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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Absent Managers: Emotion and anxiety in middle level I.T. management

The paper seeks to understand something of the emotional life and emotions that accompany working at the organizational boundary between the information technology (IT) function (build and operate information systems) and business functions of the enterprise, particularly for IT middle managers and the associated roles. The paper considers what explanations psychoanalytically informed organization research may offer in making sense of this and how socio-analytic thinking (Bain, 1999) may contribute to possible hypotheses for shaping action and intervention to improve organizational and individual outcomes in the work system. The paper focuses attention on the experiences of IT managers and staff in their work interactions with the business units they support and the ways they manage the pressures and demands imposed on them in doing this work. These pressures are imposed by undertaking the actual work tasks and by the enterprise as a whole. It considers the psychological and emotional experiences of being a member of this IT function that in turn is part of the technical system of work in the enterprise. As is evident from other studies into social defences in work groups and enterprises (Menzies, 1970), this paper identifies and explores these established behavioural patterns of defence in work groups within the information technology function. These defences are socially constructed patterns of behaviour that protect the group from its painful experiences of the task by reducing anxiety. Of themselves, social defences are neither good nor bad. It is the extent to which they dominate the task that indicates their usefulness or inappropriateness to completing required work outcomes. These patterns repeat themselves in the face of the ongoing threats and pressures that emerge in the course of the technical work with the broader business system. The organizational area of information technology (IT) and the work tasks of information system (IS) development and operation, represent an area of organizational study in need of inquiry. These work tasks require extensive collaborative efforts between business groups within the enterprise and their supporting IT or IS groups. The degree and effectiveness of this interworking is needed to increase as technology evolves and as business pressures to quickly get new products to market increases. When the collaborative work on these tasks is poor, there often is significant wastage of the enterprises resources and opportunities. In the interests of exploring these questions and issues, examples and data are used from a research case study of a large telecommunications enterprise. This enterprise is a very heavy user of information technology and is highly dependent on the effectiveness of its IT function in supporting all areas of its business. The central example from this case suggests that an unconscious, socially constructed set of defensive behaviours exists in the work system and is focused on the tension experienced in the IT middle management roles. IT middle managers in the case study organization are chronically absent from their work groups. I look at the effect this has on the IT work group, both at the level of the groups task and the emotional experience of the individual and group. It is suggested that this absence of middle managers from their work groups can be seen as a form of psychological splitting between management and staff groups. In endeavouring to further understand this, the following working hypothesis has been formulated, the abandonment by IT middle managers of their work groups is a socially constructed defence against the unbearable tension middle managers experience in reconciling business demands with IT capability. The social defence reconciles the unrealistic hopes of the IT senior management group for systems delivery with the actual uncertainties and anxieties faced by the IT work groups in doing the detailed work tasks of information system delivery. IT senior management are seen by middle managers as detached from the reality and experience of the work task of delivering information systems. The IT work groups are known by middle managers to be fearful of punishment and blame for not being able to deliver or failing to deliver. The paper explores this using data from the case study.