To understand the complexities behind this topic, we would have to start with a discussion on management, which in itself is too expansive for a blog post, so we will briefly define what it is and its main functions and styles.
In business, and for all institutions public and private, the generally accepted definition of management is the organization and coordination of activities in order to achieve defined objectives. The seven functions of management are planning, organizing, staffing, directing, controlling, coordination and cooperation.
There are also many styles of management, which generally fall into the three categories of autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire; autocratic is the most controlling and laissez-faire being the least controlling.
Regardless of management style, an analytical process is critically essential for success. For analysis to be meaningful you need an inquiring and unbiased attitude to get the best information available; restricting that process will result in a myopic organization, a syndrome we can characterize as bunker mentality.
The term derives from military experiences, also called siege mentality; it comes about as a collective fear of being under attack. In the military sense, that can be a very deadly reality. In management however, it is often not of a clearly defined aggressor, but the world in general, especially for causes yet unknown. It can manifest itself as an irrational urge for isolation and extreme defensiveness; these are panic reactions to perceptions more so than realities.
Such an environment is indicative of fear. Good managerial skills include the ability to face fear, not to deny it, but in order to control it and look through it to the cause of the anxieties at play. Further, when faced with problems, good management requires an analysis of the consequences of any actions being contemplated. Uncontrolled fear can blind you to the consequences of your reactions, often causing more damage than the problem itself.
Good management understands that a bunker mentality is a common reaction to problems outside of historical experience, causing a withdrawal from analytical processes such as consideration of the consequences of proposed solutions; inevitably this in turn increases fear, further feeding the impulse to withdraw into a defensive shell, and a heightened intolerance for any conflicting opinions as to what to do.
Often when a state of bunker mentality exists, it will seek the first solution offered to the exclusion of any alternatives; it is rushed to execution without consideration of future consequences, only the exigencies of the moment. Soon however the future becomes the present and the consequences make the initial problem almost trivial by comparison, mostly because no one was prepared to deal with consequences precisely because no one thought about or was allowed to think about them.
Another characteristic of the bunker mentality is how it treats the unintended consequences that were never considered; basically it goes into the blame game phase. The focus then becomes how to deal with the perception of who screwed up and not on the original problem. Any critics of the decisions that led to the unintended consequences are dismissed as uneducated fools who don’t understand what the experts know and what those in power have to deal with. Time and again, additional bad decisions follow in an effort to deflect these consequences, putting everything into a death spiral.
It is extremely difficult getting people out of the bunker mentality. The resistance to come out of their comfort zone is strong, even as the defensive shell they are in is collapsing around them; often it means reassignment or dismissal as the bunkers can be impenetrable. Working against the bunker mentality will also bring out the self-righteousness of its supporters, and those whose agenda is not about what’s best but what is expedient to their immediate benefit.
From a military perspective sieges either succeed because those besieged took no action, or fail because either the besieged are relieved and/or come out and break the siege or the reasons for the siege are themselves mitigated in some way as when peace is declared.
Similarly, from a managerial perspective, you need to overcome the bunker mentality and move forward to solve problems, inclusive of avoiding negative long term consequences, i.e. do no harm. The alternatives are you fail and the organization or project fails also, leading to irredeemable losses. This may also happen even if the “other side” concedes the issue at hand. There is no upside with a bunker mentality, not in the long run, and if you are not managing for the long run, you don’t belong in management to begin with.