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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Collaborative Action Research in an Organisation: Can Psychoanalytically Informed Thinking Deepen the Collaboration?

In this paper we [1] will examine our dilemmas and experiences within an action research project, with a specific emphasis on the collaboration between institutional partners. The project is ongoing between the State Branch of a large government direct service organisation and researchers at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. It broadly aims to develop a framework for quality in terms of (i) the roles and tasks of its professional workers, managers, internal consultants and administrative and support staff, and (ii) the continuous development of an organisational culture where learning at the individual, group and organisational levels is maximised. However, contrary to models of quality that initially specify procedures and outcomes, we see an understanding of what a framework for quality means for this organisation, at this time, as an outcome of the research. Even at this stage one year into the project, we are unsure as to what shape it might take or whether a model is the right description for what it is we are seeking to identify. For this paper, we hope that through an examination of our experiences, we might better understand the nature and process of collaborative work. We have noted that researchers of organisational dynamics or consultants frequently engage in collaborative efforts with the members of an organisation to bring about organisational learning or change and to understand their antecedents and effects; yet the very process of collaboration is itself often taken for granted, especially when it occurs successfully. Alternately, when the collaboration is under stress or breaking down, the processes considered are often framed in terms of resistance, whether this be to the outsiders, to change, to management, to the organisational culture or to its environment. Might there be other ways of framing such changes in the collaborative relationship? Some of the work done on understanding the breakdowns in collaborations, between researchers and organisations, or between consultants and organisations, has been around the difficulties of establishing initial working relations. Other work has been done examining the politics of ongoing relatedness (Mirvis & Berg, 1977; Casemore, 1994). It is difficult to continue research where members are unwilling or when organisational authority to continue is withdrawn. Yet in order to understand the collaborative process, it is important to study all those dynamics. We ask the question: might a better understanding of unconscious as well as conscious dynamics deepen the collaboration? In designing the project, we understood the need for a setting that could allow and contain negative as well as positive aspects of the collaboration so that these could be understood, learned from and worked with alongside the primary work of the project. Drawing on models and ideas from psychoanalysis and therapy, where collaboration between therapist and patient is required in order to understand and work with the patients problems, others have talked about such a setting as a or holding environment (Bridger, 1990; Miller, 1995; Stapley, 1996; Willshire, 1997). What is meant by this is a setting, that itself can be trusted to provide physical and psychologicial safety, to those willing to experience and explore issues that might normally be anxiety-provoking, politically subversive or counter-cultural within the organisation. Such a setting allows exploration of ideas and feelings that emerge during work yet which in less exploratory or safe settings become suppressed or operate in an underground manner. A good holding environment (good-enough in Winnicotts terms) allows for a containment of such experiences and explorations, so that they can be integrated for work rather than for counter-work purposes. For example, anger with a manager might be talked through with him or her rather than left to smoulder in resentment (and possible unconscious or even conscious sabotage to the work expressed through lateness or absenteeism) because the issues involved cannot be broached. In fact all co-operative and collaborative work requires a form of holding environment in order to facilitate the human interactions involved, and the learning from their consequences. Where the purpose is collaboratively to study and understand organisational dynamics, as it is in the current project, the holding environment needs to include a facilitation of all aspects of the collaboration for these purposes. Further, rather than a holding environment simply for what already exists, a new collaboration requires an environment that will foster that which currently does not. This was a challenge for our project design.