Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.


Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at:

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

11 thoughts on “Ghost

  1. There was a meeting room where I had to make someone redundant. It was hard to attend a normal meeting there for a little while after that.

    Of course, that is my ghost, so it is no longer there — because I have left and because the firm has moved out of that building. I wonder how the ghosts feel about being abandoned so blithely.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I rather suspect our ghosts stay with us Mark, despite out attempts to abandon them. Like a certain hotel, we can check out anytime, but it’s no guarantee we’ll ever leave.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if these thoughts on buildings and rooms also apply on a larger scale, to cities and districts within them; the psychogeographers would certainly say so. While everyone will have their own memories and associations, perhaps there’s something more objective, akin to the wall of Deans. Perhaps a city that is old enough, complex enough, and has enough of its older structure left intact – London, say, or Venice – develops its own persona through layers of association. If one accepted this, it might influence the location of a conference or a negotiation; I can’t help feeling the Brexit negotiations would go better if held somewhere other than Brussels.

    By the way, have you read Jan Morris’ ‘Trieste and the meaning of nowhere’? surely the most liminal of cities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, they do, Dave. Interestingly, Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, deploys Venice as an example of a city ‘fashioned, shaped and invested’ by social activities. These combine the city’s ‘reality with its ideality, embracing the practical, the symbolic and the imaginary’. I will look out for Jan Morris’ Trieste – in fact, I had my own experience of nowhere there. Years ago, while inter-railing, we had naively assumed that Trieste was still in Yugoslavia, so arrived late on a Sunday evening with no lira and nowhere to change our dinar. As for what happened next that is, as they say, a story for another day…


  4. This is my favorite of your posts so far, Ian. I think all of us relate to ghosts of sorts, even if we profess to living firmly in the here and now.

    I often instinctlively mention in conversation how spaces make me feel; ‘that place is toxic’ or ‘my happy place’. It is interesting to reflect on what might be triggering these feelings. How the intangible traces of the past have so much impact on the present. Can spaces ever be anything but liminal connections between then and now?

    I first encountered the concept/practice of feng shui over a decade ago, when I was studying and teaching tai chi. The idea of items within our environment having an energy, good or bad, was compelling. Feng shui is often associated with tidyiness and minimalism, but in fact I think it allows for ‘clutter’. Collections of books, notebooks, bags, postcards, shoes, scarves, crayons, beads, textiles and postcards etc. Materiality can enhance our wellbeing, and I think often of the importance of keeping things around us which we associate with happy or positive thoughts. I have some treasured personal items from my childhood, past homes, friends, my travels, and my family, but also items which I have collected from Ebay, Abe Books or Amazon.

    Specifically I try to remember and acquire all my childhood books which were given away. Even though the books I collect belonged to some other child ( … although they *could* be mine coming back to me …) the energy they provide in my life is positive. I enjoy recreating the bookshelves of my childhood. Somehow these ghostly collections, belonging to, and representing a now unimaginable and long departed version of me, create spaces in my present which support and console me, when the complexity of the world I inhabit today seems overwhelming.

    Things associated with negative thougths and memories, should certainly be given away, but even then, traces of their existence remain in our memories, and entering the spaces which they occupied is hardly any different from when they were there.

    Spaces devoid of physical things can have just as powerful an impact on our psyche as those filled up with physical reminders of the past. I avoid rooms where I have encountered conflict, heard what someone says behind my back, or places where someone I cared about died. I imagine others do too. Liminality, the past encroaching on the present, in this context has very real implications for how we function, either personally or professionally. Our surroundings matter, and organisations of all kinds could benefit from considering this, and attempting to encourage the joyous and positive wherever possible.


    Liked by 1 person

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