The Allegory of the Cave: Perspectives for the 21st Century

Today’s society has changed drastically from the time of Plato. It is important to realize that the Allegory of the Cave still remains an important concept to understand from an organizational view as well. Although the concepts of philosophy often elude this writer, it is with great hope that a sufficient understanding will allow a comparison of personal organizational views as it pertains to the Allegory of the Cave.

One of the questions brought forth is the relevance of this Allegory as it relates to personal organizational life. Within the every organizational infrastructure there exists a cave. There are several types of prisoners that are encased behind “walls”. There are internal and external stakeholders and the company. The cave that exists is the perception of the stakeholder that their every need is to be fulfilled at their asking. They see the shadows that the company casts in front of them, never seeing the actual people (the true reactions and opinions of the company or upper hierarchies). Often times the actual person is reflected for the stakeholder; however, there also exists those times where the shadow that is cast only serves to alienate the stakeholder from the company. Often one hears the phrasing I hate my job or I hate my company.

It would appear that the puppeteers are corporate structure or management team, casting their images or stories they wish the internal and external stakeholders to know or understand. The shadows that are cast are not the true perspectives, feelings, or emotions that the company has towards individuals or specific groups of individuals. It would appear that the “fire” that is referenced in the Allegory would be the “light of conceptual understanding” or possibly the “light of conceptual knowledge” that is communicated by those who are in power. This becomes a dual edged sword when one begins to understand that fire can be more than a light source; it can also be a weapon of pain or destruction whereby failure can bring you under fire.

It would also seem that the prisoners might also be the internal employees as they attempt to perform the job actions of the shadows cast before them from the puppeteers (corporate structure). Either way it is examined the results are very similar. Images are shown of what to perform, what to say, how to respond, and so on; however, there are many instances where the internal team member truly does not understand or believe that what he or she is doing is the right job performance.

Taking this process further, the concept of diffused sunlight and the ascent to sunlight can be interpreted to true understanding and true knowledge (ascent to sunlight) and perceived understanding and perceived knowledge (diffused sunlight). The diffused sunlight begins to show the “real picture of understanding and knowledge” whereas the ascent to sunlight is the actual psychological grasp of everything that has been discussed—no hidden meanings, no “perceptions—just a true belief established and fully set into place. These true beliefs will become more solid as more time goes by in the real world.

The types of caves that are witnessed may be varied. Ignorance, perceived inability to perform, sexism and racism, and “friendship” have been some of the most dramatic and drastic cases of “cave exposure” that all organizations encounter. Conflict over seeing shadows and images can vary greatly from organization to organization. Minor adjustments can be the smallest of these conflicts. These can be as simple as rearranging work schedules, meeting times, or team assignments. More often than not the conflict usually is very significant with implications that begin to affect teamwork, productivity, attendance, job satisfaction, tenure, and morale.

 It is unfortunate that people will continue to find fault with each other without looking inward  to see if the same faults exist within themselves.  It seems that people fail to open their eyes to the truth, constantly and consistently seeing only what feels comfortable to them.  The truth can hurt people; therefore, self delusions are very helpful for people trying to avoid pain. Other individuals that do not agree with someone’s view of reality will resort to questioning, hostility, anger, or possibly mocking those who do not conform to their beliefs. As individuals, we are scared to admit that we might not have all the answers or that we are wrong.

Even though each person is entitled to their own perspective and understanding, there still must be a way to bring different ideas, minds, and thought processes together. It therefore becomes very critical to find ways to take the actions of others, the thoughts of others, and the impact of the organization’s culture upon one’s ability to make choices, create sound and logical decisions, and to question those concepts one find hard to understand.

 One way to minimize conflict is to create an atmosphere of honest communication. Allowing the “prisoners” to be able to bring to the table important issues or problems can empower them into making appropriate and correct decisions that will benefit them, as well as the organization. Team building exercises and commitments are very valuable in this respect. Each organization must build upon this approach and force distinct individuals to work for a common goal.   

August 3, 2006

Montgomery Beyer, MBA