Lacanian Theory and its Relation of Organization Change:  A Synthesis

 

 

 

 By Dhruv Sharma, Independent scholar, Arlington VA

 

 

 Lacanian theory provides great insight into the inner workings of individual psychology and desire.  Along with its conceptualization of the ‘Big A Other’ it provides dialectic to explore group and organizational desire.

 

We begin by symbolizing the organizational change ontology from a social constructivist viewpoint into Lacanian terms.  Followed by an area not covered in standard Lacanian psychology and conclude by examining a metaphor change from the Lacanian viewpoint.

 

Using Watzlawick's characterization of change, we can view Organizational Change as efforts to alter the world image of reality in the minds of organizational members and providing them with a language to evolve the altered reality with their own authorship in an empowered manner (Watzlawick, 1978).

 

Under this view of organizational change, in Lacanian terms "change" is analogous to desire where the desired change or end vision is really the leadership team's ‘objet petit small a’, which means the gap or what is missing, i.e the object of desire.  Lacan defines the ‘objet petit small a’ as the desire for the impossible that one knows they cannot obtain (Zizek, 38).  In this framework leaders claim they want change but their behaviors subvert the very change, as their aim is different.  As Lacanian theory suggests anxiety is actually caused by getting closer to the desire object as obtaining it will end the desire (Zizek, 8).  In Lacanian psychology the goal of desire is to perpetuate itself.  So if desire is about to be fulfilled, this creates anxiety, as it will result in the loss of desire itself.  A simple example of this would be a leader asking for empowerment in the organization but who really does not want empowerment, as empowerment would reduce his/her control.  What the leader in this example really wants is to talk about empowerment to get better results which in their mind would be the result of his/her individual "leadership", i.e. the act of emphasizing ‘empowerment’.  Actually achieving true empowerment in one sense is impossible to one’s own satisfaction.  We, organizational change scholars, need take a step back and look at our own desire for empowered change, which comes of its own accord.  Our desire expressed in the vision form of empowerment represents an impossible goal, which we do not acknowledge and we continue in our efforts perpetuating our collective change philosophy.  Change thus becomes the OD community's fantasy.  It is hard to achieve and results in a lot of movement, work, and repetition of frameworks, which Lacan would say is its true aim to perpetuate the work of change (21).

 

Lacan's framework of desire, the individual ‘objet petit small a’ emphasizing the self-reflexive nature of desire and fantasy leaves out the causation which supports this cycle.  The existence of these fantasies pertains to the creation, act of empowerment in the OD change sense, of a reality that exists as a figure in the ground of the 'real' as defined by the ‘big other A’ (Zizek,47).  The ‘big other A’ is the symbolic order or rituals and culture defined by 'real' world, for example what other people think/value i.e. the intersubjective community (Zizek 76).  By us being embedded in the ‘big other A’ it is no surprise change agents find themselves going native or being forced to use language and meaning of the ‘big other A’ which to OD scholars is organizational 'culture'.  In Lacanian theory, actors in a social setting all play the game of the ‘big other A’ must not know and by doing so create distance and privacy (Zizek, 49).  Of course Lacan admits the ‘big other A’ is a deception but it is one without a master architect or controller, as in such a dialectic no one person has full control over other people's fantasies or reality (Zizek, 76).  As such this is the empowerment that OD scholars wish to impart on people, the ability to one’s own fantasies or reality construction.  From a Lacanian viewpoint a change specialist is like a psychological analyst or detective who makes the impossible possible by telling people ‘what is really happening’ and constructing a narrative story which can be used to change construction or dialogue in the ‘big other A’, to allow for more fantasies than one totalitarian fixed view (Zizek, 130).  In systems where the ‘big other A’ is seen as a deception, via deconstruction for example, results in a sense of 'loss of reality' which people fill by clinging to some superego voice (Zizek, 130).  I find this aspect especially interesting as I recently posited a metaphor of change based on comic book superheroes.  In this sense my construction of the work superhero identity as an empowering tool to create meaning was an example of clinging to the superego to give meaning to a sterile and meaningless work environment of a top down hierarchical financial institution where the ‘big other A’ reality is focused on the value of assets and not humans as assets. 

            The interplay of fantasy and desire is fueled by transference which Lacan points out is not controlled (Zizek, 76).  Often feelings which individuals experience, like love or sudden changes of desire, are produced by the ‘big other A’ (76).  Of course as the ‘big other A’ does not exist this attribution itself as causal is again a transference onto ‘the big other A’ (76).  In the OD context of desire for change is represented as ‘objet petit small a’, culture is represented by the ‘big other A’, then the counterpart to actual change is transference.

            Thus from a Lacanian standpoint we OD scholars simply attempt to develop fantasies of empowerment in the mind of employees, workers or managers.  These fantasies of empowered employees working in bureaucratic top down hierarchies led by control-addicted leaders are our fantasy.  It is interesting that postmodernism fits in neatly into this paradigm as it attempts to make individuals aware of the deception of the ‘big other A’ resulting in a loss of reality, which we hope to replace it with the empowerment of authorship of one's own fantasy reality.  Of course no one likes to lose their sense of reality to an external force, even if they did not author it themselves to begin with.  Usually when 'change', paid for by organizations, ‘works’ it is due to desperation and in situations where things are bad enough to make people want different fantasies.  It is not enough to have fantasy as a figure in the ground of the ‘big other A’ reality, as one still cannot talk about the fantasy and develop it in a way to affect other people's fantasies.  For a fantasy to be helpful it must not only exist but exist in a healthy synthesis with the ‘big other A’ reality.  A synthesis of fantasy that can be talked about and shared and evolve with changing needs is healthy as compared to a fragmented fantasy, which is sheer escapism from the ‘real’, acting simply as an opposing dual.  A healthy synthesis of the fantasy, language, mapping to the ‘big other A’ reality is needed for healthy individual functioning.  The fantasy must allow individuals to act on their values and also synthesize with intersubjective fantasies as humans are necessarily social creatures, as evidence by the existence of language itself.  Creating a synthesis of individual fantasies with dialectic of communication with the ‘big other A’ is thus important.  Such a synthesis of individual fantasy, culture aka ‘big other A’, action, and language is something that religions have seamlessly provided over time.  It is a shame that some reductionist minded followers have essentialized the nuanced healthy synthesis of individual dreams and collective dreams.  As Joseph Campbell best stated "myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths".  We as OD scholars and change agents are concerned with developing individual fantasies, imparting skills that allow skillful fantasy adaptation in the minds of the employees, and also in shaping the public dreams of the ‘big other A’ culture, allowing for a healthy synthesis or communication between organizational members with their own collective narrative reality, which for OD scholars is involves us chasing our own fantasy of empowerment.

            Perhaps we are all kids in a playground coming up with stories and games to play where we each belong as the subject in a loving and generative play with the ‘big other A’ of ourselves.  I would like to conclude the synthesis of Lacanian psychology and OD by turning to the Lacanian concept of the gaze.  The gaze is “the point in the object where we can see the subject viewing the object gazed at” (Zizek, 125).  The gaze is thus ‘the viewed image [in which the subject] ‘sees itself seeing’” and per Lacan is “the very illusion of the perfect self-mirroring” (Zizek 114).   In this sense the gaze is the view of the employees viewing the ‘big other a’ and in our context of us viewing ourselves viewing culture change.  The gaze itself is an object and prevents us from viewing ourselves from a safe objective distance (Zizek 125).  I hope this article will help OD scholars see our own gaze not from an objective distance but from a closer point.  Lacan points out that the gaze itself can become the object of desire and it is a self-mirroring fascination that loses its charm once we become aware of it.  Thus it too runs on a deception of us not noticing our fascination with our gaze.  Thus our OD gaze is something we do or have but we do not notice it and once we notice it we lose interest in it until we form another gaze, which again we do not acknowledge.  An example of analyzing the OD gaze is Srinivas’s work which is a meta-analysis of OD and its implicit values (1994, Srinivas).  With the OD gaze in mind we as OD scholars can see why OD techniques of 'mentioning unmentionables', pioneered by Argyris, is effective because by objectizing the gaze of the subject on the object we are able to loosen the subject's interest in a particular gaze (Schwarz, 2002).  Of course gaze and transference are not controllable and require skillful use of fantasy construction techniques and symbolization through language such as stories, metaphor listening, and dialogues.  Great example of OD techniques that help open dialogue between individual and big other A are Quinn’s 'Voice of the organization' technique, from Deep Change, and McWhinney’s remythologizing approach, from his article entitled “How remythologizing can revitalize organizations”. Both techniques tackle the communication of ‘objet petit a’, the ‘big other A’, and transference.

 

Thus with Lacan’s help we can see that OD not only helps author fantasies of empowerment, and thus helps OD scholars perpetuate our fantasizes about change, but also helps create a dialogue between individuals and culture which is an necessary synthesis of fantasy of the individual and organization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Campbell, Joseph. (1987) on The Power of Myth. Source: http://www.mythsdreamssymbols.com/campbell.html.

 

McWhinney, W. & Batista, J. (1990). "How remythologizing can revitalize organizations." Organizational Dynamics (Aug): 46-58.

 

Quinn, R.E. (1996) Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. Jossey-Bass.  San Francisco.

 

Schwartz, R (2002).  The Skillful Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

 

Srinivas, K. (1992), "Organizational development: Maya or Moksha", in Kanungo, R. (Eds),Work Motivation: Models for Developing Societies, Sage, New Delhi

 

Watzlawick, P. (1978). The language of change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication. NY: W. W. Norton

 

Zizek, Slavoj (1992). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. MIT Press. London