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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Primary Risk

Organizations increasingly face significant strategic dilemmas; yet thinkers and practitioners in the psychoanalytic theory of organizations, particularly those like myself who have been deeply influenced by the Tavistock tradition, have not kept apace. The Tavistock tradition, of organizational diagnosis and consulting particularly as it was articulated by A. Kenneth Rice and Eric Miller, was developed in response to problems of organizational design, functioning and relationships of authority, rather than to issues of strategy. The consultant working within this tradition would typically ask the following set of questions.Is this organization appropriately designed to accomplish this work? Where are the relevant boundaries that determine where one unit ends and another begin? Are there indications that these boundaries exist primarily as social defenses, to contain anxiety, rather than to accomplish work? If so, can we trace the organization's failure to perform to these social defenses? What is the source of this anxiety in the task itself, and/or in the way leaders contain this anxiety? However, these questions may not help us answer the following questions: Why does this organization appear to be drifting? Why is it that leaders cannot seem to articulate its primary task? Why does their mission statement appear so abstract? Why can't certain thoughts or words be expressed here? What prevents the leadership from focusing on a few priorities?In this paper I outline a framework of analysis that helps answer these second questions. It is based on the concept of the 'primary risk.' In the first section I explicate the meaning of the 'primary task' in the second I contrast this concept with the notion of the 'primary risk;' in the third I provide a case of study of the psychodynamics of the primary risk; and in the fourth I provide some guidelines for consulting with the primary risk in mind.'