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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Teamwork at Barton Company: A Psychodynamic Perspective

This paper presents some of the results of an exploratory, empirical case study investigation of workplace teams using a psychodynamic frame of reference. Findings from this analysis of teams at the Barton Company are examined with a view to the application of these insights in organizational consultation and management. The basis for the investigation was the observation that while complex organizational problems are frequently assigned to teams for resolution, psychoanalytic perspectives generally are not integrated into models or practices of team performance. The primary research question, therefore, was 'How does the psychodynamic frame of reference contribute to our understanding of workplace team effectiveness?' Subordinate research questions focused on team effectiveness, purposes, interaction dynamics, and the effects of boundaries on the containment of risk and anxiety. This paper reports the findings related to purposes and the effects of boundaries on risk. In the original study (Guerin, 1996), two cross-functional project teams from one organization were observed and recorded over a span of 1 month, meeting transcripts were content-analyzed, and participants and key stakeholders were interviewed. A research journal was kept and interpretive analysis carefully recorded. The triangulation of multiple data sources was an important feature of the research design, since the study examined dynamics normally out of conscious awareness for the participants. The findings from the exploratory study give a nuanced picture of the psychodynamics impacting team effectiveness -- continuous tension between sophisticated work and basic assumptions; teams functioning as transitional spaces under conditions of organizational change; the impact of task clarity, authority, and other boundaries in translating pressure into performance. The findings support open system models that define team effectiveness in the context of performance requirements for the organizational system as a whole. However, this case also raises a question about the long term effect on member motivation of an approach to teams that is highly instrumental and driven by marketplace pressures.