Howard F. Stein’s contributions to the interdisciplinary fields of psychoanalytic anthropology, psychohistory, psychoanalytic organizational theory, consultation, psychogeography, politics, medicine, culture, poetry, and music are considerable. Stein is a scholar-practitioner, an applied psychoanalytic anthropologist, and a humanist whose combined works exhibit sensitivity to organizational, group, and interpersonal distress in the workplace culture and the private lives of its members. His combined sense of tragedy and playfulness comes through in his prolific body of work, which has educated his readers and fellow academics with qualitatively rich explanations and understandings of human dilemmas in group and organizational affiliation.

One of Stein’s projects attempts to understand individual (and group) membership and the association of these psychodynamics in shaping organizational cultures. His vehicle and tool for fieldwork and participant observation is the self with its capacity for empathy and introspection. In his consulting with groups and organizations, he attends to, and often confirms, the presence of collective pain and outrage, such as those linked to feelings of helplessness. In what I believe to be his most important book, Listening Deeply: An Approach to Understanding and Consulting in Organizational Culture, he describes the practice of “listening deeply”:

The listener gives the gift of presence, of wanting to hear, and of containment. He or she also validates the worthiness

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of both the storyteller and the story. By simply listening, the listener implicitly affirms the teller and the teller’s experience. By listening, the listener offers the gift of affirmation to the storyteller, for example, as if to ‘say’ to the storyteller: ‘I believe you that this really did happen, believe it or not.’ Thus, while stories evoke a spoken response, the very act of listening deeply is crucial. (Stein, 2017, p. 5)

Psychoanalytically informed organizational consultants know this to be true. Listening includes confirming and attending to emotional injuries and shared trauma, whether among ethnic groups, physician practices, hospitals, government agencies, or small businesses. Stein captures and contains participants’ grief, transforming the undigested feelings into stories, poetry, and narrative truths. In essence, Stein’s work highlights group and organizational participants’ need to mourn, like that found in Volkan’s (2004) Blind Trust where he describes the need for grief and mourning among traumatized ethnic, racial, cultural, and national large group identities. Organizational culture (and group) change is about overcoming resistances to acknowledging and processing emotional loss and the reparative psychodynamic processes of making the unconscious, conscious. Stein often finds reparation through storytelling and poetry. Below is a sample of his poetry written in response to management’s reckless downsizing at a large metropolitan hospital:

Downsizing

People I worked with yesterday,
Today are whisked away.
No one asks where they go—
Or even wants to know.

(Stein & Allcorn, 2020, p. 91)

In this poem, Stein reminds us that workers are human; they need to be treated as such. Workers who are terminated and abandoned by management or are left to what remains of a downsized organization are often traumatized and personally degraded. Managers and executives are frequently in denial or simply unaware of the longer-term dysfunctional consequences to organization morale and commitment. In my mind, Stein’s poem is addressing the moral violence of hierarchic dominance in the workplace and the body politic under the thumb of authoritarian and sadistic leadership.

Stein’s work focuses on the value of assisting workers by

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opening two-way communication between management and workers and with the articulation of personal and organizational experience, and identification with, the emotional world of work. As one might expect, this practice involves what anthropologists call participant-observation and what psychoanalysts call transference (or projected emotions of the observed/client from “then” to “now,” to the observer/psychoanalyst) and countertransference (or an unconscious reaction of the observer/psychoanalyst to transference and redirection of the transferred emotions back to the observed/client). One finds in Howard Stein’s writing an effort to capture and contain the frequently twisted and tormented psychological reality of group and organizational psychodynamics. His determination to better understand and explain individual, organizational, and political unconscious reactions to intergroup conflicts and organizational trauma can be seen in what Stein describes as misguided and irresponsible managerial actions such as “downsizing” and “re-engineering.” In Euphemism, Spin, and the Crisis in Organizational Life, Stein (1998) points out that euphemisms are promoted by management in an ongoing effort to control and manipulate subordinate behavior with deception and confusion; this refers to the deception about the meaning and intent of executive planning and decision-making as well as the inclination to reject responsibility for foolish actions.

In Listening Deeply, Stein (2017) writes: “…the consultant must obtain a good history of the presenting problem, the organization’s problem-solving style, and how leaders address problems. This is not a once-and-for-all storytelling event. The client or organization’s sense of history will also emerge over the time of the consultation.” He goes on to say, “A longitudinal approach to the present is essential. The consultant must be an exemplary historian in helping clients to reconstruct their own history” (p. 18).

Few organizational consultants truly understand this critical principle of working psychodynamically with organizations and their leaders. Ethnographic fieldwork and organizational diagnosis (or assessment) require spending time immersed in the organizational culture. This includes collecting historical data, observing, and experiencing the work of groups. Stein (2017) writes: “I learn to trust the group process to reveal key themes, patterns, meanings, feeling tones, and metaphors. When I work with groups, I seek opportunities to hear them on their own terms and even on their own turf (hospital ward, nurses’ station, or corporate headquarters),

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rather than in my office, before I feel I have earned the right to contribute my own reflections” (p. 18). This is a wonderful quote. To me, it highlights the requirement of humility, the acknowledgment of not knowing, as well as how open-mindedness and curiosity are essential to reaching any understanding of organizations, leaders, followers, and their enemies and allies.

The breadth and scope of Howard Stein’s scholarship and contributions to the social and behavioral sciences as well as the humanities is vast. Stein’s work deserves to be read and re-read with an open heart and an open, critical mind.

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References:

  • Stein, Howard F. (1998). Euphemism, spin, and the crisis in organizational life. Quorum Books.
  • Stein, Howard F. (2017). Listening deeply: An approach to understanding and consulting in organizational culture (2nd ed.). University of Missouri Press. (Original work published 1994).
  • Stein, Howard F., & Allcorn, Seth (2020). The psychodynamics of toxic organizations: Applied poems, stories and analysis. Routledge.

Authors:

Michael A. Diamond

Michael A. Diamond, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Public Affairs and Organization Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is a member of the Gould Center for Psychoanalytic Organizational Study and Consultation at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York City as well as a distinguished member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations. He can be contacted at Diamond@missouri.edu.

How to Cite This:

Diamond, M. A. (2022). Listening deeply. In D. R. Beisel, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Howard Stein Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 290-293

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