How Avoiding Difficult Dynamics Undermines Work Productivity
Exploring group level, jointly created psychological defense against anxiety
Posted Mar 14, 2016
"Has anybody else noticed that every time we start talking about working more closely with the sales department or some other change in strategy, we end up wandering off in some other direction—or no direction at all? Last time we ended up talking about Kyle and Rachel’s ski trip. We keep having these long meetings about improving our productivity, but nothing ever seems to get settled. I’m really worried that we’re not following our business plan, and we’re not making any money. It drives me crazy because we seemed to have consensus about what we want, and then it doesn’t happen.”
Danielle was sharing her recurring experience that nothing ever changes even though, at their meetings, everybody agrees that something has to change, and even agrees on next steps.
“Yeah, it’s true,” Matt agreed. It’s like we’ve totally lost touch with our vision—with what made us excited in the first place—no goal, no plan—not even what to do it if we started getting serious customers again.”
Jessica was sitting a little apart from her colleagues, but suddenly moved her chair in closer. “It’s as if we’d forgotten that market forces apply to us. We’ve stopped following our traditional market, don’t take our numbers seriously—if we even look at them—and haven’t talked about new product development in—how long? Two years?”
For more than a decade after the “dot.com” collapse, this team of tech entrepreneurs managed to survive and even thrive by constant reinvention. It worked so well that they started letting themselves coast. Inevitably, they lost their edge and routinely fell short on performance targets. Yet they had difficulty even discussing the need for an overhaul.
"Doesn't make sense," Danielle went on. "When we had to, we made some pretty tough choices when everybody we knew was going under. And it worked even better than we hoped it would. But since surviving that, we’ve acted like we’ve paid our dues and don’t have to even think about it anymore, even though every one of us knows enough to know better.”
“Character” could be described as the sum of the psychological defenses an individual or group uses to diminish awareness of anxiety. Individually, it’s made up of behaviors and patterns that are used defensively to support our distancing ourselves from the anxiety-producing parts of life—especially relationships with others. Defense against anxiety can also be used to apply to a group of people, such as a family, group of friends, or a work group. (Jacques, 1955). When people seeking to create this “safe distancing” encounter others with a complementary need to feel safe, and they develop a way of relating called irrelationship, they have fallen into the habit avoiding being aware of anxiety about working closely. This is the hidden factor that seems mysteriously to undermine their ability to communicate and get work done.
"So—is this a pattern or a conspiracy?” Rachel wanted to know.
"You know,” Danielle replied, “'reinvention' was our strong suit—it got us through when the bubble busted and through that damn recession. But now we act like we’re playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, only we don’t seem to care if there’s a donkey or not.”
In the work team described here, we see how irrelationship functions. The group’s character, as noted above, is unconsciously influenced by a shared “social defense” (Menzies, 1959) designed to protect the group members from being overwhelmed by anxiety. Community character is a typical style of interaction that reflects the unconscious, unwritten, unstated, but ever-present laws—played out in the group dynamic—that decrease group anxiety by governing and limiting the ways that people interact with each other within a community (Borg, 2004, p. 155).
Creation of these laws is driven by historical events, circumstances, and experiences to which the community/organization has had to adjust. These laws give large groups their distinctive character, much as defenses help to create the character of an individual. Going further, a direct connection can be traced between community and individual character: individuals are formed in part by the character of their communities, while experiences and behaviors inconsistent with the community character are blocked from awareness (“dissociated”) but enacted, that is, acted out in unconscious group behaviors and patterns.
When these mechanisms are working well, we’re not aware of their existence since they keep our anxiety off the radar. As a social defense that comes into play when we decide—or are forced—to rely on others, this mode of adapting can be seen as a larger scale deployment of irrelationship.
In organizations and work groups, this deployment is evident from a deadened awareness of anxiety and its causes—and is also evident in the use of maladaptive behaviors, “enactments”, which repeat problem-solving strategies that in the past worked, but are ineffectively misapplied to current tasks and significantly impact work performance. Maintaining this blunted perception coupled with enactment of ineffective strategies becomes a group priority, displacing the primary task of the organization, i.e., that of doing the work the business exists to perform.
"But does realizing we’ve gone off the rails mean that we’re willing to find out why it happened and do what it takes to get back on the rails?" Rachel asked.
"Good point,” Matt responded. "Are we willing to hit pause, reassess ourselves and the marketplace and make new shared goals instead of the little hoops we’ve been congratulating ourselves on jumping through?”
"Yeah. Can we all even agree with what it is that we’re offering as a company anymore?" asked Jessica.
"Well, that seems to be where we have to start,” Danielle concluded.
Borg, Jr., M. B. (2004). Venturing Beyond the Consulting Room: Psychoanalysis in Community Crisis Intervention. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 40 (2): 147-174.
Jacques, E. (1955). Social Systems as a Defense Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety in Klein, M., Heimann, P., and Money-Kyrle, R.E. (Eds.), New Directions in Psychoanalysis, London: Tavistock Publications.
Menzies, L, I. (1959) 'The Functions of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital', Human Relations 13: 95-121; reprinted in Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, vol. 1. Free Association Books, 1988, pp. 43-88.
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