Chapter 22 – Introduction to Organisational Dynamics


This chapter introduces an approach used by the author, an experienced organisational consultant and senior manager in caring organisations, to organisational dysfunction. The author describes how combining his training experience as a psychoanalyst and in organisational consultancy allows key ideas from psychoanalytic and open systems theories to be combined as the bedrock of his approach.

Chapter 22 Introduction to Organisational Dynamics

Phil Stokoe

This chapter introduces an approach used by the author, an experienced organisational consultant and senior manager in caring organisations, to organisational dysfunction. The author describes how combining his training experience as a psychoanalyst and in organisational consultancy allows key ideas from psychoanalytic and open systems theories to be combined as the bedrock of his approach.

The chapter will define some of the psychoanalytic terms and concepts that are essential to the model as well as describing what organisational consultancy is and how it is requested. A model is described of what a ‘healthy’ organisation looks like as a template against which to map the features of any organisation under study [13]. A brief description of a consultation to an organisation will further illustrate the work.

Organisational Consultancy

Organisations, like groups, are simply collections of people gathered to perform functions that are designed to achieve a task. Collections of people, like individuals, can lose their way. In the same way that we go to a medical expert when our bodies or minds seem broken, so organisations often seek advice when aspects of their functioning become dysfunctional. This is not surprising; by and large organisations are set up and run by people who have a particular interest and expertise in the tasks and subtasks required to achieve the particular aim of the organisation; they do not necessarily have any expertise in how organisations work or don’t work. The organisational consultant is that expert and he/she provides an understanding of the mechanics of the system rather than the nature of the tasks the organisation undertakes. In fact it is actually quite helpful for the consultant not to have any experience of the work of the organisation because it can be a distraction from the mechanics.

It is rare to be invited to look at the overall functioning of an organisation. It is much more often the case that the consultant is asked to help sort out one part of the larger system that seems to be uniquely problematic: for instance, a particular ward in a hospital or a team in a social service department. The not-so-subtle implication is that the rest of the business is functioning perfectly well. A ubiquitous symptom of organisational dysfunction is that there is a preoccupation with people, personalities and personality conflicts. This is very often part of the referral, ‘team A is in a mess, there’s a clear personality conflict and nobody can do anything about it’.

Another way in which an organisational consultation may be sought is for ‘executive coaching’ for specific individuals who work there. Once again the error is to believe the propaganda that the problem lies at a personal level, either with the person referred for consultation or with some colleague who is making the identified client feel bad.

It is important to approach such requests on the assumption that what appears to be bad or unprofessional behaviour on the part of an individual or individuals will be an expression of underlying (i.e. below the surface or unconscious) dynamics. It is illogical to start with the individual because there will always be some reflection of the individual’s own personality in the problematic behaviour, so you will never move on from that. If you start by searching for an organisational dynamic that is expressed in this behaviour, either you will find one and then you are focussed on your expertise as an organisation mechanic, or you won’t, in which case you have proved, beyond doubt, that it really is about the individual.

Drives or Instincts: The Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle

Freud’s theory of the mind begins with drives (also referred to as instincts). He describes drives as essentially biological and that they stimulate feelings in the psyche. A drive has a source, the place where the stimulation develops; pressure, which means the sense of urgency; an aim, which is to reduce that pressure and an object, which will be the site of satisfaction [4].

At first, he identified two groups of instincts, the ego, or self-preserving, instincts and the sexual instincts. The sexual urges can be in conflict with society’s expectations for acceptable behaviour and the self-preserving instincts act to inhibit those urges. The consequences of this conflict can be symptoms of ‘neurosis’. From the observation that the aim of the instinct is satisfaction or the reduction of the level of stimulation, Freud deduced that the basic psychic principle, the governing organisation of the mind, was the ‘pleasure principle’, by which he meant the reduction of discomfort.

By 1915, he was already indicating that this theory might not be accurate. This hint led to his radically new suggestion [5], that the real instinctual conflict lay between ‘life instincts’ and ‘death instincts’.

At this point, his theory might be re-expressed in the terminology offered by Wilfred Bion [6] in which he described drives as emotional links between the self and another. The life instincts, Eros, is ‘love’ represented by ‘L’ and the death instinct is ‘hate’, represented by ‘H’.

To summarise by using the classic example of hunger; this is experienced as a level of excitation which increases its urgency as time goes by. The evoked feelings are unpleasant, and we are thus ‘driven’ to reduce the unpleasant sensations by seeking something that will make us feel better, this is the aim. The object, traditionally the nipple, provides ‘satisfaction’ which is experienced as pleasure.

Freud describes this main, unconscious, biologically driven mental process as the pleasure principle: an urge to replace unpleasure with pleasure or, at the very least, the absence of unpleasure. As the baby develops, he understands that the reduction of unpleasure (in terms of hunger) is represented by the breast; so, he is able to tolerate the frustration of waiting for the breast by ‘hallucinating’ it. However, this only lasts a little while and, in the face of the return of frustration, Freud says,

It was only the non-occurrence of the expected satisfaction, the disappointment experienced, that led to the abandonment of this attempt at satisfaction by means of hallucination. Instead … A new principle of mental functioning was thus introduced; what was presented in the mind was no longer what was agreeable but what was real, even if it happened to be disagreeable. This setting-up of the reality principle proved to be a momentous step [7, p. 219].

As indicated by Bion [6], L & H alone, the drives that link to the pleasure principle, cannot account for this move to looking at reality. Why would a baby, driven only by the need to reduce ‘excitement’, suddenly decide, ‘oh, the hell with that, let’s have a look at what’s really going on?’ Only the assumption of a third drive, curiosity (K for Bion), which operates like a computer programme, requiring us continually to explain to ourselves what is happening to us [8], would result in an impulse to see what’s really going on. This is why curiosity is a vital element in healthy functioning of the individual and, therefore, for the group and the organisation.

It is the K-drive (curiosity) that generates the collection of ‘explanations’ for what is happening to us that gradually accumulate and become our conscious mind. These explanations have been known to psychoanalysts for a long time as ‘unconscious phantasy’ (a tautological expression because phantasy spelt with a ‘ph’ means unconscious fantasy!). We know that these explanations are always in the form of pictures or images of ourselves in relation to others or parts of others.


Freud [7] and Bion [9] took the view that thinking was the consequence of development. In other words, it is an ‘achievement’, not a given. Bion’s theory of thinking begins with the idea of an ‘expectation’; for instance, the baby, confronted with the arousal of hunger, is ‘programmed’ to expect a source of satisfaction. It is easy to see this in animals; a baby lamb, the moment it is born, starts seeking the nipple. Bion described this expectation as a preconception and said that there are two outcomes that will occur in the face of the excitation that seeks satisfaction. One is that the preconception will ‘mate’ with the actual nipple and this will result in a ‘conception’. In other words, there will be an internal ‘image’ of the nipple, the preconception is no longer an expectation but a discovered entity. The other outcome is the preconception mating with an absence of the nipple; this stimulates a ‘thought’. This is identical to Freud’s idea of an hallucination, the image of the nipple is now a psychic element available for rudimentary processing. It follows from this that thinking is the processing of feelings by turning them into symbols that can be used instead of the thing they represent. Over time and with experience, the baby will develop greater skills with this process, so that thinking becomes a central means to manage the data from the outside and the inside that is received as raw feelings. This capacity will finally become a conscious skill although the original form of thinking will always go on unconsciously as well. In our conscious experience, thinking provides us with the mechanism to manage ‘not knowing’, by transforming the competing feelings into symbols that can be manipulated in the mind. This is an essential process for healthy function and, therefore, groups and organisations will have to create an apparatus for carrying out the same process.

State of Mind: Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive Positions

The last psychoanalytic concepts that we need to know about before reflecting on what goes on in organisations are the two states of mind that the baby develops in his earliest development. These were first observed and described by Melanie Klein [10] and this is a necessarily brief summary. Babies are born without any internal defences, meaning that there are no internal psychic systems to protect the baby from the full impact of his raw emotions. Without such internal defences, we would not be able to function, we wouldn’t be able to think, we’d remain stuck in a state in which we are motivated by the stimulation of drives and seek only a state of low stimulation. The development of the primary or primitive defences occurs in the first weeks of life. Initially experiences are quite simply divided into wonderful and horrible. One of the earliest defences against the horrible feelings is based on one of the few things a baby can choose to do, close his eyes – denial. In other words, the baby’s universe is simply divided between ideal and its opposite, we might say, ‘hell’. Clearly the yearning is to be merged with the ideal, usually experienced as the carer. The loss of that position is so terrifying that we are justified in describing it as a life and death level of anxiety; in other words, any anxiety feels like a threat to survival. This view of the universe is the ‘default’ state of mind and we are plunged into it in the face of any significant anxiety. When we do move into this state (which Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position – P/S), we are in a world characterised by the following qualities.

Paranoid-Schizoid Position

  • RULED by the Ideal


  • ANXIETY one’s own Survival

  • LANGUAGE is that of Blame

  • MENTAL STATE of choice is certainty

  • SOLUTIONS are all omnipotent

  • THREAT is difference, e.g.

    • Help

    • Valuing

  • RELATIONSHIPS are either mergers or sado/masochistic

Hell is the experience of the activation of a drive, typically represented in the literature by hunger and the baby’s explanation to himself of what is happening is, ‘something is attacking me’. When the carer appears and manages to work out what’s wrong and then apply the necessary solution, the baby is overwhelmed with pleasure and experiences this object, the carer, as magical; able to turn something horrible into something marvellous. This is why the only language available in this state of mind is blame (if I’m not with the ideal, who is to blame?). And the only available relationships are either mergers or attack and submission. Clearly, this is the world of the pleasure principle. However, if the baby is able to absorb the carer’s capacity to transform the bad into the good, that capacity allows the creation of that hallucination that Freud talked about. When this is strong enough, the baby, applying the ‘reality principle’, discovers that he isn’t being attacked by a hunger monster, nobody is there. This shocking realisation stimulates the next stage of development in which the baby forms a new view of the universe. One in which the major sort of anxiety is the loss of the loved one. This is the state of mind that is often referred to as the ‘adult’ state. This is an error. True adults move between this and the P/S position all the time. Klein called it the depressive position because it requires the baby to mourn the loss of the ideal (the baby has realised that what is absent, when there is no hunger monster, is his carer, being absent means she isn’t ideal). The loss of ideal and hell allows a more nuanced view of the world because objects can be seen to be a mixture of good and bad. These are its features:

Depressive Position

  • RULED by the ordinary (there are shades of grey)


  • ANXIETY is about the loss of the OBJECT (concern)

  • LANGUAGE of achievement (small steps can be valued)

  • MENTAL STATE: thinking (predicated on uncertainty)

  • SOLUTIONS are based on doing the best you can

  • THREATS take the form of losses. This is because:

    • We understand the Facts of Life.

    • We can face Psychic Reality

    • We can acknowledge that we are Needy

  • Difference is tolerated and recognised as a source of Creativity and of Hope

  • RELATIONSHIPS are reciprocal (creative intercourse)

Although this state of mind is the one in which healthy and effective work can be done, it is the P/S state that will be most significant in our study of groups and organisations.

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Jun 6, 2021 | Posted by in PSYCHOLOGY | Comments Off on Chapter 22 – Introduction to Organisational Dynamics
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