Consultant as Emotional Container Parallel Processes and Organizational Change in Mandela’s South Africa

Conference, Audio, Video or Powerpoint Presentation

Title: Consultant as Emotional Container Parallel Processes and Organizational Change in Mandela's South Africa
Year: 2000
Authors: Smith, K., Miller, R., & Kaminstein, D.

This paper sets out to do four things.

(1) We argue there are collective emotions as well as individu al emotions, just as there are collective thoughts, attitudes and values, as well as individual thoughts, attitudes and values.

(2) We demonstrate that an array of collective emotions get activated when an organization goes through radical change like that produced by the quiet and bloodless revolution created by the ANC and led by Nelson Mandela.

(3) We show how useful two key psychoanalytic concepts (contain er/contained and parallel processes) can be in both theoriz ing about emotion and in making organization al interventions designed to change the emotional landscape.

(4) We draw the link between what is occurring within South African organizations in particular and the larger society-as-a-whole.

The Contribution Of This Paper To The Theory And Practice Of Consultation
Working with race relations in South Africa in the mid 1990's gave us a reeducation about the character of emotions in organiza tional life, the nature of collective aggres sion, and the struggle for liberation. From the outset we were struck by both the conscious and unconscious emotional work black leaders had been doing to not internalize the violence being directed at them by their white oppressors. We were also struck by the relevance of Bion's (1961) image of container and contained and the concept of parallel processes (Alderfer, 1980; Smith, 1989, Smith and Zane, 1999), the organization al offspring of transfer ence/counter trans ference.[1]

Once economic sanctions were applied to South Africa and blacks mobilized for liberation, it was evident that the heinous social structure known as apartheid would eventually collapse. This raised two questions, (1) how to minimize the anticipated bloodshed during the process of liberation? and (2) how to keep the aftermath contained so civil war did not result? For genera tions the hostilities among conflict ing white factions (expressed so violently during the Boer war) had been transferred into the brutal white domination of the blacks via apartheid. Likewise, the inter-tribal hostili ties among the blacks which had seared the political landscape prior to white domination, had been driven under ground in the fight against the oppressive regime instituted by the Afrikane rs. If the white-black hostilities were to ever end, what social structures would have to be invented to keep contained the historically explosive white on white and black on black aggres sion?

In this paper, the parallel process and contain er/contained concepts are brought together and used as tools for understanding the collective emotions linked to inter-group aggression and the yearning for reconciliation and transformation in a specific case. The setting is a state-owned South African enterprise we refer to as CALDO. The work we did was an interven tion into the senior leadership group of CALDO. This organization had an interna tional reputation for its professional excellence but had also long functioned as an arm of the governmen t's repressive racial war. As this consultation began 9 newly appointed, well educated and politically sophisti cated blacks and 16 whites (who had been the leaders of this enterprise prior to Mandela's election as Presi dent), were given the task of rebirthing this organization. They had been instructed by the government to become commer cially viable, increase the number of jobs for blacks, develop a business strategy to energize growth, and work with all its stakeholders (holding company, government, unions, ANC, regional clients, etc.) many of whom had strong and contradic tory agendas. CALDO's efforts to comply had created much turmoil: it had downsized, unions were suspicious and watchful, and political appointees in senior positions within CALDO were monitoring the organization's transi tion to a more equitable and democratic environment.

This paper chronicles and theorizes about three discoveries we made as a result of our involvement in the racial dynamics alive in the senior management of CALDO. First, this leadership group needed consultants to both carry, contain and help them comprehend many of the tensions unleashed by changes in their racial make-up, their corporate strategy, their leadership dynamics, and their new set of stakeholders. We identified and made interven tions based on what we learned from the parallel processes we ourselves got caught up in during our interactions with them. Second, many of the intractable organiza tional conflicts being enacted within CALDO were serving as a release for the pent-up racial emotions of the nation-as-a-whole. We hypothe sized that in today's South Africa, organiza tions must invent ways to keep racial tensions contained on behalf of the society-as-a-whole if excessive violence on the streets is to be avoided. This view helped us cast ourselves as a container to the contain ers. It also helped us see that the CALDO execu tives were doing a service to the whole society as they painfully confronted (via parallel process es they initially did not recog nize) many of the irrecon cil able emotions linked to race in their country. Third, we came to grasp that a major and unexpect ed contribution of our consultation, which had been designed to import expertise, was to function as a vehicle for exporting some of their organizational chaos. As we increasingly became filled up with, and then carried, their feelings of incompetence, despair, futility, shattered optimism, etc., CALDO executives seemed able to address o rganiza tional decisions they had to make but which were impossible while they were mired in those paralyzing feelings of incompetence, despair, futility etc. When they had consul tants who were serving as a temporary container of the emotions created by their racial history, these executives were able to function more effec tive ly as a leader ship group, which in turn lessened some of the racial hostility.

Keywords: Consultant, Parallel Processes, Organizational Change, Mandela, South Africa
Language: English

Date: 6/15/2000
Location: London, UK
Name of Event/Conference: 17th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

Submitted by:
Elizabeth Novogratz

Corresponding author:

Literature Download:

By downloading the file you agree to comply with the Terms of Use / Guidelines of the ISPSO Library and the copyright/authority information for this Literature (above).

If there is no filename in a link below then a download has not been provided.
Members-only Downloads are via the members-only zone of the website.

External website Download

Local Download

No files attached to this page.

Members-only Download

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License