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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The special meaning of integrating different role identities to realise organisational objectives: Working with organisational dynamics

In the social sciences we are still sorting out the dynamics triggered by demographic and/or ethnic diversity in work groups. The social identity/ social categorization perspective explains the lower performance of heterogeneous versus homogeneous groups in terms of the disruptive impact on information processing by social categorisation. The information/decision making perspective finds better results in heterogeneous groups that contain relevant diversity in relation to the specific task (van Dick, van Knippenberg, Hagele et al, 2008). The ideal picture of a fully integrated group/society of members who differ in either demographic, and or ethnic/cultural characteristics is equality. Some tensions may emerge that threaten the equal inclusion of the members. When we study the integration of different role identities in a structure of roles we find that counterbalancing forces maintain that integration to achieve shared organisational objectives. Role identities maintain their clarity and relative power position in that role structure in relation to the other role identities (Madsen & Willert, 2006). In this article we'll describe and discuss a project within an international distribution corporation coping with steady growth and fuzziness of role identities. The aim of the project was to clarify roles and strengthen the role identity of six different role groups in order to improve collaborations within the structure of roles.We'll very briefly introduce the audience to the socio-psychoanalytic thinking of the French socio-psychoanalist, Gerard Mendel relevant to role-identity development. Second, we'll present the basic design of the three residential working conferences. Third and finally, we'll discuss what we learned from the project in terms of diversity of role-identities and their special integration in a structure of roles. 1. Gerard Mendal. On the basis of his twenty years of work in several organisations he developed the concept of the 'power-act' (Menel, 1998). The concept has a threefold meaning: 1) There can be no act without power over the environment; 2) A subject has more or less power over his/her professional acts; and 3) Depending on the amount of power, different and even opposite psychological effects can occur: e.g. pleasure or displeasure, interest or disinterest. Any professional power over one's own act is experienced as a transgression/violation of the unconscious 'parental authority'. It results in a sort of passive dependence or counter-dependence on the 'hierarchical authority'. Both are ultimately dysfunctional for the organisation and detrimental to the development of the person.An important distinction is made between the 'psycho-social' and the 'psych-familial' dimension of the personality (Mendel, 1992). The first is part of ourselves and can only be developed within institutions and through our acts. The second is the product of our childhood history, our identifications and counter-identifications and conflict. Rather than staying on the psychological level of transgression, G. Mendel argues to move on to the political level in order not to get lost in simply applying psychoanalysis to organisations. In his opinion, the psychological expression of social conflict is a pathological symptom: the absence of the political dimension in the psycho-social personality. 2. In the design of the residential working conferences of three to four days, homogeneous role-groups were formed (and isolated from one another) with the task a) to agree on the key tasks of their role and to write it up and b) to state, also in writing what each of the other role groups could do to improve collaboration. The homogenous role groups of store managers, are managers, product sales merchandisers, the commercial management team and the chief of butchers were composed in such a way that no direct hierarchical relations were included, neither did they know one another personally. In this way we avoided confounding influences on the dynamics in and between homogeneous role groups. For some time, the homogeneous role groups could only communicate in writing to the various messages received. Besides these homogeneous role groups we also designed mixed role groups in which one always had an equal representation of the different homogeneous role groups. Their task was to have face-to-face discussions about role adaptations that could improve effective collaboration. A third basic element was plenary sessions in which the homogeneous groups could interact to reach agreement on role-adaptations. The final role definitions were always made in the homogeneous role groups. The potency of this design will be discussed for a) creating awareness of the organisational dynamics and for taking action; b) for clarifying roles and developing role identities; and c) for organisational diagnosis in general. 3. What can be learned from the project?Role identities are not built by just defining core tasks but by sharing role experiences with colleagues' role holders and self-definition of roles in relation to other role holders within the structure of roles. It is a socio-political construction process, whereby power differentials come to rest on reciprocity (Isaac, 1992).Since people in organisations carry multiple identifications (Alderfer & Smith, 1982) role-identities/membership create diversity that balances the overall identification with the corporation. Thereby role-identities bring in diversity of perspective in problem solving, decision-making and action taking.