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 Jon Stokes, Stokes & Jolly Ltd. London

This paper considers some of the ways that the concept of
'unconscious' can be used in understanding organisations.
  The working hypotheses in the text were intended to illustrate the
theme and also to provide a basis for discussion. They are based on
real cases but disguised to preserve confidentiality.

The term 'unconscious' is used in a variety of ways. Sigmund Freud
uses it in a variety of senses, for example:
 (a) as an adjective, to describe the state of an idea or feeling

 (b)    as a hypothetical system, that is a place in the mind of the
       individual with certain repressed contents. He also
       distinguishes between the descriptive sense of the
       unconscious (that which is presently not in consciousness but
       potentially available) and the dynamic sense (referring to
       feelings or ideas that are actively repressed or denied but
       which are constantly pressuring to becoming conscious, hence
       dynamic). He further distinguished consciousness from the
       pre-conscious (that which is potentially available but currently
       not accessed by consciousness, ie those memories, facts and
       ideas which are not repressed, merely out of current

   These distinctions were later subsumed within a more complex
topographical model of id, ego and super-ego with both ego and
super-ego having unconscious areas. The contents of the id are the
mental derivatives of the drives, an idea which is later elaborated by
Melanie Klein and others in the concept of unconscious phantasy.
These provide the deeper and thus generally unconscious emotional
meanings to events both at the infantile and oedipal levels of
psychological development. Psychoanalysis provides a means of
understanding and mastering these unconscious infantile and oedipal
elements in our personalities so that we are aware of their ever-
present effects through out lives, rather than being unconsciously
determined by them. For example, in our personal relationships, but
also of course in our relationships at work and indeed our
relationships with work. A psychoanalytic view is one that sees
organisations and work as being influenced by what Wilfred Bion calls
innate pre-conceptions - of a feeding breast, of a mother, of a father,
a parental couple and their modification by early experiences of
relationships in the family. Hence our most basic attitudes to the
organisations and groups of which we are members are heavily
influenced by our relations, both real and phantasised, with our
parents, our siblings and the dynamics of the oedipus complex. For
example, the organisation can be felt to represent a certain sort of
providing mother with the chief executive as a certain kind of
managing father with concomitant reactions to each being influenced
by our internal mother and father figures. Certain parts of an
organisation such as the canteen may come to be felt unconsciously
to represent something to which it is closely akin such as mother and
her breast and will be treated somewhat differently by each member
of the organisation accordingly. Frustrations and a sense of
deprivation with the organisation may be expressed towards canteen
staff because of their unconscious associations with a mother figure.

Before discussing what is unconscious in organisations further I want
to consider briefly what is means by work from a psychoanalytic
perspective, since this is the main purpose for which organisations
are intended.
   For Freud, to be able to work realistically was one of the two
greatest human achievements, the other being to be able to love. He
called these achievements because they each require facing rather
than denying a reality beyond the self, they require the achievement
of a capacity for relationship with separate others (object
relationships) as opposed to forms of relationship where the other is
there primarily to provide for the needs of the self (narcissistic
relationships). Work involves both pain and pleasure. It requires a
renunciation of wishful thinking and unrealistic fantasies and an
acknowledgement of time, space and gender differences. In other
words facing a reality which necessarily also involves at times a
degree of frustration, limitation and non-satisfaction, as opposed to
the use of delusion and hallucination in order to evade reality. The
compensation is a sense of real achievement, of real satisfaction
which bring more substantial though less immediate gratifications.
This is important because an organisation's attitude to work, the
collective 'work-culture', and especially the unconscious elements in
this are clearly important. They inevitably involve a similar struggle at
an organisational level between narcissistic and object relationships
within and without the organisation, between manic or omnipotent
states of mind and ambitions and more realistic and sober views-of
reality and what is possible. Indeed, the very act of taking up group
membership poses this conflict for each member - between a joining
with others in relationships with some shared purpose or a retreat to
omnipotent phantasy. Group processes can reinforce either attitude,
an evasion of conflict on the one hand or a potential space for
psychological growth in the working through of conflicts on the other.

There are a variety of psychoanalytic approaches to organisations
each deriving from different strands of psychoanalytic thinking (see
Obholzer & Roberts 1994). My approach is one that could be called a
psychoanalytic-systems approach drawing both on psychoanalysis
and systems thinking.
   I work as a consultant to organisations and when I receive a
request I try to understand both the conscious and the unconscious
requests, trying to keep in mind at all times what this part of the
organisation might be representing and carrying for others. For
example we were asked to provide some training for nurses on
bereavement, but in the telephone call it emerged that there had
been a recent series of deaths on the ward which had obviously
distressed all the staff, not just the nurses. At a subsequent meeting
with the nursing officer making the request for the staff it transpired
that she had decided to leave for another post in another part of the
hospital but was fearful of the response of her colleagues including of
course the nurses. One could respond to this request at a number of
levels and in a number of ways but I chose to work with the nursing
officer in a role consultancy process on how she managed the
announcement and manner of her departure and her feelings through
this transition phase in the organisation's and her life. This
incidentally also provided everyone with a real-live case of
'bereavement which could be openly acknowledged and learned
from. It would also have been perfectly reasonable to have provided a
training course. 'Working with the unconscious' in an organisational
sense always involves making decisions about at what level, with
whom and how to intervene.
   Unconscious processes in organisations can be distinguished at a
number of levels:

(a) The individual level

     Work provides not only a means of interacting with external
     reality with its concomitant pleasures and frustrations but also a
     potential for reparation (Klein 1959). By this I mean that it
     provides a medium through which the individual can build and
     repair which helps modify unconscious anxieties about
     destructive elements in the personality in internal reality.

  The psycho-analyst Harry Guntrip (1964) describes how Anthony
Trollope's early employment in the post office had an unconscious
reparative function.
       "A friend of his mother was daughter-in-law to the head of the
       G.P.O. and begged a clerkship for Anthony. Though the first
       seven years were misery, his application for the post in Ireland
       opened out a new life for him, a life of constant travel usually
       on horseback which he loved. He developed a passionate
       attachment to the work of improving communications for
       isolated districts and lonely people, and there is no doubt that
       the driving force of his devotion to his work was a symbolic
       compensation for his own early loneliness which still survived
       in his deepest feelings."

  Losing one's job is therefore a considerable blow not only at the
external world level but also in me internal world since it deprives the
person of a channel for reparative acts which provide a reassurance
and a way of binding the forces of envy, hatred, and other destructive
elements in the personality. The redundant employee suffers a
double sense of impotence and depression at the obvious level of
losing one's job but also at the unconscious level of losing a medium
for reparative opportunities which help sustain a sense of internal
worth and goodness. This loss of the means of psychological
reparation may be even more catastrophic than the original external
loss of job and colleagues.
   Turning to the effect of certain individuals on others, it is a common
experience that the personality of the head of an organisation has a
great impact on the organisation as a whole. For example, in
education a head teacher's personality and attitudes, and thus
unconscious attitudes, can have a pronounced influence on the
atmosphere and running of the school. In a business setting the 'nice'
manager often needs to have a second-in-command who is forced
into the role of being the 'nasty' one. He has become through
unconscious projection the embodiment of the denied aspects of the

     Working Hypothesis 1
     A chief executive's "unconscious" fear of women leads to
     repeated failures to recruit female members of the board despite
     a conscious desire to do so. The personnel director is blamed.

(b) The group level
     I have written elsewhere (Stokes, 1994) how the basic
     assumptions identified by Wilfred Bion (1959) underpin the main
     emotional dilemmas in the helping professions - medicine
     (dependency), therapy (pairing)) and social work (fight-flight). In
     this way unconscious group dynamics can become the
     foundation for the patient-professional relationship. Tim
     Dartington (personal communication) has used the same basic
     assumptions in distinguishing types of voluntary organisations:

     (i) mutual support (pairing dynamics)
     (ii) campaigning (fight-flight dynamics)
     (iii) expert service provision (dependency dynamics)
      In this way group dynamics comes to influence the state of mind
     of the whole organisation and thus its relation to the environment
  Working Hypothesis 2

  A geriatric team's "unconscious" anger with their patients leads
  to endless debate about whether or not to provide them with an
  electric kettle. The "unconscious" wish to attack their patients is
  expressed in the fear that they will scald themselves
  accidentally. The patients are prevented from having access to a

  At the level of task
  Gordon Lawrence (1977) has distinguished between the various
levels of awareness of tasks at work as follows:

  (i) what we say we do
  (ii) what we believe we do but don't always say
  (iii) what we do unconsciously
   For example as Anton Obholzer (1987) argues the NHS says its
task is to provide for the health of the nation but implicitly those
who work in it do so also because of their belief that it will provide a
more equal society whilst unconsciously it is viewed by us all as
the 'save us from death' service. This unconscious task leads to
some of the more extreme reactions to efforts to change the NHS -
in whatever way, since they are felt to threaten the loss of access
to a service with deeply unconscious meanings.

  Working Hypothesis 3
  A mental health unit "unconsciously" pushes one of the fragile
  members of the staff team to the edge of a breakdown and
  beyond in order to establish the boundary between madness and
  sanity and to project all the madness of everyone into one
  person. Having driven one member out the group continues to
  hunt for the next victim.

  At the level of the whole organisation

   I have already referred to this above with regard to voluntary
organisations. Within an organisation there can be an unconscious
structuring along the lines of the body with its clean parts (eg
administration) and its dirty parts (eg the factory) and with
individuals consequently becoming identified with and behaving
according to these unconscious divisions. Alternatively "immaturity"
can be located only in the junior members with "maturity" in the
seniors but leading to an inevitable breakdown in communication
between these two groups within the organisation and an artificial
stultifying split inside each individual leading to a false-self
atmosphere in the staff in the organisation. As Isobel Menzies-Lyth
(1959) has shown such splitting processes can lead to the
resignation of good junior members of the organisation when they
feel they are being constrained not to fully utilise their abilities.
Current exercises in 'delayering' frequently suffer from a failure to
  understand these dynamics and how much is unconsciously
  invested in retaining the various layers of an organisation. Whilst
  there may be conscious wishes to change there may be
  unconscious investments in keeping things as they are.

    Working Hypothesis 4
    The collective organisational defence against the fear of
    inevitable redundancies in a public industry leads to an
    "unconscious" resistance to change expressed as a mobilisation
    of those with obsessional characters to become even more
    bureaucratic then normal.

  Unconscious processes can also operate at the boundary of an
organisation with the outside world and the management of this

    Working Hypothesis 5
    A department store "unconsciously" chooses a 'scattered brained'
    individual to deal with complaints from customers who eventually
    give up in confusion and frustration. This saves the store money
    in the short-term but ultimately loses customers.

  (e)   At the level of the social

   Finally whole sections of society can come to represent areas of
unconscious feelings for society as a whole. So that all madness is
felt to reside only in those who are currently psychiatric patients, all
criminality only in those in prisons and so forth. These large group
processes are extremely powerful and play a central role in
determining many individual lives and careers. Essentially, however,
the processes are similar to those in smaller groups -a splitting off of
unwanted aspects and a projection of these into others who are felt to
be identified with these split-off parts.
   In organisational terms these social processes may be expressed
in the relations between different groups who are viewed
stereotypically such as men and women or between the young and
the old or between different social classes. Whilst these are social
phenomena they also involve unconscious psychological dynamics
such as those concerning envy, rivalry or idealisation.

   Working Hypothesis 5
  British fear of losing their island defence leads to "unconsciously"
  motivated delays and mistakes in the construction of the Channel

  Knowing about the unconscious is very different from knowledge
obtained from a book or a teacher. It is a knowing through
acquaintance, through being in a particular state of mind. It also
requires a willingness to be affected and not to move into action
immediately, by painful as well as pleasurable emotions, to stay with
the experience of not knowing, without a restless seeking after
certainty (cf Keats' negative capability). As a consultant one is often
used as a repository for emotions and states of mind that the client
organisation is denying or simply cannot cope with, much as the
parent of a child has to tolerate and contain fears and concerns that
the child cannot. Thus working in this way with organisations and
managers requires some degree of personal awareness and the
capacity for self-reflection that can best be obtained from the
experience of personal psychoanalytic therapy. But, as important too
is the understanding of group process that can be obtained from
group relations training workshops and conferences. Intellectual
insight about psychological processes is easily and often used as a
defence against experiencing the emotional dilemmas of an
organisation. The experience of a personal psychoanalysis and group
relations conference work provide essential means of staying in
contact with the deeper levels of the emotional life of organisations.
However, a concentration on the emotional life of an organisation at
the expense of attention to its structures and environmental context is
also misguided. An understanding and attention to unconscious
processes in organisations is a powerful contribution to diagnosis and
understanding but should never be to the exclusion of an analysis of
both systems and structure.

  Bion, W.R. (1959) 'Experience in Groups'. Tavistock, London.

  Guntrip, H.J.S. (1964) 'Healing the Sick Mind', Alien & Unwin,

  Klein, M. (1959) 'Our Adult World and its Roots in Infancy* in Klein,
M. Envy and Gratitude, Hogart, London 1987.

  Lawrence, W.G., (1977) 'Management Development... Some
Ideals, Images and Realities', in Colman, A.D. and Geller, M.H.,
Group Relations Readers 2 (1985), A.K. Rice Institute, Washington

  Menzies-Lyth, I. (1959)' The Functioning of Social Systems as a
Defence against Anxiety* in Menzies-Lyth, I., Containing Anxiety in
Institutions, Free Associations, London 1988.

  Obholzer, A. (1987) 'Institutional dynamics and resistance to
Change'. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy., Vol 2 pp 201-5

  Obholzer, A. and Roberts, V.Z., 1994, The Unconscious at Work',
Routledge, London.

  Stokes, J.H. (1994) The Unconscious at Work in Groups and
Teams' in Obholzer, A and Roberts, V.Z.