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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Psychotic Organization as a Metaphoric Frame for the Study of Organizational and Interorganizational Dynamics

The work of Melanie Klein highlighted the experience of anxieties of a psychotic nature which is now regarded as a constituent dimension of the normal development of infants while equally constituting a part of the adult world. Whereas psychotic anxieties are the predominant dynamic and expression of the paranoid-schizoid position worked through and integrated with feelings which are characteristic of the depressive position, in the usual course of the development of the infant, the notion of the 'pathological organization' refers to the lack or inability of mature integration and development. The term has been used by various psychoanalytic authors in their attempt to gain a better understanding of severe personality disturbances caused by pathological fixation, a splitting of bad and good parts or a liaison of fragments under the dominance of an omnipotent narcissistic personality structure. Although the concept of 'psychotic organization' originally refers to the narrow frame of individual ego-organization, it may provide a metaphoric frame for application to social organizations. Working in or with organizations and especially with large corporations, often gives rise to the impression that the organization in question is stuck in the predominant attempt to defend against the apparent threat and persecution emanating from the outer world of markets and competitors which that organization at the same time dominates and controls with a high degree of aggression, sadism and destructivity. It seems that the organizational dynamic is caught in a behavior and a way of thinking which are typical of the paranoid-schizoid position. In face of the on-going struggle for survival and the attempt to gain greater market shares, there seems to be almost no capacity for the depressive position and its anxieties. The external world and reality thus become shaped and reduced by the inner psychotic anxieties and respective defense mechanisms. Instead of setting out to prove the adequacy and range of this analogy from a more theoretical perspective, the attempt will be made to apply the metaphor of organizational psychosis to various organizational and interorganizational contexts. Contemporary hospitals provide a vivid case of how the predominance of business orientation and managerialism attempt to absorb and at the same time increase the internal organizational psychosis, thus creating a totalitarian mind both for employees and, in the case of clinical or hospital settings, for patients. The recent first attempt of a major German corporation at an unfriendly takeover which failed will be taken as an example to illustrate the psychotic interorganizational dynamic among two corporations which, after having competed with each other in the steel industry for more than a hundred years, appear now to be forced into cooperation and merger. The widespread notion of shareholder value optimization, i.e. the tendency to measure the profitability of a corporation exclusively by the value of its shares on the stock exchange markets leads both to an increased influence of institutional investors and, on the level of global financial markets, enhances a globalization of psychotic anxieties, which are unconsciously managed, maintained and increased by the various referent systems and their respective role holders. Contrary to the predominant economic perspective, according to which money is perceived as a per se neutral means or evaluator, the hypothesis will be offered that the transfer of money in the context of institutional investors cannot be adequately understood without a deeper awareness and understanding of the underlying transferences of psychotic anxieties. At the time of receiving the call for papers for this 1998 ISPSO-Symposium I was preoccupied ' and had already been for some time ' with various attempts to grasp at a better understanding of madness and other seemingly psychotic processes in organizations (Sievers (1995 a/b; 1996 a/b; 1997; 1998 a/c)). Contrary to more traditional (and common) concepts of organizational research and theory, madness and psychosis had, for me, become guiding metaphors with which I felt I could gain a more meaningful understanding of what I experienced in organizational contexts, both as a member of organizations and in my various roles as researcher, consultant and, sometimes, as a manager. In face of the fact that organization literature (and practice) mainly expatriate the irrationality of organizational reality, I attempt to propagate a more serious concern for what can be described as the psycho-social dynamics of organizations. The following thoughts are the attempt to share some of my insights from a broader work in progress in which I use the notion of the psychotic organization as a metaphoric frame for the study of organizational and interorganizational dynamics. After an introductory elaboration of what is meant by 'psychotic organization', the notion will be applied to three different organizational contexts, i.e. the internal world of an organization, the interrelatedness and dynamic between organizations and the more global context in which both institutional investors and corporations seem to be caught in an optimization of their shareholders' value. Elliot Jaques (1995a/b) has explicitly denounced the psychoanalytic approach to understanding organization as dysfunctional, and it might seem to some readers that any further concern for psychotic dimensions in organizations must necessarily appear to be antiquated, and perhaps even futile. The following attempt at a deeper awareness and understanding of anxieties and their dynamics in and among organizations must, according to this view, inescapably seem like a poor scholar's desperate desire (or need) to treat everything as a nail simply because the only tool at his disposal is a hammer. The fact that I have responded to the call for papers for this symposium is, however, proof that I do not share the belief in the end of organizational psychoanalysis. On the contrary, I am convinced that a concern for psychotic dynamics in and among organizations can help to get beyond the all too apparent notion of normality which more often than not sustains and perpetuates a 'rational' madness (Lawrence 1995b), a 'madness in normality' (Hogett 1992, 73), a 'pseudo-normality' (McDougall 1974, 444), 'surface sanity' (LaBier 1986, 62) and a 'pathology of normality' (Gruen 1987, 20)' (Sievers 1996b, 53).Though the following remarks will appear as a matter of course for most of you, I would like to emphasize two points: In the course of my argument I am neither concerned with the private inner world of particular individuals, nor do I regard psychosis primarily as a kind of disease which ought to be treated by psychotherapy in some manner or in some kind of institutional setting. What I refer to as 'organizational psychosis' may be circumscribed by the question of whether and to what extent organizational dynamics are influenced or even initiated by unconscious psychotic reactions to the organizational environment. These psychotic reactions as expressions of underlying anxieties will be perceived as 'socially induced rather than a product of the individual' (Lawrence 1995a, 17). Though Freud, especially in his later writings, 'also became convinced of a proclinity for psychosis in us all' (O'Shaugnessy 1992, 89), it is mainly through the work of Melanie Klein that the experience of anxieties of a psychotic nature is regarded as a constituent dimension of the normal development of infants, and equally constitutes a part of our adult world, rooted as it is in this early experience (Klein 1952; 1959). To acknowledge psychotic anxieties as a constituent part of the development of infants and of human development 'and thus of life in general' doubtlessly contributes towards a depathologization of psychosis and its respective anxieties (Young 1994; 73 ff.; Tarnopolsky, Chesterman & Parshall 1995). On the other hand, however, the acceptance of a normality of this kind does not in any way diminish the pain and suffering involved in the experience of being persecuted, retaliated and annihilated. The intensity and the extent to which the infant is normally preoccupied with psychotic anxieties and a responding aggressive sadism may often appear to be a fiction, an extreme over-exaggeration which ultimately invites the conclusion that the 'theory' merely expresses the perversity of its author. This would be close to the reaction Klein was in fact confronted with by many of her psychoanalytic contemporaries (Young 1994, 79 f.). These psychotic anxieties, the predominant dynamic and the expression of what Klein (and the theory of object relations) calls the paranoid-schizoid position are, in the normal course of the development of an infant, worked through and integrated with love, care, guilt, responsibility, and the desire for reparation, characteristic of the depressive position. However, the early anxieties always remain part of the psyche. As they are somehow coined into the unconscious mind, these anxieties, in a metaphorical sense, remain the predominant currency through which the adult gives value to the reality of the outer world. Though organizations 'are quite specifically and exquisitely designed to avoid consciously experiencing psychotic anxiety, .. psychotic processes are in danger of breaking through from moment to moment' (Young 1994, 156)."