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Don’t be afraid: a short piece on Terror Management Theory in the workplace

Work grinding you down? Don't let it get under your skin...
Work grinding you down? Don't let it get under your skin...

Psychological theories of self are a bit like theories of literary or cinematic criticism: they’re a useful lens to place over a piece of art or a set of circumstances, improving or changing our view of some elements and obscuring others. They’re not “right” or “wrong”, nor do they need to be. They’re not meant to be right, or at least not all-encompassing. They’re tools to help us think in new ways, or to refine/challenge old ways of thinking. Unlike the physical sciences, psychology often deals with situations that are subjective. Reality – as interpreted by more than one person at a time – is always subjective.

Looking at the world of work using the same tools of as literary criticism might sound whimsical, and it’s undeniable that when evaluating behaviour and the motivations behind it, data will always be king. The best evidence for what people think will always be what they do. But sometimes one comes across a psychological theory that’s too fitting – and too fun – not to be explored a bit. Don’t worry, we’ll try to keep this blog post short.


This is my boss, Thanatos

Terror management theory (TMT) attempts to explain a type of defensive human thinking and behavior that stems from our awareness (and fear) of death. It’s a theory of evolutionary psychology – so one that seeks to explain how our modern psyche evolved in response to the needs and stimuli of human development, in the same way our physical bodies evolved. It was originally described by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski in their 2015 book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.

According to TMT (and here we’re quoting Psychology Today):

anxiety over death drives us to adopt worldviews that protect our sense of self-esteem, worthiness and sustainability and allow us to believe that we play an important role in a meaningful world.

Our survival instincts, and the need to reinforce our cultural significance in the face of death, often result in displays of prejudice, or the belief that the group with which we identify is superior to other groups. In this way, we confirm our self-importance and insulate ourselves from our deep fear of merely living an insignificant life, permanently eradicated by death.

In short: everyone is scared of dying, even if they don’t admit or even consciously recognise it. To deal with this anxiety we tell ourselves that we’re living a meaningful life, and the main way we label it meaningful is to label it superior, better or “right”. We establish a set of cultural values and then tie our self-esteem to how closely we’re matching those values in our day-to-day life.

There a lot of criticisms of this worldview. That’s OK, assuming one theory is “correct” is far too hopeful. Some are substitutional – what if we’re really worrying about uncertainty instead of death? – some are critiques of the evolutionary aspect (since for most of us, eventual death is totally separate from immediate physical danger, why would we continue to worry about it?) But TMT is interesting to think about because you can apply it to just about any sphere that humans operate in – including work.


Live the status quo

According to TMT, humans have an ingrained psychological instinct – reinforced by a lifetime of indulging that instinct – to value what they have been doing over what someone else suggests, and label the status quo as “more correct” without ever considering why.

This provides a neat explanation for organisational behaviour. Businesses are slow to change and address prejudice, for example, because many of us learn to incorporate those same prejudices into our self-esteem. A particular way of working becomes the norm – often without any thoughtfulness or evidence to support its effectiveness – because our overall self-esteem is tied up with it being so. What’s really interesting is that, if none of us are immune to TMT, even stuff that doesn’t personally benefit us might be unconsciously valued. You might “know” that a particular way of of working is inefficient, but still feel uncomfortable about alternatives. Keeping something less useful and complaining about it might give you less anxiety than challenging it.

Structural biases are tough to acknowledge, according to TMT, because allowing that our way of doing things might be inferior – for any reason, not only a moral perspective – tells us that what we’ve done so far isn’t that important, and that by extension we aren’t that important. When you critique someone’s way of doing things you are lessening the meaning of their choices. Rather than allow this, TMT argues that we are conditioned to simply reject it.

It doesn’t matter what your subjective “what you’ve always done” is. If you’re someone that’s spent their life creating and profiting from change, TMT will give you a natural preference for that mode of being – your self-esteem is tied into its effectiveness. If someone suggests that your methods aren’t always best you’re more likely to be dismissive because you ascribe less cultural value to the alternative.


How to rattle some bones

You might read all this and shake your head. Fair enough. But theories like this are useful not because they explain how people think but because they give us a set of criteria to evaluate against. When we try to be disruptive in business, it’s useful to ask how much someone’s self-esteem is tied up in the status quo, if only to think of new ways to change their behaviour.

Disruption has been quickest and most complete in business areas where consumers attribute little cultural value (in fact, most “disruptive” products are evolutionary developments kicked up a gear, but we’ll use the word as it’s commonly used at the moment). How someone books a cab or a bed and breakfast doesn’t affect their sense of self. How people write things has a little more significance, but few people held out with typewriters over word processing software. The value one ascribes to an intellectual source has more weight – which is why encyclopedias managed to hold on for the first decade of mass internet usage and why “fake news” still pretends to be “real news”. How someone uses and reacts to money is a significant part of their cultural makeup – online banking is rapidly adopted, blockchain may never become a replacement for personal finance arrangements, even if every potential criticism is addressed. 

We’re always evaluating attitudes to flexible working. TMT is a useful filter to evaluate reactions to it, both rational and irrational. It’s also useful to checking our own prejudices – what aspects of business change are we enthusiastic about because they fit our values, even if they might not be efficient? A new frame of reference is always valuable, even if you only use it to check your work.

And, when theory runs out, there’s always data to fall back on. TMT is highly subjective – it’s never going to answer every question or reveal every motive, but it’s an interesting way to uncover those questions in the first place. Finding that a psychological model “fits” employment like this is a reminder that much of what we do is not designed. It is evolved – often as a mechanism for coping with a world that is hugely complex and indifferent to us as individuals.

We said we’d keep it short, and we’re starting to run long. But whenever you run across a cultural theory that sounds engaging – even if it’s obviously pop psychology or meant to provoke – why not spend five minutes applying it to your working environment? What questions does it raise about that status quo? Does it give you a new appreciation for processes? Does it make you question how you do things?

There are no right or wrong answers with this method, but there are new questions. New questions are the heart of disruption, the heart of business change, the heart of societal progress. Anything you can do to start asking them is a good thing, in our opinion.  

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