Managing to engage with not knowing

The Capacity to Contain and the Capacity for Thinking

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The Capacity to Contain and the Capacity for Thinking
We have suggested above that liquid modernity presents leaders with a situation in which keeping organisational members ‘on task’ can be a significant challenge. The leader’s desire to achieve the organisation’s task is not enough on its own. In addition, thoughtful leaders need to be able to contain the tendency to disperse energy into inappropriate emotion and activity.
Bion’s practice as an analyst suggests how such containment might be achieved. It is captured in his idea of ‘patience’ and his borrowing from Keats of the idea of ‘negative capability’ (Bion 1970: 125; French, 2001; Simpson, French and Harvey, 2002). In order to engage with the anxiety inherent in the psychoanalytic encounter, he proposed a stance based on listening and waiting that allows thoughts to ‘evolve’, rather than a flight into activity and telling. He emphasised a detachment from results that was almost the diametric opposite of the urgent drive for results (or activity for its own sake), which was demonstrated by the senior manager in our first illustration above.
Clearly, translating such an attitude into the context of organisational leadership is problematic. In a society as oriented towards action, performance and results as ours, and driven by speed and growth, the idea of encouraging leaders to wait, listen and absorb smacks of being out of touch with the ‘Real World’. However, Bion’s advocacy of this disposition was both thoroughly practical and firmly grounded on his understanding of the most basic foundations of human development. He identified the human capacity to contain emotion on behalf of self and other as the central mechanism in the evolution of thought, transforming chaotic, uncertain and disturbing experiences and emotions into something bearable and manageable.
Bion wrote of the infant’s inherent ‘capacity for toleration of frustration’, which differs between individuals (see, for example, 1967: 112). In everyday language, when we call a baby ‘contented’, we are pointing to a high level of this containing capacity. The root metaphor underlying the words ‘content’, ‘contain’ and ‘capacity’ is the same: that of ‘holding’. ‘Contented’ babies are able to ‘hold’ or ‘contain’ minor discomforts for themselves, without complaining or appealing for help. On the other hand, we call fractious babies ‘difficult’, presumably because we have to do more of the work of containment on their behalf.
This notion of ‘the contented baby’, therefore, links everyday language and psychoanalytic theory: we are all born with our own ‘capacity to contain frustration’, a greater or lesser natural disposition for managing emotion within ourselves. The fate or evolution of this capacity is then determined in relationship with the infant’s parents or carers; that is, in what Winnicott called the ‘facilitating environment’ (Winnicott, 1990). Nurture or its lack – through physical and emotional neglect, even abuse – determines whether a contented baby remains so or becomes ‘difficult’, and whether a ‘difficult’ baby settles and becomes ‘content’. Thus, human development, including the development of the capacity to tolerate frustration, occurs in relationship. This idea is central to much of the post-Freudian evolution of psychoanalysis: ‘the foundation for subsequent healthy development is not laid in the satisfaction of instincts but in the imparting to the infant that he is “a person”, valued and enjoyed as such by his mother’ (Sutherland, 1980: 841).
Bion’s work on the development of the ‘capacity for thinking’ follows from this notion of inter-personal containment. It is of particular relevance in understanding the development of thought in organisational contexts. He proposed that at the point where the infant’s inner capacity to deal with the difficulties of life is inadequate, the mother is able, through her own capacity, to absorb his distress. By means of what Bion called the mother’s ‘capacity for reverie’ (the equivalent of the analyst’s ‘patience’), she can take in and ‘understand’ his emotional states and, on the basis of this understanding, do for him whatever is needed. This may be quite practical, like feeding or changing. However, it may also be that he needs to be ‘held’, not just physically, but in her understanding or by her ‘love’. It is as if the mother can ‘think’ her baby’s thoughts for him – or, from the baby’s perspective, one might say that he ‘puts ideas into her mind’, ideas he cannot yet think for himself.
This idea may be more familiar than it at first seems. Even as adults, for example, when something is too much for us, we say we “can’t take it in”. Bion’s insight (following Melanie Klein) was that when a baby cannot ‘take in’ what is happening to him, he pushes it out instead, relying on another, primarily his mother, to ‘take in’ to herself, via her reverie, his distress. By taking in his distress or his inability to know what is happening to him, she understands it for him and can transform this understanding into thought and action. It is this fundamental, interpersonal model for transforming thought that is so relevant to current organisational experience. It describes the relationship between the capacity for the containment of emotion and the transformation into thought and action that can result. In Bion’s view, this relationship between emotion and thought is basic not only to the work of psychoanalysis but to all human activity. The ability to act – that is, to move out – is dependent on the ability to receive or to take in: ‘there is a relationship between the ability (the capacity) to hold or to hold in and the ability to do something.’ (Hopkins, 1997: 488; italics in original.)
The point is well illustrated in a paper on leadership in the prison service (Abbott, 2000), which is reminiscent of Harry’s ‘listening’ to his staff in the example given earlier. In this paper, Abbott emphasises the benefits to be gained from the Prison Governor ‘walking the landings’ of the prison and meeting people ‘where they actually work’. In effect, he outlines the potential for creating a space where ‘old thoughts’ can become ‘new thoughts’ through the mobilisation of patience. Although his description does include some active verbs – for example, ‘the opportunity to do casual management casework’ – the overwhelming sense is of Abbot observing and listening which in itself leads to transformation. He talks, for example, of ‘the opportunity to be seen’, and says, “Above all else it [walking the landings] provides the opportunity to feel the institution and having felt it to work with and on the feeling. The task is to absorb the emotion and thus allow people to take up their role free of negative emotion, which detracts from their performance. Often just being there will remove the emotion. Often just listening to the anger will move it.’ (Abbott, 2000: 4; all italics added.)
In a similar sense, Armstrong emphasises the positive potential of receiving and working on emotion in this way: ‘it seems to me that emotion in organisations – including all the strategies of defence, denial, projection, and withdrawal – yield intelligence. And it is because they yield intelligence in this way that they may be worth our and our clients’ close attention.’ (Armstrong, 2005: 93.) Abbott’s description makes it clear that the value and outcomes of exercising leadership in this way – that is, from paying close attention to and containing emotions in the organisation – are not only to be measured in terms of practical actions. There may indeed be immediate work to be done and important information to be gained that will translate into new strategies or practices. However, ‘just being there’ and ‘just listening’ may be enough to do the work of thoughtful leadership. It is as if by mobilising his or her reverie, to use Bion’s term, the thoughtful leader can make a significant contribution to keeping organisational members ‘on task’.

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