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Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace


Emotional Intelligence in Organizations

Social Defense Systems

Emotion is not just an individual experience.  It is also an expression of collective and organizational experience (Morrison, 2007).  Public sector organizations carry significant stress due to the emotional, political, and public nature of the work. Therefore, emotion is central to public sector organizations.  How do organizations and the individuals within them cope in order to get the work done? 

Menzies (1970) described the “social defense systems” that enable organizations to carry forward.  Organizations and individuals frequently develop social defense systems to protect against anxiety and social sanctions, and also to guard against feelings and experiences that are too painful to confront.  These defense systems are unconsciously supported and reflected in rituals, processes and systems of an organization.  To enable individuals to cope emotionally and function in their assigned roles, the members of an organization essentially create mechanisms or "defensive routines" to avoid emotional upset.  Social defense systems often develop over time and result from an unconscious collusion among individuals to prevent painful emotions (Menzies, 1970; Morrison, 2005). 

Here are three examples of some common social defense systems seen in public sector organizations:

Depersonalization occurs when a person(s) perceives a stressful experience in a detached manner as an outside observer.   Detachment has two expressions: Negative-inability or an unwillingness to connect with others emotionally or avoiding situations that may lead to emotional attachment. Positive-emotional detachment enables the person to maintain healthy and appropriate boundaries with clients or groups in order to be effective in the work. Denial occurs when a person rejects or refuses to recognize a situation that is too painful to accept, despite evidence to the contrary.

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Stress and anxiety are part of being a caseworker.  In times of stress, you may revert to one of these mechanisms or see them in colleagues, clients, or even in your organization as a whole.  Emotionally healthy people use a variety of defense systems throughout life.  However, defense systems can become maladaptive if their persistent use leads to adverse effects on physical or emotional health.  Recognizing these social defense systems will enable you to seek or offer support when needed and to effectively handle your professional relationships - a trait of emotional intelligence.


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