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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Working with Problems of Narcissism in Entrepreneurial Organizations

In his 1914 essay on narcissism, Freud discussed particular ways in which this set of concepts -- which, the essay recognized, had moved developmentally from the margins to the origins and center of his emerging conceptualization of psychic life -- were informed by an examination, not of normal development or normal functioning or even 'normal' (i.e., neurotic) patients, but of unusual psychic states -- organicity, hypochodriasis, and erotic relations. Contemporary practitioners, both clinical and organizational, are faced with the pervasive presence of narcissistic disorders in those who consult us. It is a disquieting encounter, because -- even as we recognize that our work to understand and assist persons and organizations with narcissistic pathology has increased the reach and efficacy of our interventions, and the lessons of this -- work in turn have transformatively impacted psychoanalytic theories -- there are particular qualities to work with narcissism that are painful to work with analytically, perhaps in significant part because they militate against a defensive introduction of non-analytic methods into analytic work. It is in the nature of narcissistically organized persons, and perhaps also, I will argue, narcissistic organizations, to deny the reality of the other (i.e., the analyst), to wrench the analyst into playing a hated but necessary part in the patient's internal drama, to try to disable or destroy the analyst in the service of a soothing return to a narcissistic self-sufficiency, and to project into the analyst, with resentful hatred, a whole internal world of persecutory and toxic part-objects, as the first step toward eventual understanding, health and wholeness. Psychoanalytic work with organizations has the potential to complement and add to our understanding of narcissism, in that the projection of narcissistic dynamics into the interpersonal and social fields of organizational life can bring such primitive dramas into life in a way somewhat different from the analytic encounter in the consulting room. There is a fascination as well as a risk in using concepts from the psychology of individuals to try to think about organizations. The metaphors and structural similarities are inexact, and there is no fail-safe method that protects against distortions. Perhaps, though, we can gain some grounding from one of Freud's most basic observations about narcissism that at its core lies a displacement of cathexis away from autonomous, whole, external objects. Our encounter with externality in the diffusion structures, object seeking and task orientation inherent in organizational life can thus help us gain a perspective that can elucidate the workings of narcissistic dynamics. In doing so, in turn, we may be able to work out some elements of conceptual and technical tools that can help us work effectively with organizations struggling to overcome the limitations of narcissistic pathology. Freud locates the impetus for narcissism in the frustrated withdrawal of libido from a non-accommodating object back into the ego structures themselves. This notion of ego-libido is widely uncomfortable to contemporary analysts, either because it has mechanical and economic resonances inconsistent with modern philosophies of science, or (particularly for Kleinians) because it can be construed as tending to deny the intimate intertwining of this primitive shift with object-relational dynamics (Segal and Bell, 1991). Less controversial, if also less actively considered in contemporary discourse, is Freud's notion that, in the course of normal development, narcissistic fixations and regressions are worked out by the development of the ego-ideal and its subsequent cathexis. When the child (or childish organization?) moves beyond idealization of the ego-ideal, its own projected product, and can at least partially sublimate its energies and creative effort into the productive work of object-relatedness, the substrate of effective learning, intimacy, autonomy, and productivity becomes established. As I will develop further in the fragments of case experiences that follow, entrepreneurial organizations seem particularly vulnerable to problems with narcissism. Some of this seems to me to have to do with externalities and conditionalities that face such organizations. Market pressures that force organizational flattening, and with it the collapse and disappearance of the internal object structure of contemporary organizations, can force energies that would have played out in object-relatedness in the past to take up residence in individuals cast adrift, either as entrepreneurs or 'entrepreneurial workers', from an accessible and reliable relational matrix. Similarly, the accumulation of vast amounts of information in reified computer systems, and the widespread shift from manufacturing identifiable products to various kinds of service and information work where the end-product seems elusive or ephemeral, can make working and managing feel like problematically self-absorbed activities. The paradox that the 'ante' in entering mature and high-technology industries is prohibitively high, while the vigorous emergence of large global markets and sophisticated, efficient production technologies makes for relative autonomy of productive niches, radically shortened production cycles, and rapid, extensive penetration of new products into informed consumption markets, can make production and circulation seem delinked from traditional market (i.e., object) demands. Yet, as may be apparent just from this brief discussion, these external demands do not play out in the world absent a mediation through internal individual and organizational structures and dynamics. Even when pressed by harsh external circumstances, the behaviors of workers, managers and organizations are not automatic. Sets of potential responses are elaborated, perhaps more unconsciously than consciously, but by lawful processes. Already weakened by environmental forces not facilitative of psychological development, and further constrained by widespread idealization of narcissistic relating as a kind of counterphobic social defense, workers and managers in entrepreneurial organizations, and entrepreneurs and their organizations themselves, seem almost dragged by inertia into object-delinked modes of work. How to generate creativity and productive developmental momentum out of such frightening chaos is the task.