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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Consultant as Emotional Container Parallel Processes and Organizational Change in Mandelas South Africa

This paper sets out to do four things. (1) We argue there are collective emotions as well as individual emotions, just as there are collective thoughts, attitudes and values, as well as individual thoughts, attitudes and values. (2) We demonstrate that an array of collective emotions get activated when an organization goes through radical change like that produced by the quiet and bloodless revolution created by the ANC and led by Nelson Mandela. (3) We show how useful two key psychoanalytic concepts (container/contained and parallel processes) can be in both theoriz ing about emotion and in making organization al interventions designed to change the emotional landscape. (4) We draw the link between what is occurring within South African organizations in particular and the larger society-as-a-whole. The Contribution Of This Paper To The Theory And Practice Of Consultation Working with race relations in South Africa in the mid 1990s gave us a re-education about the character of emotions in organizational life, the nature of collective aggression, and the struggle for liberation. From the outset we were struck by both the conscious and unconscious emotional work black leaders had been doing to not internalize the violence being directed at them by their white oppressors. We were also struck by the relevance of Bions (1961) image of container and contained and the concept of parallel processes (Alderfer, 1980; Smith, 1989, Smith and Zane, 1999), the organizational offspring of transference/counter transference. [1] Once economic sanctions were applied to South Africa and blacks mobilized for liberation, it was evident that the heinous social structure known as apartheid would eventually collapse. This raised two questions, (1) how to minimize the anticipated bloodshed during the process of liberation? and (2) how to keep the aftermath contained so civil war did not result? For generations the hostilities among conflicting white factions (expressed so violently during the Boer war) had been transferred into the brutal white domination of the blacks via apartheid. Likewise, the inter-tribal hostilities among the blacks which had seared the political landscape prior to white domination, had been driven underground in the fight against the oppressive regime instituted by the Afrikaners. If the white-black hostilities were to ever end, what social structures would have to be invented to keep contained the historically explosive white on white and black on black aggression? In this paper, the parallel process and container/contained concepts are brought together and used as tools for understanding the collective emotions linked to inter-group aggression and the yearning for reconciliation and transformation in a specific case. The setting is a state-owned South African enterprise we refer to as CALDO. The work we did was an intervention into the senior leadership group of CALDO. This organization had an international reputation for its professional excellence but had also long functioned as an arm of the governments repressive racial war. As this consultation began 9 newly appointed, well educated and politically sophisticated blacks and 16 whites (who had been the leaders of this enterprise prior to Mandelas election as President), were given the task of rebirthing this organization. They had been instructed by the government to become commercially viable, increase the number of jobs for blacks, develop a business strategy to energize growth, and work with all its stakeholders (holding company, government, unions, ANC, regional clients, etc.) many of whom had strong and contradictory agendas. CALDOs efforts to comply had created much turmoil: it had downsized, unions were suspicious and watchful, and political appointees in senior positions within CALDO were monitoring the organizations transition to a more equitable and democratic environment. This paper chronicles and theorizes about three discoveries we made as a result of our involvement in the racial dynamics alive in the senior management of CALDO. First, this leadership group needed consultants to both carry, contain and help them comprehend many of the tensions unleashed by changes in their racial make-up, their corporate strategy, their leadership dynamics, and their new set of stakeholders. We identified and made interventions based on what we learned from the parallel processes we ourselves got caught up in during our interactions with them. Second, many of the intractable organizational conflicts being enacted within CALDO were serving as a release for the pent-up racial emotions of the nation-as-a-whole. We hypothesized that in todays South Africa, organizations must invent ways to keep racial tensions contained on behalf of the society-as-a-whole if excessive violence on the streets is to be avoided. This view helped us cast ourselves as a container to the contain ers. It also helped us see that the CALDO executives were doing a service to the whole society as they painfully confronted (via parallel process es they initially did not recog nize) many of the irrecon cil able emotions linked to race in their country. Third, we came to grasp that a major and unexpected contribution of our consultation, which had been designed to import expertise, was to function as a vehicle for exporting some of their organizational chaos. As we increasingly became filled up with, and then carried, their feelings of incompetence, despair, futility, shattered optimism, etc. CALDO executives seemed able to address organizational decisions they had to make but which were impossible while they were mired in those paralyzing feelings of incompetence, despair, futility etc. When they had consultants who were serving as a temporary container of the emotions created by their racial history, these executives were able to function more effectively as a leadership group, which in turn lessened some of the racial hostility.