Help us sharing our research, consultation and experiences

Donate Now

The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Feeling Excluded Oedipal Anxiety in the Workplace

A case study with two consultants, consulting to a mental health team. The authors were asked to consult to a team of mental health professionals whose unit had been labelled 'difficult' by the wider organisation. After years of problems and bitter infighting, the consultation was seen as a final desperate attempt to move the issues forward. The presenting problem was a row that had broken out during a case discussion seminar. This had led to a complaints procedure being utilised. A format of small and large groupwork was proposed with view to moving the system towards open communication and interpersonal connectedness. The work was time limited and extended over a period of three months. The authors were presented with a situation where numerous splits abounded within the team and a culture of secrecy prevailed. Staff had a tendency to denigrate each other and seek refuge in dyadic relationships with their patients. Many team members avoided basic social rituals such as saying 'Good morning' to colleagues for fear of being rejected. Paranoia was rife; so much so that a team member, on disclosing he had been asked to keep a diary on a consultant's activities, four people approached the staff member in question after the group and asked if it had been them who had made the request. There were a number of unresolved conflicts between pairs arising from incidents going back many years which gave rise to repeated animosity and which had caused a great deal of pain. Managerial structures were unclear. Staff often had divided loyalties towards their core professions and towards the team. We intervened to provide appropriate feedback of the way we experienced them, confronting resistance and encouraging the exploration of patterns of hidden communication. We facilitated a forum in which their dilemmas could be enacted beyond the dyad and then explored. We found that working as a pair was distinctly advantageous enabling a wider range of connections in the staff gender mix and helping to process our own countertransference. We were receptive and sensitive to different aspects of the experience, which together brought a fuller understanding and containment of the situation. Oedipal issues were a consistent theme with feelings of exclusion and rivalry coming to the fore. The groups provided a 'third space' in which reflection and responsibility for each other could be addressed. In the main, the team were highly committed to the process. However a key team member chose to abstain and in effect exercised considerable power and a covert management by proxy by attempting to veto decisions the group had made. Feedback of the benefits has been extremely encouraging and the work within the groups has helped to support a number of substantial changes particularly in the area of colleagues talking with one another and regaining a sense of meaningfulness in working together. The paper proposes to explore the following areas 1 How feelings of exclusion were propagated within the team as a defence against the tensions of being together. 2 How lack of clarity over line management led to destructive covert management. 3 The role of small and large groupwork in moving forward oedipal conflict. 4 Considerations on the effect of the conductors working as a pair. 5 The enactment, witnessing and survival of conflicts within the team in the groups and the mirroring of wider issues. 6 The meaning of the request for consultation in the wider system and how the authors handled their relationships with those outside the team including the business manager and clinical director. 7 How the conductors intervened in the groups and why. 8 Why hatred of colleagues provides gratification, attachment and a spurious sense of meaning at work and how the conductors worked with this particular shadow.'