Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Title: Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Presented at ISPSO Annual Meeting Rome 2015

In an increasingly networked world, enterprises are being expected to organise around the individual needs of the customer. This is easy to say but difficult to do. Take, for example, the challenges facing the car industry. To quote a recent McKinsey interview with Bill Ford:

“It used to be that the auto industry, and the car itself, were part of a self-contained ecosystem. If there were breakthroughs, they were developed within the industry … that’s all been turned on its head; we now have disruption coming from every angle, from the potential ways we fuel our vehicles to the ownership mode. We have a whole generation that just wants access to vehicles as opposed to ownership … the reality is that we will not own, or develop, most of the connectivity technologies involved. So we have to be a thoughtful integrator of other people’s technologies and understand where we add value.” (Kaas and Fleming 2014)

In such highly networked worlds, collaboration is the new normal. The dilemma faced by Ford is between ‘developing our own technologies’ (i.e. going it alone) and ‘integrating other people’s technologies’ (i.e. collaborating), except that Bill Ford is arguing that the former approach will no longer work. A version of this dilemma experienced by a manager would be between ‘if I develop our own technology I know I’ll have a job, but it won’t be so good for the enterprise’ and ‘if I use that technology I’ll be working myself out of a job’. For the manager, other people’s technologies will be toxic to the organisation as the manager knows it, but the point made in the interview is that such thinking by the manager will be toxic to the survival of Ford. The manager’s response to what is perceived as a toxic environment is in defence of the organisation he knows, which supports his identity as a manager. Even though the ‘bad’ choice of using other people’s technology may not be dismissed directly as being toxic, it may still be excluded because it ‘feels wrong’ despite there being arguments in its favour. Choices that are felt in this way to be toxic to the organisation are killed off not by a single act of dismissal but rather by the cumulative effects of many small exclusions, micro-aggressions against forms of thinking and behaviour that are felt to be alien. The manager, in holding on to particular ways of judging what is appropriate for the enterprise, is reflecting the affect he attaches to its way of giving meaning to his work. The construction of this containing will use concepts supported by the manager’s particular ‘feel’ for what is right, the roots of which will be in his particular unconscious relation to it aka libidinal investment in that construction. Such thinking, however, can paradoxically be toxic both to his own future and to the future of the enterprise. The libidinal economy of an enterprise may thus unconsciously kill off good ideas that are essential to the survival of the enterprise. Working psychoanalytically in an enterprise to prevent such ‘murders’ therefore demands a ‘forensic’ way of working, in which careful attention must be paid to the way such dilemmas are contained, or not. This involves questioning the affects unconsciously attached to existing constructions that link them to their consequences for the enterprise – ‘forensic’ because the motives of such ‘murders’ are never obvious! The paper explores the difficulties encountered in challenging existing libidinal investment in particular ways of organising – the libidinal economy of an enterprise. To do this, it examines an example of an enterprise that stood accused of toxic thinking, in this case of institutional racism.

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