Psychoanalytic contributions to the study of the emotional life of organizations
Administration & Society; Beverly Hills; Jul 1998; Yiannis Gabriel

Volume: 30
Issue: 3
Start Page: 291-314
ISSN: 00953997
Subject Terms: Psychology
In light of increasing interest in organizational emotions, this article argues for a reintegration of psychoanalytic scholarship into the study of organizations. A brief presentation of social constructionist approaches to emotions in organizations is followed by a presentation of major psychoanalytic contributions to the study of emotions at individual, group, and organizational levels.

Full Text:
Copyright Sage Publications, Inc. Jul 1998

When fully developed, bureaucracy also stands, in a specific sense, under the principle of sine ira et studio. Its specific nature, which is welcomed by capitalism, develops the more perfectly the more the bureaucracy is dehumanized, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue.

Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology

Written in the early-20th century, Max Weber's pronouncement has haunted the study of organizations ever since. Is Weber's vision of bureaucracy one of the profoundest observations in the social sciences? Or is it an extraordinary piece of blinkered thinking that consigned the study of organizations to 50 years of wasted efforts? For there can be no denying that images of organizations as passion-free or, at least, potentially passion-free, have dominated theory and practice alike.

Psychoanalysis has stayed at the margins of the discussions on bureaucracy initiated by Weber. In many of these discussions, emotions and passions (such as envy, hatred, anger, fear, anxiety) were seen as unwelcome intruders to the world of organizations, symptoms of pathologies, from which organizations had to rid themselves. Alternatively, they were referred to through a small number of euphemisms, such as stress or job satisfaction, which ostensibly gave emotions some scientific weight and also offered the prospect of containing, managing, and controlling them. As Fineman (1993) has argued, such euphemisms reinforced the view of people in organizations as "emotionally anorexic" (p. 9).

Yet, one only has to scratch the surface of organizational life to discover a thick layer of emotions, at times checked, at times feigned, at times timidly expressed, and at other times bursting out uncontrollably. The view that organizations, like families, sporting events, and religious ceremonies, are emotional arenas in which different emotions are generated, displayed, shed, and traded did not emerge seriously until the 1980s. This article begins by examining three emerging discourses in the study of organizational emotions. In the main part, the article introduces and reviews a number of psychoanalytic theories that promote our understanding of the experiences, expressions, and vicissitudes of emotions in organizational settings. The article concludes by arguing for a rapprochement of the psychoanalytic and the social psychological traditions in addressing emotion in organizations, in all its variety and complexity.


Emotion is now recognized as a key feature of the work that many people do. A display of friendliness, involving direct eye contact and a smile, is not merely a bonus for sales or catering staff but an integral part of their jobs. Different occupations require different emotional displays or performances-nurses must show care and affection, sports coaches enthusiasm and drive, funeral directors dignified respect, and professional wrestlers anger and hate. Hochschild's (1983) concept of emotional labor describes those aspects of people's work that involve adopting an emotional attitude appropriate to their roles. Since Hochschild's early work, emotional labor has been recognized as a core feature of a wide range of occupations (from secretaries to car mechanics, from computer analysts to Disneyland employees) especially in the service sector. Emotional labor also involves assessing and managing emotions, one's own, as well as other people's (Fineman, 1993; Hochschild, 1983). A sales assistant must diagnose whether a customer's anger is real and serious and use his/her own techniques for defusing it or redirecting it.

According to this research, emotions and even feelings are no longer seen as dysfunctional or disruptive elements in organizations but as vital resources to be marshaled and controlled, in a manner not dissimilar to other resources such as money, information, or materials. Putnam and Mumby (1993) have argued that "through recruitment, selection, socialization, and performance evaluations, organizations develop a social reality in which feelings become a commodity for achieving instrumental goals" (p. 37). In this way, bureaucratic rationality expands to colonize affectivity and emotions. Mature bureaucracy need no longer be afraid of emotions-rather, it may control them and deploy them as it does other resources, such as knowledge or technology. Writers such as Ferguson (1984), Mumby and Putnam (1992; Putnam & Mumby, 1993), Van Maanen and Kunda (1989), and Hochschild (1983) herself have critiqued the resulting inauthenticity and burnout suffered by employees who, under pressure from management, adopt the emotions required by their roles. They also recognize that at times, employees may seek to resist management's attempts to manipulate their feelings, through acts of resistance. This approach has placed emotion squarely at the center of the study of organizations. It does, however, raise a number of questions whose answers are not within its reach. What are the costs at which emotional labor is performed? How does loyalty and commitment turn into estrangement? When does estrangement turn into resistance? How does resistance turn from an individual to a group phenomenon?


If emotions are part of the work people do, the right emotional attitude has come to be seen as a key feature of successful organizations. At a time when continuous change and uncertainty make traditional machinebureaucracies less relevant, emotions such as commitment, trust, caring, enthusiasm, pride, and even fun become necessary for organizational success. Business leaders are seen less as superbrains formulating policies and more as passion generators. Business people, such as Carlzon (1989), Morita (1987), and Roddick (1991), have written books that extol passion and enthusiasm as the basis of success, viewing themselves as heroic leaders of passionate followers, rather than managers of obedient functionaries.

Building on the work of Zaleznik (1977) and Burns (1978), a distinction has been drawn between managers who promote efficiency through deals and an eye for detail, and leaders who stir emotion, provide vision and generate commitment. In so doing, the study of organizations has rejoined a thread in Weber's thought which had remained forgotten, namely that leadership and administration are not merely different entities but diametrical opposites.

Sine ira etstudio, "without scorn or bias," [the administrator] shall administer his office. Hence, he shall not do precisely what the politician, the leader as well as his following, must necessarily do, namely fight. To take a stand, to be passionate-ira et studium-is the politician's element, and above all the element of the political leader. His conduct is subject to quite a different, indeed exactly the opposite, principle of responsibility from that of the civil servant. The honor of the civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of the superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction.... The honor of the political leader, of the leading statesman, however, lies precisely in an exclusive personal responsibility for what he does, a responsibility he cannot and must not reject or transfer. (p. 95)


The two discourses that we have introduced, emotional labor and leaders as visionary passion stirrers, are closely intertwined with a third current discourse, according to which emotions themselves are cultural phenomena whose meaning emerges through culture, is communicated through culture, and is even generated by culture. Specific cultural events, such as a job interview, a downsizing announcement, or a business deal, call for appropriate emotional performances of those participating. Inspired by the work of Goffman (1959), social constructionists argue that emotions can be learned, just as theatrical roles can be learned. And like theatrical actors, social actors learn to experience anger, sorrow, joy, or fear when their roles call for them. Writers such as Heller (1979), Mangham (1986), Flam (1990a, 1990b), and Fineman (1993,1995, 1997) have studied the rules that govern emotional performances and have examined how emotion flows-by being symbolically constructed, communicated, and disseminated-from each individual to his or her audience.

Social constructionists have relied on early theories by Le Bon (1895/1960), Simmel (1971), and Durkheim (1915/1961), suggesting that "human sentiments are intensified when affirmed collectively. Sorrow, like joy, becomes exalted and amplified when leaping from mind to mind" (Durkheim,1915/1961, p. 446). Thus, when we find ourselves surrounded by sad people at a funeral, we feel sad, even if we do not have a great reason to feel sad; likewise, when we find ourselves surrounded by a cheering, laughing, or jeering crowd, we may become affected by these emotions, even if we have no personal reason for experiencing them. Social constructionists recognize, however, that emotions change as they flow in different social settings. Despair can turn into anger, envy into pride, joy into hate. An individual's display of a specific emotion may generate the same emotion in his/her audience, or it may lead to a different emotional response. A leader, for example, may discover that attempts to share enthusiasm or pride with his or her subordinates lead to indifference or suspicion on their parts.

Social constructionist theories are not yet able to account for transformations undergone by emotions as they are communicated or shared. They tend to treat most emotions in an undifferentiated manner, occasionally dividing them into positive and negative, hot and cold, active and passive, prescribed and proscribed, but rarely explore them in their infinite nuances and subtleties, vigors and vitalities. For all the virtuosity that writers such as Mangham (1986), Mangham and Overington (1987), and Hopfl and Linstead (1997) bring to discussions of the rules of emotional microperformances, they are a long way from establishing the qualities that make a performance a success with one audience and a failure with another. The reasons why a particular emotion is associated with a specific social occasion (say grief at a funeral, anger or derision at an inadequate offer from the employer, nostalgia at a farewell function, and so on) are not addressed.

Furthermore, social constructionist approaches add little to the study of the origins of emotions like rage, despair, boredom, envy, or bliss, or their sudden modifications in the course of everyday experience. These emotions are not addressed in the light of either the complexities of interpersonal and group dynamics or each individual's life history. As no less a constructionist authority on emotion than Fineman (1993) has recognized, this approach has a total blind spot when it comes to identifying where emotions come from and how they fit into the biographies of organizations and individuals (p. 23). This is where psychoanalytic theory can substantially enhance our understanding.


Psychoanalysis has always been absorbed in the study of emotion. It has opened new avenues in analyzing the emotional life of individuals, in exploring the origin and meaning of different emotions, and in accounting for the grip that emotions have on our lives. Human beings are approached by psychoanalysis not merely as emotional but as desiring, passionate beings. Emotions are no simple side effects of mental life, no performances staged for the sake of audiences, no instruments of interpersonal manipulation (although they may under certain circumstances be all of these things). Instead, psychoanalysis approaches emotions as driving forces in human affairs.

For psychoanalysis, emotion lies at the heart of human motivation-emotion is motivation. It is not accidental that both words derive from the Latin emovere, to move. The drive for money no less than the drive for power or the drive for work-they all derive from emotion and are liable to become passions. The drive for truth, too, is emotionally driven, rather than the expression of an abstract interest in knowledge and learning. Hence, illusion is no mere product of ignorance or error, but rather the product of fear, love, anxiety, desire, and passion. For psychoanalysis, emotion is what holds groups together ("necessity alone will not hold them together"; Freud, 1930, p. 122), and emotion too is what destroys them. Being in love and being under hypnosis are the two closest psychological states to being a member of a group, according to Freud (1921), although Freud was wise enough to limit his formulations to groups "without too much organization" (p. 116).

For this reason, the supposedly passion-free spaces of modern organizations (where precisely there is "too much organization") were of relatively limited interest to psychoanalytic writers for many years. Groups, on the other hand, where emotion can be dominant, were of much greater interest. The attempts of writers like Jaques (1955), Menzies Lyth (Menzies, 1960; Menzies Lyth, 1988, 1991), Levinson (1972, 1976), and Zaleznik (1977, 1989a, 1989b) to introduce a psychoanalytic dimension in the study of organizations were respectfully received, but until recently, they were not integrated in the mainline of organizational studies. But as the view of organizations as emotional arenas has gained currency, there are opportunities of reintegrating psychoanalytic scholarship into the study of organizational processes.


Is it possible to talk of a single psychoanalytic approach to emotion in organizations, or indeed emotion in general? The study of emotions, feelings, and affects has been an organic part of the development of psychoanalytic theory since its earliest days. A wide diversity of theoretical propositions have been made, not least by Freud, whose views on emotional life developed considerably in the course of his investigations. In Freud's earliest works (e.g., 1895), emotion features principally as affect and is generally seen as a cause of mental disorders. Ineffective emotional discharges (abreactions) surrounding traumatic events in an individual's life were seen by Freud and Breuer as causes of hysterical and obsessional symptoms.

Drawing on the then-current psycho-physiological theories, Freud envisaged affect as a physical, bodily quantity that operated as a psychological force. Increases in affect are experienced as unpleasurable; hence, under the rule of the pleasure principle, the mental apparatus seeks to discharge it. This idea remained sovereign in Freud's (1920) thought until Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when the simple correlation of quantity of affect discharged and quality of pleasurable experience was abandoned. Yet, despite many subsequent elaborations, Freud never gave up the idea that emotions are mobile, being able to change the objects on which they are attached and to change themselves into different emotions, notably into their opposites (love transformed into hate, gratitude into envy, fear into defiance, etc.) and into anxiety. Anxiety has occupied a privileged position in psychoanalytic studies of emotion. Initially seen as an emotional waste product that offered an outlet for all poorly discharged emotions (including love and hate, anger and jealousy), anxiety came to be seen increasingly in dynamic terms, either as the psychological state to be defended against or as a signal that alerts the ego to the imminence of danger, thus setting off defensive mechanisms such as repression (Freud, 1926).

Along with reassessing the nature of anxiety, Freud's later theory reconsiders the nature of pleasure and pain. Pain or unpleasure is no longer the mere accumulation of unwanted excitation but rather the result of inner conflict, signaled by anxiety. Some excitation can be pleasant, especially if it may be controlled. Window shopping, for example, may afford pleasure, provided that one is not overwhelmed by the desire to buy more than one can afford. Pleasure, in Freud's later theory, is not the product of a sudden discharge of all excitation but depends on the nature of excitation itself and the ability to control it. In this way, pleasure and pain cease to be opposites-pain (as is the case in masochism) can be pleasurable, and pleasure can be painful (for instance, if it is not going to last long). Developing this idea, Campbell ( 1989) has argued that virtually any emotion, including fear, horror, grief, sorrow, or hate, can be a source of pleasure, provided it can be controlled. Bungee jumping, horror movies, hard training, traveling, even going to war can be sources of pleasurable experiences despite the dangers and hardships they entail. Emotional experiences then depend on the extent to which we are able to control excitations. Yet, Freud never ceased to emphasize the partly involuntary character of emotions-the control of emotions by the ego can never be taken for granted. Emotions are liable to being unpredictable, inconsistent, unmanageable, and even chaotic, despite the ego's ongoing attempts to control them, tame them, or isolate them.


Is it possible to seek to control an emotion by repressing it? Can affects be repressed, in the same way that ideas and desires can? Can we repress our feelings or emotions? This is a question that puzzled Freud over a period of many years. After all, if affects are experienced as feelings, and "it is the essence of a feeling to be felt," that is, to be fully conscious perceptions, then it makes little sense to argue that a feeling can be repressed (Stein, 1991, p. 21). In "Negation," Freud (1925) offered the suggestion that a repressed desire may enter consciousness only by being disowned. The repressed content is accepted intellectually but not emotionally. So an individual saying, "I can see why one may say that I am worried about losing my hair/job/youth; but this is absolutely not so," allows a partial lifting of the repression by entertaining the idea of being afraid but not the affect.

Anna Freud (1936) subsequently generalized this principle as the isolation of affect, a process where many repressed ideas may be expressed at the intellectual level without being confronted emotionally. It is possible, for example, to recognize having acted wrongly and even apologize without actually feeling any remorse. Discussing threatening or painful topics in a highly cerebral manner, for example, feelings of abandonment, failure, or loss, may be a way of stopping oneself from experiencing these feelings. Thus, in Freud's later work, psychological defenses can operate against both unacceptable emotions and painful ideas. Sandler and Sandler (1994) have enlarged on this view by arguing that an emotion may be repressed very shortly after it has been experienced or felt and then disavowed. In this way, it is suppressed, choked, and unacknowledged, yet not entirely obliterated; an example of such a choked emotion is the "unconscious sense of guilt" that Freud regarded as a fundamental cost of culture.


No single psychological process provides as sharp a testing ground for the transformation of emotions as transference. Transference is, in the first place, part of the complex emotional bond that develops between patient and analyst in an analytic situation. The seminal characteristic of this situation, and the one that provides vital leverage for psychoanalytic interpretations, is the repetition of earlier emotional experiences. The patient does not merely recollect these experiences but actually relives them emotionally, redirecting many feelings, such as love, hate, fear, anger, and envy, onto the person of the analyst. In this manner, emotions, qualities, and symbols that once held a powerful grip over an individual resurface in the analytic situation to provide strong evidence as to the origins of mental disturbances.

If transference is the bedrock of psychoanalytic interventions within the therapeutic situation, its significance extends to groups and organizations. It has been recognized since Ferenczi's work in the 1910s that repressed feelings may be transferred onto nonanalytic people, for example, political or religious leaders. In so doing, an individual may enhance positive feelings by introjecting them from external objects ("As a follower of Christ, I am virtuous") or cast out negative feelings by projecting them onto external objects ("It is not I who wishes to destroy him, but he who wishes to destroy me"). These processes are vital for a psychoanalytic understanding of the emotions of followers toward their leaders (Gabriel, 1997; Oglensky, 1995).

Kleinian theorists have moved a stage further by arguing that through projection and introjection, the ego actually divests itself of unwanted parts of itself and incorporates desirable parts from the external world. In this way, an individual may gain some mastery over his or her emotions by manipulating objects. Instead of repressing threatening or painful emotions, the ego may project them onto external objects or split them off. Klein's concept of splitting is of considerable interest. She views it as a pre-Oedipal defense employed against persecutory anxiety, a fear of total annihilation of the self by the outside world, which results in the world being split into two, good and bad objects, heroes and villains, objects of love and objects of hate (Klein, 1946/1975). In such a Manichaean universe, idealization and vilification take hold of mental functioning and may affect whole groups or even nations; scapegoats are charged with every conceivable fault and attract collective hate, whereas idealized love objects are endowed with every perfection and, through introjection, result in narcissistic self-love.

Klein attaches affects far more closely to objects than Freud did and, in so doing dissolves the distinction between desire and affect and gives even greater primacy to feelings than Freud. If, for Freud, emotions derive from fantasies, which in turn are compromise formations between desire and the forces of repression, then for Klein, fantasies are derivatives, not causes of emotions. Bad feelings, bad emotions, and bad objects become amalgamated, as do their good equivalents. Feelings, conflicts between feelings, and the ability to tolerate them become the primary motive forces of mental life, encouraging or inhibiting development.

Feelings may trigger off other feelings in chain reactions-for instance, sadness may generate anger, which in turn may lead to anxiety. These chain reactions may form self-reinforcing emotional cycles, vicious circles of bad feelings and magic circles of good feelings. The underlying opposition is that between love and hate, which in Klein's work, assume a primary importance rather than being seen as derivative of other conflicts. The concepts love and hate, good and bad, become themselves evaluative. Hate is bad, love is good. Manichaeanism, that is, the division of the world into pure good and pure evil, is therefore not only a characteristic of the phenomena addressed by Klein's theory but a feature of the theory itself.

This judgmental quality is entirely absent from the work of Freud, who believed that life and death instincts, love and hate, all have the right to exist, can all be good as well as bad. By contrast, many authors influenced by Klein who have developed these ideas and used them to understand group and organizational processes, have been concerned with improving the way groups and organizations function, enhancing reparative, supportive, and learning processes and containing the destructive ones.

EMOTIONS IN GROUPS Klein has sometimes been criticized for approaching all social life as a complex of emotion-driven fantasies and for reducing social and political contradictions to innate emotional conflict, and especially to feelings of envy, hate, and destructiveness (Frosh, 1987, 1997). The self emerges as the product of fantasy scenarios and conflicting emotions with little regard for deeper political and economic realities. Her work highlights the problematic of whether emotions drive political and social events or whether they are derivative of such events. Nowhere is this problematic more clearly in evidence than in the study of crowds and groups. The emotional qualities of groups had fascinated conservative historians of the French Revolution and were of great interest to revolutionary theorists like Sorel. The psychology of group emotion had received two important contributions in the early part of the century, in the works of Gustave Le Bon and William McDougall. The observations of these two theorists form the starting point of Freud's (1921) investigations in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego-the intensification of emotions in groups, the contagiousness of specific emotions, suggestibility, the lowering of critical abilities and moral restraints, the thirst for illusions; these were wellknown emotional qualities of group life.

There is no doubt that something exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of an emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion; but how often do we not successfully oppose it, resist the emotion, and react in quite an opposite way. Why, therefore, do we invariably give way to this contagion when we are in a group? (Freud, 1921, p. 117)

Freud's arguments, however, soon leave emotions behind, treating them as outcomes of deeper psychological vicissitudes, namely identification, group bonding, and the formation of an ego-ideal. By contrast, Bion (1961) placed emotions squarely at the center of his investigations into the mental life of groups. A group may be a work group or a sophisticated group, drawing on its own resources to carry out its task. Such a group is outward looking, engaging in creative exchange with its environment, and recalls Freud's notion of the managerial ego which is generally able to keep its harsh masters satisfied. Yet, a group whose task causes anxiety may lapse into a basic-assumption functioning, in which it becomes overpowered by emotional forces. Basic-assumption groups defend themselves against anxiety by closing themselves to their environments and allowing emotion, fantasy, and delusion to take over from task.

Each of Bion's three types of basic-assumption group displays its own characteristic batch of self-reinforcing emotions. The dependency assumption revolves around blind faith in the leader, trust, reverence, loyalty, devotion, respect, and submissiveness. The fight or flight assumption commandeers many of the emotions characteristic of the paranoidschizoid position, rage, hate, envy, destructiveness, and fear. The pairing assumption revolves around feelings of hope, optimism, confidence, and self-assurance. In all of these instances, emotions undermine the group's ability to think or reason, to plan, to control, and to administer its task-in short, they represent pathologies, analogous to individual pathologies. Effective groups, therefore, may not lapse into basic-assumption functioning. The leader, the group therapist, or the organizational consultant, as much as the members of groups, therefore must be on their guards for signs of basic-assumption functioning.

Bion's theory has received extensive support from the work of organizational researchers and consultants, who have found in it a valuable key for unlocking the emotional tangles of work groups, especially highly ineffectual ones. Many writers with a psychodynamic perspective have employed basic-assumption theory first to analyze group functioning and then to effect change, restoring the group to its task. (See, e.g., Diamond, 1993; Hirschhorn, 1988; Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984; Krantz, 1989.) Nevertheless, the sharp distinction between the basic-assumptions group and the sophisticated group has been hard to maintain, and certain authors, such as Mant (1977), have suggested that under certain circumstances, primary assumption functioning may be beneficial for the attainment of collective tasks.


Although Bion's theory has found many applications in relatively unstructured groups, the emotional life of organizations is considerably more complex. The theories developed by Jaques, Menzies Lyth, Trist, Bridger, Miller, and other theorists associated with the Tavistock Institute in London have addressed directly the effects of bureaucratic forms, hierarchies, and rules on the emotional lives of their members. Drawing from Klein's theories, Tavistock research has studied how individuals in large bureaucratic organizations, faced with uncertainty and anxiety, set up psychological boundaries through projections and introjections that seriously distort organizational rationality and task. The overall perspective is not dissimilar to Bion's, inasmuch as emotion is seen as both the cause and the result of defensive reactions, which undermine clarity of purpose and execution. But instead of looking for defenses against anxiety in emotional-group functioning, the Tavistock theorists have looked at how organizations themselves may furnish individuals with defensive devices.

Transposing the Kleinian theory of defenses against anxiety onto the organizational and the social levels, Elliott Jaques (1952, 1955) argued that individuals may collectively project bad objects onto a single member of an organization or a stigmatized social group, while introjecting the idealized qualities of a good object. The first officer of a ship, for instance, is usually held responsible for everything that is wrong on the ship, allowing the captain to be seen as a kind, protecting figure. Scapegoating is thus a feature of many societies and organizations which enables individuals to deal with internal anxieties as though they originated from the outside and may therefore be fought against or destroyed.


Jaques's view that organizations supply individuals with suitable defenses against anxiety was supported by Menzies Lyth's (1988) research on nurses in a London teaching hospital. This study has made a lasting contribution to the study of emotion in organizations and is still widely cited. Nurses confront many different emotions from patients and their relatives, gratitude for the care they offer, admiration as well as envy of their skills, resentment stemming from forced dependence. Their own feelings toward the patients, especially feelings of closeness and personal caring, are tempered by the knowledge that the patient may die. "The work situation arouses very strong and mixed feelings in the nurse: pity, compassion, and love; guilt and anxiety; hatred and resentment of patients who arouse these strong feelings; envy of the care given to the patient" (Menzies Lyth, 1988, p. 46).

Faced with such an emotional cauldron, many nurses reexperience infantile persecutory anxieties, from which they seek to defend themselves through the familiar mechanisms of projection, splitting, and denial. Menzies Lyth's important contribution was to establish how an organization's own bureaucratic features, its rules and procedures, rosters, task lists, checks and counterchecks, paperwork, hierarchies, and so onall of these impersonal devices act as supports for the defensive techniques. By allowing for ritual task performance, by depersonalizing relations with the patients, by using organizational hierarchies, nurses contained their anxieties.

Yet, in Menzies Lyth's view, such organizational defenses against anxiety were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to failure to train and retain nurses, chronically low morale, high levels of stress, and absence of work satisfaction. Along with other psychoanalytically trained consultants, Menzies Lyth (1991) views the role of the consultant as one who may help restore an organization to health by implementing a number of principles:

These principles match quite closely the criteria for a healthy personality as derived from psychoanalysis. They include avoiding dealing with anxiety by the use of regressed defenses; more uses of adaptations and sublimation; the ability to confront and work through problems; opportunities for people to deploy their capacities to their fullest, no more or less than they are able to do; opportunity to operate realistic control over their life in the institution while being able to take due account of the needs and contributions of others; independence without undue supervision; and visible relation between efforts and rewards, not only financial. (p. 377)

Menzies Lyth's prescriptions have been taken up with greater or lesser success by numerous psychoanalytically oriented consultants. Countless instances of backfiring social defenses against anxiety have been documented by writers working within this psychodynamic perspective, and outstanding contributions in establishing the crippling effects of such defenses both on individuals and on organizations have been made by Gould (1993), Krantz (1989), Lapierre (1989), Diamond (1985,1993), Hirschhorn (1988, 1989), and Hirschhorn and Gilmore (1989).

In The Workplace Within, Hirschhorn (1988) uses his experiences as an organizational consultant to show how anxiety in organizations triggers primitive fears of annihilation, which in turn call for social defenses. To Bion's basic assumption, Hirschhorn adds two further modes of social defense, organizational rituals and covert coalitions. Following Menzies Lyth, Hirschhorn views organizational rituals as depersonalized routines that create a distance between the individuals and their roles, screening out threatening emotional involvements and replacing them with a set of mechanical actions. Covert coalitions, on the other hand, constitute a kind of unconscious psychological deal, whereby members of an organization call a truce to conflict or disagreement, by assuming roles drawn from family life, which provide them with a model for anxiety containment. The price of such a truce, observes Hirschhorn, is the creation of taboo subjects that may not be referred to and the perpetuation of dysfunctional arrangements within the organization.

The psychoanalytic idea of social defenses against anxiety has become increasingly accepted by numerous scholars, including those working outside depth psychology. One particular version of the arguments presents rationality itself-the use of quasi-scientific procedures such as forecasting, planning, monitoring, evaluating, testing, and so on-as no more than emotional rituals whose function is entirely the allaying of managers' anxieties in a highly unpredictable and even chaotic environment (Cleverley, 1971; Gabriel, 1996; MacIntyre, 1981; A. B. Thomas, 1993; Watson, 1994). Of considerable interest in this regard is Stacey's (1992,1995) pioneering contribution, which brings together the psychoanalytic theory of social defenses and MacIntyre's critique of quasi-scientific managerial procedures with complexity theory to elucidate the nature of managerial work. Stacey maintains that successful organizations are those that function in a state of bounded instability, a near-chaos state that is neither one of catastrophic disequilibrium nor one of static ossification and death. Functioning in this mode, organizations are unpredictable beyond a very small time span, much like weather patterns. Learning, creativity, and innovation, according to Stacey, are the result of operating at the edge of the abyss, which creates feelings of realistic anxiety, as numerous organizations once thought invulnerable collapse, and others make large numbers of people (including executives) redundant. Using psychoanalytic theory, Stacey has argued that managers hold on to outdated and virtually useless procedures of control in an attempt to contain such anxieties, seeking to create islands of calm in a turbulent sea. Needless to say, such procedures have no more chance of success than ancient rites of weather control, as MacIntyre has memorably put it.


The study of the containment mechanisms for anxiety offered by organizations, as well as subsequent complications, distortions, and dysfunctions, is one of the foremost contributions of depth psychology in this area. A smaller number of theorists, however, have focused on the obverse proposition, namely that organizations are also sources of anxiety. Whereas the former position has preoccupied mainly theorists influenced by Klein and the object relations tradition in psychoanalysis, the latter has drawn more directly from Freud's own theory of anxiety as a signal of danger. A valuable contribution in this area has been made by Howell S. Baum in his book The Invisible Bureaucracy. Like Hirschhorn, Baum (1987) explores the matching of psychological and organizational processes, only the emphasis here is in the opposite direction. Bureaucracy, argues Baum, contains certain features that function as systematic generators of anxiety. Foremost among these is hierarchy, which disperses responsibility while concentrating power. Responsibilities of individuals tend to be highly ambiguous, compounded by the endemic impersonality and distance between individuals across organizational ranks. Individuals then adopt a defensive attitude seeking to cover their own backs at all times.

Bureaucratic impersonality creates an empty psychological space between subordinates and superiors that is filled with fantasies. Baum notes two especially common ones among subordinates, the "moral paragon" and the "superiority in competence and strength." Each of these sets off its own type of anxiety, the former guilt anxiety, the latter shame anxiety. It is noteworthy that, unlike the object relations approach, Baum reverts to a more orthodox view of emotion as the product of fantasy, rather than vice versa. Yet, like Hirschhorn, Baum views blame and credit as the vital currency in which organizational participants continuously trade. Blaming, victimization, and scapegoating not only are major ingredients of the emotional life of organizations, but derive from the nature of bureaucracy itself, rather than from maladministration. When wrongly accused, individuals frequently feel threats of annihilation out of proportion to the actual blame placed on them. The strong feelings of rage, anxiety, and fear generated by such events are evidence of regression to an earlier, more vulnerable age.

Fineman and Gabriel (1996) offer numerous organizational stories illustrating how bureaucratic procedures frustrate the employees' need for clear lines of responsibility. In one story, a student accused of tampering with a superior's computer bursts into an almost inarticulate rage: "I left with awful feelings of frustration, angriness, uselessness, and betrayal" (p. =112), he says, feeling trapped in the role of a scapegoat, where his protestations of innocence only serve to reinforce his victimization. In another story, a young trainee reports how he was cajoled by a senior and respected manager to become an accomplice in the cover-up of a 50,000 blunder. Yet another employee, who confesses a serious computer mistake to his manager, is told,

Listen, you haven't made a mistake, but the system has. Whenever something is wrong you must come and tell me that the accounts system has screwed up. The system will lose prestige and value, whereas you have gained recognition because you spotted the error. You see, this company likes winners. (Fineman & Gabriel, 1996, p. 116)

Echoing views by Baum and Hirschhorn, Fineman and Gabriel conclude that

Organizational hierarchies become highways along which blame travels: superiors blame subordinates for filling in the wrong forms or pulling the wrong levers; subordinates blame superiors for designing forms and levers wrongly or giving the wrong instructions. Apportioning blame can become a highly unpredictable business. Under these circumstances, people may learn the simple, but demoralizing lesson, that the best thing to do is simply to protect themselves. (p. 119)

This author has noted how organizations, especially authoritarian ones, maintain a continuous level of anxiety through alarmist gossip and horror stories of sadism, injustice, and humiliation (Gabriel, 1991a, 1991b, 1993). Several such stories were collected in a naval camp, where the vicious pranks of officers at the expense of recruits were lodged in organizational folklore, being further embellished by older conscripts, who used them to educate their younger colleagues to the iniquities of military life and keep them on their guard. If organizations harbor unseen dangers, potential victimization, unexpected responsibilities, and dangerous dormant regulations, anxiety warns the individual of such threats and offers a partial inoculation against injury when misfortune strikes.

In summary, depth psychology views the display, channeling, unleashing, containment, control, and management of emotions as a set of core processes in organizations, which frequently account for the difference between success and failure. Feelings, emotions, and fantasies shape the world of work, rather than being mere by-products of work process. Of course, work processes generate distinct feelings, emotions, and fantasies, but these irrational phenomena become embedded in work processes, at times enhancing and at others inhibiting them. Many organizational emotions recreate instances from both the personal and collective past. Superior-subordinate relations, for example, may be charged with emotions, especially anxiety, envy, and guilt, first experienced within a parent-child relationship (Gabriel, 1997; Krantz, 1989; Lapierre, 1989); relations across race boundaries may be burdened by intergenerationally transmitted emotions rooted in the experiences of slavery and racial exploitation (D. A. Thomas, 1993).

Organizations are complex mazes in which different emotions travel, mutate, and interact, as individuals trade in resources, information, and power, but above all, in credit and blame. Anxiety is a preeminent emotion resulting from the demands that bureaucratic settings induce, yet these same settings offer various defenses against anxiety, which sometimes protect individuals, yet, at other times, reinforce the very causes of individuals' discomfort. For example, glamorous organizational images may reinforce individuals' sense of their own merit and perfection or even provide a partial consolation for their individual mortality, yet it may also generate feelings of powerlessness, dependence, and resentment (Gabriel, 1993; Schwartz, 1985, 1990).

Some scholars continue to emphasize the dysfunctional consequences of fantasies and emotions for organizations, seeking to vindicate the primacy of the rational, task-oriented processes. The majority of depth psychologists, however, would view emotion itself as vital in breaking out of dysfunctional processes that inhibit performance and exacerbate anxieties and discontents. Organizational learning, far from being a dispassionate Socratic pursuit, is driven by some emotions and opposed by others. Learning is, therefore, no mere cognitive experience of gradual enlightenment but a frequently painful process of "unlearning" past defensive and dysfunctional postures and working against inner and institutional resistances.


Fineman (1993, 1995, 1997), an author who generally favors a social constructionist approach to the study of organizational emotion, is a sympathetic critic of psychodynamic theory at two levels. First, he observes that psychodynamic approaches, while paying lip service to the socialsituational dimension of emotion, tend to disregard it in practice, treating emotions and feelings as virtually interchangeable entities. In this way, psychodynamic writers tend to ignore emotions that derive from the logic of a situation itself, for example, mourning at funerals, anxiety at job appraisals, and horror in horror movies. Furthermore, the emotions themselves are culturally defined, so that individuals may experience specific emotions because their culture and their language equip them with the means necessary to specify them. Different languages carve up the emotional landscape in different ways. In one language, jealousy and envy are not distinguished with different words; in another language, there are three or four words describing distinct emotions that in English are translated as anxiety; in some languages, there is no word at all to describe emotions such as embarrassment or stress; some languages construct nostalgia as a pleasurable emotion, whereas others construct it as a painful one (Gabriel, 1993).

There is some justification in the view that depth psychology has blurred the distinctions between emotional experience and emotional display, disregarding the social influences on emotions. This is especially relevant to organizations which have their own implicit rules about emotional display. Individual members are aware that certain emotional displays are appropriate within the organizations and others are not; this, in turn, affects the emotional experiences themselves. Numerous individuals talk of having to switch off their emotional side while at work, and yet, they recognize how emotions stored up at the workplace may be expressed at home. This suggests that psychodynamic approaches to organizational emotion must engage with codes of emotional display and control that link the individual's experiences in and out of organizations. In this, they can learn from the formulations of social constructionists, who in turn may learn from depth psychology that individuals cannot be approached as actors capable of virtually any emotional performance and any degree of emotional control (Fineman, 1993, p. 23).

A second charge raised by Fineman ( 1996) is that psychodynamic writers operate within the assumption that there is an ideal of emotion-free, task-oriented organization, casting themselves in the role of uprooters of "the demon of irrationality." In contrast to current trends, which view emotion as the secret weapon of rationality, psychodynamic thinkers are presented as crypto-Weberians, approaching all emotion as irrational and all irrationality as dysfunctional. Now, few psychodynamic writers would take such an extreme view, yet, there is little doubt that many of them have adopted a clinical paradigm that emphasizes negative emotions as carriers of organizational pathologies. Yet, this paradigm has not succeeded in establishing a sharp distinction between positive and negative emotions. Love, for example, may be a negative emotion if it leads to jealousy or overprotectiveness, whereas hate may be a positive emotion in an army about to enter battle. Nor has it proven possible to establish a sharp line between organizational normality and pathological processes. When, for example, does healthy skepticism end and paranoid anxiety start? When does healthy pride become narcissistic self-delusion or megalomania? When does optimism for a future project become a delusion of invulnerability?

These questions permit different answers and psychodynamic authors approach them differently. Some argue that criteria of organizational pathology, like those of individual pathology, are relatively objective, to be found in the ability to work and express emotion freely. Others argue that organizational pathologies are distinct from individual ones, inasmuch as healthy and normal individuals may be parties to highly contorted organizational relationships. A few, however, have taken a more pessimistic view, inspired by Freud's (1930) tentative but sweeping conclusion (at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents) that "under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of mankind-has become neurotic" (p. 144). Lasch (1980) and Gabriel (1983, 1984) have argued that different types of individual neurosis, far from being the enemy of organizations, may quite often be their ally, that is, that unhappy, neurotic individuals may be quite functional and even prosper within organizational environments and, conversely, that our bureaucratic culture, far from merely tolerating individual neurosis, thrives on it.


Emotions suffuse all significant aspects of an individual's experience, including all meaningful objects, activities, and relations, and underlie virtually the entire edifice we call culture. Everything that is meaningful is also emotionally charged. Yet, emotions do not surface ready-made from the depths of the individual soul, even if this is exactly what an individual experiences when suddenly gripped by a powerful emotion, such as anger, self-pity, or despair. Instead, they are, to different degrees, learned, cultivated, modified, and suppressed throughout an individual's development. As such, they lie at the intersection of individual and culture and may be studied both horizontally, in terms of the simultaneous emotional experiences of several individuals in a group or an organization, and vertically, in terms of an individual's own psychohistory.

The challenge for the study of organizational emotions in the future lies in a rapprochement of psychodynamic and social constructionist approaches; a continuing exploration of the relations between social and psychological defenses; a clarification of the vital differences between feelings, emotions, and affects; and a critical appraisal of the issue of emotional repression. On this last issue hinge numerous methodological and practical priorities. Should emotions be interpreted, described, or analyzed? Should they be approached symptomatically, phenomenologically, or causally? Should they be seen as outcomes, as causes, or as signs?

An even greater task currently facing scholars, researchers, and practitioners is the exploration of the relation between rationality and emotion in organizations. Despite the current recognition of the importance of emotions in organizations, the claims of rationality, and allied with them, the claims of control, must not be discounted. The Weberian chimera sine ira et studio may have finally been slain, yet, the claims of rationality continue to haunt organizations. Despite the emotional maelstrom that may at times overwhelm organizations, many of the day-to-day activities of organizational members continue to be rationally defined and justified. Forms are filled, reports are written, deals are made, alliances are struck, regulations are introduced, costs are cut, not because people act emotionally, but because they act instrumentally, driven by considerations that are perceived as rational. This suggests a check to the current tendency to privilege emotion in the study of organizations. Bureaucracy, as an emotion-free principle of administration, may no longer be a valid way of studying organizations. Yet, it is surely premature to bury Weber's insight that modern organizations have a unique quality of blocking emotion from driving the actions of their members-and in so doing, depth psychology helps us to appreciate the quite unique and taxing strains that they impose on our lives.


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[Author note]
Yiannis Gabriel is senior lecturer in organizational studies at Bath University. He is the author of Freud and Society and Working Lives in Catering; joint author of Organizing and Organizations, Experiencing Organizations, and The Unmanageable Consumer; and author of articles on social psychology, organizational culture, and symbolism. His research interests are mainly in organizational and psychoanalytic theories in areas that include organizational storytelling and folklore, contemporary consumption, and the concepts of the unmanaged and unmanageable. He is joint editor of the journal, Management Learning.

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