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Organization in the Mind

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David Armstrong has been a leading figure internationally in the fields of organizational consultancy and group relations for many years. Robert French and Russ Vince have gathered together, for the first time, his key writings in this area. This is essential reading for managers and leaders, as well as organizational consultants, academics and students of organizations. Part of the Tavistock Clinic Series.

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10 Chapters

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CHAPTER ONE: Organization in the mind: an introduction

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The papers brought together in this book were written over a period of fifteen years from 1989 to the present. They are “occasional” in at least two senses. Each was written for a particular occasion—meetings of professional bodies or networks gathered around specific topics or themes, or in response to some invitation to share ideas and experiences. Most were also the outcome of an occasion: a moment in consultancy work where a particular line of thought arose or became clearer, or where something read or heard seemed to open up another way of picturing experience or practice.

In preparing them for this publication, I have not attempted to “tidy them up”. The papers are presented chronologically, according to the date of their original presentation. The audience addressed is sometimes apparent, sometimes alluded to: there are occasional overlaps and inconsistencies, even contradictions. (Information specific to each presentation is given briefly at the start of each chapter.) In this regard, the book can be read as offering an account of a particular period of “work in progress”—warts and all. Despite the variety of occasions represented, each paper in different ways derives from and gives expression to a central preoccupation during this period: namely, with exploring and puzzling over the links between psychoanalysis, group relations, and experiences of organizational life, as presented within a consultant/client relation.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Names, thoughts, and lies: the relevance of Bion’s later writing for understanding experiences in groups

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“Names, Thoughts, and Lies” was originally written to inaugurate a series of invited public seminars mounted by The Grubb Institute in 1989. The intention of the seminars was to review the field of “group relations” and its continuing relevance for understanding organizational behaviour. The paper set out to consider Wilfred Bion’s contribution to this field in the light of his later psychoanalytic preoccupations and the ways in which these both complemented and potentially extended the insights of his Experiences in Groups.

Although I was not aware of this at the time, the paper was to herald many of the themes that subsequently preoccupied me: in particular, the conceptualization of emotional experience as the ground of thought and thinking; the problematization of conventional “boundaries” between self and other, internal and external; and the corresponding need to revisit some of the conceptual “tools of the trade”, both theoretical and methodological.

Bion didn’t think much of Experiences in Groups (Bion, 1961). In a letter to one of his children, he comments wryly on its critical reception compared to his later published work: “the one book I couldn’t be bothered with even when pressure was put on me 10 years later, has been a continuous success” (Bion, 1985, p. 213).

 

CHAPTER THREE: The “organization-in-the-mind”: reflections on the relation of psychoanalysis to work with institutions

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This paper was initially read in 1991 to one of a series of annual conferences on Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere, sponsored by the University of East London. Subsequently, I added a postscript (case example 2 below), based on an assignment on which I was working with Jean Hutton, at The Grubb Institute.

Building from the idea of attention to emotional experience as the link between psychoanalytic practice and organizational work, the paper sought to rework the idea of the “organization-in-the-mind” as a working tool in organizational consultancy, drawing on a particular occasion in which I had first sensed the significance of differentiating metaphor and reality.

Hearsay has it that when the Chairman of the Professional Committee of the Tavistock Clinic some while ago read a paper at the Institute of Psychoanalysis on the psychoanalysis of institutions, a distinguished Kleinian analyst tartly observed that there was no such thing—the concept was empty.

At first hearing, one knows what she means. Psychoanalysis is rooted, in its concepts and methods, on what takes place between two people in a consulting-room. It is, one may say, concerned with understanding the emotional experience contained or made present in that room. Its founder’s genius lay in realizing that this emotional experience, resonating and amplified through the medium of transference, opened a door to the understanding of the mind. Opening this door promoted development, fundamentally in the inner world of the patient, though also, of course, in that of the analyst her/himself. Melanie Klein’s formidable contribution, as I see it, was greatly to enlarge and clarify the concept of the inner world, its contents and relations, as the focus of development. From this point of view, what focuses analytic work, session by session, term after term, is not so much the relation of the patient to external reality as his or her relatedness to psychic reality within.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: The analytic object in organizational work

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“The Analytic Object in Organizational Work” started out in a shortened version written to introduce a dialogue during a social dreaming workshop, directed by Gordon Lawrence at the William Alanson White Institute, New York, in 1994. Under the title, “The Unthought Known”, it drew on this evocative phrase of Christopher Bollas (Bollas, 1987) to describe the way in which organizational experiences may embody an emotional undertow, intrinsic to the life of the organization but which has eluded formulation. Drawing on one singular example from a consultancy assignment, it sought to show how bringing this undertow into view illuminated and gave new meaning to the dilemmas and challenges of cultural change.

In 1995, shortly after I had returned to the Tavistock, an extended version of the paper, under the present title, was given at the annual symposium of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) held in London.

The paper introduces an implied distinction, which was to be important in a good deal of later work, between the primary task and the “primary process” of the organization. It also describes something of both the functioning and the significance of transference and countertransference processes in the consultant–client pair.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The recovery of meaning

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“The Recovery of Meaning” was written for the 1996 Symposium of ISPSO in New York and was subsequently published in a slightly revised form in Group Relations, Management, and Organization (French & Vince, 1999). The present chapter returns to the earlier version.

Working from two occasions in consultancy, the paper explores how the re-framing of experiences shared within an organizational context may disclose layers of meaning beyond the purely personal in ways that can both generate and recover organizational insight.

It includes an example of the (spontaneous) recall of dream material in a role consultation, where the remembered dream serves as a container for rather than simply of meaning. This was in turn to initiate something of a sea change in my own practice.

In the advance publicity for this symposium, we are told that it offers an opportunity to explore “the future of organisations and how psychoanalytic theory can help us understand this future.”

I should say at the outset that I have two difficulties with this optimistic statement. The first is that I doubt that psychoanalytic theory can help us understand organizations at any time. (I am not persuaded that it can help us understand individuals at any time either.) What I believe may help us to understand organizations at some time—and certainly in my experience does help us to understand ourselves in the time of our personal lives—is psychoanalytic practice. Without experience of that practice, on either side of the analytic encounter, no amount of acquaintance with theory is likely to prove all that useful.

 

CHAPTER SIX: “Psychic retreats”: the organizational relevance of a psychoanalytic formulation

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“Psychic Retreats” was first presented at the 1998 Symposium of ISPSO, in Jerusalem. The theme of the symposium was: “Drawing Boundaries and Crossing Bridges—Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Alliances, Relationships and Relatedness between Groups, Organizations and Cultures.”

The paper was based on a reading of John Steiner’s psychoanalytic formulation of “psychic retreats”, as these may emerge in clinical work with patients. It traces the ways in which Steiner’s concept of the “internal organization” and its genesis can be echoed within experiences of organizational life and the conditions that inform this. A provisional distinction is drawn between the enactment and the in-actment of internal mental states, which I now see as central to the distinction between individual and social “pathology”.

In a postscript to the paper, written but not presented at the time, I speculate on the idea of a “psychic retreat in reverse”, in which organizational meaning is both denied and evaded through a “privileging of the self”.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Emotions in organizations: disturbance or intelligence?

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“Emotions in Organizations” offers an overview of the particular perspective on a psychoanalytic approach to understanding organizational experience represented in the previous chapters. It was first presented at the London Symposium of ISPSO in 2000. A shortened version has been published as a contribution to the Tavistock Consultancy Service’s survey of its work over the past ten years, in Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organisations (Huffington, Armstrong, Halton, Hoyle, & Pooley, 2004).

The paper conceptualizes the organization as an emotionally eliciting mental object and defines four boundary conditions or dimensions that between them generate and shape the patterning of experience. In the process, it reformulates the idea of “emotional intelligence” as a source of information into the nature and functioning of the organization, seen under these conditions.

If one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Keeping on moving

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“Keeping on Moving” was written for a commemorative conference in honour of Robert Gosling, OBE [1920–2000], held at the Tavistock Clinic in February 2001.

The title of the conference, “Group and Institutional Processes at Work,” made reference to Gosling’s lifelong interest in and engagement with this field of work. Trained as a psychiatrist and later as a psychoanalyst, Gosling joined the Tavistock Clinic as a senior registrar in the 1950s. For several years, he worked as an assistant to Michael Balint in his pioneering approach to training for general practitioners. He became a familiar staff member of the programme of group relations conferences led by Ken Rice and later Eric Miller at Leicester and elsewhere, without him ever losing a quiet but sustained independence of mind. From 1968– 1979 he led the Tavistock Clinic, as Chair of its Professional Committee, during a period of significant expansion, both in the extent and range of the Clinic’s work.

In his practice and occasional publications, Gosling drew on, without drawing attention to, many strands of his experience and training: on early personal experiences of prolonged illness and hospitalization, on his own analysis with Wilfred Bion, on the collaboration with Michael Balint and with colleagues at both the Tavistock Clinic and the Tavistock Institute, but also on his direct experience of engagement in many areas of organizational and social life, as participant, consultant, colleague, and leader.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Making present: reflections on a neglected function of leadership and its contemporary relevance

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“Making Present” was presented in September 2001 at the conference organized by the Organisation for Promoting Understanding of Society (OPUS) to launch the journal Organisational and Social Dynamics.

The stimulus for the paper was a sensed link between recent developments in child psychotherapy, associated with the work of Anne Alvarez at the Tavistock Clinic, and current experiences of working with chief executives and others in leadership positions.

Alvarez’s work has drawn attention to the importance in psychic development of the ways in which the interaction of mother and baby establishes a sense of lively presence, “complex, varied and constantly changing … pleasurable but in a demanding way”. This sense of presence both stimulates development and serves to modify the impact of absence. In these ways, it acts as both an origin and a precursor of thoughts.

The paper explores a number of ways in which the idea of the modulation and regulation of presence challenges and extends our understanding of leadership, especially in contemporary organizations. It suggests that part of the function of leadership under conditions of radical uncertainty, contextual and structural, is to make present, through interaction with others, an idea of and a feel for the “enterprise”—or “practice”—of the organization which can ground and recover the exchange and enactment of thought. It proposes that this function modifies and adds to the preoccupation with both the directional and the containing aspects of leadership which have informed much of the discussion of this topic within the Tavistock tradition.

 

CHAPTER TEN: The work group revisited: reflections on the practice and relevance of group relations

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“The Work Group Revisited” was originally presented, in a slightly modified form, to members attending a study weekend in February 2002 at the Tavistock Institute, organized by the Institute’s Leadership and Organisation Unit. The title of the weekend was “Reflections on Group Relations, Past Experience and Future Possibilities”. Those attending included past members or staff of one or more of the Institute’s group relations conferences, together with a small number of interested others.

In the paper, I return to the theme first explored in “Names, Thoughts and Lies” (chapter two): Wilfred Bion’s distinction between two modes of mental activity in group life. I argue for a reconsideration of the meaning and significance of the “work group”, in both Bion’s practice and that of his successors in the field of group relations. I suggest that without such re-thinking, it is not possible either fully to take the measure of the unconscious undertow of group and organizational behaviour or, correspondingly, to make contact with the vitality no less than the defensiveness of our social experience.

 

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