How your upbringing could be holding back your social business

There are good ways and bad ways to deal with the complexities of human psychology at work. People who project anxiety into organisational structures can make a business averse to innovation. Ben Metz explores the research and sheds light on the human brain, anxiety and business innovation.

Melanie Klein, pioneer in the field of early childhood development, has given us a powerful lens through which to view organisational development and develop our effectiveness.  She provides a framework through which we can understand why people interact as they do. It suggests that the early relationships between a child and its parents fundamentally inform our emotional development and thus our ability to relate and function healthily as adults.    

How upbringing impacts on the workplace  

The idea she had was that we interact emotionally with external objects – other people, things of importance to us, etc. – and that in doing so we mirror these people or things by creating internal emotional experiences and ideas related to them. Klein’s “ah-ha” moment was when she realised that our interaction with other people is heavily influenced by what related ‘internal objects’ or experiences we have established. And she found that these experiences were mostly created in the first months and years of life.    

She called her theory Object Relations Theory, and it’s worth exploring because, abstract as it seems, it could help you run your organisation.  

Klein observed that children are born into the world with limited faculties, including a primitive ego, which seeks life and avoids death. It is this seeking of life, initially in the form of the breast as a source of nourishment, that allows the child to identify good and bad feelings: good when the child is being sated; bad when the child is hungry.  Over time, if development is healthy, the child learns to bear both good and bad feelings at the same time and live with the contradiction inherent in this.  Klein defined the ability to hold this contradiction as the “depressive” position. She called the alternative state, when individuals can only see polar opposites and cannot bear good and bad sentiments together the “paranoid-schizoid” position. As far as Klein was concerned, both these positions stimulate anxiety in the individual: either from being caught in the contrast of life and death or from trying to bear contradiction.  

Klein’s focus on relationship, between parent and child has, quite rightly, laid the foundation for much of the development of organisational psychoanalysis. William Halton observed: “The discovery from child analysis that the different and possible conflicting emotional aspects of an experience may be represented by different people or different ‘characters’ is used in institutional consultancy as a guide for understanding group processes.”  

Using work to defend ourselves against psychotic anxiety  

The psychologist Elliot Jaques powerfully articulated how Klein’s theories may be applied to organisations. In 1953 he wrote, “one of the primary dynamic forces pulling individuals into institutionalised human association is that of defence against paranoid and depressive anxiety; and, conversely, that all institutions are unconsciously used by their members as mechanisms of defence against these psychotic anxieties”. His work showed how workers and managers separated hostile relations from good working relations and that this splitting created difficulties for organisations as they were unable to deal with complexity and so to effect change which would have resulted in improved productivity and working conditions.  

Isabel Menzies, in her seminal paper exploring defence mechanisms against anxiety, applied Object Relations Theory to the work of nurses in a hospital. Menzies describes numerous examples where nurses separated themselves from the anxiety they felt from working with seriously ill patients and projected it into the hospital’s organisational systems. She noted that this process of splitting from anxiety and projecting it occurred at the organisational level and mirrored exactly the processes young children use to defend against paranoid and depressive anxieties. She found that this battling of anxiety, and constant splitting and projecting process reinforced the status quo and prevented meaningful change from occurring.  

Managing emotions makes innovation possible    

Back to Klein. In many ways the goal of psychoanalytic organisational consultancy is to allow organisations or groups to move from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. In other words, the aim is to enable people to manage good and bad feelings at the same time rather than clinging onto a good or bad emotion and denying the opposite emotion. The shift helps people move from denial into a place where there is room for thoughtful and creative interest in the problems of an institution. This then helps to develop conscious strategies that support healthy organisational development.    

And it is this kind of profound shift that holds the key to developing healthy and sustainable organisations more than any strategic or management consulting intervention ever could.