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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Simon Western 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017
President Letter to Members
Dr Simon Western

Dear members, colleagues and friends,

I write to you in my new role as President of ISPSO. I am very honoured to take up this leadership role for the next two years.

Let me begin by saying thank you to all who have contributed to creating the ISPSO that exists today. We owe so much to the founders, past Presidents and all who have served in governance roles over the past 34 years. Also, thank you to all current and past members who have contributed formally and informally in so many diverse ways, to co-create and sustain ISPSO. It is the distributed leadership of our members that underpins our past success and will forge our future success. A key principle I will be working with is how to encourage, facilitate and nurture leadership initiatives throughout our membership.

Before I set out a few thoughts as I take up my Presidency, a special thank you to Carole Eigen for her hard work and service over the past two years which has left ISPSO in a good place for us all to co-create an exciting future. Next, I welcome Steen as President-Elect. We will work together closely to create 4 years of continuity. I also welcome Peliwe as our new board member from the African continent (a first, I believe). A very warm welcome also to our new members, who have joined from Russia and many other countries which is symbolic of our desire to become more international. We look forward to learning from new members, as well as sharing our experience and expertise. Learning about the psychodynamics of organizations in international settings beyond Western Europe, Australia and the USA where ISPSO has traditionally been strong, is absolutely necessary for us if we are to fully realise ISPSO’s potential to offer psychoanalytic understandings of organizations that operate in a global and networked world.

Present State

We are just back from another very successful AM thanks to Birgitte, Steen and the whole Copenhagen team for their hard and thoughtful work that produced such an excellent event. Thanks also to all members who attended, presented and participated in different ways. Our annual symposiums, like our regional activities, are a great example of distributed leadership in action, and reveal the array of talent and experience across our membership. Our recent board and PE elections again emphasised the depth and strength of talent, experience and the willingness to participate in creating our future. We now look forward to regional activities flourishing and an exciting AM in Dublin Ireland in 2018. We have a super organizing team and an exciting theme ‘Desire and Defences @ work 2018’.

Psychoanalysis in our times

This Dublin AM theme works on the premise that psychoanalysis is both the study of defences and desires in organizational life. New social defences are emerging in relation to the network society and digital age. Our unconscious desires are being shaped by the social, technological and natural eco-systems that are changing so quickly around us. Our emphasis and strength in past years has been to focus our studies on the defences and shadow side of organizational life. We enjoy our study of Bion’s Basic Assumption states of mind, and have been less drawn to consider the psychodynamics of the Work Group. We can become enchanted by our studies of disenchantment.

Bringing desire to the foreground asks another question of our psychoanalytic studies. How do organizations function in the network society and what kinds of libidinal economies drive success? How do people unconsciously desire and gain pleasure from work? How do these desires inform successful creative cultures, and how do they also drive dysfunctions? How are desires manipulated by employers to gain the emotional labour of workers? In recent years, my work has focused on how we unconsciously desire and gain pleasure in our workplaces, and how our unconscious ‘pleasure in our displeasure’ can create organizational cultures of stuckness and dysfunction. The relationship between conscious and unconscious pleasure, and success and dysfunction are tied together. Working psychoanalytically with the networks of desires, and networks of defences in organisations offers us new ways into our studies and work. Recently, I was invited to become a leadership technical advisor at a global high-tech company. I took the risk of working with their global team on their desires and defences; identifying the ambiguity of their unconscious pleasures in being stuck, and seeking ways to see how they can work with our ideas of containment in their globalised, virtual and networked workplaces. This produced rich, engaging and insightful work revealing once again to me just how important and relevant our work is in today’s fast changing world.

I share this to challenge the conceptions that some people have that psychoanalysis is ‘old fashioned, or out-dated’. In my engagement with psychoanalytic thinkers such as Zizek, Lacan, Stavrakakis, Boxer, Todd and others, we can build on the traditions and practices from the Object Relations and Kleinian roots of ISPSO. As the Tavistock Institute celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is also worth remembering that the fabulous early work of the Tavistock was developed through collaborations of social scientists from diverse backgrounds, not only psychoanalysts.

Today, more than ever, I believe we need to engage with other scholars and practitioners, drawing on technology studies, organisational studies, psycho-social studies, leadership and business theory, political theory, critical theory, network theory as well as the sociology and anthropology of science and technology. Our niche offering of psychoanalytic theory and practice can then be developed alongside these, enhancing all of our work together. Unless we engage more in this way, we will get left behind.

I am very heartened to observe in many places, a new wave emerging, where psychoanalysis is offering insights to the challenges of our times that are relevant and exciting to a new generation of students, and also practically applicable in our workplaces through our management, coaching and consultancy roles.

ISPSO works in the space between three dimensions. I think of it as a three-legged stool, with each leg being vital to maintaining stability.

  1. Theory/Academia:
  2. Practitioners: consultants, coaches, managers/leaders, employees;
  3. Clinicians. Working in the space informed by these three interacting dimensions is our unique strength and it is what excites me about belonging to this wonderful Society.

Our task is to build on our strengths and keep identifying the hidden shadow forces that undermine organizations, and also to work with successful and dynamic companies, and study their libidinal economies and unconscious processes as well.

Networks of Desire

Whilst ISPSO is in good place, we are also in a precarious place. In today’s networked society, all organizations face disruptions and change. If the banks can collapse unexpectedly, all organizations are vulnerable to disruptions. In my election statement two years ago, I addressed this question of leading ISPSO in a network society. We have to find new ways to unleash the talent within our membership, engaging and collaborating more openly with external partners, and supporting ‘networks of desire’ that will produce emergent success for ISPSO.

What does this mean?

  1. Shifting our organizational mind-set from a ‘them and us’ top down mentality g. the board and the rest. It’s got to be ‘we’, and it’s got to be networks of desire!
  2. Creating a more adaptive organization structure e. clarifying board and executive roles, engaging members in decision making and developing a clear strategy and purpose.
  3. Creating containing spaces within the organization to enable leadership and creativity to flourish.
  4. Hearing new voices and experiences from the edges as well as the central characters in ISPSO.
  5. Creating new platforms to enable new networks and connectivity that support our work, and allow us to share, collaborate and create together. Improving and resourcing our IT function is vital to this. Finding a way to keep our archive of library papers easily searchable and also creating a new platform to share papers open access is similarly key to
  6. Values: Co-creating a values based culture will be important to us. For example, past list-serve dynamics have drifted into being unhealthy. If we can co-create a values-based culture we can laterally hold each other to
  7. Creating new collaborative partnerships and relationships with external bodies. Connecting with business schools, psycho-social studies departments, group psychoanalytic institutions, coaching bodies, old and new media, to get our work in the public domain
  8. Encouraging a spirit of exploration that generates new and unexpected

Next steps.

Internal: Clarifying Governance and Operations

The current board and executive functions have become blurred, with the board executing operational functions that belong in the executive, and the executive members merging with board directors at meetings. We are now clarifying this and will review our progress in 6 months at the next board meeting.

Smaller board

We have agreed in my first board meeting to make the board smaller. This is for 3 reasons.

  1. A smaller board creates a more functional and efficient group working
  2. A smaller board will save ISPSO money on board travel and subsistence expenses
  3. A smaller board will allow us to invest this saved money into the executive function that badly needs more resources, particularly if we

Larry and Beth have requested to stand down for personal reasons prior to my request for a smaller board. Larry is serving for his third time as a board member and offered to step down for his final year, and Beth has a huge professional workload and we discussed this and agreed that stepping down works for both parties. Both have agreed to continue working in different areas: Larry’s interest is in supporting strategic change and Beth will continue to conduct exit interviews. I look forward to continuing a working relationship to utilise their experience and expertise in roles outside the formal board structure. This is the model I hope to expand with many more of the members.

Local and Regional Activities

We are exploring having an executive events lead, so that the board can focus on the Events strategy (for LARA, PDW and new activities) and the executive events lead can support delivery. This is one of the recommendations from the membership think tank group on ISPSO’s future, led by Halina and Manuel and mentioned above. To be less centralised and to encourage growth and diversity of our local and regional activities, means enabling experimental activities take place e.g. master classes, dialogue sessions, pop-

up workshops and sessions in relation to local and global events that impact on organisations, retaining the ‘El-classico’ regional meetings and much more. Richard and Brigid are currently working on this strategy following open space discussions at the AM, and we will share more as it develops.

Developing a strategy. The board will hold a strategic retreat at the next board meeting in December. We will draw on the excellent think tank report and on work discussed at the AM to offer a comprehensive Strategic Vision for ISPSO. Any further input is very welcome.


I hope this email conveys the spirit in which I intend to take up the President’s role. To summarise: I hope that we become more diverse internationally, cross-generationally and that we can strengthen the quality of our studies and membership in all 3 areas: Practice, Theory and Clinical, so that the space in between becomes fertile and rich. I hope we become more externally focused and collaborative, and that we develop psychoanalysis in exciting new ways alongside other influences. Finally, I desire that members feel they have the momentum and backing to generate and co-create the next phase of ISPSO.

Warmest regards

President ISPSO