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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Inner Drama of Role Taking in an Organization

My eight year-old son was waiting impatiently for me to finish working on my PC - I was preparing this lecture - so that he could return to his favorite game, a vernacular version of Heroes or something of the sort. In the meantime he took the trouble of lengthily explaining the rules of the game tome. A whole gallery of different characters appeared on the screen, each having specific and predefined characteristics, and each playing a distinct and unique role in the game. When the game starts, each participant selects the character he or she wishes to be throughout the game; 'And that', my son commented, 'is one heck of a problem'. He explained 'Look at this one, that's the 'flame-throwing dragon'. He's sort of a Sheriff, his job is to make sure that every one obeys the laws of the Kingdom .He looks so strong, but he moves very slowly and only in straight lines. In fact, he moves so little that he seems to be standing all the time. He's so frustrating. Now look at this girl here, officially she is the princess. She looks like a nice little girl or something but she really is a hell of a fighter. Her name is 'Fighting Anna'. She doesn't look very strong but she can wipe out almost everybody else around here with her kicks' (this sounds very much like a description of his sister)... 'She's cool... but I can't be a girl, can I...?! And take the deer.... He's the King's messenger. You can't just be the deer. You have to receive the certificate from the King. The deer can't fight, that's for sure. But he can run faster than everyone else so he can survive most of the dangers... and if you practice a lot, you get 'power points' and then, but only then, you can use his horns to fight...'. 'Oh well, so be it', I thought to myself. Let this become the opening remarks for this lecture on 'The Drama of Role Taking'. For after all, was this not my son's description of his Self's experience when immersed in different roles? Popular wisdom is very much aware of the mutual relation between role and Self; as the popular saying goes, 'Man 'does' the role, but the role also 'does' the man. In fact, we may see the role as a kind of a 'place' where the organization and the self meet. In this sense, the 'role' is located in the 'intermediate space' between subject and object. Taking a role in an organization inevitably produces an inner drama in which internalized past figures, which are related in some way or another to the 'role in the mind', are brought back to life. These charged introjects meet - sometimes, clash - with the representation of the 'organization in the mind' and influence the perception of organizational reality, the experience of the self in the role and finally the actual way the role is carried out (Gould 1991, Hirschhorn 1985, Miller 1985, 1993). Role analysis is therefore a tool useful in the exploration of how organizations and roles are perceived 'in the mind' ,which may contribute to our understanding of the interconnections between 'human relations' and systems in a broader sense. The subject of 'role analysis' has been thoroughly discussed by many authors. In this presentation I will describe the work of a 'role analysis' group (Barber 1987) of managers from different organizations, which was designed to explore the unconscious fantasies shaping participants' internalized 'Object Relations' with their respective roles in various organizational situations. The purpose of the following discussion is to explore the special qualities of the group in 'role analysis' and try to establish the type of listening required to identify, within the body of unconscious verbal and nonverbal communication, those events, metaphors and images which link participants' respective 'inner worlds' with their present and past roles From a theoretical perspective, this is an attempt to set the drama of role-taking within the conceptual framework of 'Object Relations' (Bion 1961, Klein 1935, 1975) and the 'Open Systems theory' (Lawrence 1979, Miller 1976, Rice 1969), with special emphasis on the intrapsychic conflict which occurs when the 'self' is simultaneously (and quite unavoidably) invested in the formal as well as informal role. The term 'self' will be used here mainly by its intuitive meaning. It is the experiencing 'I' to which the subject refers by saying 'I'. The 'self' as a meta-structure is formed in the course of development, emerging from the matrix of internalized 'object relations'. This matrix is based on relationships with significant figures (parents or siblings) - which were internalized, sometimes in a distorted way, in different life situations after passing through the 'filter' of defences (Klein 1935 ,Fairbairn in Grotstein and Kinsley 1994 , Ogden 1986 ). Interactions which were ascribed with a traumatic sense or which reiterated in a consistent and frustrating way will usually exist in the inner world as persecutory introjects, un-assimilated into the 'core-self', and will tend to repetitively apply themselves onto reality . Through a process of gradual integration and differentiation of various 'representations of the self', a 'self-image' is formed which becomes the sentient functioning and feeling 'I'. The degree of 'self' cohesiveness and 'self' integration may vary among individuals or situations and is influenced, among other things, by the degree of polarization between the various roles the individual is invested in. The 'formal role' is defined in thus presentation as that role's aspect which is defined by the organization, regardless of the persona who is supposed to fulfill it; it is directly derived from the organization's 'primary task'. The 'formal role' refers to all of the role's components which are defined a-priori by the system; like the function assigned to the role-holder, the definition of his or her authority and rank within the organization's hierarchy structure, the resources at his or her disposal, the norms of communication with subordinates, superiors and peers, salary and benefits, working hours , etc. the 'formal role' is shaped in accordance with the system's current organizational culture (Obholzer and Roberts 1994). The 'informal role' will be defined here as the role which the individual takes, driven by needs which are more often than not quite unconscious, as part of his or her personality and as a response to the 'call' of the group which is operating on the 'basic assumption level' (Bion 1961). The 'informal role' is associated to psychological functions designed to balance tensions, reduce anxieties and gratify instinctual and emotional needs. Although these may not be directly derived from the organization's 'primary task', they are quite often necessary in order to achieve it, as in a 'necessary, yet not sufficient', condition; also, people have a differential sensitivity (valency) to different basic assumptions and will therefore differ in their preferences for certain roles and in their ability to lead the group to achieve its goals and gratify its needs in any given time. The organization thus assigns each individual with a twofold role on the 'primary-task' level, the individual receives a 'formal role', whereas on the 'basic assumption' level he is 'called' to fulfill an 'informal role'. The inherent tension between these two roles is the primary source of 'the drama of role taking', because when an individual invests the 'self' in a role, as part of the process of acquiring an identity in the organization (Erikson 1950), the parts of self invested in the 'formal role' may be in conflict or split with the parts of the self invested in the 'informal role'.