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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-PP23: Voluntary Turnover as a Social Defence: When Soul is Exported

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Parallel Papers Session 5

Saturday 1 July 15.15pm-16.30 SAST - VENUE 3
Paper Code: PP23

Voluntary Turnover as a Social Defence: When Soul is Exported

Presenter: Dr. Calum McComb


The high cost that voluntary turnover bears on organisations has motivated extensive research into the phenomenon over the past 70 years. This focus on economic utility, mostly at the level of the individual, neglected the unconscious and irrational intrapsychic and psychosocial processes of voluntary turnover. It neglects an understanding of voluntary turnover as a symptom of the soul of the organisation. Scarsella (2018) makes a plausible argument that Plato’s tripartite theory of soul had an impact on Freud’s own theory of the psyche. Thus, to deny the workings of the unconscious of the organisation is to deny the soul. I argue in this paper that voluntary turnover is a symptom of what is denied by the system, and which is carried by individuals who are used to export organisational soul.

The study aimed to explore and describe the lived voluntary turnover experiences of seven cases and to analyse them using systems psychodynamics as meta-theoretical lens. It sought to reveal the soul of the organisation as it relates to voluntary turnover as a symptom. Both Freud and Plato considered the establishment of a harmonious relationship between the tripartite elements of the soul as the key factor to psychological well-being (Scarsella, 2018). The study therefore further aimed to enable groups, organisations, and individuals to better adjust and develop psychologically through voluntary turnover as a process. Hermeneutic phenomenology and the use of the theoretical framework of systems psychodynamics enabled in-depth descriptions and the development of abductive working hypotheses about the lived experiences of voluntary turnover, thus resurfacing the soul of the organisation. The research strategy comprised of case studies which were analysed individually before integrating findings across the cases into themes.

The study revealed the unconscious psychodynamic processes of voluntary turnover at the levels of the group (meso), the organisation (macro), and the individual (micro). This paper presents the macro-organisational level themes as social defences and as states of organisational consciousness that work toward voluntary turnover. Themes that emerged at the level of the organisation included a culture of devalued people, a culture of cruelty shrouded in niceness, a messiah culture, a stagnated culture, a detached culture, and a paranoid-schizoid culture. People on the inside introjected the de-value while value was projected onto objects outside of the organisation. Leaders declined to engage virtuous betrayal (Krantz, 2019) in service of their narcissism. The assumption was that to be nice was to be powerful. People had to assume the organisation as all omnipotent savior to stay while those who carried the performance realities of the organisation were exported. The failed container-contained process of leadership created stagnation. People assumed growth to exist only on the outside of the organisation. The head of the organisation had become paternally and maternally detached from the body, and the system was in the paranoid-schizoid position. I hypothesized voluntary turnover as a social defence in which the soul of the organisation is denied and exported.

Key terms: Voluntary turnover; soul; unconscious; lived experience; anxiety; defences; hermeneutic phenomenology; toxic leadership; organisational culture; trauma; loss; shame; systems psychodynamics.

Learning Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  1. Apply social defence theory to voluntary turnover issues in organisations.
  2. Distinguish between different kinds of turnover.
  3. Identify social defences that work toward voluntary turnover
  4. Recognise voluntary turnover as a symptom of underlying psychodynamic macro-organisational processes

Biographical Summary

Calum McCombe is a consulting psychologist and works in private practice. He holds a Ph.D. in consulting psychology from the University of South Africa. Calum has consulted with small family-owned businesses and large national, and international organisations. Passionate about deriving psychodynamic insights, he has convened listening posts, and social dreaming matrixes and has consulted to group relations conferences. He is the former chair of IGSPO and remains on the executive committee. He is a certified Analytic Network Coach and a member of the Eco-Leadership Institute.