Art and Critical Incidents in Organisational Life

A critical incident is an event in the biography of an individual, group or organisation that is viewed by that individual, group or organisation to have a significant impact – be it psychological, emotional or behavioural.

The psychological or cognitive impact of a critical incident has the potential to:

– change or reinforce the way people think about something;

– change or reinforce a mindset or attitude towards something;

– fundamentally affect what is deemed by individuals or be correct or logical in a certain situation;

– raise deep questions in individuals, groups, and organisations;

– induce breakdown in currently held thoughts and theories.

The emotional  or affective impact of a critical incident has the potential to:

– change or reinforce feelings of sympathy or antipathy (like or dislike, love or hate) for something;

– induce an emotional high or low in a person, group or organisation (possibly creating a state of bliss or deep depression);

– surface emotions and feelings that have remained hidden or suppressed;

– induce breakdown in currently held emotions, engendering either self-praise or self-criticism;

The behavioural  or “active” impact of a critical incident has the potential to:

– ignite or depress the will to act in individuals, groups and organisations;

– induce experimentation in new behaviours, reinforce current behaviours or set in motion destruction of current behaviours;

– demotivate or enhance motivation.

Critical incidents can happen to us in a way we cannot control. For example, we are told by a doctor we have a serious illness, which forces us to fundamentally reassess our lives, our beliefs, and our priorities. Or we suddenly discover we have a distant relative who has just died and who has left us a large fortune in their will. There may be critical incidents over which we have some control. For example, we deliberately put ourselves in a position of risk in order to achieve a goal, such as climbing a high mountain or we may find ourselves struggling to keep a relationship together, involving hard choices and addressing feelings and behaviours.

Sometimes critical incidents are not realised as such until after they have occurred, sometimes many years after: “I realise now, all of these years later that what she said to me marked a turning point in my life”.

Many leaders of organisations look back on episodes in the organisation’s development as “critical incidents”. Often these critical incidents refer to crises or major points of decision, or dramatic events. The critical incident usually led to some kind of reflection, assessment or re-framing, leading to change of one sort or another. The critical incident was profound enough to affect not only the intellect of the leader, but also the emotions and will, leading to a real change. Often managers and leaders will recognise a need to change at a rational, intellectual level, but this will not necessarily lead to an external change. The incident needs to cut deeper if the will is to be engaged by a “feeling” that something needs to be done.

Collectively, an organisation is similar. Often a researcher carrying out interviews in an organisation will identify from interviewees a common picture of what ought to change in the organisation. People think about it. People talk about it. But it is only when an incident critical enough to engage the will of the organisation that change results.

Critical incidents of thinking help an organisation’s capacity for IMAGINATION. People will think about the change, even form pictures of it. But without the strength of feeling and the practical will to do anything about it, the change remains rhetorical, “all talk”.

Critical incidents may ignite feeling and the result can be the inspiration to change. This strength of feeling may result in argument and passionate debate. However, alone, the feeling without a clear picture may result in frustration. Researchers often uncover deep frustrations, a sense of dissatisfaction about an organisation, but are unable to identify clear pictures or thoughts about how the frustrations can be practically dealt with.

Critical incidents can also ignite the will through intuition. At the most basic level intuitions can be instinctive. The critical incident of someone throwing a brick at us can lead the will to intuit the need to duck in order to avoid being hit! In this case the will moves to action passing over thought and feeling very quickly, almost instantaneously. Where will is engaged without feeling or thought, the result may be clumsy or insensitive.  An integration is required where clear imagination of what needs to be done is built upon sensitivity to feelings, whilst engaging passion, belief and enthusiasm, translated into skilful action which accords with people’s intuitions about what is the right thing to do in response to a “critical” incident.

Behaviour changes at the level of the will. Even if we change the way we think about something, eventually it will surface in the external world. Even we don’t appear to be doing anything differently, our words and our attitude change will affect those around us. Thus critical incidents of thinking and feeling usually manifest at the level of the will in terms of change in behaviour and action.

From thought directly to willed action

It could be that someone says something to us, or we read something, or we reflect on something within us. We think about this and the thought leads us to a conclusion that results in a behaviour change. This is often couched in rational terms such  as: if this is true  then that must follow, if this is the cause then that will be the effect. If I row faster then I will get there quicker – so I row faster.

From feeling directly to willed action

When my feelings are strong enough – either positive or negative – action or behaviour change is more likely to result. Thoughts inform but do not necessarily inspire. Change is more likely to result when people feel inspired by what they hear, see or experience. Too often people attend presentations and courses, hear a lot of logical arguments and facts, then simply go back to their previous behaviour patterns. It is only when the experience is dramatic enough to engender an emotional reaction that leads to a behaviour change. This is where art has a role to play, for art can have a direct impact on the emotions.

A fundamental bridge needs to be built between art and industry to ensure that innovation in life and society is both human and practical. The realm of art and culture operates according to inner laws, which are fundamentally different to the laws of science and economics. However, there is and always will be a dynamic overlap between the two realms. The bridge is a way of ensuring real connectivity and communication without dominance of one realm over the other.

Art has the potential to encourage critical incidents in people. In organisations the experience of art and artistic methods is therefore a powerful tool for real change and innovation.

Paul Levy

May 2000


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s