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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM22-PP13: When trust collapses: A psychodynamic consultancy at a multinational company's Italian plant for managers survived

Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 2 July 2.45pm-4:00pm (14.45-16.00) CEST
Paper Code: PP13
CE credits available

When trust collapses: A psychodynamic consultancy at a multinational company's Italian plant for managers

Presenter: Elena Emandez


Since COVID pandemic affected our lives, the sources of vulnerability increased, causing new personal crisis. Also, organizations, facing the “VUCA” world, are handling old and new problems linked to their survival.

To delay closure, prepare for privatization or lessen costs and remain competitive, firms apply corporate restructuring as a common strategy (Gandolfi, 2014). It includes processes such as merge, acquisition and downsize and all of these tend to use employee reduction initiatives to reach cost containment (Maertz et al., 2010).

Survivors are employees who did not lose their jobs during the implementation of these strategies, but live a breach of their psychological contract with the organization: during and after downsizing events, employees are worried about job security, feel unsatisfied, show higher job-related stress and low level of affective commitment: they may develop the “survivor syndrome” (Mayton, 2011). In merge and acquisition the future is filled by rumors on restructuring, job losses and perceived threats to social
identity, which may lead to “merger syndrome” (Sinkovics et al., 2011). In the end, the restructurings may cause in employees a wide range of negative emotions (such as anger, shame, fear and guilt) and run through the group due to the “emotional contagion” dynamic (Elfenbein, 2014).

The psychological pain that affected “survivors” generally is “invisible” for HR department and/or top managers, who normally expect that the surviving employees will be highly committed and productive, grateful to the organization for having maintained their job. This fact, then, may cause a vice circle, where the lack of organizational support and the sense of helplessness among employees generates a subsequent turnover, increasing work disruptions, loss of organizational memory and loss of productivity (Hart et al., 2016).

This paper presents the intervention conducted in one Italian plant of a multinational company that underwent, since 2014, a long series of organizational restructurings that caused consequences at psychological and financial level and a high risk of closing too. The project involved 11 middle managers exposed to frequent conflict, acted by compartmentalization and disaggregation, with low trust in the company leaders, who in turn saw them as «weights that hinder change». The organizational dynamics
were characterized by the use of several defenses (such as splitting, projecting, rationalization) and the group seemed to be unconsciously syntonized on regressive functioning where the basic assumptions prevailed (Bion, 1961).

A mixed methods approach was chosen (Ramesha, 2014), using interviews, training sessions, follow up meetings, involving the HR manager, Site Director, one Central Team member, Unions delegates and the management team. The project objectives (agreed with the Client – HR dept. and Site Director) were to increase commitment, teamwork and interdependency among managers. Along with this, the (unsaid and ambivalent) expectation seemed to be to confirm the idea that there wasn't anything else to “save”
and those people were the “source of the problem”. At the end, the project reached some good results in terms of morale and performance and improved the ability of the site to “take care” of its people and its business.

Learning Objectives

After this session participants will be able to:

  1. identify the main characteristics of the “survivors syndrome” in the organizational context.
  2. recognize an application of common HR tools (job description) as a narrative tool to explore both the surface of the role and the deeper anxieties.
  3. identify an application of the drawing technique as tool for an intervention in an organization facing a trauma.

Biographic Summary

After earning a Master’s Degree in Psychology and the Psychologist license (n° 5847 - Italy), Elena Ernandez took a PhD in Health Psychology. Thereafter, working as a consultant, trainer and coach (Coach ACC - ICF – validity: Jan 2023) on soft skills and leadership development and on work life psychological health. Clients are individuals and groups, in multinational and entrepreneurial companies both in Italy and abroad, in the public and private sectors. Since 2018 Elena is Visiting Professor at IUST-TO (PontificianSalesian University in Turin) for 3 courses.


Bion, W. (1961). R, 1961, Experiences in groups. London, Tavistock.
Gandolfi, F. (2014). Why do firms downsize? Theoretical underpinnings. Journal of Management Research, 14(1), 3-14.
Elfenbein, H. A. (2014). The many faces of emotional contagion: An affective process theory of affective linkage. Organizational Psychology Review, 1–37.
Hart, A. L., Thomson, N. F., & Huning, T. M. (2016). The mediating role of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice on the relationship between downsizing and organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 20(1), 132-142.
Maertz, C. P., Wiley, J. W., LeRouge, C., & Campion, M. A. (2010). Downsizing effects on survivors: Layoffs, offshoring, and outsourcing. Industrial Relations, 49, 275- 285.
Mayton, S. M. (2011). Survivor coping: A fresh look at resiliency in the wake of downsizing. OD Practitioner, 43(1), 42-47.
Ramesha, G. K. (2014). Role of training & development and effective human resource practices during organization’s
downsizing. International Journal of Organizational Behaviour & Management Perspectives, 3, 759-762.
Sinkovics, R.R., Zagelmeyer, S. and Kusstatscher, V. (2011). Between merger and syndrome: the intermediary role of emotions in four cross-border M&As. International Business Review, 20, 1, 27-47