THE RECOVERY OF MEANING
by David Armstrong, Tavistock Consultancy Service
In the advance publicity for this Symposium we are told that it offers an opportunity to explore "the future of organisations and how psychoanalytic theory can help us understand this future."
I should say at the outset that I have two difficulties with this optimistic statement. The first is that I doubt that psychoanalytic theory can help us understand organisations at any time [I am not persuaded that it can help us understand individuals at any time either.] What I believe may help us to understand organisations at some time and certainly in my experience does help us to understand ourselves in the time of our personal lives, is psychoanalytic practice. Without experience of that practice, on either sideof the analytic encounter, no amount of acquaintance with theory is likely to prove all that useful.
Psychoanalysis is an applied discipline, in the sense that it is discipline applied to the phenomenology of the consulting room. Theory is extrapolation at best, and the conjunction of such theory with the world of organisations, which are neither subject nor object of psycho-analytic practice, is extrapolation once removed.
I have argued elsewhere(1) that the relevance of psychoanalytic experience and understanding to working with and thinking about organisations lies primarily in its heuristic value : as a method of attention to and interpretation of emotional experience. I have suggested that this methodology can have an analogue in the organisational domain and that the practice of this analogue can yield insights into the dilemmas, challenges, paradoxes and discontents of organisations that may elude other methods of enquiry.
Perhaps I am making too much of this objection. I raise it mainly as a way of trying to ground what I say, and mainly to and for myself. When I first began thinking about this paper, I was under the sway of a particular psycho-analytic account of the genesis of meaning and its significance in development. I thought it might be possible to deploy this account in thinking through a number of observations from recent consultancy assignments, each of which in different ways seemed to touch on questions of meaning and the clients' openness to meaning as a factor in organisational life. However, this trial venture proved increasingly difficult and irksome. I felt I was compressing phenomena from one domain into a frame of reference derived from another : nothing quite seemed to fit, without distortion. I was trying to exemplify and apply something 'known', when what I had to do was venture out from something 'unknown' and risk what links I would find. This paper is the outcome : more tentative, provisional, confused than I had hoped. But by the same token, perhaps, more relevant to the content and the process of this Symposium.
Which leads me to the second difficulty I have with the organisers' statement of intent. How can "psychoanalytic theory" or psychoanalytic practice or indeed any other theory or practice help us to understand something that is not yet here. We may believe that the future can be predicted, although the precedents are not particularly encouraging. But in what possible sense can it be understood here and now. One available answer is contained in Wilfred Bion's evocative phrase, "the shadow of the future cast before". This could be taken to mean that the seeds of the future exist now, as a kind of inner resonance or presaging of things to come, something that can be captured and given provisional expression.An example that comes immediately to mind, in relation to this setting, is Fred Emery and Eric Trist's formulation of the theory of turbulent environments and its implications for organisational development.(2)
However I do not think that this interpretation exactly catches Bion's meaning and its emotional undertow. It is hard for example not to hear in association to it, Freud's image in Mourning and Melancholia, of "the shadow of the object (that) falls on the ego" - something impending that heralds loss, abandonment, "catastrophic change". On this reading the shadow that the future casts darkens rather than illumines. It heralds the arrival or return of the not known : a world without something or with something unprecedented.
I want to argue that it is in encouraging our acceptance of, our readiness to receive this darkening, that psycho-analysis (more accurately a psychoanalytic approach) can help us most to understand the future, organisationally no less than personally. Or rather not so much to understand it as to understand our not understanding, in a way that prepares us or tunes us to meet it, to make it and to develop with it.
Two years ago I was invited to work as an external consultant to a one day meeting of staff working in the Counselling Department of a new University. This Department was part of the Student Services Division of the University and was responsible for providing a counselling service for students, presenting a variety of emotional or welfare worries and concerns.
The meeting had been planned at the end of the Academic Year and was intended as an opportunity for staff to reflect together on their experiences during the year and their working relations with each other. (One issue they were facing had to do with a difficulty in sharing and handling anger.) The agenda for the meeting was set by the staff themselves, but at the outset and after a preliminary discussion with the Head of Department, I proposed the following as a way of getting going.
Each member of staff would find a space in the Department's offices where they could reflect alone on their experiences as members of the Department: the things they were feeling and thinking in themselves, the patterning of their relations with each other and with the students and staff they met, how they responded to the different situations they encountered. As they reflected in this way, I suggested, they might follow the chain of associations they were making and see if some image or series of images came to mind through which they could visually represent their present picture of the Department, in the context of the University, with themselves in it and without using words.
Large sheets of paper were provided with different coloured pens. After they had drawn their picture staff were invited to come together again and each in turn to present their picture and talk us through it. Other members would share any associations they had to the picture and, if they wished, comment on the impact that the picture and its imagery made on them.
It came to the turn of a very experienced and long standing member of the Department, who worked on a part time basis, to present his picture. He then said, with a great deal of feeling, that he had been quite unable to find and draw any image. All he had come up with was a list of single words, which he had scrawled across his sheet of paper. A little later he linked his inability to an experience of feeling as he put it, "de-centred as a person". He said that he associated this with the feeling in himself that he was not acknowledged by the University as a person, but only as a "hired hand". This in turn he thought reflected a number of recent changes and negotiations in respect of his contract.
Things might have been left there : that is, the 'no-picture' might have been seen simply as a reflection of one individual's personal and emotional relation to the Departmentand/or the University. However, I found myself increasingly preoccupied along another direction. Might the experience this Counsellor had come in touch with in himself also be conveying or mirroring something of the experience of the students he worked with (a reflection of his counter-transference).
At the time this was no more than a vague speculation, which reflected something of my own sense of disorientation in the face of his list of words. But subsequently, as we worked through the pictures and what they might represent, it became possible to see that the feeling of "de-centredness", named in this Counsellor's response, had an aptness, an exactness beyond the emotional boundary of one individual member of staff. What students were presenting in counselling was indeed itself describable, at least in part, through this vivid phrase. They too could be said to feel "de-centred" as persons, unable to discover a relation to their institution except as "part-objects": consumers, candidates for examinations, inputs to courses.
I do not want to deny the contribution which the dynamics of late adolescence for example, or the psychological tensions of transition (from school to college, or home to away) may have made to this feeling. But to emphasise just this aspect of the transference/counter transference relation of counsellor and students risked missing something else, rooted in the organisation as a whole and its relatedness to its context. Viewed from an organisational perspective, as a kind of organisational analogue, the Counsellor's presented experience represented, contained and gave expression to a broader institutional dynamic. This dynamic could be seen as one in which the new University's preoccupation, in a rather harsh, competitive climate, with raising student numbers, becoming more "market oriented" and "cost effective", was leading implicitly to a construction of students (and by extension of staff) not as members of the institution or the College community, relating as whole persons to the whole body of the institution and its corporate life, but more as contractees - the means through which the institution made its living, the emotional equivalent of the "hired hand".
What had begun as an expression of one individual's dis-ease with his own relation to the University could, now, be reframed and given new meaning as a representation or registration within the individual of a more pervasive experience of dis-ease within the whole institution. This "dis-ease" I would see, to use a formulation suggested to me by my colleague at the Tavistock, Jon Stokes, as a factor in the state of mind that was the organisation, there and then. From this vertex, the Counsellors "no-picture" and its accompanying emotional aura was, one might say, an offering to his colleagues, which through his image of "de-centredness" paradoxically re-centred all their experience.
I believe it is these acts of re-framing that are at the heart of the practice of organisational consultancy as I understand it. But equally I think they may be at the heart of all creative organisational leadership; which is always moving from "this is what I feel" to "this is the feeling I am aware of in myself - a move which, as it were, creates a space in which the location of the feeling and its possible organisational meaning can be opened up for exploration.
I want to use this experience as a kind of extended definitory hypothesis of what I have in mind by the "recovery of meaning". It might be objected that what it illustrates is not so much the recovery of meaning as its discovery. But this would be to miss one element of the experience that I have perhaps elided.
When I first began toying with the idea of this paper I happened to be given a fine account presented by David Taylor, the Chairman of the Adult Department of the Tavistock Clinic on "Some of Bion's Ideas on Meaning and Understanding". At the start of this account Taylor distinguishes "two approximate general senses" which he intends by the term "meaning".
"The first is that of general significance - how much or how little, someone or something means to us. An example of this would be the phrase, "life has a great deal of meaning". The second is the way in which systems of representation, be it language or pictures, operate as vehicles of human experience".(3)
I think that these two senses are, in emotional life, intimately linked. In that it is the ability to find or make meaning, in Taylor's second sense, that enables us to recover or restore meaning in his first sense. To return to my illustration, the finding of meaning, and organisational meaning, beyond the purely personal, in the Counsellor's struggle with "systems of representation" seemed also to restore or recover a sense of the meaning of the enterprise of which he and his colleagues were a part : its significance, vitality and challenge. It mobilised energy, one might say, the energy to address the difficulties and dilemmas that were part and parcel of being a Counsellor, in this institution in this context here and now - how for example to avoid colluding with the tendency to pathologise the individual student, how to work with staff, from the Counsellors' position, at the organisational dynamic identified and how to take appropriate authority for communicating it.
To discover meaning is to recover meaning, though whether we are able to stay with that recovery depends on more than the moment of insight itself - on our capacity for leadership, for taking risks, for "thinking under fire".
I referred earlier to Freud's image of the "shadow of the object falling on the ego". I want to suggest now that the approach to meaning, in the senses I am trying to use and illustrate, always starts under the presence, the sway of a shadow : an area of darkness in a client's relatedness to an organisation or an organisation's relatedness to its context : something equivalent to the feelings behind the Counsellor's no-picture. It follows, I think, that creative consultancy and, which is not the same thing, creative leadership(4) turns, sooner or later on the capacity to entertain such shadows.
For the past four years I have been working with the Principal of a large College of Further Education in a deprived, disadvantaged inner city area(5) . At the time I first started working with her, she had just taken over as Principal and was preoccupied with needing, as she saw it, to breathe new life into an institution which in some respects appeared rather closed, embattled and undermanaged. At the coal face, in the interactions between students and staff, there was exciting work being done, as good as anything she had seen elsewhere. But these interactions appeared privatised, unco-ordinated, fragmented and fragmentary learning encounters. Staff and students inhabited, as it were, a series of dislocated boxes. There was little sense of corporate accountability, lax financial management and a certain lack of direction. At the same time, within a year, the College would have to face the challenge of incorporation, and stand or fall on its own in a much leaner environment.
For the first two years I worked with her, the main themes of the consultancy concerned her thoughts and plans for renewal. A highly imaginative and powerful woman, she quickly moved to recruit a new governing body and to establish a network of political links with actual and potential stakeholders and other strategic allies from the local community, which was itself committed to "regeneration". Simultaneously, she began to evolve a very original approach to setting in place a new organisational structure, while constantly maintaining a visible presence throughout the College as a strong and inspirational leader.
New staff were recruited into senior positions, new posts created, new curricular initiatives mounted. Within two years the College was looking physically and metaphorically quite different. There was a new mission statement, a sharper curriculum focus, new student and staff charters, and a clear sense of direction and purpose. Half way through the third year I became aware, as did she, of a sea change in her feelings. She was wondering about the future and being tempted with new opportunities elsewhere. Sometimes she appeared almost depressed and preoccupied with the tension and differences she was feeling between those who still represented, as it were, the old guard, and the newcomers. Yet all the evidence was that the place was flourishing. Opportunities for new building were in the offing, exam results encouraging and the College establishing something of a reputation locally and nationally.
I felt, a little dimly, that she was wrestling with things to do with her own relatedness to the College and vice versa. The sea change in her was perhaps a reflection of, and also a response to, the sea change in the College. There was also a parallel between this dynamic and the dynamic around her relation to her own daughter who was on the threshold of puberty; a parallel she would sometimes bring into sessions as a kind of commentary or a counter-part to her organisational experience.
Approaching her fourth year, towards the end of one session, she suddenly recalled a striking dream from some years back before she took up this post. In fact I had, as she knew, heard this dream before in another context in which I had happened to work with her.
In the dream she had taken a baby, wrapped in a blanket, from a brick in a wall which she had removed. She had to fly with the baby, in a plane to Israel. All through the flight it remained in the blanket. But when she had landed and unwrapped the blanket the baby wasn't there: it had "evaporated".
Now, I could not remember what this dream had signified or what associations it had led to on the first occasion I had heard it, in the course of a Social Dreaming Conference at Wast Hills House, Birmingham. Nor, now, or indeed then, that first time, was it relevant or appropriate, as I saw it, to probe into its possible intra psychic meaning for my client. But then, in offering it again here, she was not offering it in a therapeutic context, as an element in a therapeutic exchange or dialogue between us. She was, I assumed, reminded of it and offering it for work now, as having perhaps something to say about the situation she was in and which we were trying to understand.
>From this perspective, the dream appeared to me to have an immediate transparency as a realisation of her current experience and dilemma as Principal. The blanketed baby, taken from a brick in the wall she had dislodged, could stand for the baby she had given to the College from the gap in the wall opened by her appointment as Principal 1 . Israel was the land of promise the baby would inherit.
What then of the "evaporated" baby. I felt that this image gave expression to a reality she sensed: that the baby she had both found and made, to borrow Winnicott's phrase, the image of the College she had formed and given life to, was no longer hers, to be shaped or moulded or cared for by her. It had, in a graphic phrase she used, "disappeared into the ether".
This linked to, and in turn helped to shape, a transformation in how she conceived of the task she and her senior colleagues were now faced with. She framed this as a shift from intention to attention, from care to support, from minding to mindfulness, from formation to "engagement" - a term she herself drew on and offered.
The recalled dream, you could say, was released by her to release her. In so releasing her and drawing on her own formulation, it changed the terms of her engagement with the College as its Principal.
[I recognise that there is doubtless far more that could be said about this dream and I am not wanting to claim any priority for the direction I found myself taking in responding to it. But then, I do not see dreams as containers of meaning - a puzzle to be solved once and for all; but rather as containers for meaning; available narratives through which we negotiate and seek a formulation for the emotional experiences we register. In this sense a dream can be seen perhaps as a probe into the world, something available across time, like a kind of personally fashioned deep grammar (Chomsky) through which an indefinite number of statements can be made.]
The dream, I want to suggest, emerged from the shadow side of my clients feeling, which the method of consultancy had enabled us both to contain without pushing for a premature explanation or resolution. Within that space she herself, as it were, discovered its resolution from the repertoire of her inner world. The dream material gave expression to the shadow, the sense of loss but at the same time pointed to its mutation, and in so pointing restored the "vital" capacity, both to think and to act anew.
A moment ago I referred to the possibility of seeing dreams and dreaming as "probes into the world," rehearsals or precursors of meaning. Now I find myself wanting to say that the two experiences I have shared carry something of the same significance for me, as if they were a consultant's dreams, through which one probes the world of one's own collaborative interaction with one's clients.
To put this another way, these experiences have been important for me not so much in exemplifying something I already knew, to be deployed as illustrations or realisations of a familiar concept or line of thinking, but rather as generators of something till now unknown - or if known unthought, or if thought not fully acknowledged.
When I first began thinking about this paper, I recalled from many years back an observation of Charles Rycroft's that psycho-analysis was concerned not with causes but with meanings. But it had not occurred to me that one might perhaps claim the same for a psycho-analytic approach to consultancy. And indeed one can look through the literature of this field without coming across much if any specific reference to psycho-analytic accounts of the genesis and significance of meaning in human development. Meaning as a dimension of, or rather a means of processing, taking the measure of all our experience, that gives life to our relatedness to the worlds we inhabit, that is simultaneously feared, resisted, defended against wherever and whenever it is most needed: meaning in this sense is present, if at all, in the literature implicitly not explicitly.
Alternatively, meaning is relegated to the sphere of each individual's personal inner world, as something that lies beyond the domain of what is specifically public, organisational or societal. (On this view, which I suspect lies behind much of Elliott Jacques' recent recantation of his early work, meaning concerns the nature of the individual's personal relationship to a certain line work or organisation or political standpoint etc. but not his or her relatedness to such social objects.)
I am proposing on the contrary that this social world is itself an arena for finding and making meaning and, by the same token, for the avoidance or denial of meaning: in both the linked senses identified in the quotation from David Taylor's paper which I cited earlier.
Without reference to this dimension I doubt it is possible fully to understand, for example, the tensions between work group and basic assumption mentality, or the part played in social affairs by defenses against anxiety. For it seems to me that the ground in which such tensions and mechanisms emerge is precisely that in which questions of meaning and our capacity to entertain meaning unconsciously arise: out of the shadow of something felt as lost or unavailable, or out of the presence or foreshadowing of something felt as unprecedented or impending.
It is this last point that I want briefly to touch on further since it bears most directly I think on the theme of this Symposium itself. The two experiences I have shared might be taken from one perspective as instances of the finding or re-finding of meaning, its discovery and recovery in an organisational context. But it is equally important to acknowledge their origin in the experience of the loss or absence of meaning, with its undertow of feelings of persecution or depression.
It is to my mind one of the most signal things we have learnt from psycho-analytic work that what drives development or its counterforce is the way we handle, as infants and as adults, the presence of something absent. For those analysts working under the aegis of Melanie Klein and her successors, meaning is seen as evolving from and within this experience, through the "interaction and emotional exchange with primary objects".(6) This evolution, however, is never completed, in this sense : that experiences of absence, or, which I suspect is the same thing dynamically speaking, of unanticipated presence continually arouse the same primal emotions. (With luck there is a difference as one grows older, in the internalisation of a counterpart of the maternal function: in Bion's usage the mother's acts of reverie on the emotional experiences the infant projects into her).
Having said that, I need to acknowledge that as far as I can at present see, there is no real equivalent in the social sphere of this dynamic interplay between container and contained, out of which the ability to generate meaning, in good enough normal circumstances, naturally evolves. And it occurs to me that this may be why, in organisational and social life, meaning, - that is the meaning that attaches to organisational and societal experience as a bounded domain, so often as it were slips through ones fingers. So that the experience of absence or of unanticipated presence , instead of being reflectively held and processed, provokes flight: action/reaction or withdrawal; to cite Gordon Lawrence's evocative phrase the "politics of salvation", or I would add "of damnation".
I am thinking, for example, of the pervasive use in organisational circles now of the language of 'vision', 'mission', 'core values': and its accompanying punitive undertow,: 'down-sizing', 'de-layering', 'key performance indicators' etc., which offer a kind of triumphalist parody of the idea of de-toxification.
I feel something of the same in relation to the current vogue for so called post modernist theories or accounts, either of the self or of the organisation, and their preoccupation with the virtual, the invented identify or the 'management of meaning'. I do not think the virtual is a category in psychic reality, nor that identify is invented, nor that meaning is managed, (although of course its discovery as my two earlier experiences suggested, has implications for everything one manages). Such usages and vogues it seems to me may operate rather as a kind of manic defense against what is unknown in the face of change. As if the answer to "no x" is "try y".
It is not that some of these things are not important. In much of my own consultancy practice I work a good deal with organisations on vision, mission, values in a context of constant change. But I would also feel that such work needs always to be rooted in, or at least provide space for, the evolution of meaning, which is necessarily provisional, transitional, but without which such terms risk a kind of emotional degeneration.
My tentative hypothesis is that what drives such emotional de-generation is the precedence we tend instinctively to give to the claims of survival over those of development. I remember, still with a sense of shock, first coming across one of Wilfred Bion's more oracular statements:
"I would make a distinction between existence - the capacity to exist - and the ambition or aspiration to have an existence that is worth having - the quality of the existence not the quantity: not the length of ones life but the quality of that life. There are no scales by which we can weigh quality against quantity, but existence is to be contrasted with the essence of existence. The fact that the patient, like the analyst, (like the world) is still in existence is not adequate."(7)
The contrast between quantity and quality, existence and the essence of existence is at the heart of the distinction between survival and development that I am trying to draw. What makes it difficult to sustain, in organisational as in personal life, is perhaps this: that when we venture into the territory of the meaning of an experience, we cannot predict what the outcome will be. From this point of view, both experiences I recounted are, as generalisations, over optimistic. En route to the discovery and recovery of meaning one may confront the unbearable. As with Bion's patient, "who was quite articulate, in fact articulate enough to make me feel I was analysing him rather well. Indeed the analysis did go well, but I was beginning to think that nothing was happening. However the patient checked all that. After one session he went home, sealed up all the crevices throughout his room, turned on the gas and perished. So there was my highly successful analysis - a very disconcerting result indeed and no way of finding out or learning for myself what exactly had gone wrong, excepting the fact that it had undoubtedly gone wrong".(8)
There are occasions when there may be very good reasons for feeling persecuted by the unknown. It is just too surprising.
At a time when organisations face unique challenges of globalisation, radical technological change and the increasing discrepancy between available resources and the claims we make on those resources, it would take a puritan not to feel some sympathy with the instincts of survival.
Nonetheless in putting development at risk, through denying or avoiding the need for meaning, the cost of survival I suspect will always be the perpetuation of our discontent. (Maybe it is worth it). But by the same token we need, as consultants, to accept and to feel, to take the burden of the fear, in ourselves and in our own organisational involvements.
In the ISPSO Members' event held here yesterday Gordon Lawrence referred to these meetings as offering an opportunity to work at the "limits of our comprehension". I take this to mean also the emotional undertow of our un-comprehension. Fortunately I think there are still more than enough leaders around, with this capacity, to keep us in business and society in hope.
Notes and References
1. David Armstrong, The Analytic Object in Organisational Work, paper read to the ISPSO Symposium, London 1995
2. F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist, Towards a Social Ecology: contextual appreciations of the future in the present, Plenum Press 1972
3. David Taylor, Some of Bion's Ideas on Meaning and Understanding, Tavistock Clinic 1996 (unpublished)
4. The difference, in my view, concerns the link between reflective understanding and executive action. While a consultant may stay with the client as she works through this link, he or she rarely experiences directly the particular creative challenge involved in the transformation of insight into organisation at praxis.
5. Colleges of Further Education offer a wide variety of mainly vocational courses for school leavers post 16 and for adults. Since 1993 their governance has passed from Local Education Authorities to self governing trusts, funded by a national Further Education Funding Council.
6. cf David Taylor, op cit
7. Both quotations are taken from the series of recorded discussions Bion took part in towards the end of his life, cf Four Discussions with W. R. Bion, Clunie Press 1978
8. and Bion in New York and Sao Paulo, Clunie Press 1978
Paper prepared for the annual Symposium of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations: 'Organisation 2000 : Psychoanalytic Perspectives,' New York, June 1996
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM