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Death and the City

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Organisational collapse is part of our vernacular. Enron, Woolworths, Lehman's, Bank of America, Rover, BOAC, Northern Rock - these failures are part of our cultural experience of work. At a time when working lives are often vulnerable and organisational mortality is under threat from technology and the economy the consequences of organizational death are worthy of attention.Organisations can face many different endings - sharp and brutal, premature, or carefully planned and premeditated - all these endings have emotional collateral damage. We are working in an environment where crises, failure, and demise are everyday features. Closure, merger, downsizing, redundancy, liquidation, insolvency, administration - this is the dialect of organizational life in a recession driven economy. Such vulnerability at work creates challenges for decision making, operational and communication delivery, as well as the loss and suffering of individuals involved.Death and the City provides an in-depth portrait of an organisation in a palliative state. It transports the analytic concepts of mourning and melancholia and of the death drive into the workplace, and brings this important, but under explored, stream of psychoanalytic thought to the fore as a means of interrogating and further understanding organisational life. The reader will gain an understanding of the experience and catastrophe of loss in the context of the global financial crisis. The pain of a slow corporate death and the acceptance of failure will be illuminated using psychoanalytic theory helpful to consultants and academics dealing with endings. This book offers an original and in-depth understanding of organisational closure, the inner world of the organisation seen through the inner world of the researcher. Death deserves contemplation at a time when organisations are experiencing more exposure to endings than at any time in the last century. The book applies insights from psychoanalysis to provide a deeper awareness and understanding of the experience of these endings.

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8 Chapters

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Chapter One - Introducing Death and the City

ePub

This introductory chapter makes the case for an examination of organisational death at a time when working lives are often vulnerable and organisational mortality is under threat from technology and the economy. It introduces the organisation, Interbank, and places the research at the heart of this book in the historical context of the global financial crisis and in the City of London. It focuses on the particular plight of a financial institution, post the 2008 financial crisis, but has relevance and application beyond both the institution and the market. Psychoanalysis, as a tool to deepen our understanding of organisation dynamics and organisational death, is explored.

Organisational death

Death is a subject that absorbs, provokes, and fascinates. There are those with experience of dying, chronicling the journey towards death, for example, Gould (2011), or those observing death (Lakotta & Schels, 2004). This book faces death and looks directly at the experience of collapse, endings, and closure. It employs human mortality as a metaphor for organisational ending: the individuals within the system continued to breathe and to function, yet the body of the organisation expired.

 

Chapter Two - Death and Psychoanalysis

ePub

The theoretical underpinning of this book is presented in this chapter through an exploration of death in psychoanalysis. Different psychoanalytic representations of loss, death, and endings are examined as a vehicle to further our understanding of organisational mortality. My emphasis will be on Freud and the fundamental place loss has in psychoanalytic literature, a place forced to one side by the popularisation of the erotic and the emphasis on love and desire. Psychoanalytic thought locates loss centrally: loss of the primal relationship, loss of memory, and denial of loss. This sense of loss has something to offer the world of work at a time of organisational ending. I present the challenge of confronting death and acknowledging the limitations of life. Freud's engagement with death in his writings on transience, war, and death are relevant here. War is important in any reflection on death: in war, one is confronted with the possibility of death from the outset; this is given attention and related to organisational death.

 

Chapter Three - Death and Organisations

ePub

Death and organisations have been examined from a number of perspectives: trying to understand the notion of mortality in an organisational context takes us from genocide to suicide at work, from the death of a leader to the closure of a department. It encompasses grief and loss at work and parting ceremonies.

This chapter is structured in three parts. First, death and grief in organisations is explored, looking at models of loss in the first instance and including traditional models of mourning, such as that of Kubler-Ross (1969). Grief and loss at work are then given attention, including the death of a leader in the workplace and the impact of mergers and downsizing on the process of loss. Second the chapter examines extreme expressions of death at work through the subject of genocide as a brutal and efficient execution of murder at work; showing how it requires organisational skills and expertise to execute such dirty work. The third and final part of the chapter tackles the way in which organisations defend themselves against death: for example, through denial and greed.

 

Chapter Four - Mourning at Work

ePub

“In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself”

(Freud, 1917e, p. 246)

The assumption that we have unconscious motivations that are not always understood by others, or, indeed, ourselves, is central to psychoanalysis. If, therefore, we accept that the self is divided, we accept there is an outside that has an impact on the inside; in other words, the psychosocial. This notion of internal and external worlds that struggle to communicate relates to the differences between mourning and melancholia. In mourning, there is recognition of the negative impact of loss and an understanding of the painful responses to that loss. This chapter deals with mourning in the organisation. In melancholia, that loss is harder to compute and, rather than being worked through, is trapped inside and becomes a self-persecuting internal object. The melancholic organisation is dealt with in Chapter Five.

The chapter presents the data gathered and interprets the experience of closure and loss within the framework of mourning. It offers an interpretation of loss through examples of experiences told and observed during the eighteen-month-long project. These results, and those in the following chapters, offer a theoretical contribution to understanding closure and acknowledging the painful experience of loss in both mourning and melancholia. In mourning, this loss is worked through, leading to an acknowledgement of the end.

 

Chapter Five - Melancholia at Work

ePub

“The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment”

(Freud, 1917e, p. 244)

The melancholic organisation exhibits pathological responses to organisational death and is unable to cope with its ending. Its members, in addition to the painful symptoms of loss associated with mourning, are also encumbered with a depletion of self-esteem and a deep depression. The melancholic organisation goes beyond the anticipated response to death and incorporates the self at the centre of painful loss. Self-reproach and self-reviling are not present in mourning. In mourning, attacks are directed to the outside world, whereas in melancholia the attacks are directed inward, loss is harder to compute, and, rather than being worked through, are trapped inside and become a self-persecuting internal object.

 

Chapter Six - The Death Drive

ePub

This chapter explores the death drive and draws on the data gathered to explore the insights of Thanatos to understand organisational closure. It describes the death drive as a return to an earlier, inorganic state; it is also associated with violence, with a wish to cancel and to destroy. The chapter explains how the death drive operates in the closure of Interbank in all its vicissitudes. It compares the application of the death drive in the City of London with that in the international headquarters. The different expressions of the death drive, dissolution, and destruction are contrasted.

The death drive is expressed psychically in envy in the wish to take away something desirable that another person possesses. In the competitive environment of the City, envy, the desire to take away and destroy that which belongs to others, was seen to manifest itself (Klein, 1957). The compulsion to repeat mistakes in the world of finance and the cycle of boom and bust that epitomises the City of London is emphasised.

 

Chapter Seven - Defences at Work

ePub

Freud introduced the unconscious as a dynamic force, where unconscious phenomena are always trying to make themselves heard and felt (Freud, 1900a; Frosh, 2012). It is defence mechanisms that prevent the unconscious from appearing at all times; these mechanisms protect the individual from disturbing ideas entering conscious awareness. Defence mechanisms are also employed at an organisational level: repression is a useful tool to deny a crisis, projection can be directed to place failure into other, less achieving, organisations, and splitting can be used as a means of protecting the organisation from its less savoury aspects.

The vulnerability of this dying organisation generated profound defensive reactions from those within the institution. These defences were constructed in response to the unbearable anxiety of contemplating insecurity and their uncertain future. Defensive behaviour as a means of protecting oneself from anxieties that are too terrible to bear manifested itself in a variety of guises that are explored during this chapter.

 

Chapter Eight - Ending Thoughts

ePub

Death is a subject that absorbs, provokes, and fascinates. Mortal death and organisational death share a great deal: both involve loss and change, both can be painful, and both can elicit mourning and melancholia. There is no one who has experienced death, but the experience of death surrounds us, as does the death drive that exists at work as well as in our psyche.

This work has provided an intimate bedside portrait of an organisation in a palliative state. I have brought the concept of the death drive and Freud's work on “Mourning and melancholia” (1917e) and the death drive (1920g, 1930a) into the workplace and used this important stream of psychoanalytic thought as a means of interrogating and further understanding organisational life, developing an analysis of mourning and melancholia in an organisation and bringing the subject of death at work to the surface.

As a result of this investigation, I found that mourning is applicable to organisational loss; there was evidence of employees working through organisational death. Chapter Four identified the ways in which employees dealt with the organisational collapse in a manner consistent with mourning and one which could be described as “normal”. That is, pain and distress were evidenced, but this was experienced as a stage and a response that could then be processed and an alternative future of work contemplated and accepted. These employees were able to operate in a sophisticated work mode (Bion, 1961) and were able to reach a depressive position (Klein, 1984b[1940]) where the good and the bad of the organisation could be held internally. There was evidence, too, of a pathological response to organisational death akin to melancholy. In Chapter Five, I identified those within the organisation who adopted a melancholic stance and failed to work through their loss. Paranoid–schizoid thinking (Klein, 1984b[1940]) and basic assumption work behaviour (Bion, 1961) were evidenced in this melancholic response. Here, denial, greed, splitting, and mania were defences employed against the pain of organisational death.

 

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