Death Imagery and the Experience of Organizational Downsizing: Or, Is Your Name on Schindler's List?

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Title: Death Imagery and the Experience of Organizational Downsizing: Or, Is Your Name on Schindler's List?
Year: 1996
Authors: Stein, H.
Abstract:

The experiential realities of downsizing, reductions in force (RIFing), restructuring, reengineering, rightsizing, and outplacement, are often at wide variance with their touted, and widely expected promises of increased productivity, efficiency, team-work, role interchangeability, and profit. They often fall short of the promise of more for less. Vignettes from the presenter's consulting experience, from twenty-five years of participation as a clinical teacher in biomedical training institutions, and from recent participation in a longitudinal study of a hospital downsizing, all suggest that as a social form of problem-definition and problem-solving, downsizing has taken on mythic, magical, reality-distorting proportions. Wherever else American workplace organizations, psychoanalytically-informed consultation, and theory-building will be in the Year 2000, they will be in the shadow of massive downsizings (euphemism for large-scale layoffs).

Downsizing will be explored as a dramatic symbolic form of induced social change, one in which leadership takes a decisive, psychologically laden role of shaman and high priest of sacrifice in the service of organizational rebirth. Although downsizing is undertaken in the name of rational planning, objectivity, and empirical, business truth (e.g., "the bottom line"), it is riddled with irrational motivation and with long-lived and unanticipated emotional consequences for leadership, managers, and workforce alike, the most manifest being dread of the future, the retreat from loyalty to cynicism, and shattered morale.

The link of these organizational themes with the popular and award-winning 1993 movie Schindler's List will be explored: that a movie ostensibly about terror and heroism in World War II is also a metaphor for the sense that there are no "essential workers" left in America, that there are no Oscar Schindlers or Daddy Warbucks (from the show Annie of a decade and a half ago) to protect us as members of a latch-key, temporary, abandoning society.

The neglected side of workplace and governmental downsizing is that of affect (conscious and unconscious emotion), defense, fantasy, wish, transference, and the waging of domestic war(s) since the fall of the "evil empire," the former Soviet Union, in 1990. In contrast with the image of downsizing-as-economic necessity, the presenter suggests an image of downsizing-as-symbol and ritual. The recurrent imagery and vocabulary of the Nazi Holocaust used by executives, managers, and employers involved in mass American layoffs, will be shown to take us to the heart of the experience and meaning of downsizing. In short, rather than argue that "hard nosed" or "hardball" economics and Realpolitik are the driving force behind downsizing, the presenter situates economic and political "necessity" within the frameworks of (1) American culture and (2) the role of aggression in human nature. The author discusses the nature of consultation in such a context.

Keywords: downsizing, reduction in force, euphemism, organizational culture, traumatic change, organizational symbolism, psychoanalytic interpretation
Language: English


Date: 6/15/1996
Location: New York, NY
Name of Event/Conference: 13th 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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