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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Beyond Anxiety: Passion and the Psychodynamics of Work: Learnings from Lacanians

The Tavistock tradition focuses on the way in which people respond to the anxiety associated with working. While the proximate roots of anxiety may vary, a boss is experienced as persecutory, a conflict arises between groups, the ultimate cause of anxiety, in the Tavistock tradition, lies in the risk associated with all meaningful work. Everyone faces the prospect of failing at their work. Even the proverbial dishwasher, may break dishes or the dishwashing machine, or wash dishes too slowly. Moreover, as jobs become more complicated, the sources of failure and, thus the level of risk, grows. People become more skilled, but there is always a race between what people have experienced in the past and what new or novel problems they presently confront. Risk and work are two sides of the same coin. Much of Tavistock theory focuses on the way in which the risk, associated with the activity of the enterprise as a whole, is experienced as anxiety by individuals and subgroups.Consider the following example. A salesperson is penalized for his poor record of selling when in fact the product he sells has deteriorated in quality. Looked at from a rational point of view, we might say that the companys incentives are structured inappropriately. Since the salesman does not control or even influence product quality, he should be judged by the number of calls he makes not the sales he closes. However, in the Tavistock tradition we would hypothesize that the company utilizes an apparently inappropriate incentive structure to contain anxiety. We might surmise, for example, that senior managers are reluctant to acknowledge the decline in the products quality. To protect themselves from the anxiety they would feel if they faced this problem directly, they maintain instead an incentive system that makes the salesperson appear to be the failure. Under these conditions we call the incentive system a 'social defense' against the reality that the product quality is falling. Consulting to this company we would work with the senior executives to focus on the problem of improving the quality of the product before working to change the incentive system. Taking this step we would, in effect, help redistribute the anxiety so that the enterprise as a whole can face up to and accomplish its primary task.