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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM24-PP10

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Bricks Without Mortar

Presenters: James Krantz & Jack Marmorstein

Abstract
Our lives in contemporary organizations are characterized by a paradox: in an era of unprecedented hyper-connectivity, we’re lonelier and more isolated than ever. In this paper, we examine this paradox through the lens of the systems psychodynamic distinction between relationships and relatedness to understand its root causes and suggest interventions for today’s organizations and workplaces.

Organizations cohere by virtue of relatedness–that is, the shared bond members feel with the hundreds or thousands of other people who, like themselves, work towards the organization’s tasks and purpose, regardless of the fact that most will never know each other personally. Relatedness creates an organization in-the-mind that is both critical for organizational identity and also susceptible to the anxieties and fantasies that are readily stimulated in organizational life.

In contrast to relatedness, relationships develop with the small number of people an employee works with or interacts with over a span of time and in some depth. Though they might be small in number, these relationships are crucial, as they support employees’ capacity to learn, develop, and create by virtue of meeting the psychological need for containment and offering opportunities for continual development.

During Covid, we began to wonder what’s happening to relationships and relatedness in our rapidly changing organizational life. Does the distinction help us understand the consequences of things like remote and virtual work, the gig economy, and collaborative technologies? What effect do these changes have on our sense of relatedness and our relationships? Have macroeconomic trends like globalization and the primacy of shareholder value fundamentally changed organizations?

Our hypothesis is that each of these–unprecedented remoteness and isolation; technologically-mediated collaboration; and macroeconomic forces–have eroded our opportunities to have relationships in our organizations. Without an adequate web of relationships, organizations are no longer capable of meeting employees’ fundamental needs and employees in turn have a reduced capacity to contribute and develop to their fullest. These dynamics can explain various workplace and social dynamics, everything from high rates of turnover among Millenials and Gen Z employees to the epidemic of loneliness and diseases of despair.

Furthermore, we’ve observed that the problem of the paucity of relationships in organizations is generally misrecognized as a crisis of engagement. This misrecognition inspires interventions that appear to foster human connection but do so only by disconnecting these interactions from meaningful task work. We believe this to be a social defense against relationships, as relationships defy commodification and might actually be disruptive to business-as-usual (e.g., enjoying the financial and efficiency gains of gig economy contractors or off-shored workers doing technologically-enabled piecework).

Relationships might return some balance to the competing interests of efficiency and quality of work life, requiring organizations to suboptimize for both instead of prioritizing cheap labor and automation. We propose that organizations can address this by focusing on the core issue: supporting relationships embedded in the organization’s task and structure.

We will offer examples and case studies of the ways relationships have been eroded in organizations, the consequences of this erosion, the ways the crisis is being misunderstood, and the ways it can ultimately be addressed.

Biographical Summaries

James Krantz is an organizational consultant and researcher from New York City where he is a principal of Worklab, a firm that concentrates on strategy implementation and senior team development. Jim earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Economics from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Systems Sciences from the Wharton School. He has served on the standing faculties of Yale and Wharton and has taught at numerous universities including Columbia, Harvard, INSEAD and the Universidad de Chile. Jim’s writing has focused on the impact of emerging social trends on management, issues of leadership in contemporary organizations, and on the socio-psychological challenges posed by new forms of organization. He is an Honorary Member and past president of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO), a Fellow of the A.K. Rice Institute, and former Director of the Center for Socio-Analytic Studies at IPTAR. He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Organisational and Social Dynamics, and Socio-Analysis.

Jack Marmorstein is the Chief Learning Officer at a multinational education company and a former President of the A.K. Rice Institute. He consults with startups and across the Ed Tech industry. He has advanced degrees in literature and psychology. He’s published journalism and scholarship, and he holds seven patents.