James Krantz 2010 Social Defenses and 21st Century Organizations

Excerpts and notes:

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... how social systems function as a defense against persecutory and depressive anxiety. ... For Isabel the system is more than a reflection of unconscious dynamics. It has real, enduring and impersonal qualities. These elements of organizational life – structures, practices, policies, technologies, methods of working, patterns of decision making, the distribution of authority, and so on – are the “stuff” of social defenses. While these aspects of organizational life exist to facilitate work, they come to be utilized for the additional purpose of helping people manage anxiety.

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two defining features of what is often referred to as the Tavistock tradition. One is the emphasis on practicality -- developing theory that is judged by its usefulness -- which was formalized as “Action Research” methodology. Second was a commitment to the interdisciplinary integration of different perspectives. What gave so much of her theory, and especially the idea of social defenses, its distinctive creativity was the integration of psychoanalytic thinking with systems theory and management science.

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Isabel’s work was based on paradigms of social life and strategies of containment that were beginning to crumble as society shifted to post-industrialism. It was up to the next generation to bring social defense thinking into relationship with new notions of family, organization and community life.

How, and whether, social defense theory will contribute to the understanding of emerging organizations remains to be seen. How new structures and work methods will interact with individual’s anxieties and whether they can be used to promote creativity and depressivity rather than institutionalize more primitive relations is a question of great import.

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What we now see as delusional ideologies offers another interesting focus for social defense analysis: housing prices are indestructible; regulation is dangerous because markets are inherently self-correcting; financial engineering can eliminate risk.

... the role that information technology will play in shaping social defenses in work organizations. That technology enables organizations to mobilize the most precious intangible resources – minds and relationships – has been clearly demonstrated. The overwhelming complexity and fragmentation that has accompanied these changes hints at anxieties that underlie the vast global networks that are formed. Social defense analysis raises the question of how the same technologies that potentiate such enormous productive capabilities also get used to help people defend against the anxieties embedded in the tasks and animating the enterprises. The analytic task is to disentangle the trauma of the transition from the activity of creating social systems for working well.

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In knowledge work the premium is on marshaling “mind power,” rather than mobilizing labor and capital. Yet we understand very little about the emotional containment associated with knowledge work or about the unconscious dimensions of such work. Knowledge work is intensely personal; it begins with the self and involves intuition and experience. In every decision and every conversation, knowledge workers test an aspect of their own personal take on the world – the system-in-the-mind. ... Sophisticated work occurs where people can learn publicly, risking personal exposure in the service of developing shared understanding, and collaborating in such a way that vulnerability is neither hidden nor pathologized (Hirschhorn, 1990).

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Understanding how and where social defenses will be constructed to help people shield themselves from the experiences of working under these conditions will be an important contribution to both the well being and success of 21st century workers. To this exploration I believe the concept of social defense systems has much to offer, as long as we don’t succumb to the defensive temptations of sentimentality or longing for earlier modes of containment. Developing human, sentient, systems that mesh effectively with the new realities and practices will require a more realistic appreciation of human functioning and of the unconscious, non-rational dimension of economic and organizational life than exists today in the minds of policy makers and institutional architects.

Alastair Bain 1998 Social Defense Against Org Learning