Managing In The New Team Environment: Skills, Tools, And Methods (Book Review)

Title: Managing In The New Team Environment: Skills, Tools, And Methods
Author:  Hirschhorn, Larry
Publisher: Authors Choice Press, 2002
Reviewed By: Jeffrey H. Axelbank, Spring 2003, pp. 28-30

Psychoanalytic Organizational Psychology: Going Incognito

We in the psychoanalytic community are currently debating the question of what constitutes psychoanalytic therapy. As the scope of psychoanalytic theory expands on a number of frontiers to include inter-subjectivity and other relational approaches, analytic therapy can look less and less like what Freud practiced. Add the current economic climate and the pressures for short-term treatment models exerted by managed care companies, and it becomes harder and harder to identify, just by looking, when therapy is psychoanalytic. Making such a determination requires investigation of the clinician’s theories and values, rather than their vocabulary or behavior.

Larry Hirschhorn’s book, Managing in the New Team Environment (recently back in print by a new publisher) raises the parallel question, “What constitutes Psychoanalytic Organizational Psychology?” Or, more specifically, how does one recognize management and business books that subscribe to psychoanalytic views of organizations? Some works give themselves away, with titles such as Organizations on the Couch (Kets de Vries, 1991), The Psychodynamics of Leadership (Klein, Gabelnick, and Herr, 1998), and Containing Anxiety in Institutions (Menzies-Lyth, 1988). However, lurking within the legions of management and organizational development manuals and texts are books whose titles obscure their psychoanalytic bent. Managing in the New Team Environment is an exemplar of such a book.

Upon reading Managing in the New Team Environment, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Without sounding overly giddy, I think that he’s found the Holy Grail! I say that as a psychoanalytic clinician as well as from my perspective as a management consultant working from a psychoanalytic view of organizations. What is so artful about the way Hirschhorn writes this book is that he manages to reach a lay audience, without oversimplifying, diluting or compromising the powerful psychoanalytic underpinnings of his work. At the same time, by shunning the use of technical terms that his readers might dismiss as psychobabble, he avoids the opposite trap of reaching beyond his audience’s sophistication. Many authors have attempted this feat, both in clinical and organizational books, with far less success.

Clinicians not familiar with Psychoanalytic Organizational Psychology might miss the signs of Hirschhorn’s psychoanalytic loyalties in this book. The usual indicators, words such as transference and countertransference, resistance, projections, objects, defenses, character structure, neurotic, borderline, narcissistic, self, psychoanalytic, and psychodynamics are entirely absent from its pages. Only by catching the remark buried in the forward can an unsuspecting reader find that the book “contains important links to psychoanalytic group theory” (p. viii).

Readers more familiar with Hirschhorn’s previous work (for example, Hirschhorn, 1988; Hirschhorn and Barnett, 1993), or with the field as a whole, will recognize the underlying psychoanalytic foundation on which this book is built. Hirschhorn’s particular perspective draws heavily on the Group Relations tradition born at London’s Tavistock Institute, with Bion’s classic, Experience in Groups (Bion, 1961).*

Managing in the New Team Environment was originally written as a companion text for a video-based management-training program at IBM, and it is aimed at a lay readership, rather than psychoanalytic professionals. Hirschhorn dispenses with psychoanalytic lingo and mostly uses the business world’s own vocabulary. This style serves the book’s purposes well; it provides a lesson for psychoanalytic professionals in making our theories accessible to the mainstream, without diluting the sophistication, power and usefulness of the ideas. He successfully navigates the difficult path of reaching a mainstream audience while upholding the integrity of his beliefs. At the same time, he provides footnotes pointing to works more explicitly theoretical for those readers motivated to delve more deeply.

In the introduction, Hirschhorn asserts that “managing in a team environment puts you in the middle of a series of paradoxes” and he calls for a shift from the “control role” of management to a “learner role” (p. 5). Using a liberal dose of case vignettes, he presents the real dilemmas that managers and teams face, rather than the (supposedly) easy solutions often found in management and organizational development books. His delineation of the central paradox team leaders face is particularly cogent: managers need to authorize individuals to think for themselves, encouraging nonconformists, yet they also need to get these individuals to work together. “The more people in the group think for themselves, the more complicated is the task of getting them to work together” (p. 9).

His premise for negotiating these dilemmas is a standard psychoanalytic tenet: “people must learn to use their inner thoughts and feelings in the service of getting work done” (p.11). He is quick to point out that personal intimacy or feeling warm and fuzzy is not the goal of managers. Rather, communication of one’s inner experience allows people to “tackle the …[work] challenges they both face, but are reluctant to discuss” (p. 11).

Starting from the central paradox, then, Hirschhorn identifies additional challenges faced by managers. For example, he espouses the importance of boundary management as part of the team leader’s role, which he calls, “managing from the middle” (p.33). In other words, the manager must communicate the organization’s agenda to the team, and the team’s needs to the organization. But this, too, presents a paradox: If a leader is overly loyal to the larger institution, the team will feel exploited. If the manager becomes too uncritical of his team, unmindful of corporate goals, the leader loses legitimacy and the team will not get resources it needs.

Hirschhorn goes on to suggest specific ways to manage this boundary, using terminology familiar to business people, but incorporating key psychoanalytic ideas. For instance, in discussing the importance of clarifying roles in a group, he explains convincingly how clear roles help “contain their overall anxiety about who will exercise control when and with what power” (p. 39). Similarly, he not only gives a lexicon for role definition, he provides an explanation for why utilizing it is important: when using such terminology, he says, “team members are less likely to feel defensive when examining a mistake. A language provides a structure, a container for the anxiety that people feel when examining a mistake” (p. 40).

The longest chapter in the book is called, “Facilitating the Team Process” and is essentially a primer on Bion’s (1961) theories, applied to situations that team managers face. Here, Hirschhorn introduces “group-as-a-whole” phenomena, distinguishing them from attributions to individuals’ behavior.

Included in this chapter is a summary of Bion’s Basic Assumption Groups (though Hirschhorn omits this confusing term), defining and giving examples of Dependency Groups and Fight/Flight Groups. He leaves out Bion’s Pairing groups, I imagine because it is too stimulating and bizarre for this audience (one can only imagine an executive’s reaction to reading that his team has selected two members to go off and procreate, so as to provide the group with a messianic savior, even if they do this only in fantasy!!). However, he coins his own third type of Basic Assumption Group, that of “Fight-Conformist” Groups (p. 64), which he equates with the more familiar concept of “group think.”

For all these defensive maneuvers by groups, Hirschhorn prescribes specific interventions that the leader can make, provided that he or she is acting as a participant-observer. However, he again eschews the use of such a term, instead explaining:

…in leading a team you have to be in two psychological spaces at once. You want to contribute directly to the content of the conversation, but at the same time you want to monitor it. And you have to do both. If you talk to the substance of the conversation without monitoring it, you may fail to notice when it gets off track. But if you monitor without talking, you may lose touch with the discussion’s meaning and implication, and you may feel unauthorized or unable to shape its direction. (p. 55)

Examples are provided of various levels of process comments that can help to get the group’s discussion back on track. In all this explication of group theory, by avoiding technical psychoanalytic language, Hirschhorn successfully conveys complex ideas such as projective identification and thereby manages to undercut likely resistance to it.
Though his focus is clearly on group-level dynamics, Hirschhorn devotes a chapter to individual issues, while remaining mindful of the group context. He addresses the importance of recognizing and responding to people’s resistance to growth, as well as offering ways to create a sense of fairness in supervising a collection of subordinates. A section that managers might find especially helpful concerns how to appraise performance and give feedback. Hirschhorn advocates on-going feedback, rather than waiting for scheduled annual reviews, and he provides guidance for encouraging growth in team members in such situations.

No psychoanalytic book, clinical or organizational, would be complete without some encouragement for the reader to consider his or her own dynamics. Clinicians might expect to be directed to their countertransference. In Managing in the New Team Environment, Hirschhorn encourages his readers to take on the “learner role” (p. 92). He advocates seeking understanding instead of control, a concept that is likely to be a hard sell to his intended audience. He successfully makes his case, however, by using the metaphor of “Chinese handcuffs,” the woven straw toy where you put your fingers in a tube and only by not pulling them out can you escape. “In taking a control role, you separate yourself from the situation you’ve helped create. In taking the learner role, you acknowledge your participation in it” (p. 93).

The strengths of Hirschhorn’s book lie in its ability to speak the language of his readers, while still conveying the complexity and importance of his theoretical orientation. Business team leaders would have a difficult time finding a book more helpful in identifying and addressing the paradoxes that are likely to be creating difficulty in their work. Giving them a language and frame to understand what has been frustrating them will, in and of itself, provide a sense of understanding and relief.

It is hard, however, to picture an executive or manager making full use of this book in isolation. The book practically screams to be discussed. Some of the material is stimulating and provocative and might leave a solo reader puzzled and bursting with questions. In that sense, the book’s heritage as a companion to a training program may leave the reader with a feeling that something is missing, when the accompanying training program is absent. As a resource for consultants to recommend to their clients, though, this book would be quite appropriate and helpful. In addition, clinicians who would like an introduction to how psychoanalytic concepts may be translated for a business setting will find this book a lively and provocative read. And, for people wondering whether there is a way to convey the usefulness of psychoanalytic thinking to a mainstream audience, Hirschhorn provides proof that such a goal is attainable.

References

Reference
Bion, W. R. (1961). Experience in groups. London: Routledge.
Hirschhorn, L. (1988). The workplace within. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
Hirschhorn, L, and Barnett, C. (1993). The psychodynamics of organizations. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Kets de Vries, M. F. R.. (ed.) (1991). Organizations on the couch: Clinical perspectives on organizational behavior and change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Klein, E. B., Gabelnick, F., and Herr, P. (eds.) (1998). The psychodynamics of leadership. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press.
Menzies-Lyth, E. (1988). Containing anxiety in institutions. London: Free Association Books.

Footnote: A wealth of resources for those interested in finding out more about psychoanalytic approaches to organizations can be found at the web site of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO)—www.ospso.org. Also, information on the Tavistock Institute can be found at Tavistock Institute . In the United States, the Group Relations tradition started at Tavistock is advanced by the A.K.Rice InstituteInstitute for the Study of Social Systems

Reviewer Note

Jeffrey H. Axelbank is a Psychologist and Management Consultant in Highland Park, NJ. His consulting work focuses on the functioning of work teams and groups. He is a member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, and the A.K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems.

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