Wednesday 3 May 2023

Organisational Parallel Process

I have recently finished reading Time to Think. Not the (excellent) book by Nancy Kline, which I have read many times; but the newly-published one by Hannah Barnes, subtitled The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children.

Barnes is an investigative journalist with Newsnight and has interviewed many of the clinicians who worked at the Tavistock, as well as a number of the people who were treated there. It is an extraordinary story.

One thing that caught my attention particularly, right near the end of the book, was the reflection of Will Crouch a highly experienced psychologist and psychotherapist on what had gone wrong, fundamentally, at the Service. He said: 'organisations helping a certain group of people will develop symptoms that are related to the work that they do.' His hypothesis is that exposure to the concrete thinking of the young people that GIDS was trying to help became embedded in the service itself.

I found this fascinating. I have long been aware of what therapists and coaches often refer to as parallel process: that is when the therapist or coach starts to experience emotions that originate with the person they are working with, but feel as though they are their own. This is related, I think, to the idea of confluence, in Gestalt psychology, where we act on someone else's needs or desires, rather than our own. It may spring from a high degree of empathy, and a failure to maintain boundaries, or professional and personal differentiation.

But I had not considered that organisations might be subject to the same tendency.  I mentioned this to a client of mine, and it was like an aha moment for her. Early in her career, she had worked in what was then called a Mental Hospital. And she reflected that it was a mad environment: but very specifically - the organisation had taken on some of the characteristics of its most distressed patients, and they formed a rather dysfunctional organisational culture. 

In the context in which I do most of my work, that is, Higher Education, that raises interesting questions.  Increasing attention is given to the Student Voice: and in many ways, that is clearly valuable.  But this risk suggests that it is also important that the academic body maintains some differentiation, and appropriate boundaries. That, of course, will not be popular, and given the importance of the National Student Survey to Universities' reputations, it will take some courage. But, if I am right, failure to do so will result in Universities becoming increasingly aligned with the more vociferous and extreme elements of their student bodies, and that will not end well, either. 

And I fear that we are already witnessing the start of that trend, when I observe that political stances are placed above academic principles: no platforming, failure to support academics who are harassed for having the wrong views, alignment with partisan advocacy groups, discouragement of unpopular research and so on.

That is one of the reasons that I am so keen on the other Time to Think: the underlying philosophy that we should encourage people to think as themselves and for themselves, and champion diversity of viewpoints and understandings. Higher Education must be the environment in which we can discuss complex issues and explore competing strongly-held views and beliefs. And I hope and pray that Universities will continue to foster that environment.

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