Welcome to this discussion of some of the
concepts that we consider to be key to understanding
and working with people. The website is new
and we are constantly adding to this page,
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- Defense Mechanisms
Principle of Communication
and Latent Content
and Projective Identification
The concept of defense mechanisms comes from
psychodynamic theory. It is related to our
concept of "self" and involves the
interplay between our conscious and unconscious
minds. Our self concept provides us with a
unique framework by which we make sense of
our experience. Through this concept we define
for ourselves what is good and bad, acceptable
and unacceptable, success and failure. Inevitably
we experience aspects of ourselves that threaten
this sense of self. We may not be able to
accept our aggressive impulses. We may find
some of our impulses shameful. We may not
be able to accept that we are responsible
for our failures or that we have done something
destructive. At best, in terms of our psychological
maturity, we can respond to these threats
by acknowledging their existence and working
through them in a way that reconciles us to
them. On the other hand, our defense mechanisms
may prevent the offending ideas or impulses
from coming into our awareness. However, these
ideas and impulses remain active at an unconscious
level and affect our behavior and relationships.
instance, as a child I may have been terrified
by my anger and potential for violence, so
I repressed it and developed a concept of
myself as a person who never gets angry. But
the anger is still there and may get expressed
in distorted ways such as over-intellectualization
or self-righteous opinions. In doing so I
project my anger into others, and I may find
that people are regularly angry with me.
mechanisms operate in individuals and in groups,
and in both they begin as a means of protecting.
Eventually, however, they create their own
problems. For instance, a CEO cannot tolerate
ambiguity - which makes him angry. (Hostility
as a defense.) An inevitable consequence is
that his managers begin to censor his experience
by telling him only what he wants to hear.
In another case, a group may be anxious about
conflict and develops a norm of politeness.
By stifling negative feelings the group ultimately
causes irritation to build up in individuals
which diverts energy from its work.
Chris Argyris, Personality and Organization,
Harper & Row, New York, 1970.
A striking way in which the psychodynamics
of a system reveal themselves is in relation
to the concept of boundaries. Our awareness
of the boundaries of the social system and
how we respond to what happens at boundaries
are important parts of our day to day work
with our work groups and clients. By boundaries
we have in mind physical boundaries (e.g.
the walls of the room), temporal boundaries
(e.g. the time a meeting starts and ends),
psychological boundaries (e.g. giving attention
to and engaging with another person), and
sociological boundaries (e.g. the norms of
a social group). The boundaries of a social
system can be thought of as analogous to the
membrane of a living cell and are crucial
to the integrity of that system. Managers,
trainers, OD professionals, and coaches constantly
work with boundaries and deal with groups
and individuals who blur or break them. It
is important to be aware of these challenges
to the boundaries and to attempt to understand
their meaning. Boundary challenges can be
regarded as unconscious communications revealing
something of significance about the individual
and/or the group. For example, when somebody
is late for a meeting it is probable that
this is expressive of his/her ambivalence
about coming to the meeting. If this late
behavior appears to be interfering with or
is a threat to the group it may be useful
to explore its meaning with the individual
or the group. The meaning that is uncovered
is likely to be different, and more interesting,
than the excuse that was offered. Occasions
when it is useful to do this are when a person
is chronically late and needs to be asked
to change his or her behavior, or conversely
when a person is un-typically late, as this
may hold some meaning for the whole group
(i.e. a disturbing issue that the group needs
to face up to). There are occasions we may
be late for reasons outside our control, but
these are usually rare. When we need to be
on time - for a job interview or to catch
a plane - we are on time.
Most of us are familiar with the external
aspect of the communication process and accept
that a part of a facilitator's skill is to
develop communication between individuals
in the group. We will encourage listening,
we ask for clarification or we may paraphrase
what has been said. All this is clearly important
to developing an effective work group. However,
there is another, less visible aspect of the
communication process and that is the intra-personal
communication, the communication within the
individual's self. When we communicate with
others we are often hearing ourselves for
the first time. The attempt to put into words
our inarticulate feelings, wishes and vision
enables us to understand ourselves better.
Interestingly it is this intra-personal process
of communication that makes Peter Senge's
model of dialogue special. An effective dialogue
enables people to reflect on the assumptions
and models that underpin the way they are
understanding an issue. A dialogue in a workgroup
enables the members to develop a fuller assessment
of a situation and make better judgments.
Often in groups what a person would like to
say can only be expressed in an inarticulate
way, an outburst of anger, coming to a meeting
late or withdrawal into silence. Creating
the conditions of safety in a group that makes
it possible for the individual to put what
needs to be said into articulate language
is of considerable importance to an effective
work group. As group facilitators we are working
to develop a group situation (group culture)
which supports and encourages not only clear
communication between group members but also
one which enables individuals to communicate
Social defenses arise through the interaction
between individual behavior and organizational
structure. Individuals experience anxiety
and unconsciously defend themselves against
it. They develop work and social patterns
that reinforce their defenses. These patterns
get incorporated into the organizational structure
and culture, which in turn permeates individual
members defenses. The defenses are embedded
in the organizational structure, but function
Let us hypothesize
how the process worked in the Menzies Lyth
study. The nurses are put into daily, intimate
contact with illness and death and experience
anxiety as a result. As a means of coping,
individuals defend themselves through denial.
With repeated splitting off and denial of
feelings, a norm develops. Eventually the
norm is verbalized - "a good nurse is
detached" - and is reinforced by practices
and customs that create distance between nurses
and individual patients. The process is a
collusive interaction by which nurses project
their defenses into the system and incorporate
the systems defensive norms into themselves.
adequate degree of matching between the individuals
defenses and the social defenses is required
in order for an individual to retain membership
in the organization. If the gap is too large
and the individual continues to operate from
his or her own defenses, then other members
will find it intolerable and reject the person.
If instead the individual tries to behave
in a way consistent with organizational defenses
as opposed to his or her own pattern of defense,
he or she will experience anxiety and will
most likely leave.
Menzies Lyth, Isabel. "The Functioning
of Social Systems as a Defence against Anxiety",
Containing Anxiety in Institutions,
Free Associations, London, 1988. pp 73-74.
Melanie Klein developed the concept of splitting
as a defense mechanism from her psychoanalytic
work with young children. She identified it
as the most primitive of psychological defenses.
Splitting protects us from the anxiety associated
with the overwhelming rage we experience at
a very early age. Imagine an infant who is
just fed, clean and dry. The infant's whole
world is contentment. On the other hand, think
of a baby who wakes up in the night hungry
and wet. The whole world is pain and fury.
The child lacks the capacity to deal with
the fact that the same mother who is the source
of its well being is also the object of its
rage. The baby resorts to relating to the
mother as two separate objects - the good
and the bad. As the baby matures, it is able
to separate itself from the mother and see
the mother as a whole person and not just
the parts of her as they relate to him or
her. The baby then must deal with the ambiguous
and depressing reality that the mother is
both good and bad - the mother who nurtures
and the mother who withholds. This is the
process of splitting. We continue to split
throughout our lives. It is difficult to maintain
ambiguous positions towards other people,
particularly if we have strong feelings about
them. For instance, think about a person who
causes you a lot of problems - or who you
might even think of as an enemy. How easy
is it to see his or her endearing qualities?
How easy is it to hold these good qualities
in your mind simultaneously with the things
you dislike? Most likely, it is much easier
to fall on one side, and dismiss the other.
Splitting can become destructive when the
boundary between the good and bad become rigid
and only one side is allowed into our consciousness.
It protects us from the inability of our immature
selves to tolerate ambiguity and helps us
feel certain and right. The certainty rests,
however, on a distorted perception of our
Segal, H., "Introduction to the Work
of Melanie Klein", Basic Books, New York,
What is the primary task of your organization?
Are you clear about it? Is your understanding
shared by your colleagues?
A clear and common
understanding of the organizations primary
task focuses and bonds the contributions of
the many and diverse groups of people who
work in it. However, members of organizations
can be frustrated at multiple levels from
understanding this primary task.
pressures can distort the primary task at
the highest level. For instance, we might
presume that a school systems primary
task is to provide knowledge, skills, and
qualifications to young people that expand
their options for life and work. However,
experiences in Britain led me to wonder if
its primary task were to qualify students
or to eliminate them from the higher education
track - which was free but limited. In the
United States, schools are being asked to
take an ever-expanding responsibility for
social and character development of students
- a task whose magnitude extends well beyond
the time, role, and structural constraints
Internal distortions of
the primary task arise from the preoccupations
of different groups and individuals who make
up the organization. Subgroups interpret the
primary task from the perspective of their
own tasks and interests; they may even see
them as analogous. Individuals bring in a
wide background of experience in other organizations
which may or may not be in alignment with
the primary task.
The structure and
processes of an organization are often developed
in response to these internal and external
pressures and consequently do not make sense
in relation to the primary task. Indeed, they
can be counterproductive. Maintaining our
focus on the primary task can keep us from
being diverted by every opportunity or demand
and can help us move beyond interpersonal
and intergroup differences. Unfortunately,
the primary task is usually assumed and not
From a psychodynamic perspective what we talk
has both a manifest and a latent meaning.
Freud introduced this distinction in his study
of dreams. The things we recollect when we
wake up from a dream form the manifest content
- the events, perhaps a story, the images
and feelings. If we reflect we can begin to
uncover the suppressed or repressed unconscious
Conversation also has these two
aspects. The article "The Group Unconscious"
in Februarys edition related the story
of the last day of a training course when
group members fell into a conversation about
peripheral arterial disease in which people
lose fingers and toes. At a manifest level
it was conversation about a medical condition;
at the latent level it was about members
feelings about the group coming to an end.
hear the latent meaning in dialogue requires
a consultant, coach, or manager to listen
at times with an "analytic ear",
that is to listen to what is being said in
a state of suspended attention rather than
with the usual focused attention we give to
people we are talking to. All conversation
can be read for its manifest and latent content.
At times the latent content is more significant
than the intended communication.
The concept of transference was developed
in the practice of psychoanalysis. It refers
to the tendency of a client to transfer the
intense feeling she has experienced at an
earlier stage of life in her relationship
with her mother, father or other important
figure (i.e. sibling). The client relates
to the therapist as if he were this other
person. Skilled therapists encourage the development
of transference, which they then use as a
means of helping the person understand unconscious
fantasies they bring to their relationships.
Transference appears in all sorts of relationships.
It may not develop with the intensity of the
analytic relationship but in some cases it
may. Most of us have had the direct experience
of transference as teenagers. It is a component
of falling in love. The instability of the
relationship is evident in the our teenage
infatuations - the rapid development of intense
feelings of love followed by their collapse
and our subsequent disenchantment as the reality
of the person confounds our unconscious fantasy.
in positions of authority are often the objects
of transference. In organizations managers
are prone to the transference of their subordinates,
either loving and affectionate (positive transference)
or hostile (negative transference). Individuals
differ in the degree to which they are vulnerable
to transference in the relationships they
form. Multiple transference relationships
can form in group, not only between group
members and the leader but also between member.
Researchers and practitioners have noticed
that the interactions within a consulting
group can at times mirror the hidden processes
in the client system. Moreover, these mirrored
processes are often those the client are denying.
Krantz and Gilmore gave the example of a project
in which the client requested the consultants
to assist with the technical issues of reorganizing
a department, yet the important issue was
the working relationship between the client
and the head of the department. This first
became evident to the consultants when they
fell into a conflict about who was responsible
for what part of the work. They realized that
they were acting out the dynamics in their
clients relationship. Parallel process is
the phenomenon of covert processes in the
client system being played out in parallel
within the consulting system. Awareness of
parallel process can lead consultants to important
insight into the issues that they need to
help their clients address.
Krantz, J and Gilmore,
T.N., (1991) "Understanding the Dynamics
between Consulting Teams and Clients",
in "Organizations on the Couch",
ed. Kets de Vries, M.F.R., Jossey-Bass, San
Boredom is often a disregarded emotion, yet
below its surface it holds important reasoning.
How would you describe the feeling of boredom?
Tedium? That fight to stay awake? Nothing
to stimulate your mind? While boredom may
feel like a passive reaction, psychologists
suggest that it is a more dynamic and active
process than it seems.
Fubini (1988) describes
it thus: "Boredom is a sign of something
carefully avoided, often unexpressed anger
which has turned into a feeling of isolation,
sometimes to such an extent that no real form
of communication can take place." He
goes further to say that it is an attack on
relating, including thinking. When in its
grips he finds himself "prevented from
any form of clear thinking which could be
translated into meaningful words."
about the circumstances in which we get bored.
Usually escape is impossible. We may be a
child enduring a never-ending sermon, a student
sitting through a droning lecture, or a manager
involved in a turgid meeting - that is running
over time. We are trapped in something that
has no meaning to us. A natural reaction is
anger, but anger is unsafe. Who are we going
to be angry with? How can we express it? What
can we say that might make things more engaging?
Faced with these dilemmas, we usually clam
up, wait it out, and complain afterwards.
Fubini, Franca, Work of Time and Work of
Clocks. Group Analysis Sage Publications,
December, 1988. pp 318-19.
Group norms are the explicit and unspoken
rules governing the behavior of group members.
The norms of the group flow from its values
- the shared beliefs about what objects and
actions are good and bad. Norms specify those
actions which are OK and those that are not-OK.
The norms are associated with rewards for
following them and punishments for breaking
them. Norms can be about specific behaviors
such as "it is acceptable to ask questions
in the group" or more complex behavior
such as "authenticity".
formal groups, such as committees and teams,
some of the norms may be made explicit as
written rules. The framework of norms is an
important way of characterizing the culture
of a group. Changing the norms of a group
is an important way of influencing the behavior
of group members. It is easier to influence
group norms when they are being formed at
the beginning of a group than it is to change
established norms. Group facilitators make
a strong bid to influence the groups they
work with by proposing ground rules for behavior
at the outset. An important function of a
group leader is to shape the group norms that
are most appropriate to the groups task.
S.H. Foulkes, the pioneer of Group Analysis
speaks of the group leaders function
of "forging" the groups culture.
When I think of the word resistance I ask,
"Resistance to what?" In order for
us to resist, there must be something to push
back against. My second thought is that we
are not usually talking about ourselves when
we use the word. Resistance is therefore something
others are doing in relation to something
we are trying to make happen. So let us include
ourselves in the analysis of resistance.
resistance emerges as a reaction to change
of some sort. In the context of the consulting
process Peter Block (1981) describes it as
a "predictable, nature, emotional reaction
against the process of being helped and against
the process of having to face up to difficult
organizational problems." He also says
it is an equally "predictable, natural,
and necessary part of the learning process."
(p. 113) It is important to deal with resistance
before help and change can genuinely be accepted.
is part of the process of moving from the
known to the unknown. Block suggests that
there is some difficult reality out there
that is leaving the person feeling uncomfortable,
and that discomfort most likely arises from
a fear of loss of control or feelings of vulnerability.
We may fear loss of power or position. We
may be sure of our competence and knowledge
with the status quo, but may not be so adept
when faced with a new situation.
also suggests that a second thing is happening.
The discomfort is being expressed indirectly.
It is this indirect expression that causes
problems for the person initiating the change.
If the "resister" could say "I
am worried about how well I can handle this
new situation," then we would be very
supportive. The indirect communication can
seem like irrationality, stubbornness, or
Block, Peter. Flawless Consulting, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer,
San Francisco. 1981.
I struggle with the distinction between the
defense mechanisms of projection and projective
identification. The simple definition of projection
is that it is a process by which we project
ONTO another person those parts of ourselves
that we cannot tolerate, and then proceed
to see them in other person. The recipients
of our projections do not necessarily respond
as if the projections fit. They may in fact
be puzzled by our responses to them.
the other hand, projective identification
is a longer term, more insidious process.
We project INTO the other person the parts
of ourselves we cannot tolerate, so that the
other person begins to take on and feel the
unwanted parts. I have seen relationships
in which anger and niceness gets divided between
married partners on a long term and consistent
basis. What does the nice person do with his
angry parts? What does the angry person do
with her nice parts?
I once knew a couple
in which the husband was extremely controlling
- very gently so, but controlling nevertheless.
Despite previous agreements, if he decided
to do something else he would. The wife was
passive and would accept these changes without
argument. Often when I was with them I experienced
myself acting badly - disagreeing, attacking,
being provocative. I realized later that unconsciously
I was taking on the wifes projected
An important idea that I learned as a group
psychotherapist was that of intimacy. In therapy
groups and T-groups relationships between
group members progress to ever deeper levels
of intimacy. For clients in therapy developing
the capacity to for intimate relationships
is at the core of the therapeutic process.
with another may develop along several dimensions,
physical, sexual, psychological, spiritual
and intellectual. In our organizational lives
it is the psychological dimension that is
important to our working relationships. Sexual
intimacy can be a hazard in the progressive
development of intimacy and may, perversely,
come about as a defense against intimacy.
The couple may act out their impulses because
they have been unable to give full expression
of their feelings for each other in language.
we reflect on our working relationships we
may well notice that the most productive relationships
were often the most intimate. A psychologically
intimate relationship has a high level of
trust and allows the two people to be open
about themselves and honest without fear of
rejection. In an intimate relationship we
understand each other in our full humanity,
warts and all. Intimacy is closely linked
to the idea of authenticity, the crucial foundation
effective coaching and consulting relationships.
When I get together with other OD professionals
we all agree that it is important to look
at a particular organizational problem in
relation to the larger system of which it
is are a part. Yet when I am pressed to explain
what I mean I can find it difficult. So here
goes, a brief explanation:
A system is
a set of components that all interact to form
a whole. A clock is an example of mechanical
system. It is also, what is referred to as
a CLOSED system. That is a system which is
not interacting with the external environment.
The electrical thermostat which operates our
central heating is an example of an OPEN system.
A thermostat has a component which is heat
sensitive so that when the temperature reaches
a certain point the furnace is switched either
on or off. The thermostat is interacting with
the environment. Living organisms are biological
systems from the simplest amoeba to the complex
human animal. As a biological entity a human
being is a system comprised of many sub-systems
and sub-sub-systems. We understand that if
one part of the total system is out of balance
that this can have its effect on other parts
of the body. This way of thinking is important
to medicine and the other natural sciences.
OD practitioners are referring almost
exclusively to open systems. They view the
organization as if it were a living organism.
The important point of thinking this way is
to appreciate that a disturbance in one part
of the system (high turnover, interpersonal
conflict) often arises as a consequence of
something that is happening in a different
part of the system. To influence the disturbance
it will be necessary to act on this other