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Brain circuits

How to overcome organizational Stockholm syndrome

IbyIMD+ Published 3 February 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

Are you a psychological hostage? This happens when you feel powerless to others. It can be evaluated by the amount of conflict present – either too little or too much. When a team has a conflict-free process without any expression of differences and disagreements, you may be experiencing a problem that can go under the radar in some organizations – Stockholm syndrome.

Organizational Stockholm syndrome is a process that is often seen in businesses and results in low performance due to stress, lack of inspiration, and poor creativity. Stockholm syndrome occurs when a bond is created between a hostage and a hostage-taker whereby the hostage defends the captor against the police. It is based on an instinct to survive to avoid being killed or injured. In organizations this syndrome occurs when there is a lack of psychological safety to speak up, toleration of toxic and abusive behavior, poor or no enforcement of boundaries, or an enduring feeling of powerlessness. Bonds between leaders and their teams are sometimes so controlling that people fear speaking up. The parties involved may be conflict-averse or too worried about hurting or being hurt.

Teams can have too much harmony

Teams with too much harmony are not as effective as those with constructive disagreements and conflicts. This is why diversity on teams is so important. Differences are the source of finding the best ideas and solutions. Diversity of opinions, ideas, personalities, gender, and experiences all lead to better results compared to a homogeneous team. In that sense, we want a balance of disagreement and cooperation instead of domination and submission. Too much harmony reflects the lack of psychological safety in the culture and may resemble Stockholm Syndrome. The brain loves harmony, and we need to rewire it to love and be a high performer on a high-performing team.

Put the fish on the table

As a leader, you need to make sure teams get their conflicts out in the open by “putting the fish on the table”. This comes from an old Sicilian saying that after catching a fish, it has to be cleaned. While this can be a bloody, smelly mess, it is necessary in order to enjoy a great fish dinner. It’s the same within organizations. You need to go through the process of putting the issues (the fish) on the table in an open and transparent way to build a high-performing team. If you avoid conflicts or are afraid to express differences, dialogue becomes superficial and lacks the honesty and engagement needed to discover a greater truth. Avoiding conflict may be another signal of Stockholm Syndrome.

What to do

  1. Find inner or outer secure bases that provide a sense of psychological safety to express yourself.
  2. Overcome your fears, and disagree openly and honestly.
  3. Discuss with your team and with individuals how you are working together and what can be improved.
  4. Get coaching or training in conflict management and negotiation.
  5. Rewire your brain to enjoy solving conflicts!

Further interest: 

Video: 60 Seconds with George Kohlreiser

A hostage negotiator teaches leadership through bonding. Video with George Kohlreiser


George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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