In inventing the practice of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud had some original ideas that have shaped our understanding of the unconscious mind. He posited that as we grow through childhood, we develop our Ego as a conscious mental structure that protects us from our unconscious impulses. These unconscious impulses are located in the Id (which seeks unbridled pleasure – what we would really like to do) and the Superego (which holds our morals – what we ‘know’ is the right thing to do). The Ego attempts to hold these impulses in check with whatever we experience in reality and therefore seeks pleasure based on a rational response to the real world.
This psychic process causes anxiety and we develop defence mechanisms – denying, distorting and manipulating reality – in order to cope with that anxiety.
Organisations have anxiety too
Organisations are human systems directed toward a primary purpose and have developed sophisticated whole systems directed towards the primary purpose. They have also developed sophisticated unconscious defence mechanisms.
These defence mechanisms are most readily seen when people in organisations struggle to take accountability for pursuing the organisation’s primary purpose and instead focus on protecting themselves within what they perceive as an increasingly dysfunctional organisation. For example:
- They deny knowledge of issues and their own part in being able to solve them.
- They blame and complain about other people at work. This is an example of Splitting. Splitting is either/or thinking. For example someone is either a hero or a villain. It is a defence mechanism that fails to integrate into one whole both positive and negative qualities in others.
- They make excuses for not taking action. This is an example of Rationalisation, i.e. justification that unacceptable behaviour is logical.
- They wait and hope someone else will fix the problem. This might be an example of Repression, which is when unconscious impulses are blocked from consciousness (“I’ve tried to make a difference before and I got burnt”), or Phantasy, the unconscious fantasy that something will come true in a certain way (i.e. without their input).
Only when people become aware of these defence mechanisms as examples of powerless behaviours, can they choose to overcome them and take accountability for pursuing the organisation’s primary purpose. As such, OD can be seen as restoring organisational health.
OD needs balance between systems thinking and psychoanalytic philosophy
Under J is for Joint Diagnosis, I explored systems thinking and the importance of considering the whole system when diagnosing organisational issues. OD is also grounded in group dynamics from psychoanalysis. Systems thinking and psychoanalytic perspectives must be deployed together if real change is to be sustained.
If system thinking dominates, OD tends to be more closely aligned to power in the organisation, however it runs the risk of becoming a corporatist tool. Think of the all-too-common approach to business process reengineering or restructuring without attending to the people/cultural side of change.
On the other hand, if psychoanalytic philosophy dominates, OD can become marginalised and ends up as a technique used by coaches, facilitators and leadership trainers. Potentially useful for individuals and perhaps teams, but not typically useful for the whole organisation.
Neither situation is optimal. OD consultants must balance the two – deploying their expertise in systems thinking and undertaking diagnosis that is grounded in psychoanalytic interpretation. If they can do this, then they can implement humanistic OD interventions that impact the whole system. For me at least, anything less than this is not OD.
OD Thought Leader: David Pendleton
A duck can fly, swim and walk, but does not excel at all three.
Pendleton is a psychologist and Professor in Leadership at Henley Business School. Along with Adrian Furnham, in 2012 he wrote Leadership: All You Need to Know.
In this extraordinary work, Pendleton and Furnham liken leaders to ducks. Leaders must attend to strategy, operations and relationships. It is rare any one leader excels at all three leadership dimensions. So why do leadership guides often assume there is such a thing as an all round leader who can excel at all aspects of leadership?
The book has lofty claims… “all you need to know”. Really? Well, actually yes. I do believe there is little value in looking elsewhere if you want to begin to understand leadership.
The book summarises all the best bits of leadership theory that preceded it, and then synthesises a remarkable leadership model aligned to personality traits that provides a blueprint for assessing leadership strengths that I believe will stand the test of time in the burgeoning digital age.
They also bust the myth of the rounded leader. Instead, they advocate building, developing and sustaining a rounded leadership team that has strengths in all three leadership domains.
Recommended reading: Pendleton, D and Furnham A (2012), Leadership: All you Need to Know, Palgrave, London
Next time in the A to Z of OD: Q is for Questions