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Title: Psychoanalytic Studies of Organizations: Contributions from the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
Eds: Burkard Sievers, Halina Brunning, Jinette De Gooijer, Laurence J. Gould, Rose Redding Mersky
Reference: Karnac Books Ltd, 2009

Reviewed by Seth Allcorn

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In this book, the editor, Burkard Sievers, has compiled a selection of papers presented at annual meetings of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) during its first 25 years. egacy for this first 25 years. The representative papers selected, from many hundreds of worthy papers, offer a sense of celebration of the intellectual achievement and progress during this formative stage of the ISPSO’s development.   This formative stage has been essential in terms of carving out a new field of intellectual endeavor for understanding organizational life – that of using psychoanalytically informed insights to study organizational dynamics. In this regard Dr. Sievers is to be applauded for his work in putting this book together on behalf of the society and a new intellectual enterprise.

The book contains 13 papers dating from 1985 to 2007. The selected papers are a good representation of the scholarship that ISPSO members have developed. The papers provide the reader with many well-informed, and challenging, theoretical and practical perspectives that provide timeless insights that inform anyone’s wish to better understand organizational dynamics, one’s experience in organizations, and one’s efforts to better manage, prosper within, or consult to organizations. The first paper is just as applicable today as the last. The reader is then provided with a retrospective that creates insight that may be applied to organizations today and in the future.

I suggest that there is an overarching theme present in the book – that of coping with, defending against, managing, and containing anxiety. Each of the papers in its own way directly or indirectly addresses the anxiety organizational members may feel in surrendering to an organization, and the features of organizations that promote anxiety.  The authors provide many insights into how stress abatement and anxiety management may occur. I have selected eight of the papers/chapters and provided the briefest of overviews of them that naturally do not do justice to the rich content of each paper.

Diamond (1985) writes about ritualistic behavior as a means of rational, routinized repetition that creates a sense of predictability (perhaps obsessive and compulsive in nature) thereby lowering stress and anxiety.

Kranz (1986) explores shared social defenses against anxiety. Dependence on process and leaders help organizational members defend against the anxiety resident in the turbulence and resulting chaos of organizational experience.

Menzies (1990) illuminates shared defensive responses to anxiety that include defensive roles and role relationships as well as defensive organizational structures. These defenses contribute to coping with anxiety but do not necessarily contribute to working through the sources of the anxiety (avoidable stressors) or coping more effectively with the experience of anxiety.

Hirschhorn (1997) points out that taken for granted elements of organizational life such as the primary task of the organization and organizational design can become defenses against the anxiety of taking risks to create adaptive change.

Armstrong (1998) explores psychic retreats that provide a conceptual place to withdraw from stressful experience and attendant anxiety. Psychic retreats may be thought of as a place or organization-in-the-mind that is a defensive system of thought that provides a reprieve from persecutory anxiety as represented by me-ness.

French (2001) provides yet another perspective in the form of negative capability. Negative capability is the containment of ambiguity, fear, and anxiety allowing for a potential space that permits a non-defensive way to approach organization change that may be stressful and anxiety ridden.

Sievers (2002) offers the notion of trust as a way to deal with organizational change. It is necessary to trust others sufficiently to accept the risk of doing something new and challenging. Everyone must “pull their own oar” to avoid each individual feeling vulnerable to the implied threat of being identified as a source of organizational failure. He notes good containment of anxiety promotes trust.

Amado (2007) speaks to the notion that a good enough holding environment within the workplace is important to avoid psychotic anxiety and permit meaningful reflectivity, inquiry, creativity and risk taking all of which implicitly include elements that can be stressful especially within the interpersonal world of organizational life.

This convergence over 25 years of the work of different authors who are dealing with the frequently stressful anxiety-ridden nature of the workplace suggests that the distressing experience of workplace anxiety is something that has been, is, and will be, important to continue to explore in the future.


The development of a unique body of knowledge is a challenging proposition. The question in looking back upon the past 25 years is whether there is an emerging stream of psychoanalytically informed theoretical perspectives that creates a basis for meaningfully inspecting organizations and organizational life, including consultation and intervention.

During the period countless high quality papers have been presented and published along with many dozens of books. It would also be fair to say, consistent with Gould (1988) that while the emerging field is rich with a vast array of ideas, insights and case studies there still is a lack of one or more well developed, unified perspectives based on some of the well-defined areas of psychoanalytic theory building. The one perspective that may be viewed as perhaps the most developed is the group relations perspective which is represented within this book.

The lack of one or more agreed upon internally consistent unified perspectives is not per se so much a problem as a future challenge that can be met by the ISPSO’s creation of a safe enough holding environment where a non-defensive exchange of ideas and points of view may occur without fear of reprisals and alienation (Amado, 2007). The development of a somewhat rigidly adhered to perspective such as group relations or a few influential individual’s points of view such as social dreaming might be regarded as inconsistent with promoting the creation of other perspectives to meet the challenge in the next 25 years that Gould has set forth. Achieving this outcome and avoiding institutionalized rigidities must be viewed as a major challenge the ISPSO must overcome to succeed in furthering the development of a unique body of knowledge that contains one or more theoretical perspectives that are comprehensive and internally consistent.

What may then be viewed as requisite steps along this path of development or in business terms strategic direction?

I have suggested that the primary issue resident in the papers published in this volume is avoiding and/or defending against anxiety in the workplace. Avoidance of and defense against anxiety promote individual and group regression, and unquestioning reliance upon many types of available defense mechanisms that vary by type based on the theoretical perspective used for inspection.  All of the papers share in common an examination of the distressing experience of group and individual anxiety in the workplace which is consistent with the fact human nature permeates the workplace. To be noted is that anxiety does not account for all or even most organizational dysfunction. Pathological leaders and groups that do not have a “clue” how to develop and operate an organization can account for much of what may be observed in the workplace. Individual and by extension group and organizational pathology is renderable to insight and understanding using psychoanalytically-informed perspectives and this is equally true of organizations that consistently do not seem to be able to operate in a sustainable manner (based on performance or remaining ethical).

Equally important to appreciate is that pathology and poor management also present organizational members with the distressing experience of anxiety that must be defended against. There is then, from a holistic point of view, an appreciation that a psychodynamically-informed perspective can contribute to improving organizational performance based not so much on ad hoc creative evolutionary intervention methodologies, but rather on a clearly thought through approach to organization intervention, consultation, and workplace coaching and facilitation that might wisely include a formal methodology of organizational assessment and diagnosis. In order to achieve this outcome it is essential to develop a clear, theoretically informed approach to this work. The creation of many hundreds if not thousands of points of light, while illuminating, does not yield a well thought through theory based and articulated approach to organizational intervention.

It is not my purpose here to say what these one or more integrated theoretical perspectives are that will guide psychodynamically-informed organizational interventions in the future. However, as evidenced by the William Allison White Organization Program 10 years assessment presented at the Baltimore meeting (I applaud the effort at self-assessment), it is not at all easy to develop a program based on a group relations intervention strategy that actually works. Program participants did not report they learned much of value in terms of making actual organizational interventions. This outcome I conjecture also holds true for other approaches such as group relations conferences. With this appreciation in hand I return to the notion that the Internal Society for the Study of Organizations might wisely, transparently, and intentionally set as a future direction the creation of a playful and exploratory intellectual space that has as its purpose promoting the creation of theoretically informed, systematic, and internally consistent client/organization centered approaches to organizational study, analysis, and intervention.


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