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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 6 July 1.45pm-3.00 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP11

Tensions on the production line: a conflict with obscured causes

Presenter: Martin Lüdemann
Moderator: Celina Rodriguez Drescher


This case took place on a production line for metal components. The employees were mainly unskilled laborers, women of different national backgrounds employed on a temporary basis. The works council complained about the behavior of the supervisor of this production line. The complaints were fueled with emotions and the situation was more like an outburst of rage than a formal complaint. The management was surprised and asked a consultant what should be done.

The consultant decided to talk to the employees about their perceptions of the work climate and leadership. Workshops were organized to ask them in groups, with anonymity guaranteed. The findings were alarming. The employees reported that the supervisor systematically treated his staff unequally and unfairly. He favored a small group of employees with the same national background as himself and put a lot of pressure on others. His leadership style was described as micromanagement with a lack of trust—he didn’t even entrust his favorites with leadership roles.

On being informed of the results, the supervisor was unable to take this feedback on board. The head of production wanted to dismiss the supervisor. He was unable to understand and discuss the consultant’s (systems-psychodynamic) interpretation of the case.

The systems-psychodynamic interpretation comprised the following aspects:

  • During the feedback session it became obvious that there were conflicts not only between the employees who were favored and the others, but also among groups with different national backgrounds (Russia, Turkey, the former Yugoslavian, and several others).
  • The part of the company where the case takes place had gone through a phase of fast growth which was not supported by leadership structures and developmental measures for the managers. Over the course of 7 years, the number of employees in the supervisor’s group had grown from 10 to 100. The supervisor’s chosen leadership style (very autocratic, controlling, and favoring a few supporters) can be interpreted as showing that he was confronted with excessive demands without having the resources to manage properly.
  • A key hypothesis was that management had turned a blind eye to this production line as a defense mechanism because they wanted to avoid being confronted with the various conflicts between employees from different national backgrounds, and they delegated this responsibility without giving support. This hypothesis can be supported by a more sociopolitical view, i.e., that people in Germany have difficulties (even to the point of avoidance) in dealing with people from other countries.

The production head developed a bad conscience about his initial impulse to fire the supervisor and asked me to discuss my interpretation once more. He then decided to give the supervisor a second chance, with support, and to keep an eye on the cultural differences.

The systems-psychodynamic approach helped to find an appropriate solution in a more differentiated and careful way.

Biographical Summary

Dr. Martin Lüdemann holds an MA in Organisational Analysis from the University of East London and is a graduate of the Psychology Diploma Programme (organisational psychology) of the University of Darmstadt, Germany. He has been working as a consultant for 30 years and supports groups and individuals in organizations – mostly in the business sector, but also in the social sector. Martin began his professional life as a consultant at Lufthansa Consulting in Cologne and co-founded Dr. Sourisseaux, Lüdemann and Partners in 1996. He was a partner in the firm of consultant business psychologists in Darmstadt for 17 years before going into business on his own in 2013. He completed further training courses in group dynamics, systemic consulting, large-group techniques, supervision (DGSv), coaching (EMCC), group analysis (IGA Heidelberg) and group relations (Tavistock Consulting and Grubb Institute). He recently finished the Professional Doctorate Program at Tavistock Consulting and the University of Essex.