorts of probabili­ties. Both calculations were legitimate within their domains. The problem is that one of the domains existed only in fantasy.

One calculation was an engineering calculation. Given what is known of the technology, it is possible to rough­ly estimate the degree of risk involved. It is probable though, that this cal­culation was distorted by the other sort of calculation, which we may call the attribution of agency.

In order to understand the idea of the attribution of agency, it is neces­sary to return to the discussion of the organization ideal. The organization ideal is an image of perfection. It is, so to speak, an idea of God. God does not make mistakes. Having adopted the idea of NASA as the organization ideal it follows that the individual will believe that, if NASA has made a decision, that decision will be correct. We may refer to decisions made by NASA, considered as the organization ideal, "NASA decisions." In the case of NASA decisions, NASA may be said to "work through" NASA employees. However, there would be another type of decision within the NASA frame of interaction. As we saw, narcissism does not return to the individual in reality and individ­uals recognizing this must know that they and their colleagues are not perfect. Maintaining a belief in the ideal character of NASA, these peo­ple can say of themselves and their colleagues that they are not fully NASA, even though the possibility exists that some day they may be. Hence, if these mortals, these people who are within the NASA organiza­tion but are not NASA, made the decision, it will be a different sort of decision. Call it a "human deci­sion." Human decisions, unlike NASA decisions, are fallible.

Now the question becomes, for any given decision within the NASA frame of interaction, whether it is a NASA decision or a human decision. Specifi­cally, was the complex decision in­volved in the design and construction of the SRB seals a NASA decision or a human decision? If it was a human decision, engineering standards of risk should prevail in determining whether it is safe to launch. On the other hand, if the decision was a NASA decision, it simply is safe to launch, since NASA does not make mistakes. Now if I believe in NASA decisions, the first question I ask is whether a deci­sion is a NASA decision, because if it is, I don't have to worry about the engineering probabilities at all. And here the history of success is related to the determination of probability. For, since NASA decisions are in­fallible, every instance of a given decision being correct provides evi­dence that the decision was a NASA decision. Thus, in this question, it makes perfectly good sense to de­crease the probability of failure with each successful launch.

Why the Question Concerning the Effects of Cold on the Seals Was Not Passed Up the Chain of Command

When the Rogers Commission (RC) determined that the decision making process at NASA was flawed, what they specifically had in mind was that the questions raised by Morton-Thiokol engineers concerning the ef­fects of cold weather on the SRB seals were discussed at a relatively low level (Level III) and not passed up higher to Level II or I. It appears that a major moving force in determining that the question not be transmitted upward was Lawrence Mulloy, SRB Project Manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The retrospec­tive reasoning in Mulloy's testimony is interesting:

Mr. Mulloy: ... I did not dis­cuss with Mr. Aldrich [National

Space Transportation Program Manager] the conversations that we had just completed with Morton-Thiokol.

Chairman Rogers: Could you explain why?

Mr. Mulloy: Yes, sir. At that time, and I still consider today, that was a Level III issue, Level III being an SRB element or an external tank element or Space Shuttle main engine element or an Orbiter. There was no viola­tion of Launch Commit Criteria. There was no waiver required in my judgment at that time and still today.

And we work many problems at the Orbiter and the SRB and the External Tank level that never get communicated to Mr. Aldrich or Mr. Moore [Associate Administrator for Space Flight]. It was clearly a Level III issue that had been resolved (RC * 98).

On one level Mulloy's reasoning makes perfectly good sense. It was his decision, and that of his Level III colleagues, whether the specific ele­ments in question were flightworthy. We have to place this reasoning, how­ever, against the fact that the discus­sion concerning the effects of cold on the seals had been heated and even acrimonious, and that even after the matter had been formally resolved, Allan McDonald, manager of the Morton-Thiokol Space Booster Proj­ect and Morton-Thiokol representa­tive at the Kennedy Space Center, continued to argue vehemently against the launch. The point is that, while in the formal sense, Level III had the authority to rule the SRB flight-worthy, they also had the authority to pass questions on to Levels II and I, which of course had authority over the whole system. In this sense, Mulloy's justification is simply a non-sequitur.


The real issue was posed by a tele­vision commentator (George F. Will, I believe) who was incredulous that anyone in an organization would take this  much risk  upon  himself,  when everything we know about organiza­tions suggests that the most natural thing to do is to pass it on. There is an additional element that makes the question even more interesting from an organizational point of view. It is that Mulloy justified his decision on the basis of the fact that there was no Launch Commit Criteron that took account of temperature and therefore none that forbade the launch. In other words, Mulloy rests his defense on the fact that he was following the rules, which is certainly a familiar enough organizational defense. But typically, in an organization, participants follow rules to keep them out of trouble. Mulloy, by contrast, appeared to fol­low a rule that could get him into trouble; not to reduce his risk but to increase it. He did so, as we have seen, in a perfectly gratuitous fashion.

These facts make sense from the standpoint of the theory of the orga­nization ideal. If, for the committed participant, the organization repre­sents the ego ideal, then participation in the organization's successful activity is thought of as a route to narcissism. Accordingly, there is a built-in ten­dency to take responsibility and to exercise that responsibility with a bias for positive action. The organization's achievements, after all, are only real­ized through positive action. Thus, taking responsibility for positive action is a way of linking "I did it" with the "NASA did it" that repre­sents perfection.

Moreover, similar considerations in fact mitigate against taking problems to a higher level. The pursuit of nar­cissism through the participation in the organization is, as we have seen, linked to movement through the hier­archy and entails the assumption that the most perfect union of individual and organization occurs at the top. It is for this reason that those lower down in the organization feel it in­cumbent upon themselves to play out the drama of the return to narcissism of those higher up. Characteristic of the return to narcissism is the experience of everything being right and perfect. By keeping problems at a lower level, therefore, Mulloy and his colleagues were not only opting for their share of participation in NASA perfection, but reinforcing the drama of perfection by dramatizing to their superiors that everything was just fine and that NASA was moving along in its inexorably perfect way.

Nonetheless, as we have seen, the return to narcissism is only an illusion, and while Mulloy and his colleagues can believe in that illusion for their superiors, and in fact help to build the very illusion that they come to believe in, their own experience for them­selves may contain the seeds of doubt. For if the perfect linkage of individual and organization is fantasized to occur at the top of the organization, this implies that, lower down, the linkage may be incomplete. There may have been other factors also. Perhaps the argument with Morton-Thiokol engi­neers had some impact. Here is where we see the importance of the rules. The rules of NASA, in this case the Launch Commit Criteria, represent its procedural body. In following them, Mulloy and his colleagues could touch, as it were, a bit of the living flesh of NASA and assure themselves of the success of their venture.

The Reduction of Process to Ritual

The emphasis placed by Mulloy and his colleagues on the Launch Commit Criteria may be put in the context of a more general approach to NASA procedures which I think of as the transformation of once vital organizational processes into empty rituals.

Some evidence suggests that NASA was, twenty years ago, a model orga­nization not only in terms of its engi­neering achievement but in terms of its organizational characteristics. In­deed, the NASA of twenty years ago appears to have been a per­fect instantiation of the sort of open communications, organic, non-hier­archical organization that theorists like McGregor (1960), Argyris (1964) and Likert (1961) recom­mended.

The odd thing about this is that, in large measure, the procedures which represented these organic processes appeared to remain in place. Thus, NASA and contractor engineers cer­tainly had the right to question the safety of the shuttle and in fact they did so (see, for example, testimony of L. Michael Weeks, New York Times, Feb. 14). The problem was that their concerns did not register as important in the minds of NASA management.

Perhaps the most tragic example of this was the way the objections of engineers to the SRB seals, a series of objections which began in 1977 (RC: 122), four years before the first shut­tle flight, and never ended, were dis­regarded by NASA management. But an example which is stark in its clarity is the testimony describing the way NASA treated the concerns of Rock­well officials about the safety of flying in the prevailing ice conditions. The New York Times (Feb. 28) describes the testimony:

Robert Glaysher, a Rockwell vice president, reading from notes at the time, said he had explicitly told launching officials, "Rockwell can not assure that it is safe to fly." ... he testified that Rockwell's position was equivalent to saying it was "un­safe to fly."

And they note:

Somehow, the message never got across. Arnold Aldrich, the No. 2 man in the shuttle pro­gram, said that he thought Rock­well was expressing "concerns," but that he would have never authorized a launching if the prime contractor had objected. Mr. Aldrich said that, to his mind, "they did not intend to ask me not to launch."

Several commission members said that they were puzzled how a recommendation against launch-could be mysteriously translated into a cautious recommendation in favor.


The behavior of NASA manage­ment again makes sense if one con­siders the theory of the organization's ideal, it is an article of faith that NASA, proceeding according to its essential movement, makes infallible decisions. To the extent that NASA managers are operating under the as­sumption of being NASA, and to the extent that the form of NASA's deci­sion making is followed, they think of their decisions as being infallible. As long, therefore, as managers "lis­tened to the concerns" of engineers and contractors, the success of the venture would be assured.

The problem is that while the image of NASA making infallible decisions is part of the culture of NASA for its managers, that image provides no guidance in the making of decisions and helps in no way to insure that the specific decision will be correct. In fact, once the assumption of in­fallibility is made, it may even de­grade the quality of decisions by im­peding the serious and self-critical consideration of criticisms and alter­natives. Ironically, this holds true even if the criticisms and alternatives are already in the system, and can be ignored on the grounds that they were formally "listened to."

What becomes clear from this is that while the form of decision-mak­ing may remain the same, its content becomes free to vary and to the ex­tent that the form is relied upon as a guarantee of success, the content can become completely arbitrary. It is this sort of transformation that Feynman is describing when he talks of the way NASA management came up with risk calculations:

He [NASA management] said he didn't want to use a mathemati­cal method. He was going to use engineering judgment. And as far as I could tell, the engineer­ing judgment, so-called, con­sisted of making up numbers. (MacNeil/Lehrer, June 10)

The Disappearance of Pressure

The scenario that popular con­sciousness has developed for explain­ing the disaster makes a particular appeal to the concept of pressure. NASA was under pressure from Con­gress, from the President, from the news media, etc., and so naturally it overextended itself and tried to do more than it could. I have no doubt, as I said above, that this is true. What strikes me as peculiar is the remark­able unanimity with which NASA officials deny that they were respond­ing to pressure, or, for that matter, were passing on this pressure to any­one else.

From an organizational standpoint, what is remarkable about this is that the claim that they were responding to pressure would have taken at least some of the heat off NASA and put it on the entities that were applying the pressure. But, strikingly, they did not take this way out and re­mained insistent that the decisions that they had made were the correct decisions, occasioned by their own sober and professional assessment of the situation. A phenomenon of this sort simply begs for an explanation outside of the ordinary.

From the standpoint of the present theory, pressure is not apprehended because it is inconsistent with the idea of the organization as an ideal. The organization ideal does not move because it is pressed to move. On the contrary, being pressed to move is a characteristic of the finite, limited, vulnerable side of our individual existence which the idea of the or­ganization ideal is constructed to deny. Thus, the organization ideal moves because of its own internal causes. It is the cause of itself— in the old medieval expression, causa sui. Moreover, the organiza­tion does not need to put pressure on anything or anybody else. All it needs to do is to make its vision clear to others and, if they have intelligence and good-will, they will naturally agree. The reason for this again goes back to the conception of the orga­nization ideal as a project for the re­turn to narcissism. The world is a loving world of which the organiza­tion is center. All the organization needs to do is be itself and the world will naturally fall into line. There is no need to put pressure on it.

The phenomenon of being blind to the pressure one has caused is seen clearly in the account of the critical Jan. 27 teleconference between NASA Level III management and Morton-Thiokol. In the course of this tele­conference, Morton-Thiokol made it clear to NASA management that they recommended against the launch be­cause of the effects cold might have on the SRB O-rings. The discussion was clearly a heated one and came to a sharp disagreement. Lawrence Mulloy said that he did not accept the   recommendation   and   asked if Morton-Thiokol wanted him to wait until April to launch. At the same time, George Hardy, Deputy Director of Science and Engineering, said he would not launch against Morton-Thiokol's recommendation, but that he was "appalled" that they would make such a recommendation.

At this point, Morton-Thiokol man­agement asked to go off the telecon­ference loop while they reconsidered the recommendation. When they came back on, as the result of processes which may be signified by Robert Lund, Vice President of Engineering, "taking off his engineering hat and putting on his management hat", and despite the fact that there was not one engineer who recommended the launch, Morton-Thiokol management had been able to change their assess­ment and had come to approve the launch. Even so, when they sent their written approval, the letter still brought up the engineering grounds upon which they had previously recommended against launch.

Now it seems to me that anyone who was in the least bit sensitive to the pressure he or she was causing would have known that this was a situation in which pressure had been exerted. But the Level III manage­ment involved showed no sign what­soever that they knew that they had exerted pressure. This point is made repeatedly in their testimony (New York Times Feb. 26-28), and it also manifested itself behaviorally. If NASA Level III knew that it had ex­erted pressure, and therefore that the resolution had been political, they would have known that the safety question had not been resolved on an engineering basis, and therefore they would have been worried about the safety of the flight. But they showed no signs of having been worried. Thus, Mulloy and Reinartz mentioned to William Lucas, Marshall Center Director, that Morton-Thiokol had raised concerns about the seals, but they mentioned it in such a way that Lucas had no impression that the mat­ter had not been entirely resolved. Again, Mulloy and Reinhartz sat for several hours with Aldrich and Moore before the launch without ever men­tioning that there had been a dis­agreement.


Perhaps the fact that the January 27 teleconference was the most mi­nutely investigated element of the disaster is the reason that it also gives us the best example of what the denial of pressure looks like with regard to the people who are being pressured. For it is clear, on the one hand, that Morton-Thiokol was under consider­able pressure to please an important customer and go along with NASA's desire to launch; but on the other hand, it appears that this pressure was not regarded by Morton-Thiokol man­agement, as opposed to Morton-Thiokol engineers, as pressure at the time, nor remembered as pressure by them. Thus, engineers Allan Mc­Donald and Brian Russell, as well as other Morton-Thiokol engineers, testi­fied that they had felt pressure, but Jerry Mason, Senior Vice President, said: "There was some pressure, but I believe it was in the range of what we normally encounter," and Joe Kilminster, Vice President for Shuttle Projects, said "I did not feel a signifi­cant amount of pressure" to change position (New York Times Feb. 26).

Evidently, the differentiation coin­cided with a disparity in perception of the way that NASA had redefined the situation, from one in which they had to prove that it was safe to fly to one in which any had to prove it was unsafe to fly. Morton-Thiokol engineers evidently realized that the situation was being redefined, while management did not. Thus, Robert Lunden said:

We have always dealt with Mar­shall for a long time and have always been in the position of defending our position to make sure that we were ready to fly, and I guess I didn't realize until after the meeting and after sev­eral days that we had absolutely changed our position from what we had before.  (RC: 94)

It appears that we have here, in the case of Morton-Thiokol management, an example of the dynamics Freud (1955) associated with leadership. For Freud, the leader takes the place of the follower's ego ideal. In the course of this, the individual's sense of judgment, his or her sense of criti­cism, is given over to the leader. The sense of moral autonomy is lost. With regard to the Morton-Thiokol engi­neers, this had not happened, or at least not to the same extent. This is why the Morton-Thiokol engineers felt pressure, while the managers did not. The experience of pressure in­volves a sense of oneself as a distinct entity against another distinct en­tity. For the engineers, this remained the case. They maintained a sense of their authority by retaining their own ego ideal—an ego ideal in which their professional engineering stan­dards played a large part. For the managers, however, putting NASA in the place of their ego ideal meant, in effect, that they had taken NASA as their image of what they should be, the realization of their own narcis­sism, themselves. In this way, the boundaries between them and NASA vanished. They fused with NASA and gave up their sense of being dis­tinct entities. In effect, these people had given up their own selfhood. There was no self that could have experienced pressure.

Similar considerations apply to the question of why the engineers felt that the situation had been redefined to require proof of why it was dan­gerous to launch. This is a question that makes sense only if the issue being discussed is one of launch safety—an engineering issue. But for management, this does not appear to have been the question. The institu­tional question, the management issue, as they saw it, was how to please NASA, how to confirm NASA's nar­cissism, and while the details of this may have shifted, the primary task remained the same. It is thus to be noted that when Bob Lund "took off his engineer's hat and put on his man­ager's hat" the issue for him was al­ready decided. Indeed, once Mason announced that a "management deci­sion" would have to be made, the issue was already decided and further disagreement on engineering grounds became irrelevant. Only engineers Roger Boisjoly and Arnold Thomp­son recognized that once the manage­ment orientation had been adopted, the discussion was over and the engi­neering question had become irrele­vant. Boisjoly's testimony is useful in providing a sense of how this felt:

Okay, the caucus started by Mr. Mason stating a management decision was necessary. Those of us who opposed the launch con­tinued to speak out . . . And we were attempting to go back and rereview and try to make clear what we were trying to get across, and we couldn't under­stand why it was going to be reversed. So we spoke out and tried to explain once again the effects of low temperature. Arnie actually got up from his position which was down the table, and walked up to the table and put a quarter pad down in front of the table, in front of the management folks, and tried to sketch once again what his concern was with the joint, and when he realized he wasn't getting through, he just stopped.

I tried once more with the photos. I grabbed the photos, and I went up and discussed the photos once again and tried to make the point that it was my opinion from actual observations that temperature was indeed a discriminator and we should not ignore the physical evidence that we had observed ... I also stopped when it was apparent that I couldn't get anybody to listen.  (RC: 92)

The Denial of Disaster

Often, the organization manages to respond to external pressures while still maintaining the idea of itself as causa sui by generating a fantasy which rationalizes the actions it is being forced to take in a way that still leaves it with the concept of its own control. Thus, in a classic study, Festinger, Riecken and Schacter (1956) observed what happened to a sect that had predicted the end of the world at a specific time as that time approached: a revelation! The world had been spared as a result of the sect's activities and the sect had been charged with the responsibility of preaching this good news.

In the case of NASA, as we have seen, the dominant fantasy had been the fantasy of NASA's infallibility subject to the following of its forms

and rituals. If the forms were fol­lowed, success was assured, and it then became the responsibility of critics to prove that NASA should not act, rather than for them to prove that it should. This is clearly shown in the testimony of Morton-Thiokol engineers.

It seems to me to be this flight into fantasy that is responsible for the most remarkable aspect of the public testi­mony concerning the disaster—NASA management's apparent belief that they made the right decision. The only way this belief can be maintained is by supposing that making the right decision means making the decision in the right way, regardless of conse­quences. This is the impression many of these NASA managers give. Thus, as only one example, William Lucas said: "I'm not sure what Mr. Rogers means in terms of the decision process being flawed." (This Week with David Brinkley, June 8). The differentiation between NASA management's infalli­bility fantasy and reality was suffici­ently jarring to become itself a focus of public discussion. Thus, according to the New York Times of March 17:

One Marshall manager confided that he was embarrassed to hear the center's officials contending that the decision making process leading to the launching was "sound."

"The shuttle blew up and you had pieces falling from the sky," he noted. "How could it not be flawed?"


Throughout this account, one fact has remained constant. Everywhere we have looked we have seen a move­ment on the part of NASA officials away from reality and toward a fan­tasy world. I have argued that the fantasy world had a structure. It was a loving world of which NASA was the center and in which individuals could participate by becoming NASA. In this way they could themselves become the center of a loving world. In a word, NASA had become a project for the return to narcissism.

Ultimately this led, as it had to lead, to disaster. For the world that NASA lived in was not made to love NASA, and eventually NASA, and the rest of us, had to find that out.

Two questions that remain for us to deal with in this conclusion are the questions of generalizability and treat­ment: How widespread are these nar­cissistic tendencies in organizations and what can be done about them? The answer to the first question is relatively simple. It should be clear that the processes that we observed in NASA are by no means confined to that organization. I believe that any participant in organizations will have recognized at least some of them as being very close to processes in his or her own organizational life. That this should be so follows from the theory. The desire to return to narcissism, to be at the same time spontaneous and certain, separate and connected—to be, like God, all-powerful and all-good, is a potent desire. I have no doubt that if there were no such thing as reality, narcissism would dominate all of our psychological life. Of course this is an absurd thought. But let me end the discussion of generalizability by suggesting that organizations re­present, as multipliers of power and binders of opinion, social forces through which humans attempt to take control over reality. To the extent that this is so, it seems to me, narcissistic processes such as those I have de­scribed must be powerful forces within them.

The question of what to do about these tendencies is far more complex, because it implicitly raises the ques­tion of what could constitute organiza­tional action in a therapeutic program of this sort. Two possibilities come to mind, and we shall see that both are inadequate. But by understanding how they are inadequate we may come to a better understanding of what the problem is and it is this that may give us help in knowing what to do about it.

First is what may be called the solu­tion through structure. Change the organization's structure, in some way, and the problems will be taken care of. This appears to be the basic solu­tion that the Rogers Commission recommended. There should be more central accountability, the Program Manager should have more authority, astronauts should be in management, there should be a shuttle safety panel, and so on and so forth. The problem with all of these is not that they would not be desirable, at least in the short run, but that they do not address the central issue, and therefore, in the long run, run the risk of becoming part of the problem. Thus, what we have seen is that vital organizational processes tend to become ritualized. Rather than solutions to problems, they become excuses for avoiding problems.

Thus, as a procedural safeguard, Morton-Thiokol had to sign off on the launch. But when NASA put the pres­sure on they signed off quickly enough. And when the shuttle blew up and NASA was called before the Rogers Commission, they had that signature to wave. You can't blame us, NASA said, Morton-Thiokol said it was safe to launch.

The second possibility may be called the solution through culture. The New York Times of June 10 reported this:

Some senior NASA officials have conceded that as much as changing personnel, the agency needs to instill a new "culture" in which lower-level managers and engineers feel freer to com­municate "bad news," such as the poor O-ring performance, to key decision makers. They said such a culture existed during the Apollo project, which was clearly defined as a research and devel­opment undertaking and in which problem-solving was an accepted part of the process.

The difficulty with this approach is that, as regards NASA management at least, NASA's culture was already fine. In the case of communicating bad news, for example, numerous NASA managers testified repeatedly that this was part of the NASA cul­ture. The only problem was that while it may have been part of NASA culture—the way in which NASA saw and understood its activities—the cul­ture had no relationship to the truth.

We see this most clearly in the case of NASA's concern for safety. Public statements of NASA officials have so often stressed NASA's concern for safety that if one did not know about the explosion of the space shuttle, one could never have suspected that it happened. But at the time that this supposedly safety-conscious NASA was acting to make sure that no un­necessary risk could take place, they were cutting their safety budget by half a billion dollars (New York Times April 24) and their quality control staff by 70% (New York Times May 8).

Argyris and Schon (1974) refer to the way that an organization's culture can be unrelated to its reality by dis­tinguishing between a manager's "es­poused theory" and his or her "theory-in-use." They point out that one does not typically have any relationship to the other. The theory of the organi­zation ideal provides a complementary perspective. Here, the organization's culture provides the framework within which the actions of those in power are justified. From this point of view, what the specific culture is, is of sec­ondary significance. What is important is that organizational participants, both lower and, especially, upper, have a stake in seeing that the justifi­catory process takes place, no matter what the facts are. This is the point at which fantasy gains the upper hand. The idea of bringing reality back in by changing the content of the fantasy is, of course, absurd.

Thus, neither the structural nor the cultural solution are likely to avail. A deeper look into the theory of the organization   ideal   shows  why   this must be so. The point is that, from the standpoint of the theory of the organizational ideal, the basic problem that gives rise to the narcissistic fan­tasy which may structure an organiza­tion, and to the disaster which may result, is not a psychological problem, or a sociological problem: it is an existential problem. Existential prob­lems are never solved; the best one can do is to live with them. The idea of "solving" them is already a fantasy.

The Greeks, for whom the term hubris described the conditions we have found in the soul of NASA, evi­dently knew this better than we do. Why we should have come to think that we could solve such problems through technology or through organi­zation is a question that goes to the root of the tragedy that we have found.


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* Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume I.