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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Potential Space and Maternal Authority in Organizations

Four months after 9/11, the opening plenary of the Institutional Event of a Tavistock Group Relations Conference began ordinarily enough. But after the initial instruction about the task, there was not the usual silence, nor the confusion, excitement, anxiety, frustration, laughter, leadership struggles, power gambits, and fragmented efforts to form smaller groups, which often follow the group's being left on its own to take up the work. Instead, members exploded out of the room as though it were unconsciously 'Ground Zero'. The seven or so people left in what felt like the debris spontaneously decided to study the effects of 9/11 on the conference - clearly, an impulse experienced on behalf of everyone.Whatever eventually happened in the smaller groups, the potential 'potential space' for the full membership in the IE was not sustained. As a large, public space in that particular moment, it could not become a space for play, for a vitalizing sense that 'something could happen' or that 'we could do something together.' Rather, members acted as though they knew that disaster would happen. What Winnicott would think of as the space for creative illusion was filled, instantly and paralyzingly, with the certainty of delusion. The external context of disaster ' a disaster of boundary rupture on many levels - seemed to have collapsed the boundaries necessary for the Institutional Event to become a potential space. But perhaps it was the internal context that had actually created the hole in the boundary. The conference Director had announced that she would be leaving temporarily for a funeral. In this emotional context for both staff and members, the IE consultants could not bring their weight to bear on building new boundaries in an environment no longer felt to be holding either group. This example seems to me to say something about the conditions that collapse potential space and may serve as a basis for examining a more positive statement about what creates them as well. I will argue, following an examination of Winnicott's original discussion of the concept, that potential space, at its inception, implies an authority relation between child and mother, or, at the organizational level, between the human being naturally motivated toward creative engagement with the world and his or her partner in facilitating that development. Further, authority in the maternal role is exercised in specific ways, having to do with creating conditions for the holding of, the unfolding of, and the making sense of, a process that has its own inherent shape.