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The shadow side of learning, leadership and culture in emergency services organisations


Long, S and Marin, F and Owen, C, The shadow side of learning, leadership and culture in emergency services organisations, The 2019 Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations Conference, 24-30 June 2019, New York, pp. 1-17. (2019) [Refereed Conference Paper]

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This paper discusses and analyses observed dynamics of learning, leadership and culture in emergency services organisations in Australia where a number of unconscious basic assumptions, social defenses and archetypes have been identified. As researchers, consultants and practitioners we draw on our collective experiences in these organisations to examine the interplay of tensions and contradictions in the role of emergency services leaders and their constituencies (communities and the politicians they serve). Our work comes predominantly from fire services. Here we explore some ways in which what constitutes or is perceived as "good" leading and managing in emergency events is often embedded in collectively held unconscious beliefs below the surface.

We wish to emphasise that we are concerned with organisational culture and its shadow side, not the individuals, most of whom work under stressful conditions for the good of others.

In addition, the paper explores, with examples, some of the leader/ follower archetypes that play out in emergency services arenas and how these influence team dynamics. Many tensions and forces become evident as some leaders of emergency services organisations try to shift to an interplay between what has been described as command and control leadership versus collaborative leadership approaches. Such a perspective requires the depressive position where polarities and paradoxes are accepted and worked with (Smith and Berg, 1997). The ways in which social defenses lead to collective forgetting will also be discussed.

The paper examines how unintended effects of what people learn informally translate into culture and emerge as identity-based roles. Learning is most often thought of in terms of formal skills or knowledge acquisition; what is learned in courses, programs and on the job. It also occurs informally, incidentally, vicariously and collectively. Such informal learning comes through the history of experiences organisation members have both individually and collectively as they go about their work. It forms our social systems and organisational cultures. The shadow side of learning emerges when people learn what is valuable to them and their groups: what is "in it for them" - in the sense of what is necessary for survival, what fulfils desires, what defends against anxieties and, in more positive ways satisfies their curiosity and life energies. Such learning is expressed in those social norms that inform culture. Study of the shadow side of learning draws attention to what the group members deeply experience as important rather than to externally sanctioned sets of values.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Conference Paper
Keywords:organisational culture, emergency services
Research Division:Psychology
Research Group:Applied and developmental psychology
Research Field:Industrial and organisational psychology (incl. human factors)
Objective Division:Law, Politics and Community Services
Objective Group:Work and labour market
Objective Field:Workplace safety
UTAS Author:Owen, C (Dr Christine Owen)
ID Code:150716
Year Published:2019
Deposited By:Office of the School of Social Sciences
Deposited On:2022-06-25
Last Modified:2022-07-12

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