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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Other We Might Never Understand If We Forget That He Is A Stranger

As psychoanalysis developed in the context of attending to the psychic problems of individuals, in the beginning, organisations certainly were strange 'others' lingering at its doorstep. This changed to some extend when psychoanalytically trained consultants started to work in organisations. But it seems to me that from that moment on two things happened: 1. Consultants often seemed to forget about the differences between individual and organisational realities; 2. They largely limited themselves to the application of psychoanalytic concepts to observed organisational phenomena. Yet, I think that the important thing psychoanalysis has to offer to organisations is much more its perspective than its concepts. And even that perspective has to be adapted to the specific realities of organisations. Consultants working from such a perspective, might then (as some already did) develop similar or new concepts that arise from this specific reality. In doing so, the 'other' will no longer be a stranger that we put into borrowed robes which hide his uniqueness.I explore what I see as essential elements that constitute today's 'psychoanalytic perspective', together with the reasons why, and the specific ways in which these elements can be used to benefit organisations and their members.Working from a psychoanalytic perspective includes that: 1. One looks at the way the unconscious system (the Ucs.) influence organisational behaviour (structure and performance). In looking at organisational behaviour, the important part of the unconscious as a system is not the repressed, but it's many other contents, together with it's specific ways of perceiving, experiencing, thinking and expressing itself. 2. One works with the unconscious system as it exists and is active in the here-and-now. A psychoanalytic perspective is not related to archaeology. It is concerned with ongoing disasters and actual riches. This is one of the reasons why this perspective can be relevant for organisations. 3. One accepts that unconscious phenomena reveal themselves slowly and indirectly, through associative material; through characteristics (emotional and other) of relationships between persons, persons and groups, between groups/departments, and with objects; through stories, actions and structures; through the way those elements disclose actual anxieties, ways of coping, phantasies and dream-thoughts. Unconscious meanings are discovered starting from a position of not knowing, which is very different from that of applying concepts. The emerging meanings acquire validity only through their open exploration with the people involved, which necessitates the constant linking of the unconscious material with the actual and evolving situation. This includes that in the context of working in organisations, the accent is on the extended notions of transference and counter-transference in their relation to projective identification. 4. When it comes to the question of 'how we work', I. Menzies and W. Bion have reformulated some of the essential elements of psychoanalytic technique in terms that are better adapted to working in organisational contexts. They stress the importance of 'equally divided attention as compared to 'free floating' attention, which includes an implicit, yet important repercussion on the level of interventions.They also talk about 'working from a position of cultivated ignorance or negative capability', a position that Bion specified in the by now well known but rarely discussed expression: 'without memory nor desire', and in the often forgotten addition: 'nor understanding'. If we use psychoanalysis in this way, we might fully recognise the 'otherness' of organisations, and develop concepts and theories that do justice to their specificity and uniqueness.