The significant incident I will explore in this essay is change in management (CM) at my workplace. The organisation I work for is a national charity that helps individuals experiencing homelessness; the majority of services are accommodation-based, as the charity is also a registered housing association.
The service I am based in was commissioned by a Local Authority to offer advice and support for individuals either at risk of or already homeless. This small client-facing service, that I will call ASH for clarity, is unique to the larger organisation and comprises of ten members when fully staffed, including the service manager. ASH started in 2016, and managed by a man I will refer to as Y.; after his departure from the organisation in October 2018, the current deputy manager (or O.), who had also announced they were leaving the charity, stood in as interim manager until a new permanent one was appointed in February 2019. The departure of the two managers was experienced as a true loss by staff members, and the arrival of the new manager, a woman from a female-only accommodation service from the same organisation (I will call her T.), was expected with enthusiasm.
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As T. started her new position, there was hope within the team, myself included, that these 'operational' issues would be quickly addressed, as the belief was once these problems are 'fixed', everything will work smoothly. With T. came a number of changes; T. settled in a new office, removed from the staff offices and clients' spaces; service opening hours were changed; recording of client's work was transferred to the organisation's online interface; policies regarding absence and leave were implemented more strictly; a new reception area was built, and more desks and computers ordered for the open office space. These events provoked high levels of anxiety and the emotions and behaviours that ensued reflect the deep, irrational and unconscious impact on the ASH team. Employees blamed T., and by extension the larger organisation, for becoming unapproachable, condescending and too bureaucratic.
Staff members, myself included, felt disconnected from the new leadership, avoiding interaction with, depersonalising the new manager and experiencing the organisation as incompetent: "They just swoop in and change everything", "She's always on sick leave or working from home, she can't manage this service", "What we do is unique to the rest of the organisation, they can't force us to work like them".
In order to understand some of the behaviours described above, I will be using a systems psychodynamic approach to organisations and its key concepts such as anxiety, boundaries, role-taking and authority. Individuals bring to their organisation their unconscious unfulfilled needs and unresolved conflicts (Miller, 1993). Events in the organisation can generate anxiety associated with those needs, which in turn elicit defence mechanisms to manage this anxiety, then reflected in the conscious and unconscious behaviours displayed by the larger group (Miller, 1993; Obholzer & Roberts, 1994).
In the context of this essay, the charity is the open system consisting of elements working towards a unique purpose, and which can only exists by exchanging material with the external environment (Katz & Kahn, 1978). This flow of information is occurring across the system's permeable boundaries that both separate from and connect the system with the external environment, in order to achieve a primary task which the organisation must perform in order to survive (Miller & Rice, 1967; Miller, 1993). The organisation can be understood as an agglomeration of smaller sub-systems, such as different departments and services, but also as a system that emerges from the association of individuals and groups it is made up of, with their own unconscious and conscious life (Hirschhorn, 1993).
Boundaries separate the system from its environment and operate as a container for the group's anxieties; they include starting and finishing times, physical working spaces and clearly defined tasks (Miller, 1993). CM has engendered operational changes within the ASH service: the alteration of the service's opening hours implied a restructuring of the employees work day routine, and the continuation of a hot-desking policy exacerbated the existing anxieties experienced by the team due to the lack of clear spatial boundaries (Ciller & Koortzen, 2000).
The Tavistock Institute's model of group behaviour is based on Bion's extensive theories on group working. Bion (1961) postulates that a group mentality is "the pool of members' wishes, opinions, thoughts, and emotions to which the anonymous contributions are made, through which the impulses and desires implicit in these contributions are gratified.". Two distinct mode of group functioning are outlined by Bion: the work group and basic assumption. Work group refers to the conscious and rational and task-orientated process of learning and development of knowledge, anchored in the reality.
In contrast, basic assumption states (ba states) are unconscious and occur as a defence mechanism to reduce anxiety in order to survive. Anxiety arises from the group's individuals and is an unconscious drive to contain the fear of an uncertain future (Menzies, 1993). Object-relations theory provides an insight into ba behaviours; in the paranoid-schizoid position, the individual splits objects into two parts, introjecting the "good" and projecting the "bad", as to relieve the internal world from the anxiety of containing and managing conflicting needs and feelings (Klein, 1959). At group level, the system defends against psychic pain through similar processes, and routinely occurs within organisations (Obholzer & Roberts 1994).
Therefore, ba culture occurs when an event provokes anxieties and fears within the group. In the basic assumption dependency state (baD), the group is heavily reliant on an imaginary allknowing and cajoling leader; as the 'real' leader cannot fulfil the group's unreasonable needs, feelings of frustration, insecurity and hopelessness are experienced by the individuals (Bion, 1961). In basic assumption fight/flight state (baF), the group feels threatened by an internal or external menace; in order to survive, it must either fight against or run away from the source of danger. In this state, intra-group conflicts may arise, or physical avoidance such as sickness absence. Bion's third basic assumption is pairing (baP); in this state, the group wishes that a pair of individuals will give birth to a Messiah, an idea that will save the group from destruction. Beside Bion's three basic assumptions, two more states have been documented. Turquet (1974) describes basic assumption one-ness (or we-ness) as a state of powerful cohesion wherein group members abandon their individuality and exist only through the omnipotent group. Lawrence, Bain and Gould (1996) chronicled a contemporary ba, me-ness (baM), which they equate to a cultural phenomenon as it arises from increased social anxieties and fears focused on the individual. Therefore in baM, in contrast with baO, individuals reject their membership to the group, detaching themselves from others members and focusing on their own inner reality.
Upon reflection, I have noted a number of 'flight' behaviours following CM: myself and other employees have been repeatedly late in the morning since the change in opening hours; some others arrive late or miss service meetings led by T.; there has been a sharp increase of individuals taking long-term sick leave; four permanent members of staff left the service within the six months following MC, two of them leaving the organisation altogether. These stark, yet unconscious, behaviours are physical manifestation of staff members avoiding the danger of MC, embodied by new manager T..
The loss of staff was interpreted by the rest of group with suspicion, and the team moved further into a paranoid-schizoid position through splitting and projection; the new manager T., the 'evil mother', bullying out of the group dedicated employees, the 'good children'.
Interestingly, T. also displayed physical avoidance by settling in a new office, as if to remove herself psychologically from the anxieties experienced by both the team and clients attending the service. This absence of leadership, failure to contain anxieties and sudden changes in boundaries drove the team to experience T. as the source of danger, and 'fight' behaviours also emerged as hostility between the team and management. This could be via emails, during heated meetings or passive aggressive comments in casual discussions; I have noticed within myself a deep sense of uneasiness, driving me to avoidance-type behaviours such as lateness, avoiding being in a room alone with T. or engage more with clients in order to avoid sitting in the office with my colleagues. Upon reflection, I realise that I often get into 'flight mode' when facing anxiety-triggering events; as a child growing up in an abusive household, 'fight' was never a good option as harm would result from it. Instead, 'flight' was the best survival tactic, hiding away from the source of danger.
In team meetings, certain employees would project their insecurity and anxiety on T., demanding 'clarity' over minute details, which she was unable to provide, promising instead to resolve in the future. As these promises were not immediately fulfilled, team members experienced anger towards T., in turn leading the group to 'ally' against her. T, illustrating a rapid shift between idealisation and denigration of the leader (De Board, 1993).
Within the group, some conflicts were also visible; as one particular employee refused to be involved in the politics of MC, reclaiming his individuality as in a ba me-ness state, his behaviour irritated the team, undermining the one-ness of the group that would enable us to overcome current challenges. This person was often referred as "so chilled out", which in my view is a passive aggressive comment to denounce the heresy of his refusal to acknowledge and face the current difficulties with the rest of the group.
The group blamed the management team for becoming cold, unapproachable and secretive, as T. was 'locked away' in her office, regularly holding meetings with various individuals external to our service, in particular members of the Business Development Department of the charity. This caused a lot of anxiety for the ASH employees, as it became clear that our experience of the organisation and our service, also known as organisation-in-the-mind, differed from what it is meant to be as an institution, as the service's way of functioning was being challenged and reformed by leadership (Hutton et al, 1997). In addition, the apparent coldness of T., who would send emails rather than engage in face-to-face communication with staff, and her preoccupation with rigidly adhering with the larger organisation's policies can also be interpreted as a defence mechanism against ASH's service, and by extension its employees, perceived as 'rebellious', as I was surprised to hear from several staff members in different teams/departments in the organisation. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, prior to CM, my service was led by a manager described as 'unconventional' due to his physical appearance (e.g. long hair and beard, piercing and tattoos, often wearing metal band t-shirts, etc.) and his aversion for bureaucracy. I could hypothesise that our service acts as a scapegoat, experiencing and containing anxieties projected by the larger organisation as it is going through a public image crisis. I speculate that on an unconscious level, the group internalised and acted out through ba behaviours the larger organisation's projections of the 'rebellious' service, contaminating the good, charitable organisation with its badness (Freud, 1921). The secrecy and suspicion characteristic of this CM demonstrate a lack of trust between employees and management; the sense of rigidity and depersonalisation emerging from the bureaucracy reflect a desire to control by rules, rather than manage the individuals (Kets de Vries & Miller, 1991).
Another fundamental concept in organisational dynamics is the role, either taken or given (Krantz & Maltz, 1997). As a matter of fact, Hirschhorn (1985) suggests that ba behaviour occurs when individuals step out of role. We can understand the mechanics of taking up a role by transposing the psychoanalytic understanding of the mind into an organisational context; the internal conflicts an individual is experiencing generate anxiety, which can cause her to step out of role and experience others as a reflection of her own phantasies, rather than what they are in reality (Lawrence, 1999). Moreover, Bion (1961) introduces the notion of valency as an individual's unconscious tendency to spontaneously engage in a particular babehaviour. As I previously remarked, I tend to spontaneously engage in ba Flight when facing difficulties; reflecting on my experience during the Group Relations Conference in Year 1, as I could not physically avoid the group, I would engage in ba me-ness, refusing to be part of a group which I did not identify with, due to being the only non-white student. I assume I unconsciously retrieved into my own inner world in order to avoid the painful rxeality that I was a minority, vulnerable and alone, as I have experienced as a child.
Paradoxically, I also lean towards the role of the 'caring mother', reinforced by my colleagues frequently coming to me for advice and support regarding client work. On a conscious level, I am aware that my professional experience and my current training as a therapist are skills that are valued by my peers; but I can appreciate that I may unconsciously cultivate this status of 'wise old owl', possibly as a narcissistic desire to maintain some control over others. This hypothesis seems more plausible when considering that in one supervision meeting, T. thanked me for being 'the voice of reason' in the face of CM, in contrast with the rest of the team she deemed 'incredibly resistant to change' – I quickly dismissed, possibly for fear of being 'paired up' with T., and subsequently face the wrath of the group. This valency to contain other's anxieties is also reminiscent of childhood (but also present) events, as I often have to be the mediator in family disputes to prevent escalation into violence and preserve the family unit to guarantee my own survival.
In post-modern organisation, a good leader is encouraged to display vulnerability, but not too much as to avoid a sense of 'false intimacy' and maintain a containing structure for staff (Hirschhorn, 1998). Instead, a balance between vision and authority is key to successfully manage boundaries with the environment outside the group (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994).
Y. promoted such a management style, and ASH employees experienced a lack of support and containment, on an operational, physical and emotional levels; for instance, the lack of boundary resulting of hot desking was a source of conflict in the group (Cillers & Koortzen, 2000). With MC, team members expected some of these issues to be addressed, but in contrast with Y. who displayed 'too much warmth', T.'s sheer adherence to her role of service manager undermined her authority just as much as Y.'s friendliness. In addition, the physical absence of T. and any form of active leadership has incited team members to unconsciously assign the role of leader to a peer; as I interpreted earlier, colleagues would approach me with their concerns, hopes and needs, which in turn I would voice in team meetings or one-to-one supervisions with T.. Despite consciously rejecting the label of 'team leader', interpretations of the group's unconscious dynamics suggest that I take on that role in order to negotiate and 'reason' in light of MC (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2000). However, this role of 'team leader' has not been authorised by the larger organisation as I do not have the authority to engage and manage boundaries at a management level (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). With CM and in the absence of an authorised leader, the group has a tendency to assign roles and self-authorise, which has led to conflicts with T. who once stated "No one needs to take on a leadership role when I'm not here, you just need to get on with it". This verbal de-authorisation seems to illustrate T.'s poor insight into CM management, but could also indicate a mechanism of denial, ignoring the painful reality that she does not feel competent enough to meet the group's needs (Freud, 1933; Hirschhorn, 1998).
In summary, in view of the above analysis, I hypothesise that as a result of CM, the ASH group feels stuck in basic assumption states, experiencing powerful negative feelings that new management is unable to contain, instead taking a superior stance and separating itself from the service, reinforcing the 'bad service / good organisation' split (Halton, 1994). ASH employees display an evident resistance to change, as we are experiencing a strong sense of loss over our previous ways of working, the way we take up and assign roles and how we relate with colleagues. De-authorisation, inflexible bureaucratic procedures and loss of boundaries are causing staff to feel uncontained and unable to explore in a rational way the deep impact of CM.
These unconscious phantasies are repeatedly being acted out by the group, and I can perceive a sense of abdication in some of my colleagues as the emotional experience of CM is taking its toll. Personally, I have found it difficult to focus at work, unless I am interacting with a client one-to-one, as I am finding the working environment tense and devoid of all creativity.
In addition, the chaos inside the system reflects the chaos outside the system. Indeed, our service deals with homeless individuals; Brexit has a strong symbolic significance for our non-British clients, as they have chosen London to be their new home, either by choice or by necessity. The current hostile and precarious political climate evokes powerful anxieties in these clients such as anger, fear, rejection and anguish; as ASH employees have to bear such strong feelings and projections, poor containment within system can therefore have a catastrophic effects (Menzies, 1960).
The application of the psychodynamic model to interpret organisational behaviours is a valuable way to gain insight and explain apparently irrational behaviours resulting from significant systemic events. In this essay, I have explored how management change in my service has had a significant impact, on both the conscious and unconscious dynamics on the individual, group and organisational level. This provided a template for me to delve into the seminal concepts and contemporary hypotheses at the heart of organisational dynamic theory.
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