Managing the symbiotic lure

The symbiotic lure permeates the practice of organizational management and change facilitation. It can also be observed by researchers when they cross the boundary of an organization and as they ‘open up’ the organization in the research process. Diamond (1988) uses the symbiotic lure as a metaphor for understanding psychological regression in organizations. It is a reaction to anxiety in which members of a group or organization “[deny] their individual differences and psychologically [merge] with each other”, often against an “other”. Leaders, when enacting effective containment, play a key role in managing the symbiotic lure to prevent its potentially devastating consequences in organizations and society.

Psychological regression

Groups may react to stressful, or traumatic, events destructively or constructively (with many variations in between). Destructive group behavior is precipitated by psychodynamics characterized by splitting and projection, creating a black-and-white world stripped of nuance and without space for critical thinking. Constructive responses to significant events are precipitated by psychodynamics characterized by mutual recognition and containment, creating a multifaceted world that promotes learning and fosters affiliation. Each of these modes of group experiencing, behaving, and acting is characterized by how the group’s members manage the complex interplay between narcissistic needs and affiliative desires, self and other, individual and social.

Psychological regression is inherent in managing the paradoxical demands and desires involved in group membership. As Diamond (1988) writes: “For Freud and Bion, psychological regression coincides with group membership – when joining a group adults may experience themselves in child-like roles. At work, individual uniqueness may need to be reconciled with relative dependency and group identity” (p. 5). The nature of  the group’s regression, and the dynamics between leaders and followers, makes a difference in whether or not groups can move towards constructive action in the face of anxiety-provoking circumstances.

Regression and the symbiotic lure

Diamond (1988) describes the power of psychological regression in groups, organizations, and society. The “symbiotic lure” is energized by the psychological regression of individual group members and manifests as a collective “pull” towards oneness (symbiosis), which eliminates uniqueness and promotes dependency. As a result, the capacity for reflection, learning, tolerance, and collaboration is compromised. The lure towards symbiosis becomes especially strong when members of a group, or organization, face psychological threats that endanger their sense of identity. It is noteworthy that the symbiotic lure can lead groups and organizations down the path of violence by creating totalizing, or absolute, environments filled with intolerance, racism, and tyranny.

Managing the symbiotic lure

Leaders play a key role in managing the forces that propel movement along and between the dimensions of group regression described above. As Diamond (1988) writes: “In part the psychological regression is informed by internal representations of self and other and in part it is influenced by organizational and managerial actions at work” (p. 9).

So how do we manage the symbiotic lure? Suppression and denial of anxiety and regressive reactions is not the answer. Rather, those working with organizational members must be able to acknowledge and manage these dynamics in order to promote the group’s “transition” from the symbiotic lure to progressive dynamics that produce reflection, appreciation of different perspectives, and learning.

Managing the symbiotic lure is accomplished when leaders are able to enact a “containing” function for organizational members and groups experiencing psychological regressions in response to anxiety provoking events. This means that the leader “holds” members’ split off aggressive feelings.

Diamond (1988) writes: “When organizational leaders fail to “contain” members’ aggression and annihilation anxieties, regressive psychodynamics pull members into symbiotic and de-differentiated relationships…In contrast, when organizational leaders and their cultures serve as effective containers of the emotional life, they come to symbolize maternal, “good enough” holding environments” (p. 10-11).

What makes leadership “good enough”?

Extending the work of Thomas Ogden and D.W. Winnicott, Stein and Allcorn (2014) describe the “good enough leader” (GEL). This leader effectively creates “good enough” organizational holding environments that contain the ebb and flow of psychological regression in organizational groups.

According to Stein and Allcorn (2014), good enough leaders are able to balance their “hard” and “soft” sides, providing a style of leadership that contains rather than controls. Striking this balance requires leaders to “listen deeply,” “create a ‘calm pond’ that allows people to focus on the task”, facilitate a safe environment that promotes trust, respect, and ethical behavior, and foster a playful environment where imagination and creativity flourish.

While these four attributes may seem obvious, the authors point out that today’s organizational environments promote a “hard” style of leadership that can make it difficult to practice GEL leadership. Beyond that, the underlying psychodynamics between leaders and followers that influence the ability to practice good enough leadership require a high level of personal development and awareness on the part of leaders.

The symbiotic lure creates an organizational context where any move towards change is smothered before it can take hold, no matter what benefit it might bring. Stein and Allcorn (2014) themselves question the sustainability of GEL leadership given that “in the face of organisational trauma, the unleashing of anxiety, and the search for simple solutions and protection via regression, enlightened and compassionate “good enough” leadership would seem to be fragile” (p. 365).

In sum

The symbiotic lure is a latent potential in every group. When it takes hold, its effects are readily observed as denial, organizational fragmentation, and societal rifts. It is a concept that helps researchers and practitioners understand the link between stress and trauma, and psychological regression in groups and organizations. Two concepts, containment and holding, offer actionable steps for moving psychologically regressed groups towards resilience. Yet, as both Diamond (1988) and Stein and Allcorn (2014) point out, effective containment, or GEL leadership, is not easy to enact.

How might organizational researchers incorporate these ideas into their research practice? One might speculate that concepts such as containment and holding can enrich our understanding of what it means to be with and empathically listen to our research participants. In doing so, we may be able to support participants’ awareness of being caught up in the symbiotic lure.

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