All of us work at the boundary. In fact, we work and live at multiple boundaries. We belong to numerous systems and relational networks. The idea of boundary is a metaphor for where and when we come into contact with each other as human subjects and objects — what Thomas Ogden calls “the primitive edge of experience.”
The idea and concept of boundaries are fundamental to psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theories of object relations, individual psychology, group psychology, organizational psychology, and psycho-geography, as in large groups such as national, ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial identity groups — what Vamik Volkan calls “large group identity.” More precisely, boundaries signify the location and demarcation of our collective sense of self in relation to others and, in groups, to leadership.
Having psychological and infantile origins, boundaries are experienced in development by way of attachment, separation, and loss. And boundaries between self and other are navigated through states of emotional dependence and, later, relative independence and autonomy.
Psychological boundaries are signifiers of our essential paradox — what it means to be human. For example, boundaries are located between one’s self and others, me and not-me, self and group, self and organization, self and body politic, subject and object, past and present, fantasy and reality, negative and positive, idealizing and loathing — what psychoanalysts call transferences and countertransferences of shared emotion. Boundaries are frequently experienced as filled with tension and opposition, possibly loaded with potential danger and conflict. With “good enough” caregiving and nurturing early on, boundaries and our experience of them come to signify a sense of we-ness. Such mutuality is a requisite for empathic organizational leadership and organizational culture, as opposed to that of narcissism stuck in ego and self-aggrandizement. In parallel with good enough parenting, such leadership supports an individual’s capacity to approach boundaries consciously, reflectively, and with sufficient curiosity. We are able to see differences between ourselves and others and accept these distinctions as real, as a fact of life in an organizational and global world of diverse cultures and nationalities.
Organizational boundaries are integral to social, political, professional, and cultural borders. Such boundaries delineate leaders and followers, superordinate and subordinate, horizontal and vertical structures, divisional and integrative processes, divisions of specialization and labor. Thus, social and psychological structures bump into each other. Boundaries denote the paradoxical nature of membership and separation, belonging and independence, differentiation and sameness, power and dependency, in groups and organizations. Thus, boundaries are discovered and experienced internally and externally, inside and outside groups and organizations, as chock-full of tension and conflict.
The survival, maturation, and healthy striving of humankind depends upon its capacity to engage diversity and, consequently, to traverse and negotiate boundaries in everyday life. We work and play, imagine and create at the boundary (or the space in-between us) — what Winnicott calls “the transitional and potential space.” The transitional space that exists between nurturing mothers and developing children, reality and fantasy, conscious and unconscious thinking and feeling, is the in-between space where culture, music, art, literature, poetry, compassion, and empathy are discovered. Yet in adult life as lived in groups and organizations, boundaries are frequently experienced as barriers and impediments to engaging each other or as walls
that divide and separate.
The silo mentality is a frozen metaphor, a signifier of resistance to mutuality and adaptive change. The psychological need to defend organizational boundaries is more typical than atypical. Much like the anticipated resistance to change, boundary maintenance itself is also necessary to organizational life. However, when boundaries (divisions, departments, etc.) become impassable and defensively rigid and where those dwelling in their silos withhold information and resist collaboration, we are faced with the challenge of attending to the emergence of us and them social structures, whose origins are in primitive, preverbal, surface-to-surface feelings. Thomas Ogden’s autistic-contiguous mode of experience captures this well. Here, vulnerability, paranoia, and anxiety coincide with Manichean and absolutarian thinking, transforming simple human group and organizational divisions into fragmented, polarized, and conflicted relations.
My experience as an academic psychoanalytic scholar-practitioner and organizational consultant with us and them social structures in academics, medicine, government, and corporate cultures has taught me the urgent need for transformational, self-conscious, emotionally attuned, reflective organizational leaders and cultures. In the face of past anxiety, mistrust, and paranoia, these reparative organizational leaders come to support greater collaboration across divisions, specializations, and disciplinary boundaries. More reflective and less narcissistic, these leaders redefine their formal roles and associated responsibilities as supporting and facilitating, working at the boundaries between groups, specializations, and cultures, enabling two-way communication, information sharing, and cross-functional and interdisciplinary activities. This requires dismantling silos and the silo mentality in organizations, getting rid of what might be called “social defenses” and replacing them with greater human contact, reflective learning, and a change in the status quo.
Winnicott and Ogden refer to this essential in-between area of the intersubjectivity as potential and transitional space I am describing as the “mental and psycho-geographic space between individuals, groups, organizations, and political associations.” Future leaders require emotional maturity and the capacity for containment and what Keats and Bion called “negative capability.” Global political forces and organizations necessitate leaders who are emotionally aware and appropriately self-conscious, reflective, and deep listeners, rather than loquacious self-aggrandizers and malignant narcissists. Twenty-first-century leaders must be able to assume personal responsibility for reparations between individuals, groups, and organizations. Leadership means working and playing on the edge, facilitating mutually validating work between diverse groups and between the borders or our nation-state. Here, psychoanalysis has a vital role to play beyond the consulting room. ■
Michael Diamond PhD, is professor emeritus of public affairs and organization studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Since 2016, he has been a resident of NYC, an organizational consultant and author of Discovering Organizational Identity (2017), among other books and scholarly articles, and is currently a faculty and steering committee member of the Gould Center for Psychoanalytic Organizational Study and Consultation at IPTAR, where he is an honorary member. In 2019, Michael received the award of Distinguished Member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO).
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