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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational transformation

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Abstract

Organizations are faced with constant change and shifting boundaries due to the manifold transformations they undergo. Within these processes, an equilibrium, people are embedded in, can be disturbed, and uneasiness can be created. An obvious insight is that employees and the leadership team can either support the transformation or slow it down by defending the status quo. In this paper, it is argued that individual ego defence mechanisms can limit an organization's ability to transform. At the same time, defence is important for the individual's ability to create boundaries and to maintain stability.
Beiträge und Positionen der HTW Berlin 2019 – Pre-Print
Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational transformation 1
Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during
organizational transformation
Jürgen Radel, Roland J. Schuster
Abstract
Organizations are faced with constant change and shifting boundaries due to the manifold
transformations they undergo. Within these processes, an equilibrium, people are embedded
in, can be disturbed, and uneasiness can be created. An obvious insight is that employees and
the leadership team can either support the transformation or slow it down by defending the
status quo. In this paper, it is argued that individual ego defence mechanisms can limit an
organization’s ability to transform. At the same time, defence is important for the individual’s
ability to create boundaries and to maintain stability.
1. Introduction
The form and structure of an organization, which comprise an open collection of roles (Katz &
Kahn, 1978, p. 187 ff.) and their incumbents, are constantly evolving as the institution’s
design adapts to the current zeitgeist (Radel, 2017), which is framed by the development of
society and the social order. […] [S]ocial order is a human product, or, more precisely, an
ongoing human production. […] The inherent instability of the human organism makes it an
imperative that man himself provide a stable environment for his conduct(Berger &
Luckmann, 1991, p. 69 f.). This environment is a part of the […] web of interconnection
between person and situation, self and others, organism and environment, the individual and
the communal [.](Parlett, 1997, p. 16), a unified field (Parlett, 1997) in which all parts of the
field are connected and influence each other (also see Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 78).
Additionally, individual personalities can influence the way in which expectations are
formulated onto roles (Katz & Kahn, 1978, p. 211 f.) and affect role behaviour (Katz & Kahn,
1978, p. 214 f.), while they are embedded inand are a part ofthe environment (Katz &
Kahn, 1978, p. 121 ff. Parlett, 1997, p. 16) or the society.
Currently it seems as if the social order, and society itself, are undergoing a major
reconstruction, while the concepts of Gemeinschaftand Gesellschaftfrom 1887 are still
valid today. However, society seems to shift more and more away from Gemeinschaft, a very
personal, relationship-based connection of human beings that emanates from birth, marriage
or family bonds (Tönnies, 1887, p. 10 f.) to a more anonymous, disconnected form of mutual
existence (Tönnies, 1887, p. 46 ff.). With this shift […] towards Gesellschaft a societal
model where human associations are governed by rationality and self-interest, and
interactions are of a more impersonal nature […] has come a rise in individualism,
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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational
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contributing to the emergence of the “I” societya social entity that is characterized by
conspicuous narcissistic behavior(Kets de Vries, 2018, p. 0).
Considering this development, one can assume that the shift towards an ‘I’ society will also
affect organizations, since they are embedded in society and are completely permeated by
individuals. Management
1
and employees, as they themselves become more and more
individualistic, would influence the organization accordingly. Individualism, however, seems to
be contrary to the notions that more and more democracy is demanded (Radel, 2017, p. 63
f.) and that organizational forms which distribute power have been on the rise for more than
two decades (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2002; Slater & Bennis, 1990), even if some sceptical voices
have already been raised in academia (Bernstein, Bunch, Canner, & Lee, 2016; King & Land,
2018; Radel, 2017) and in the public press (Andersen, 2019; Kühl, 2019).
However, the call for (more) democracy might also be a sign for narcissist tendencies: I (!)
want to be heard more by my organization, a demand similar to an abandoned child
demanding that the caregiver pay more attention to it (Radel, 2018, p. 197). I want to beor
to feelmore relevant. The individual struggles to get more attentionsomething that can
currently be observed in politics. A retreat towards clear boundaries (borders) and attention
to ‘our country firstillustrates this shift, which can sometimes be accompanied by aggression,
showing immature or intermediate defences (for an overview see e.g. Cramer, 2006, p. 23;
McCullough, Vaillant, & Vaillant, 1986, p. 66; Vaillant, 1971, p. 111, 1994, p. 45) or a basic
assumption mentality (French & Simpson, 2010, p. 1862f.) instead of reflective discussion
within a working group (French & Simpson, 2010).
The above described changes in the unified field (Parlett, 1997) may result in any of the
following three factors, that can affect the performance of individual managers:
1. Boundaries that define inand outare torn down or altered in a way that results in
the loss of habitualization in clearly defined roles (see Katz & Kahn, 1978, p. 186 ff.
for a discussion about the taking of organizational roles), and tension builds. Moving
from one reality to another forces the individual to constantly adapt to the new reality
(Berger & Luckmann, 1991, p. 35). When the known reality is deconstructed, the
individual can no longer rely on habitualization (see Berger & Luckmann, 1991, p. 71
ff. for a discussion on habitualization), and he or she has to decide what to do in the
new, unknown environment, as well as how to redefine the role.
2. The adaption might be even more difficult if the environment changes to an extent
that it is no longer considered to be supportive (holding). If the caregiver, the direct
manager or the organization fails to create or to maintain such a holding environment,
similar to what Winnicott described in his theory of the parentinfant relationship
1
A differentiation of management and leadership as a social defense is being discussed in (Krantz & Gilmore,
1990)
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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational
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(Winnicott, 1960), and the individual loses the connection to the organization because
his or her role has been altered in such a way that it seems to be lost (Long, 2018, p.
7), the individuals desire for effectiveness is harmed.
3. This might trigger ego defence mechanisms (Cramer, 2006; Sandler & Freud, 1985;
Vaillant, 1971, 1994) (EDMs) that can even more significantly influence the
effectiveness of the individual and the performance of the organization.
In the following chapter, a small selection of defences is illustrated, and their impact on
managerial performance is discussed.
2. Ego defences in management
There seems to be no question at all that individuals in organizations are filling different roles,
as described by Katz and Kahn (1978). Expectations that are associated with such roles are
internalized, especially when those roles are desirable and provide social advantages, as is
usually the case in positions of authority and power. To take advantage of such benefits,
leaders must demonstrate that they can be efficient in their roles (Fast, Burris, & Bartel,
2014, p. 1014), which can be difficult, especially when the role is not very clear or is
constantly changing. As a result, those leaders with low managerial self-efficiency might feel
threatened, show ego defensiveness (Fast et al., 2014, p. 1014) and react negatively towards
employee feedback. Individuals’ early experiences can also influence their behaviour in
adulthood and cast a shadow (Bollas, 1987) on their behaviour in the here and now.
Employees themselves feel insecure about providing feedback about managerial behaviour or
performance and fall silent (see Morrison & Milliken, 2000 on organizational silence), which
ultimately inhibits the development of the manager and of the organization as a whole.
All of this might lead to the development of particular ego defences (EDs), which can be seen
as a normal part of the development (Cramer, 2006, p. 9ff.; Freud, 1993, p. 102). EDs are
defined as ‘[…] unconscious mental mechanisms that are directed against both internal drive
pressures and external pressures, especially those that threaten self-esteem or the structure
of the self, as might occur when friends or family fail to be empathic or in some other way are
“lost” to the individual(Cramer, 2006, p. 7). Vaillant makes a distinction between mature,
neurotic, immature and psychotic defences (Vaillant, 1994, p. 45). However, we might most
likely see healthy and mature defences in a business environment, with some exceptions
2
or
even with some disagreement (also see Long, 2009).
2
One exception might be found in a lay book by Babiak and Hare (2006) who try to describe the notion of
psychopathic behavior in the business world.
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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational
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So far, EDMs
3
have been studied mostly in clinical psychology, and their transition to the
business world seems to be a far stretch. However, connections that have been made so far,
for example in the field of narcissism(Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007; Higgs, 2009; Kets de
Vries, 1994; Kets de Vries & Miller, 1997; Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006; Sankowsky, 1995),
seem to be a very valuable contribution to the discussion. Accordingly, some EDMs are briefly
mentioned here because they might impact managerial performance and seem to be relevant
in the business world.
Ego Defence
Description
Intellectualization
The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or
external stressors by the excessive use of abstract thinking or
the making of generalizations to control or minimize
disturbing feelings(APA, 1994, p. 756).
Displacement
The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or
external stressors by transferring a feeling about, or a
response to, one object onto another (usually less
threatening) substitute object(APA, 1994, p. 755).
Rationalization
The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or
external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his
or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the
elaboration of reassuring or self-serving but incorrect
explanations’ (APA, 1994, p. 756).
Projection
The manager falsely ejects(Cramer, 2006, p. 70) and
attributes his or her unacceptable feelings, impulses or
thoughts to someone else (APA, 1994, p. 756), usually others
by whom s/he feels threatened (Vaillant, 1986, p. 125).
Denial
The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or
external stressors by refusing to acknowledge some painful
aspect of external reality or subjective experience that would
be apparent to others(Association, 1994, p. 755).
Aside from the above illustration of possible defences, it should be stated that research about
defences seems to be a highly controversial area. While defences were included and
prominently displayed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV
(Association, 1994, p. 755 ff.), they were removed again in the subsequent version
4
. In
3
A distinction has to be made between ego defenses, as they are discussed in this paper versus social
defenses(Alastair, 1998; Menzies, 1960). Due to the limited space in this paper, this difference is not discussed
here.
4
Radel contacted the APA directly via email with an inquiry about the removal but only received (2019-02-15.
Inquiry #2059014) a link to generic information.
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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational
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addition, general criticism of the DSM was raised (e.g. Berkson, 2009; Frances, 2013;
Genova, 2003), and the manual was rejected by the National Institute of Mental Health(Insel,
2013).
Having discussed changes in society and the impact on organizations and managers, the
following question arises: what can be done in the workplace to support managers in the
transformation and adaption of new roles?
3. Utilizing psychoanalytic concept to optimize change processes
The concept of psychoanalysis defines a structure of an individual’s id, ego and super-ego.
Ego defence, put simply, prevents consciousness regarding instincts and super-ego within a
person. According to Ehlers (Ehlers, 2008, p. 13), the main goal of psychoanalysis is to
consciously address and change defences. Connected to a person’s inner defence is the
resistance to the psychoanalyst who is attempting to change the person’s defences.
In psychoanalysis, there is differentiation between the patient and the doctor diagnosing the
patients illness and the doctors ability to cure that illness with a certain probability. Within an
organizational context, the concept of defences includes the difficulty of defining patient and
doctor. Is the leader the doctor, and the subordinate the patient, or is it the other way round?
According to Kernberg, ‘[i]t should be kept in mind that the leaders’ personality problems are
frequently the first symptom of organizational malfunctioning, and that it is quite possible that
they are really no more than a symptom; that the cause of the organizational malfunctioning
lies elsewhere(Kernberg, 1998, p. 153). Long (Long, 2009, p. 244) addresses this problem
by outlining that [m]ind is emergent from culture and culture is emergent from mind. This is
a reciprocal co-evolving process.Simon states that great ideas are the roots of large
accomplishments and that those great ideas are close to megalomania. He wrote that
delusions of grandeur of a leader, kept within a certain control, can be functional (Simon,
2004, p. 185). Exaggerated words, leadersdelusions of grandeur and followers' defences,
when balanced, guarantee organizational success.
According to Küchenhoff (Küchenhoff, 2008, p. 7), defence represents the mediating function
between the contradiction of instinctual desires and the limiting powers of reality, of society
or of the superego
5
-
6
. Krainer and Heintel argue that there is no way to solve 'necessary
contradictions', once and for all, and that the only solution is an ongoing processing of those
contradictions (Krainer & Heintel, 2015). This is consistent with the psychoanalytic idea of
mature defences (Vaillant, 1994, p. 45) that enable a persons functioning to adapt to a
particular environment.
5
Superego has another meaning than conscience but for a principle understanding one can use the term
conscience instead of superego.
6
For a definition of Superegosee (mendeley Trimborn).
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Taking the above discussion into account, the authorswork on the question of whether, and
if so, how, to utilize psychoanalytical concepts to achieve a sustainable interaction of leaders,
subordinates and environment, thus ensuring a successful organization. According to
Armstrong, “[w]hat a psychoanalytic approach to working within organizations does is to
disclose and discern the inner world of the organization in the inner world of the client. […]
This world-within-a-world can appear as a foreign body, as an extension of the individual, or
as a term in the relatedness of the individual to his, her, or their context. It can be denied,
disowned, defended against, and so on(Armstrong, 2005, p. 7).
The authors suggest using a concept inspired, e.g. by the psychoanalytic model of ego
defence to explore organizations, subordinates, leaders and the organizational context. The
basic pattern of the concept contains the following:
The term defence is seen as an inner unconscious phenomenon that ensures
functionality in the positive sense of routine, but it can also malfunction and disturb
organizational communication. One aspect of this is ED in the psychoanalytical
context.
The term resistance is viewed as a phenomenon between two or more people, where
at least one concerned person tries to investigate and change the defence of the
other(s), and the other(s) resist the change. One aspect of it is resistance in the
psychoanalytical context.
The term necessary contradictions is defined as an immanent phenomenon concerning
humanity and thus organizations. Necessary contradictions are used as a starting
point for investigations regarding the actual condition of an organization.
The term change describes a transformational situation in which routines are
challenged because of the organizations internal events or environment.
While the basic pattern above is normative, interviews, participating observation and feedback
comprise the explorative part of the exploration process. In his description of the term
defence within a psychoanalytic context, Küchenhoff (Küchenhoff, 2008, p. 9) emphasizes its
danger of becoming a normative rating. Combining normative as well as explorative parts and
actively including all people concerned helps to manage organizational change processes.
One example of the application of this concept in intervention research is a master’s thesis on
the effects of a group dynamic intervention in the context of change processes (Komarova,
2018). Currently the authors’ experiment the concept for use within diverse organizations.
4. Implications for the workplace
As mentioned above, a renegotiation of boundaries can be based on experiences that are
unconsciously being made in the basic assumption mode (French & Simpson, 2010) of the I
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Ego defence mechanisms as a tool of managers to cope with boundaries during organizational
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society (Kets de Vries, 2018). Once defences and fuzzy boundaries become conscious, they
can be used as a basis for continuous reflection and further development in a working mode
(French & Simpson, 2010).
This might help managers to adapt to the new organizational structure by making the
unthought known, [a] form of knowledge that has not yet been mentally realized […]’”
(Bollas, 1987, p. 246), transparent. Since psychoanalytic methods are seldom needed or
available in most organizations, ways in which to increase reflection consist of experience-
centred training approaches (ECTA) that can support emotional intelligence (Schuster &
Radel, 2018), adaption to ambiguous situations and the development of mature coping
mechanisms (Cramer, 2006, p. 8 f.)contrary to unconscious defence mechanisms—by
fostering reflection. However, all involved parties have to agree to discuss very personal
aspects of their professional lives (on the issue of shame, see: Aram & Mackay, 2019). These
types of discussions would make the participants vulnerable, and it might be the case that
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