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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Anxiety and the New Order

We are reminded daily that were heading - or perhaps careening - into the New Order where former approaches to organizing and getting work done are obsolete. Change is constant and unpredictable; markets are unstable; technological innovation is explosive and on a dramatically steep gradient; hierarchies change into networks, bosses to coaches, and jobs into ever changing bundles of shifting task assignments. The established psychological contracts between employees and their organizations are evaporating. Because change is pervasive, choice is ever present and learning is at a premium.Wrenching change has become a fact of life, even though the institutions most of us work for exist in a kind of transitional, intermediate state between the older forms of bureaucratic organization and the new, cutting-edge arrangements. No matter how far along on the path to the New Order they are, organizations everywhere, buffeted by these turbulent forces, are under immense pressure to alter or dismantle deeply held patterns and cherished cultural arrangements. For many the losses of familiarity and safety are profoundly disorienting (Shapiro and Carr, 1991). Organizations are adapting along lines that have coalesced into a fairly consistent and common set of overarching themes: a sharply disciplined focus on customer satisfaction; replacing 'command and control' methods with ones that elicit greater employee commitment; emphasizing the ability to learn and adapt as new challenges and opportunities emerge; and addressing competitive issues through cross-functional collaboration rather than via the functional 'silos' characteristic of former, more segmented, organizational structures.Perhaps the most pervasive theme is the recognition that in order to thrive in the intensely competitive, technologically unstable, and rapidly shifting markets, organizations must create highly participative environments in which people at all levels take, and feel, personal responsibility for collective output and in which they are emotionally invested. The conforming, loyal 'organization ma' of the 50s and 60s (Whyte, 1956) has given way to the authorized, risk-taking 'enterprising' employee of the 1990s. By freeing people of the bureaucratic encumbrances and 'empowering' them to take action, New Order organizations aim to promote success through more sophisticated collaboration, through teams whose members represent and integrate different specialities, and through the heightened interpersonal competence which arises as people fill their roles more passionately.Just as organizations are expected to be leaner, meaner, smarter, more efficient and innovative, so are the people comprising them. In the words of the CEO of a major corporation: 'Decision- making cycles tighten, feedback loops are shorter, and theres less room for error. The risks go up because you can get left behind a lot more quickly.' (Garvin, 1995) The disciplined focus on customers forces organizations to link activities and functions that have been historically segmented. In turn, practices that emphasize the interdependence among different specialities and functional areas draw upon the ability of members representing these diverse specialities, functional areas, levels of hierarchy, and geographic regions to work together in an ever more sophisticated fashion. Paradoxically, the very conditions that put such a premium on the ability to work together in ever more sophisticated fashion also pose serious challenges to achieving this kind of collaboration. While the loss of familiar structures, for example, may require developing new, more fluid approaches to collaboration, the loss of stable structures also stimulates great anxiety and creates pressure to mobilize exactly the kind of defensive responses that impede the required collaboration. Heightened expectations for high commitment, increased sophistication, and greater competence by members of the New Organizations are accompanied by a dramatic increase in peoples vulnerability. While the most obvious sources of vulnerability are the cutbacks, downsizing, and the frequency with which even senior executives are dismissed, the New Order brings with it many other ways in which psychic vulnerability is heightened, ways that are perhaps less obvious but no less challenging. My basic argument builds upon the idea that those conditions enabling people to operate at high levels of sophistication and fully engaged collaboration must be considered a competitive advantage. Recent works highlighting the competitive significance of the workforce, and its role in creating significant strategic advantage (e.g. Pfeffer, 1994, 1995; Quinn, 1992) underscore this connection. According to Jeffrey Pfeffers recent research (1994), for example, what distinguishes the top performing firms over the last 20 years is not the conventional strategic criteria (i.e. Porter, 1985) but rather what the firms have in common is that they rely 'not on technology, patents, or strategic position, but on how they manage their workforces.' (1995, p. 56) My intention is to extend the idea that people create strategic advantages into the unconscious realm by arguing that the success of New Order organizations is deeply connected to the ways they develop to contain anxiety. The focus here is not with the part of the equation that involves basic skills or substantive knowledge, as is that of Pfeffer and others focusing on the strategic importance of human resources, but rather on the ways in which emotional experience effects the ability of people in organizations to think and collaborate. My hypothesis is that the ways in which organizations support - or erode - peoples ability to maintain an integrated, realistic psychological connection to the people and events around them should be considered a competitive advantage - or disadvantage - in todays world.The starting point for exploring this hypothesis is on the seam where psyche and system come together, where I use social defense theory to discuss the impact of organizational arrangements on peoples ability to think and work effectively. Then, by threading that discussion through a consideration of several cardinal features of the New Order, I will delve more deeply into questions of how the anxieties of people working in emerging organizations are being managed. Finally, the leadership challenges for the New Order will be considered in light of these issues.