Help us sharing our research, consultation and experiences

Donate Now

The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The emotional underbelly of organizational learning

This paper examines organizational learning in large to medium-sized commercial organizations. It begins by highlighting the tendency, in accounts of organizational learning, to either ignore emotions or to see them as learning barriers. There seem to be two contributing factors here. Firstly, organizations tend to be depicted as unitary entitiesthat is, it is assumed that organizational members, individually and collectively, share a common economic interest. As a result, learning by individual employees does and should contribute to organizational learning. Secondly, accounts of learning refer almost exclusively to learning of a technical nature that is, to learning which draws on professional areas such as engineering, law and finance, and which applies these to achieve productivity and profit. In this paper, I supplement the unitary/technical/economic view of organizational learning with a more human and emotion-rich view. The vehicle for doing so is the notion of interest. Psychoanalytic theory is used to support the idea that groups within organizations form around an ontological interest relating to the protection and preservation of the group and its members, maintenance of peoples self-esteem and the minimization of feelings associated with exposure to ontological insecurityfor example, deep-seated anxiety, shame, or feelings of powerlessness. Learning associated with the ontological interest helps groups defend against exposure and associated anxiety, by applying knowledge from the past. At the same time, it can hinder risk-taking long after real threat has gone. The paper argues that a great deal of learning occurs in relation to the ontological interest, particularly when it comes into conflict with the technical-economic interest of commercial organizations. In contrast with the in-the-head, unitary/technical/economic focus of much of the organizational learning literature, learning in relation to the ontological interest is very differenta turbulent, in-the-gut (Long & Newton, 1997) mix of politics and emotions, highly subjective, and imbued with primitive fears and feelings. To illustrate these ideas, I will refer to case study material from the customer service center of a large financial company.