The future work of ISPSO is the psychoanalytic study of organisations

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

Introduction
At this 30th annual meeting of ISPSO[1], it is my view that if ISPSO ceased to exist, it would have to be re-invented. There is too much of a future work yet to be done in the psychoanalytic study of organisations.  We need to work with:

  1. the existential dimension of anxiety, in which the very foundations and efficacy of our mental models are being called into question;
  2. the leadership of organisations in turbulent highly-networked environments, enabling their organisations to innovate continuously in response to their customers one-by-one;
  3. the courage necessary to putting ourselves on the line in order to do this kind of work; and
  4. the future generations, for whom each one of us must find in ourselves a response to these challenges.

I say “a work” in the sense of a life’s work or oeuvre, through which a person struggles to realise something felt to be true that can never be fully realised. In what follows, I want to say why I think this, but first, what exactly do I understand as constituting psychoanalytic insight?

The fundamental insight of psychoanalysis, which I attribute to Freud’s original work, is that we human beings are doubly subjected. We are subjected to the way in which we are able to construct meaning, to structures of signification, and we are subjected to our unconscious. Freud understood, in living this double subjection, that we human beings experience ourselves as most ourselves as subjects of the unconscious: “wo Es war, soll Ich werden[2]. And what does it mean to be ‘subjected’?  In our interactions with a structure, we are subjected to the extent that it constrains the ways in which we are able to act.  It follows from this double subjection that we are ourselves always implicated in any study we undertake.

Starting from this fundamental insight, we can ask what kind of a work this means for us, and why in particular this work involves the psychoanalytic study of organisations. A preliminary glance at the programme for this year’s annual meeting provides some preliminary clues. Words appear such as ‘not belonging’, ‘perverse solutions’, ‘climate change’, ‘ideology’, ‘containment’, ‘virtual organisation’, ‘gender relations’ and ‘betrayal’. These words indicate experiences that take place within the context of organisations. The experiences, however articulated, are of persons as subjects of their unconscious, and the contexts of which they speak are structures of signification.

The relation to anxiety
Emery and Trist give an account of work with the top management of a business in the aerospace industry that had been the outcome of a merger [3,4]. They had been asked to intervene because the top management had proved itself unable to collaborate in determining how to respond to a change in the technology associated with jet engines. Emery and Trist established that there were no deep incompatibilities between top management, nor was there stubborn adherence to past loyalties. It was their view, rather, that top management needed to engage in a collective re-appreciation of the whole situation faced by their newly-merged business. The conclusion of Emery and Trist was that there had been a flight into the personal dynamics arising between the members of the top management group and that this flight was from existential anxiety. This flight from existential anxiety, also referred to as annihilation anxiety, was preventing the group from engaging in the innovation needed to the changed situation facing the business.

The members of the top management group were in roles defined within the context of their newly-merged business.  There is nothing easy about taking up a role within an organisation and the demands for performance in a role are ever increasing and ever changing. Existential anxiety arises in the face of the possibility that the organisation-as-context will cease to exist in its current form, as with the aerospace case. It arises when an individual has difficulty even envisioning how his or her role might change, let alone knowing how to engage with changed circumstances. It is not surprising that the inability of the top management group to collaborate was originally identified with their ability to take up and perform in their roles.

In the last 30 years, ISPSO has learned much about how to work with the anxiety that individuals experience in seeking to take up and perform in their roles. Amongst all this learning, the group relations experience stands out as providing a unique approach to enabling individuals to learn about the way they authorise themselves within such contexts [5].  The challenge they faced, nevertheless, concerned the very existence of their organisation and not their relationships within it.  These were the conditions in which their existential anxiety arose.

Thus while performance anxiety is experienced within a given organisation-as-context, existential anxiety arises in situations where that given context is no longer experienced as effective or where there is no longer a given context.

  • The challenge of adding ways of working with this existential dimension of anxiety is a future work for ISPSO.[6]

The object of study
A recent project in the UK’s National Health Service has been examining the way a person’s experience of the end of their life is supported. Developing ways of aligning its own and others’ services to the person and their family context was not only highly valued by that person and their family, but also proved to be much less costly overall. Another organisation managing risk for a European car rental business was able to identify each vehicle at risk from pan-European flooding and take steps to mitigate that risk in each case. Again, aligning mitigating activities in this way proved to be much less costly overall.  In both cases, the object of study moves from being an organisation per se to being the dynamic performance of an ecosystem – sometimes referred to as a complex adaptive (eco-)system – in which a key consideration becomes its economics.

We are all aware of the huge impact that information technologies are having on organisations and whole industries. In these examples, the key difference is in being able to align services to client-customers one-by-one in a way that is dynamic. ISPSO’s object of study has been ‘the’ organis-ation, but under these new conditions the object of study becomes the dynamic organis-ing of activities. This is the distinguishing characteristic of Emery and Trist’s turbulent (highly-networked) environment which is ‘alive’ [7]. Not only must individuals be concerned with taking up a role within an organisation, but they must also be concerned with how the organisation takes up a role in the life of its client-customers. The organisation has to be able to organise many different ways of responding to its client-customers at the same time, ways that are constantly changing.

Information technology may be used to fragment and control, but it may also be used to enable the dynamic alignment of activities to situation and context. Using technology in this way means extending our understanding of leadership to include both the means and the potential impact of dynamic organis-ing.

  • Extending our understanding of leadership to include both the means and the potential impact of dynamic organis-ing is a future work for ISPSO.[8]

Psychoanalytic study
Returning to the way in which the psychoanalytic insight means that we are ourselves implicated in any study we undertake, it follows that psychoanalytic study demands that we consider how who-we-take-ourselves-to-be affects the ways in which we give meaning to our experience. We are ourselves invested in anything we do so that we can ask how it is that we ‘pay’ when engaging in psychoanalytic study.

  • One way in which we pay is with our time. Those of us that are paid by our clients or universities to study may recover some of this cost to ourselves, although even then it is rarely for all of our time.
  • Another way in which we pay is with words. Words are the medium in which we make meaning and those of us who work as analysts or writers know what a work it is to make meaning in this way. Rarely do we get paid for our words.
  • A third way in which we pay, which is the way that is most particular to psychoanalytic study, is to pay with our being. Winnicott, in speaking about the challenge of a case, spoke of the need for at least one person to be prepared to go beyond what they knew in order to respond effectively to the client’s situation[9]. This ‘going beyond’ is to pay with our being by putting ourselves ‘on the line’ or ’at risk’.

With this notion of ‘paying with being’ we return to the challenges of existential anxiety and the psychoanalytic ethic implied by taking up this challenge.  More than anything else, however, it is this preparedness to ‘go beyond’ that brings us together as an ISPSO community.

  • To continue to take up this challenge to our being is a future work for ISPSO.[10]

Paying it forward
ISPSO would have to be re-invented because its future work needs us to work together in finding new ways to work with existential anxiety, new understandings of our object of study, and new ways of taking up the challenge of psychoanalytic study. But more than this, in paying with our being we are paying it forward.

  • Our future work is for future generations, a work in which we must find it in ourselves to innovate.

Notes
[1] The ‘ISPSO’ is The International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. This blog formed the basis for one side of a debate concerning the future work of ISPSO, held at the 30th Annual meeting of the Society at Oxford.
[2] Freud, S. (1964). New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. J. Strachey, Hogarth Press. XXII.
[3] Emery, F. E. (1976). Searching for New Directions. New Ways for New Times. M. Emery. Canberra, Australia, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University.
[4] Trist, E. (1977). “A Concept of Organizational Ecology.” Australian Journal of Management 2(2): 161-176.
[5] I have written elsewhere about some of the challenges faced by this way of thinking, particularly with respect to boundaries, authority and containment.
[6] For one approach to this other axis of anxiety, see Harari, R. (2001). Lacan’s Seminar on “Anxiety”: An Introduction. New York, Other Press.
[7] Emery, F. E. and E. Trist (1965). “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18: 21-32.
[8] For more on the challenges to leadership in these environments, see leading organisations without boundaries and the related paper on engendering ‘boundary’ as the object of psychoanalytic study.
[9] Winnicott, D. W. (1965). Training in Child Psychiatry. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, Hogarth.
[10] For a way of elaborating on this three-way distinction, see Lacan, J. (2006[1966]). The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Co: [489]585-[542]648.

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