From adjustment syndrome to mainstream obedience?

by Marita Koch

Why do many people hesitate to express their opinion when it is contrary to the mainstream? Why do we remain silent among friends and colleagues when we disagree? Among many other suggestions, Allan Guggenbühl’s book “For my child only the best” also provides interesting food for thought on this question by transferring the concept of the adaptation syndrome from stress research to today’s educational reality and thus explaining aspects of education towards a free expression of opinion.

“The adjustment syndrome”

Guggenbühl deals with the “adjustment syndrome” from its natural and necessary forms up to its problematic aspects, also in adults. Adjustment, he explains, is in principle vital. Empathy is the ability to empathise with another person. The child learns to understand its caregivers, to recognise what the parents expect from it. At first it does not act on the basis of objective considerations and rational insight, but adapts to the expectations of the parents because it loves them, because it learns from them how to live, because it wants to be in harmony with them. Thus, it becomes a cooperative member of the family, of the community.
Guggenbühl explains that children sometimes also develop strategies how to influence parents to achieve certain goals such as attention or recognition. They know what they like to hear, so they “tell them what they want to hear in order to monopolise them”.1 [ all quotes translated by Current Concerns] “The reverse of empathy is deception,” says Guggenbühl. “Smart children intuitively notice which words to use, how to conduct themselves to get their own way with adults,”2 says Guggenbühl.  Many parents, Guggenbühl writes, would not notice their children’s ruses, but would believe them everything. But there is a corrective in families: the quarrel, says Guggenbühl. A lot of things are brought up that are otherwise unspoken, “the masks are dropped”.3 Such quarrels are not supposed to be dangerous in the family. Because parents and children are closely connected, they would find the way to each other again.
This is more problematic at school. Here, reprimands, entries in reports, timeout or a diagnosis with the request to attend a therapy are at stake. At this point, Guggenbühl does not go into detail how the schools deal with such problems, he only briefly describes the usual measures.

“If someone is in the adjustment mode, then his mental horizon has narrowed. Autonomous thinking and unusual conclusions are no longer possible.”

Problematic aspects of the adjustment syndrome

Of course, we still need empathy as adults to create harmonious communities. But it becomes problematic if we do not find our way out of the mode of adjustment even if we are called upon as participants in solving real problems, be it at work, in the community, in associations, in the state. If we are not able to weigh in independently and courageously, after rational considerations into the various areas of our everyday life. If we speak for the sake of harmony or in order not to give offence or to provoke a dispute but simply tell them what they want to hear or remain silent. Guggenbühl vividly describes the situation at many workplaces: “Equality is pretended, a pronounced jovial tone is cultivated and hierarchies are kept flat, the boss is on friendly terms with all employees, at functions he toasts to everyone to the festive season and chats merrily about seemingly private matters such as children, holidays and leisure activities. However, nobody knows how decisions are reached and how their own performance is assessed.
If it is not clear who and where power is exercised, increased adjustment can be the result. One submits to the corporate culture for fear of making a mistake and endangering one’s own position. One carefully scans which topics are en vogue and how one has to deal with potential decision-makers. Holders of high positions often do not realise that their subordinates mask themselves and that they themselves live in a bubble. The employees laugh heartily at their jokes, praise their ideas and show off their coolness. However, they actually are on their guard. They don’t dare to communicate what they really think about work, the company or their bosses.”4 Who doesn’t remember a lot of situations? An example: The situation in many teacher’s staff rooms before the vote on Curriculum 21 was extremely tense: It quickly emerged that criticism was not only not desired but even expressly prohibited.
To oppose in such a situation, required heroic courage and was perhaps not always conducive. However, the consequence is that one has to endure an endless series of “information events” and training courses with no discussion or criticism. When the adjustment mode prevails, “hypocrisy is common practice and caution is required”.5 Apart from the fact that such processes are unworthy of a community of adult experts and weaken all those involved, the urgently needed substantive discussion cannot take place in this way. “School management does not know that employees are critical of a reform.”6 Of course, such processes are not only the result of an anxious “adjustment mode” of employees, but often submission is required by superiors or even by “the prevailing opinion”. “The higher ranked the educational institution, the more only political correct opinions are allowed. Who questions the honesty of the #Metoo movement, questions the causes of climate change, uses the plural of students instead the correct gender expression in German, speaks of pupils instead or learners or talks of bums, makes himself suspicious.”7

“The higher ranked the educational institution, the more only politically correct opinions are allowed. Who questions the honesty of the #Metoo movement, questions the causes of climate change, uses the plural of students instead the correct gender expression in German, speaks of pupils instead or learners or talks of bums, makes himself or herself suspicious.”

ISBN 978-3-280-05692-9

Attention: Pitfall – patting on the back!

An expression of the adjustment mode, sometimes difficult to understand and even harder to break, are flatteries. “If the adjustment mode dominates in a group, the feel-good conversation is prone to become the norm. At meetings, breaks, but also on the job, the content of communication is reduced to praise and mutual reassurance of how well you do and how nice you are. At the extreme, a patting on the back culture develops which becomes unbearable for outsiders. Praise is used as a strategy to avoid personal conflicts. […] Pretended enthusiasm and positive feed-back are neutralising points of controversy. […] Praise serves as an obfuscation petard to prevent possible conflicts. […] Everybody is anxious not to leave the mainstream.”8 I would like to add the subject of admiration here. Sometimes in a team, a company, a club, just any group of people one or several are admired excessively. The result is that one expects everything from those admired. Every word is taken as correct, every assessment or evaluation is sacrosanct. Such an adjustment mode is the death of any issue related dispute and the development of new ideas. It prevents relevant critical aspects from being acknowledged and discussed. “If someone is in the adjustment mode, then his mental horizon has narrowed. Autonomous thinking and unusual conclusions are no longer possible.”9
We cannot overestimate the problematic, even dangerous consequences of the adjustment mode. Reforms tolerated without discussion in schools and universities10 lead to an educational catastrophe, the extent of which we do not yet foresee. Municipalities often get into debt with prestigeous buildings, preferably sports halls, because too few dare to question such projects. In the economy, the adjustment mode leads to mismanagement, such as resulting in the grounding of the proud Swissair or the 300 million francs damage due to Pierin Vincenz’s mismanagement at Raiffeisen-Bank. Many of those responsible have supported everything he wanted in preemptive obedience.11 As we extend our thinking, we see that the adjustment mode even has its share in wars. Therefore, the following pressing question arises: How do we get out of this? Moreover, what is the alternative? Is quarrel a solution, as Guggenbühl suggests for families? How could a constructive, solution oriented, dispute look like in a civil society? Thereto Switzerland has actually developed good approaches.

“I have spoken”

In the communal assembly, everyone who wants to speak has the word. He expresses himself to an issue without aiming at the person and without defaming others. One speaks in such a way that one can still look one another in the eye and respect the opponent after the debate and the vote has taken place, even if one disagrees completely with his position. Couldn’t we go from here and create new citizens awareness at all levels? What I find impressive in this context is the yellow vest movement, as Diana Johnstone describes it in this edition: People don’t let themselves be fobbed off with some cheap baits, don’t fall for questionable “communication offers”, but insist on initiative and referendum. They obviously have no leader who tells them what to think and no gospel to follow. The prudence is impressive: If you follow Johnstone, they don’t use violence, but remain persistent in their cause and presence. They want what we citizens are entitled to in the 21st century: They want to determine their life and their country themselves.
For pedagogy is also to be considered: How do children and adolescents become citizens who do not participate in everything as a result of a problematic mode of adaptation? It certainly involves taking them seriously and having genuine discussions with them, especially with young people. We must not allow them to become accustomed to manipulative communication strategies. Guggenbühl says, for example: “Paradoxically, there is a danger with settings that delegate the responsibility for the learning process to children and adolescents. [...] From the child’s point of view, this is a Macchiavellian move. They [the children and adolescents] know very well that it is the adults who are in charge, who decide about right and wrong and who judge their performance. [...] Many children and adolescents therefore switch to adjustment  mode and refrain from critical statements. [...] One completes the task without working in depth with the content, but replicates the expectations one assumes.”12
This is much the same when adults are told: “Your opinion is important to us”13 and in reality it is obvious to everyone that it is dangerous to express any contradiction.
The task remains: What does it really mean to take children and adolescents serious?    •

1    Guggenbühl, Allan. Für mein Kind nur das Beste. 2018, p.89
2    Ibid p. 89
3    Ibid p. 91
4    Ibid p. 93f
5    ibid. P.94
6    ibid. P.94
7    ibid. P.96
8    ibid. P.99
9    Ibid. P.100
10    Of course, there have always been honest, clear-headed citizens who do not allow anyone to order them to be quiet and who, for example, become active in initiative committees.
11    In an investigation Charlotte Jaquemart, economy editor SRF, comes to the following assessment from the enquiry: The Gehrig report is also devastating for Johannes Rüegg-Stürm, former Chairman of the Board of Directors. Without mentioning the University Professor from St. Gallen and specialist in corporate governance by name, it becomes apparent that the Board of Directors under his direction has not supervised Pierin Vincenz at any stage. The Board of Directors also failed to prepare the bank for all the acquisitions with organisational measures and corresponding guidelines. However, all the yes-men in the management – including former CEO Patrik Gisel – who all failed to contradict Pierin Vincenz are thus complicit in the expensive Raiffeisen debacle. In preemtive obedience, the employees did what they knew Vincenz wanted them to do. In: Raiffeisen-Untersuchung. Ein vernichtendes Fazit. In: Raiffeisen-Investigation. A devastating conclusion. 22 January 2019
12    Ibid p.97
13    Guggenbühl, Allan. In: Einspruch! 2 (Objection! 2), 2019, p.47