Understanding organizational splits

Understanding organizational dynamics is exceptionally challenging. The massive amount of data points generated in even a small organization every day, week, month, and year can seem difficult or even impossible to untangle. Immersion in a vast array of data without cognitive maps and sensemaking frameworks makes it hard to identify the critical incidents that will potentially yield insight and understanding. Adding to this complexity, the dynamics between leaders and followers, and within the organizational culture more broadly, may unfold over decades.

A longitudinal, or historical, perspective generates sensemaking frameworks that can yield insight into organizational dynamics in the present moment (see Allcorn et al., 2018). This insight can be gained by either observing the organization across time (prospectively) or by discussing with an organizational group the history of the organization, its leaders, and the experience of working in the organization over time (retrospectively). One type of dynamic that is easy to spot but complex and sometimes difficult to understand is an organizational split. A psychoanalytically informed longitudinal perspective is helpful in understanding what happened to create the split and what to do about it now.

What Are Organizational Splits?

Nations, families, and organizations all contain splits between “us and them” and “good and bad”. Organizational splits are common and readily spotted by consultants, researchers, and the people living through them. Sometimes, these splits become severe enough to be described as polarized leader-follower dynamics. Consider the following examples drawn from the authors’ experiences:

  • An executive “buddied up” with some employees (usually men), more so than others. They went out to eat, went to bars, and traveled to meetings together. Other employees, women in particular, were not invited. This split was so readily apparent it was jokingly referred to by organizational members as “the boys club”. This dynamic changed when the CEO (the leader of the group) left to take another position.
  • A consultation with a company that processed clinical laboratory specimens found that the staff in the business office were split into two groups. The conflict between them compromised billing and collection for services. The consultant learned that just before they arrived the manager had been terminated, which was traumatic for some and welcomed by others. There were hard feelings between the two groups (in and out groups) that threatened to cycle out of control if not contained and worked through by the consultant.
  • A consultation with a large private photo processing lab revealed a split between the marketing department and the manufacturing/photo processing plant (i.e. “the floor”). The new CEO, who was a former marketing executive, pursued marketing aggressively and increased the number of salespeople. As a result, the floor could not accommodate incoming work orders because of lack of equipment, training, and time – they could not deliver on the “sizzle”. Hard feelings began to develop between the two groups. The floor felt like they were being set up to fail, and the salespeople felt like the floor was not trying to meet their sales orders. Both groups felt sabotaged.
  • A large academic department was split into a large group of quantitatively-oriented researchers and a small group of qualitatively-oriented researchers. Competition for resources (funding and space) combined with strong personalities among the quantitative researchers eventually led to the quantitatively-oriented group “capturing” the department and expelling the qualitative researchers. The dean at the time avoided conflict and while not necessarily agreeing to this outcome allowed it to happen.
  • Researchers conducting an organizational study gradually became aware that one group of staff felt marginalized and the other group of staff felt entitled. The first group described the second group as arrogant, condescending, and intimidating. The second group described the first group as incompetent and uncooperative. The defining difference between the two groups? The first group included those without at least a bachelor’s degree, while the second group had advanced degrees.
  • In a study of a large behavioral health organization a clear split between clinicians and billing staff emerged across interviews. Billing staff were viewed by clinical staff as uncaring, seeing client care as just “dollar bills”. Clinicians were viewed by the billing staff as withholding and irresponsible both in not providing needed documentation and in not following the rules when it came to service delivery. Both groups were under pressure to meet revenue requirements. Conflict emerged in the billing process as billing staff demanded documentation so they could bill as much as possible and clinicians were preoccupied with meeting client care needs, even when they were not billable.
  • A research project that involved interviewing across departments of a relatively new organization permitted reconstruction of its history. Each department displayed its own “personality” and ways of working, which reflected the style of its manager. The CEO seemed uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of each department but expressed concern that conflict between the departments was degrading performance. For example, clients had reported slow delivery and low quality. Eventually, the researcher learned that the organization had been formed when several competing organizations merged. The former competitors became departments of the current organization, but their competitiveness was never replaced by a sense of unity. Competing styles of work, rhythms of service delivery, and planning windows were continuing to derail coherence and productivity.

Splitting Explained

We draw on psychoanalytic theory, specifically object relations theory, to explain “splitting” in organizational dynamics. Object relations theory, as articulated by Melanie Klein, describes splitting as a process interlinked with both denial and projection. That is, an individual may reject (deny) an aspect (or aspects) of themselves, which promotes a need to split off unwanted parts so that the self can be imagined as either all good or all bad. The split off and unwanted aspects of the self are then projected onto an “other” (individual or group) who is manipulated to meet the psychologically defensive need to get rid of undesirable personal attributes. Simultaneously, projection can create a pathological certainty that the other is a certain way (since the other is partly you). This certainty, if sustained, will leak into the interpersonal world and influence the behavior of others (individual or group).

This brief explanation illustrates how organizational splits are formed and energized to create organizational toxicity and dysfunction. The other (group, department, division) is simply “bad” and we are “good”. The other(s) are known to be, and felt to be, victimizing “me or us” by their actions. They are perhaps so offensive that intraorganizational warfare results, laying waste to collaboration, voluntary cooperation, interpersonal working relationships, and organizational resources.

How can Organizational Splits be “Healed”?

This is an exceptionally challenging question. There is no one size fits all approach. Successful interventions by consultants, executives, or managers must take into account the history and nature of the split. (The same is true for adequately constructing a depiction of the organizational story in a research account.) Organizational members should be engaged to share their thoughts and feelings. This needs to happen in a safe enough space and time (holding environment) where they can surface the history, the harm done, and their anger, fear and hurt feelings – all without worrying about reprisal.

Take, for example, a large organization with income generating divisions and a centralized billing function. The divisions have been suspicious of, and even hated the billing office as a group (and some individuals in particular) for many years. These dynamics compromised revenue generation, but the organizational fragmentation continued because of an absence of senior leadership – the top management position (CEO) had remained unfilled for many years.

Eventually, a new executive was hired. After a few weeks of observation, listening, financial analysis, and reviewing process and procedures, he concluded that the split, which was often mentioned, had to be addressed. A meeting of managers from the dozen divisions, and the manager of the billing office, was held. The new executive first explained what he thought he had learned regarding the split – the history, anger, and hard feelings. He then inquired as to whether those at the table could validate his impressions. They did. The new executive then asked those present to work together to change things going forward. The billing office manager was to lead the group and they would meet regularly.

Initially the historical issues were present enough to make progress slow, problematic, and stressful. After a few meetings, the billing office manager asked the new executive if she could stop holding the meetings. He listened, and then asked her to persist despite all the frictions and push back. He made it clear he would back her up. She trusted him enough to agree to continue. After a few more meetings she came to the executive tearfully (with relief) to report a breakthrough. During the last meeting all those participating joined in a cathartic experience where they jointly came to “know” the unsaid and unthought known – that things did not have to be this way and that everyone would benefit from a collaborative approach going forward. The conflict came to an end and the revenue stream much improved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In this example, minimal intervention by the executive resulted in a resolution to the organizational split. This is not always the case, especially when the culture and history of an organization is one of institutionalized fragmentation, with many semi-autonomous operating divisions.
Take for example, a different billing office with more than a hundred employees. In this case the people working in the billing office felt as though they were under attack from an organized group of division administrators. This dynamic was historically set up by the toxic executive who oversaw the billing office. His offensive actions and attacks evoked defensive and counter offensive responses from the division administrators. After more than a decade these dynamics had become institutionalized and to an outside observer it might have appeared to be the case that everyone liked this familiar culture of institutional warfare. The long duration and intensity of these dynamics were exceptional. The hostilities were deeply embedded in the culture.

Once again, a new executive (change agent) was handed this problem. The new executive replaced the former toxic executive who had been fired at the urging of a highly motivated group of division administrators who took pride in having “taken him out”. After coming to appreciate the history, the new executive asked the staff of the billing office to “stop throwing rocks back”. The managers of the office were essentially being asked to unilaterally disarm and there was immediate push back on this request. The new executive nonetheless insisted that they try this to see what would happen, and view it as an experiment that could be stopped at any point.
Subsequent regular meetings were filled with complaints, lists of grievances and negative feelings voiced by the managers.

After a few months of meetings like this, there came a tipping point and the managers reported that they now felt like they were taking the high road by not throwing the rocks back. They felt good about themselves in terms of rising above the longstanding hostilities and taking a stand against all the free-floating aggression. Over the next 6-12 months there was a noticeable decline in the aggression directed at the billing office from others in the organization although it never completely dissipated and there were flair ups. The working hypothesis on the part of the new executive was that it was not much fun to punch someone who did not punch back, removing a perverse sense of pleasure when continuing to attack the old familiar target was no longer fulfilling.

In Conclusion

A longitudinal perspective on organizational dynamics can yield insight into current organizational splits noticed by consultants, change agents, and researchers. Divisions (based on specialization) within organizations are necessary for efficiency, accountability, and reliability. However, these divisions increase the possibility of both structural conflict and the development of emotionally charged organizational splits. When organizational splits are energized by denial and projection, and filled with negative thoughts and feelings, they become dysfunctional and toxic to overall organizational performance. At this point, intervention is needed to prevent the destruction of collaboration, cooperation, and working relationships across the organization. Taking a longitudinal approach by facilitating the reconstruction of the history of the problematic organizational split can open a safe and reflective space where organizational members can freely explore their experiences and begin the healing process. Psychoanalytically informed executives, consultants, and action researchers, guided by experience, reflectivity and intuition, can effectively coach organizational members through this process.

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