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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


This thesis argues that student managers, who are educated in the discipline of management through programs commensurate with the university-based Master of Business Administration (MBA), are systematically induced to discredit the experience uncertainty that is inherent in the idea of managing. A significant symptom of this process is the way in which student managers struggle to find someone, or something, in the learning process to contain their experience of increasing uncertainty in the workplace. The paradoxical nature of this dynamic is evidenced in the increasing demand for employees with MBA qualifications and the concomitant increase in criticism of this most common form of management education. This study takes the perspective that the central dilemma in educating managers is to be found in the human struggle to learn from experience. A psychodynamic framework is used to analyse the experience of student managers as they try to connect to their experience of their education program with the uncertainty they face in their role as managers. The research followed a cohort of student mangers and their teachers, all volunteer participants, through a fairly typical postgraduate education program in Business Administration. The findings are presented in the form of four case studies of individual students, within the overarching study of themes from an annual intake of students to a management education program: a program that had been well supported by the business community over a long period. The data illustrate how the turbulent environment of work organisations increasingly challenges the underlying assumptions of this form of management education. Elements of this environmental turbulence, such as market values, downsizing, ethics, gender, ethnicity, professional identity and career path, were amplifies in the emotional experience of students and staff, but the actuality and relevance of these elements were not much admissible to the learning process. Because the social structure of the program could not take in this form of experimental data, and hold it in a way that made it available for learning, the students risked not learning about critical aspects of contemporary management. This tension resulted in unconscious manoeuvres that infected the roles of teacher and student, and limited the opportunities for both the program and its members to engage in mutual learning about the nature of contemporary organisational management. This study reveals how some students used the research process to contain aspects of their student manager experience that could not be contained within their education program. It is argued that staff and students colluded in this dynamic by extruding anxiety-provoking experiences through the subtle and unexamined distortion of familiar processes. By making use of rationally defensible behaviours, to protect themselves from the emotionally disturbing demands of contemporary organisations, they created a 'second skin' to the program. This second skin was an aid to survival, but severely impeded the relatedness of teacher to student, theory to reality, and thinking to feeling. The main outcome of the research is to illustrate how a dominant management education process might promote 'second skin' learning, so that its students emerge looking like managers without having grown a psychic skin appropriate for the emotional challenges of contemporary management."