Emotions in Organisations: Disturbance or Intelligence?

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Title: Emotions in Organisations: Disturbance or Intelligence?
Year: 2000
Authors: Armstrong, D.


This paper is intended as 'a contribution to theory about the place of emotions in organisations'.

The theme it addresses can be put in the form of a question: are emotions in organisations extrinsic: a source of disturbance to be contained or managed; or are they intrinsic; a source of intelligence to be understood and put to use?


That organisations are emotional places is a truism. It arises from the simple fact that organisations rely on human beings to function and human beings are emotional animals: loving, hating, fearing, envying, prone to pleasure and pain.

By the same token organisations are inter-personal places and so necessarily arouse emotions that are an inevitable accompaniment to inter-personal relations: competitiveness, rivalry, collaboration, conflict, dominance and submission.

To this may be added the emotional patterning of what Wilfred Bion referred to as our inheritance as a group species: the simultaneous mobilisation of work group and basic assumption mentality: dependence, fight/flight and pairing.

I want to argue that none of these emotional accompaniments to organisational life are in themselves intrinsic. While they may characterise emotional life in organisations, they do not in themselves either characterise or account for the emotional life of organisations.

To move from 'in' to 'of' involves asking (of any emotional event or constellation of events) the question 'Why?' and not to be satisfied with the kind of answer that goes: that's what people are like or that's inter-personal relations for you, or that's what happens in groups. What we know about people or inter-personal relations or groups, including all our understanding of unconscious processes-transference, projection, identification, defense - is not enough.

To begin to discern the 'of' and its significance , not only theoretically but practically, for the conduct of affairs, requires asking something like, 'why these experiences in this setting, here and now?'; 'what is this saying, revealing about the organisation as a whole: its challenges and dilemmas, the nature of what it does, the ways it is structured, its relatedness to its context?'. It is to bring into view an organisational 'object' as the implicit third in every emotional exchange.

Bringing this 'implicit third' into view has a Janus quality about it, in that it serves not only to explain or illuminate emotional experience but simultaneously to explain or illuminate the organisation itself. In a sense one might, with perhaps pardonable exaggeration, suggest that every organisation at any point of time is an emergent property of its emotional life. It is in this sense that that life can be seen as a source of intelligence and not just of disturbance.


In the paper I seek to elaborate on and illustrate this position and its significance, both for the psycho-analytic study of organisations and for the practice of psycho-analytically informed consultancy and research.

I suggest that to understand the patterning of emotional experience in organisations we need a concept of 'reverse projection'. Instead of viewing the organisation as an arena in which we enact constellations derived from our inner worlds, we need to conceive of our inner worlds as an arena in which we in-act constellations derived from the organisation as an externally presented psychic object. (I see this as a critical, unexamined difference between Eliot Jacques' and Isobel Menzies' early work on social system as a defense against anxiety).

I distinguish four dimensions of the organisational object which between them generate the emotional patterning within:

the organisation as contextually embedded (the ecological dimension)
the organisation as enterprise (the risk dimension)
the organisation as process (the task dimension)
the organisation as structure (the management dimension)

I argue that those psycho-analytic studies of organisation, in which the organisation as object is tacitly acknowledged, have tended to focus on structure and process and that this has reflected the realities of organisational life under relatively stable environmental conditions. Correspondingly, the preoccupation has been with a reading of the emotional life of organisations, consciously and unconsciously, in terms of the 'goodness of fit' between organisational structures and the psychic demands associated with particular processes and tasks.

I suggest that the focus of study, both theoretical and practical, is now shifting (and needing to shift) from structure and process to enterprise and context and that this in turn is a function of emergent organisational realities: economic, political, technological and social. In such an organisational milieu the undertow of emotional experience has less to do with the 'goodness of fit' and more with new questions, explicit or implicit, of identity and hence about what is fitting.

Paradoxically, in this situation the organisation as 'object' becomes problematic. It is harder to distinguish between personal relations and role relations, between work and non-work, public and private. The differentiation between extrinsic and intrinsic turns ambiguous.

I illustrate the dynamics of this constellation from a number of recent assignments and suggest ways in which, considered as a source of intelligence, it may herald the re-invention of the organisation as a social system.

For a full version of this paper, please contact David Armstrong gro.trop-ivat|gnortsmrad#gro.trop-ivat|gnortsmrad

Keywords: Emotions, Organizations, Disturbance, Intelligence
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:

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