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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Exploring the Psychodynamics of Corporate Succession Planning

Succession Planning', 'Contingency Planning' and 'Talent Management' are some the matter-of-fact labels given to the highly charged process of preparing for the inevitable transfer of power from the incumbent chief executive or senior management to the ones who will be next in line to lead. The high-stakes political dynamics of an anticipated succession are appreciated by most of the players - Board members, peer executives, aspiring strivers, shareholders and those whose future success will hinge on the winners. Less apparent might be the powerful emotional and unconscious dimensions associated with anticipated change in the power structure of an organization. To explore these dynamics from the perspective of consulting, the paper draws on case examples from large corporate organizations in consumer products and health care to illustrate the complexity and varied outcomes associated with real organizations as they struggle with these sensitive issues. Through comparative analysis of the cases, the authors develop implications for practice that derive from relevant concepts in the literature on the psychoanalytic study of organizations, such as anxiety, authority, risk, power, and social defenses. From the resulting combined perspective of theory and praxis, the paper examines the bearing points at which the underlying psychodynamics of succession can be expected to disrupt the ostensibly rational organizational activity of preparing for leadership change. The authors propose that the effects of anxiety on participants in succession planning must be accounted for in the development of processes, procedures, or consultation relationships.'