MONDAY 10 MAY 1999


Larry Hirschhorn, a leading exponent and practitioner of psychodynamic consulting, will offer a masterclass where he will


* present his current thinking on organisational work

* discuss his consulting approaches

* consult to participants' consulting assignments


The day is designed to be of practical value to consultants, change agents, HR practitioners and managers of organisational change projects.


Larry Hirschhorn is a principal consultant with the Centre for Applied Research in Philadelphia. He teaches on the Ashridge Masters in Organization Consulting and the William Alanson White Institute's Program in Organizational Development and Consulting in New York City. He has published numerous articles and books on organization consulting including The Workplace Within, Managing in the New Team Environment, The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Reworking Authority.



The masterclass will be held 10.00 am - 5.30 pm at The Tavistock Institute, 30 Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4DE, a central London venue easily accessible by public transport.




Notes on LARRY HIRSCHHORN masterclass, London, 10th May 1999


There were around 25 participants seated in a circle in the basement of the Tavistock building in Tabernacle street. (a high proportion of independent consultants specialising in people and change, plus a scattering of internal HR/OD people from organisations including BT, Mercury, Aer Lingus, Arthur Andersen, Police and NHS trust. I knew 6 of the other participants (Fiona, Tessa, Steve, Angela, Kamil and Richard).


Larry struck me as a quiet, patient and kind man who gently throughout the day coached us using his own stories, case examples and examples from us.


He began giving us one slide that summarised all his thinking. It contained both his Tavistock derived thoughts and more recent thinking.


See below:



First the Tavistock thinking is

         every organisation and team has a PRIMARY TASK = a reason for existence, an answer to the "what are we here for" question

         with this task comes a set of RISKs which ...

         ....if properly managed and spread through LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY and appropriate STRUCTURE, then people in the organisation get on with their WORK and experience FLOW and fulfilment and follow the RULEs.


The LEADERSHIP challenge is to manage and spread the risk using appropriate structure, enabling people to get on with the work to achieve the primary task.


If the RISK is NOT properly managed, that is through INADEQUATE AUTHORITY, people experience inside them an overwhelming ANXIETY which they are only able to contain through SOCIAL DEFENCES, (such as dysfunctional procedures, rigidities, meeting processes, happy hour clubs and social supports...) which keep them from doing the work, reinforces itself, further undermines authority but contains the anxiety.


Ineffective leadership asks people to take up risks not within their domain of judgement, influence, competence eg. over empowerment and leads to social defences.


Example: chewing gum salespeople, not selling enough, leader revises the commission structure to strengthen incentive. This just loads more risk onto them. They have little influence and need product enhancements, advertising etc.


So the core Tavistock idea is that what you experience inside (anxiety or flow) is a representation of the structure outside and when ANXIETY is chronic, over time there develops a SOCIAL DEFENCE of which people may not be aware.


Example: ask people about the meetings they have. They often say there is a ritual, an agenda which addresses the easy issues, but the hard issues are never discussed. Over time the hard issues become undiscussable, and the meeting ritual of agenda etc has become a social defence preventing their discussion. A Social Defence is equivalent to a symptom in psychoanalysis: it is unsatisfying, persistent, a source of unhappiness which is there for the reason that it does some work on your behalf.


That's about all that Tavistock thinking traditionally covers. Larry has more recently moved his thinking into some new areas. He finds the Tavistock thinking most appropriate to a stable world, where there is a stable total risk and you spread it by dividing it up into jobs.


We are now in a POST INDUSTRIAL/KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY, of turbulent environments and instability. In today's world organisations are encountering strategic inflection points where the primary task is no longer self-evident and there are questions of "What business are we in?". This leads to 2 big new concepts on Larry's one slide: PRIMARY RISK and PASSION.


PRIMARY RISK is the risk associated with changing from one PRIMARY TASK to ANOTHER. (Eg. US Police force changing from Law Enforcement to Crime Prevention/Community Policing). It involves a whole new attitude, a new set of core competencies and performance measures etc. Actually when these inflection points occur, you usually find that both the old and the new primary task have always existed and the change actually represents an inversion of foreground and background: police have always been interested in crime prevention, but just more interested in law enforcement. Now the priorities are reversed and crime enforcement becomes foreground.


Larry refers in a paper on Primary Risk to Freud's model of mourning in which a person does not complete their mourning until they acknowledge their hateful feelings towards the other person who has died, thus relinquishing the person or object that we loved. Until this happens the hate is introjected and held inside and the person berates themself. (Eg. the widow who loved her husband continues to mourn until she is able to acknowledge what an obstinate cantankerous old so and so he was!).


Consulting to the Primary Risk involves:

         interpreting figure/ground relationship

         interpreting how ambivalent feelings about task in background are undermining performance of task now in foreground

         helping the client let go of the hate/antipathy they feel toward background task

         constructing a vital figure/ground relationship that makes business sense and enables client to attend to both tasks appropriately.


Primary Risk carries into the strategy formulation and change management arena all the Tavistock thinking. We find the same questions of anxiety, structure, leadership, social defence. We also find the notion of TRANSITIONAL OBJECT, the teddy bear to hold, (Winnicott?) which helps to contain the anxiety (examples of Transitional Objects include the Gantt Chart, the Change Programme, or the Consultancy team).


The choice of Primary Task needs to be connected to people's PASSION.


PASSION is increasingly a question for organisations in the post-industrial economy. It is energy, power, limitless. It provides also pain and a capacity to endure difficulty. It is linked to impossible tasks. It is what you experience when you step up to the boundary. It involves feeling the risk and the excitement of the whole enterprise. Just as with the question of risk, there is the question of how is passion distributed - is it confined to a few who qualify by virtue of age and grade eg. the board? Leaders tend to be afraid of passion because it can subvert their authority eg. leader frightened by power of the skunkworks. Leaders themselves can be bored and can cut themselves off from passion. Passion can through contesting authority, lead to the truly developmental culture that many of us yearn for and feel to be sustainable.


Passion is bound up with the questions of "What gives you energy?", "What takes it away?" Passion is about everyone experiencing the edge, the fine line between success and failure. Over-empowerment experiments may be attempting to release passion but fail and create crippling anxiety and social defences. Passion, like anxiety can be channelled into work or into social defence.


We explored a case example of a firm which wanted to be entrepreneurial and needed to tap into its talent. There was an old boys' network which inhibited men and women working together. There were few women at the top. The old boys' network was leaned on to deliver passion, leaving women out.


This generated some passion in our group through which we learned that CHAOS is linked to PASSION. Passion is the lighting of individual fires, taking the risks of breaking rules and seeing where it goes. This in Larry's view is very bound up with questions of sexuality, men and women in his words "working up against one another", and, in psychoanalytic terms, the equivalent is the breaking of the incest taboo in the family.


Fiona spoke about gender questions in organisations often adding up to an older, dominant person who is male working with a younger less dominant person who is female, which produces a slipping into predictable previously known gender roles and behaviours that may not be the most appropriate for the work...or something like that...anyway it made me think about how we are working together in the Home Office, and the risk of falling into unequal and inhibiting roles.


The morning was largely spent on how as consultants we do DIAGNOSIS: you start from the outside in, drawing the widest possible circle, looking at the whole organisation in its environment and how risk and passion is being managed and distributed. You then work inwards to the centre of the circle to find the social defence - the behaviour that is probably both bizarre and obvious, keeping people away from the primary task. You write up a WORKING NOTE to capture your thinking and circulate this in the management team as the kicking off point for discussion at a retreat.


The afternoon was spent on HOW WE CONSULT with our clients. People took turns to sit at the front in a pair playing out consultant/client discussion. There was a long silence and a reluctance each time for anyone to come forward. In the end we had time for 3 mini-consultations. Fiona volunteered to be client, Angela was her consultant, with Home Office as the topic. Then we had Meg as client with Richard as consultant, with a culture change as topic and finally Claire and Tessa with NHS trust.


In each case we were learning both about the case, using diagnostic concepts from the morning and about the consulting. The consulting lessons seemed to be:

1. What is the client's central question? (Eg. Why am I feeling disabled?)

2. Join the client to find the "task in their central question".(Eg. How do I find my authority?)

3. When you have completed 1 & 2, move the discussion towards practical action


At the end of the day I was struck by the centrality of ANXIETY and PASSION in all that we had discussed. I was also struck by the undiscussability of these words, these inner experiences in everyday organisational life. I found it easier to talk about risk, and risk management, than anxiety for example. Someone mentioned that EQ is becoming useful as making some of this inner stuff more easily discussable. Kamil invited me to think about SHAME and how this links with my questions about undiscussability. I still haven't figured this one out.


Finally reading Larry's book (The Workplace Within) but not much touched on during the day is the important idea of REPARATION or healing. In a nutshell this says that when anxiety has become unbearable we all do something called SPLITTING, in which we take in, identify with or INTROJECT the GOOD elements, and PROJECT the BAD elements onto others (this comes from Melanie Klein I think). Larry describes this as the source of evil in the world. Splitting represents the anger and blame part of the Kubler Ross bereavement curve and it cuts us off from the other person onto whom we project. The healing or reparation process involves a movement through shame and depression leading to taking initiative to restore contact with, valuing and including once again the other person.


In the today's post-industrial era, the great hope is that as we step towards the boundary of our organisations, we re-contact others outside. This represents reparation, healing and the source of passion, energy and renewal.


I'm now interested in how these ideas apply particularly in the Home Office to people's over the wall field visits (reparation?) and to the changing role of the civil servant from "wiping ministers noses" to "delivering aims" (primary risk). Holding to the old world seems to be bound up with anxiety, chronic disconnection from passion (social defence), inability to grieve and the leadership challenge is somehow to do with containing the anxiety attached to the changing primary task. This week's top team workshop in the Home Office should be interesting.


I'm also re-evaluating my Relationship Management work in Pearl in these terms, and considering what is the consultant's role in Reparation, managing Primary Risk during change, releasing Passion, undermining authority and moving organisations towards developmental cultures. Aren't we also being Transitional Objects wherever we work?


Tony Page

19th May 1999