'Falling from Grace' -- When Consultants Go Out of Role: Enactment in the Service of Organizational Consultancy

Conference, Audio, Video or Powerpoint Presentation

Title: 'Falling from Grace' -- When Consultants Go Out of Role: Enactment in the Service of Organizational Consultancy'
Year: 1999
Authors: Mersky, R. R.

I am an organizational development consultant who uses psychoanalytic thinking in my consultation work. While I have had an analysis, I do not come to these explorations from a clinical training background. I do, however, use my experience as an analysand as a major resource for how I conceptualize my role, my role relationship with my clients, and the consultative stance. In so doing, I do not think from a psychotherapeutic model, but rather from an organizational one, recognizing that organizations and their dynamics are not equivalent to the dyadic analytic relationship.

This paper is an exploration of a psychoanalytic concept (enactment), which — in my view — has the potential to illuminate the working relationship between consultant and organizational client. I am not attempting to apply this concept wholeheartedly to organizational consultation, but rather to suggest a way that it could be thought of as a source of thinking and conceptualizing for consultants using the psychoanalytic model.

In thinking about my consultative stance, I use many models — one of which is the analytic role ideal. I think of this ideal as follows: observe clear and appropriate boundaries; maintain an appropriately bounded role and set of role relationships; manage and learn from countertransferential feelings toward the client system; and work — in Bion’s (1967, p. 17) terms — without "memory and desire". The consultant attempts to function as a non-threatening 'container' for the client's projections and — through them and other sources of data, both organizationally objective and emotionally internal — develop an understanding of the underlying issues and dynamics in the system.

This task, however, is not altogether easy. As Piterman (1999, p. 2) observes:

The process of working through what we have introjected, making sense of the data and feeding it back in a constructive way is the task of the consultant. Working in this way is neither smooth, nor linear, nor does it follow a casual path. It involves working with ambiguity, inconsistencies and uncertainty.

Thus, despite conscious intentions to the contrary, organizational consultants using the psychoanalytic perspective can and do go out of role in their work. This is generally viewed as a mistake in practice stimulated by the dynamics in the system projected onto the consultant that requires acknowledgment and exploration. This experience can be an opportunity to 'work through' one's faltering (but potentially illuminating) role relationship and — in understanding those dynamics — resume an appropriate role relationship with the client.

The question posed by this paper is: given that in actual practice all of us do (at least occasionally if not momentarily) 'fall out of role,' is there something to be learned from such a 'fall from grace.' In fact — to further stretch the argument — is there an actual value in falling out of role, firstly in opening up the possibilities for how we work with our clients and secondly to access data about our client organizations only available through such an 'error' of practice?

The theoretical underpinnings of such thinking come from the concept of enactment, initiated by the interpersonal school of psychoanalysis (Sullivan, Thompson, Fromm, etc.) but now shared by a range of analytic thinkers. According to this thinking, the analyst, rather than being a neutral projective screen or a Winnicotian good enough mother, is always unwittingly (you could say unconsciously) interacting with the patient. The patient and analyst are seen as two subjective participants undergoing a shared experience and constantly affecting one another.

In such a relationship, both patient and analyst become engaged in what is termed a transference/countertransference 'matrix’, in which the analyst is caught up in the powerful unconscious dynamics in the dyad. Conceptually, this process is thought of as a repetition of the “old and bad interactions” (Hirsch 1996, p. 365) from the patient's past in which core intrapsychic issues are revealed and played out in mutual interaction.

The work of the analysis in the psychotherapeutic context is to bring this enactment experience to light and in so doing reveal to both patient and analyst important material otherwise unavailable in the process. Thus the analysis itself evolves from the living out of these interactions to a process that ultimately leads to mutative or corrective action in the patient. To some psychoanalytic thinkers, this process is not only inevitable, but necessary for productive analytic work.

In applying this conceptual frame to organizational consultation, one way to view the various ways in which consultants are pulled out of role is to see them as enactments of key organizational issues. For the consultant to embrace this data and to find a way to work this through with the client — rather than to judge or deny his/her behavior — opens the possibility for accessing potentially unacknowledged information about the organization, otherwise experienced but not 'known.' (Bollas, 1989)

I will describe the conceptual basis and historic roots of enactment theory, a framework by which to apply this thinking to consultation, and present case material.

Keywords: Consultants, Role, Enactment, Service, Organizational Consultancy
Language: English

Date: 6/15/1999
Location: Toronto, Canada
Name of Event/Conference: 16th 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