Project Management Institute

The aid for overcoming transition state

psychodrama in an organizational context

Alexander Lesnevsky, PhD, PMP

Association of Psychoanalytic Coaching

Many companies are in a transition state nowadays. The reasons are various: mergers and acquisitions, striving for better culture in order to improve personnel engagement, multicultural issues, and so forth. In most cases, the level of anxiety among personnel becomes higher when an organization enters a transition state. This, in turn, sharpens existing hidden conflicts and creates new ones. In this context, one may say that a transition state is the source of additional risks.

How can a leader in such an organization deal with this problem? In many cases, communicating new organizational goals, new values, and a new mission—in other words, a new culture—is not enough, even if we turn to people's emotions. Almost every leader has encountered a situation when even massive propaganda for a corporate culture did not work. Moreover, at some point, a leader may discover that old conflicts were just buried for some time until they burst. Why? One of the possible answers is: because emotional tension brings the unconscious into play. Hence, one of the possible aids in the transition state could be the one that has a capacity for working with unconscious.

The objective of this paper is to introduce psychodrama in an organizational context—sociodrama—as an aid to organizations and/or project teams in overcoming a transition state.

The learning objective of the corresponding session is to learn how to stage sociodrama and how to apply this technique to project teams.

Prologue

About a year ago, I had suggested to HR managers of Sberbank Technology to stage sociodrama. The goal was to gain some insights on how to embrace the new values and culture of the Sberbank group. We agreed upon the format and were very close to start, but at that moment, the HR team completely changed (Sberbank Technology is an extremely dynamic organization). New managers responded to me in February of this year, and in June, we staged our first sociodrama. The head of one of the project management departments who came to the first event asked me, “Is it correct that those who participate in your performance gradually change their behavior?” I answered, “Yes. Happy people behavior makes a difference.” “Ok,” said the manager, “then my employees will lose their professional deformation and they will not be able to survive in our aggressive environment. They will be eaten up.” Saying these words, he had quit our session. It spoiled a little bit of the subsequent staging, but nevertheless, my colleagues and I from the Association of Psychoanalytic Coaching staged our first sociodrama in Sberbank Technology. Our client was a young woman from the HR department who was responsible for personnel training. During the sharing (see below, the sociodrama structure), she said that the staging we had performed with her was a valuable experience.

The Problem

Immunity to Change

Sberbank Technology, as a part of huge and highly hierarchical Sberbank, is a typical organization in a transition state. The transition state, in turn, is entered when adaptive challenge is ahead and there is the need for adaptive changes.

Heifetz (2014) distinguishes between technical and adoptive challenges. Technical challenge is about doing what you already know, using existing pathways, and applying some technical remedies; while adaptive challenge requires learning new ways and full engagement of the people. If a company cannot withstand an adoptive pressure, it loses the market and, finally, the whole business.

Adoptive challenges switch on our immunity to change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Immunity to change tends to keep things pretty much as they are. In everyday life, immunity to change protects us and makes it possible to do things in a standard, proven way. But it becomes a major problem when there is the need to solve the challenge adaptively.

Kegan and Lahey (2009) suggested a practical method—an immunity map—intended to help overcome immunity to change. See Exhibit 1 as an example of an immunity map (Wikipedia, 2015).

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Exhibit 1: An example of an immunity map (Wikipedia, 2015).

This self-reflective exercise helps in transforming people's way of thinking. There are certain limitations of the method though. The first one is that the method works primarily with our rational layer while our emotions are addressed to a very small extent. The second is that it does not take into account group dynamics. According to W. Bion (1948), every group comprises the work group whose functioning is targeted at the primary working task of the group and the basic-assumption group, which bears tacit and maybe even unconscious assumptions of the group. These assumptions interfere with the primary task of the group.

Emotional Leadership

Work is a very important part of our life. More than that, I would say that project management is a more emotional profession in comparison to many others. As Orbach puts it:

…once we acknowledge the centrality of work, what can we do to increase our emotional understanding of what happens to us at work: what we do there, what gets aroused, what perplexes us, what infuriates us and what kinds of muddles do we get into that need attention so that we are not involved in hopeless battles, a diminished sense of authority and feelings of fury and depression. (2008, p. 15)

Making things happen in project management implies a necessary level of aggressiveness in a project manager's character. Generally speaking, leadership is aggressive by nature. It's easy to imagine what would happen if, on one hand, a leader is not aggressive enough and, on the other hand, immunity to change is strong, or if the aggressiveness of a leader increases to an unhealthy level. All of these most likely happen when adoptive changes take place because the level of emotional tension during this period increases and behavioral patterns have a hallmark of unconscious. The “dark side of leadership” (Bértholo, 2012, p. 358) comes into play.

What technique could be used as an aid in organizations during the transition state, when they encounter an adaptive challenge? As we've seen from above, the technique shall address:

  • Group dynamics,
  • Emotional level, and
  • Unconscious behavioral patterns.

My goal is not to analyze all the possible techniques, but focus on one of them—sociodrama.

Psychodrama and Sociodrama

Psychodrama was developed by Jacob L. Moreno between 1917 and 1925, and was originally used in psychotherapy. But, very soon, it became obvious that psychodrama could be used in business, professional training, and other non-clinical fields. In essence, psychodrama is a play directed by a trained psychodramatist. It is also desirable that some of the actors in a play are trained in psychodrama. The psychodramatic client comes up with an issue manifesting an internal conflict, suggests the scene to play, selects actors for the roles, and selects a role for himself. The scene is played and followed up by reflection on what happened. As a result, in most cases, the client has some insights on his internal conflict and gradually, the behavior of a client changes.

Sociodrama may be defined as a group method where collective experience, issues, and feelings are shared in action. According to Moreno and Moreno:

The difference between psychodrama and sociodrama is one of structure and objective. Psychodrama deals with a problem in which a single individual or a group of individuals are privately involved. Whereas sociodrama deals with problems where the collective aspect of the problem is put in the foreground, the individual's private relation is put in the background. The two cannot, of course, be neatly separated. (1969, p. 270)

Basically, there are two different schools of sociodrama (Kellerman, 1992, 2007). The first suggests that sociodrama should deal with the group as a whole; the second focuses on an individual as a representative of common themes of the entire group. We used the second approach with the setting comprising three acts of the stage:

Act 1 - “As is” – how the client thinks and feels about his issue at the beginning.

Act 2 - “Resemblance” – The idea behind this act is to play something from client's childhood; for instance, relationships in his family. This association possibly produces an insight about the current issue.

Act 3 - “To be” – Having a possibly new understanding of his issue, the client suggests a new scenario.

The whole setting looks like this:

  1. Five to twenty participants, from whom about five are actors, the others are observers;
  2. Staging is conducted in a mid-size hall with movable chairs;
  3. Time frame is about one-and-a-half hours;
  4. Short warm up. Participants get acquainted with each other.
  5. One of the participants, “the client,” comes up with a personal issue related to work.
  6. The sociodramatist discusses with the client the scenario for Act 1 to be staged.
  7. The client selects actors for the roles in scenario. He also selects the role for himself in Act 1.
  8. We play Act 1. The actors play spontaneously according to their roles. The time frame for Act 1 is 5–10 minutes.
  9. Reflection and sharing. 5–10 minutes.
  10. Steps 6–9 are repeated for Acts 2 and 3. The closing is a sharing exercise, which usually takes more time.

Conclusion

Sociodrama is one of the possible techniques that could be used to help organizations in overcoming a transition state when they deal with an adoptive challenge. The same technique could be applied to project teams when they are stuck in emotional outbursts. Sociodrama addresses an emotional layer of the participants and is very effective for working with group dynamics and unconscious behavioral patterns. I've received positive feedback from participants at Sberbank Technology and other companies. Further elaboration of the technique is needed to explore it in various environments.

Bértholo, J. (2012). The shadow in project management. 26th IPMA World Congress 2012, Crete, Greece.

Bion, W. R. (1948). Experiences in groups. London, UK: Routledge.

Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow. (2014). Adaptive leadership: The Heifetz collection. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kegan, R. (2015, May 9). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Kegan

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Kellerman, P. F. (1992). Focus on psychodrama: The therapeutic aspects of psychodrama. London, UK and Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kellerman, P. F. (2007). Sociodrama and collective trauma: The therapeutic aspects of psychodrama. London, UK and Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Moreno J. L., & Moreno, Z. T. (1969). Psychodrama, vol. 3. New York, NY: Beacon House.

Moreno, J. L., & Fox, J. (Eds.). (1987). The essential Moreno: Writings on psychodrama, group method, and spontaneity. London, UK: Springer Publishing Company.

Orbach, S. (2008). Work is where we live: Emotional literacy and the psychological dimensions of the various relationships there. Emotion, Space and Society 1(2008), 14–17.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, Alexander Lesnevsky
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA

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