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Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, Second Edition by MARJORIE A. LYLES, MARK EASTERBY-SMITH

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Group Emotions, Collective Dynamics, and Learning

Moving from individual to collective learning and its associated emotions, our theoretical knowledge originates in the work of Melanie Klein who identified two important mechanisms of defense against primitive anxiety—particularly the processes of ‘projecting’ bad feelings onto others and ‘splitting’ good and bad objects in order to focus on an ideal. The term primitive anxieties represents some of the overwhelming anxieties experienced by all children in early life, including fears of abandonment and betrayal, persecution, disintegration, and mutilation—which can resurface in later life in stressful situations. From these foundations, Elliott Jacques (1955) and Isobel Menzies (1960) developed a theory of the use of social systems as defenses against anxiety, arguing that, in addition to individual defenses, individuals and groups develop collective defenses against anxieties. This theory ‘makes it possible to articulate the dilemma inherent in organizational life between adherence to professed definitions of purpose, and recognition of unthought purposes . . . concerned with providing the subject with an identity—purposes which, when threatened, arouse primitive anxiety’ (Palmer, 2002: 161). When social defenses become dominant they also become dysfunctional for the organization as a whole, because defenses support organizational members’ detachment from their experience. Social defenses do initially reduce anxiety, but they also ...

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