Basics of Group Relations: Group defences against anxiety


This is the fourth in a five-ish part series on the background and basics of group relations. Read parts one, two, and three.

It’s an axiom of group relations that, just like the way we organize our lives can illuminate our preoccupations and hang-ups, institutional policies can illuminate the preoccupations and the anxieties of the group of people who make up that institution.

There are a couple of famous case studies in the group relations literature that explore just this. One is the Elliot Jacques paper I mentioned in the first post in this series, “Social Systems as a Defense against Persecutorial and Depressive Anxiety” (pdf), and Isabel Menzies-Lyth’s similarly-titled “The functioning of social systems as a defence against anxiety” (pdf). (The Menzies-Lyth paper in particular is a great read.)

As an aside, when I first read “Social Systems as a Defense against Persecutorial and Depressive Anxiety”, I was really surprised that the Glacier Metal Company allowed their name to be used in the paper, as the portrait of its employees is not altogether flattering. I can’t be the only one who thinks that very few companies today would let their name be used in a similar situation. However, the Glacier Metal Company appears to have had admirably open-minded management who were proud of the work they did with Jacques to improve their company.

In this paper, Jacques touches on the conflict on a worker-manager council trying to work out how to transition from a piece-rate to a flat-rate system of payment. Everyone agreed that the change was necessary; in ordinary working conditions the workers and managers got along just fine. In the council they did not and were unable to complete the negotiations. The workers thought the managers were “stooges” who wouldn’t represent their interests; the managers met this “paranoid” position with placation and idealization. The more suspicious the workers became, the more placating the managers became. Jacques theorized that, because the new system did not penalize them for failing to meet production targets, workers felt guilty that under a flat rate system they might get paid without doing enough work to justify it, so projected this bad feeling onto their managers. Managers dealt with their own anxieties about authority through idealization:

To the extent that managers unconsciously felt their authority to be bad, they feared retaliation by the operatives. This is turn led to a reinforcement of the idealization of the elected representatives. (Jacques, 293)

As I mentioned in the introductory post, Jacques shows his political cards when he assumes good faith from both parties. This is by no means a given – both workers and managers could have real reasons to fear other. Wage theft and worker exploitation are very real problems; today worker uprisings are rare to the point of non-existence in the Global North, but in the early 1950 memories of the more violent episodes in labour history were not so distant. Jacques assumes these anxieties are unfounded, and while he may know this through his extensive work at Glacier Metal, the reader doesn’t.

But accepting Jacques’ reading of the situation, his hypothesis makes a lot of sense. He felt that the non-functional, paranoid council (a baP group) was what allowed the work environment to function by channelling the anxieties of the workers and managers out of working environment. He noted that this didn’t solve the problem of how to do the work that the council was supposed to be doing!

In other words, an essentially constitutional procedure, that of elected representatives meeting with an executive body, was difficult to operate because it was being used in an unrecognized fashion at the fantasy level to help deal with the depressive and paranoid anxieties of the department as a whole. (Jacques, 296)

Apparently Jacques worked with Glacier Metal for years, so I assume he helped them get past this, but the paper sadly doesn’t reveal how.

Turning to Menzies-Lyth’s paper, it’s telling that the hospital nursing program she describes is, unlike Glacier Metal, not named.  This program had a 30% rate of attrition, which is pretty bad even for a stressful program like nursing, as well as high rates of absenteeism, illness, stress, and dissatisfaction. The hospital had engaged Menzies-Lyth to try to improve some of these problems.

Menzies-Lyth identified how some of the dysfunctional elements of the program’s organization were attempts to defuse some of the unavoidable stresses and anxieties of nursing. Nurses constantly face the loss of the patients they care for, so to avoid becoming attached to people who would soon die, the nurses were constantly shuffled from unit to unit. This was bad not just for continuity of care but for the training, as the students felt they were never in one place long enough to get a handle on the work. Nurses have the power of life and death over their patients; a simple mistake could kill. To ease that burden of responsibility, the hospital developed rigid procedures, checklists and guidelines which had to be followed at all costs. This eased the anxiety around life-or-death decisions, but disempowered and demotivated the nurses, who were not allowed to exercise their judgement or develop their own problem-solving abilities. In short, efforts to manage the anxiety of the project – training nurses – undermined the effectiveness of the entire project, with student nurses dropping out due to the intolerable conditions or receiving sub-optimal training.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the hospital acted on some of Menzies-Lyth’s practical suggestions, they were unable to take more radical action:

Proposals were made for more far-reaching change, involving a re-structuing of the social defence system…However, although the senior staff discussed such proposals with courage and seriousness, they did not feel able to proceed with the plans. This happened in spite of our clearly expressed views that, unless there were some fairly radical changes in the system, the problems of the nursing service might well become extremely serious. (Menzies-Lyth, 119)

This touches on another axiom of group relations and psychoanalysis in general: change is hard.

After reading these papers, I noticed an example of this in my own life. As I was giving advice to a friend who was thinking of starting her own small business, I realized that I had developed a fairly elaborate structure of getting my own clients in my music teaching business to pay me. Because talking money and enforcing rules causes me a lot of anxiety, I structured things so I don’t have to. This takes extra time and effort and fails to optimize my income. I’m probably not going to change it – change is hard! – but at least I know why I do it.

Next week: What it’s like to take part in a group relations experience.


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