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I recently saw this entry on orgtheory.net:

It’s puzzling to see how psychoanalysis continues to make inroads in the non-psychological social sciences and humanities given that it has long fallen out of favor in psychology itself…

This post was made in 2009, but it represents the ongoing challenge faced by psychoanalytic organization theorists. Many scholars believe that psychoanalysis has “long fallen out of favor.” In fact I recently heard someone say, “Don’t make me shudder by saying that name [Freud].”

So what does psychoanalysis have to do with organization science?

Gabriel and Carr (2002) address this very question, citing the growing importance of psychoanalytic insight into organizations as organization theory moves beyond the traditional rationalist approach and incorporates more symbolic, irrational, emotional, and discursive elements.

They begin their discussion with the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious. A psychoanalytic approach to organizations addresses the out of awareness motivations of individuals head-on. The dynamic unconscious is a “hallmark” of psychoanalysis. It is not only a source of motivation, it is a way of “hiding from oneself.” Thus, defenses are an unconscious influence on behavior. There are many schools of thought within psychoanalysis but what they have in common is “the view that unconscious forces are at play in virtually all human endeavors and that these forces can stifle or stimulate creativity, cooperation, achievement, and learning” (pg. 351).

Gabriel and Carr discuss several “foundational” psychoanalytic insights on organizations. First, that people are emotional beings and that when we join organizations we come with a variety of personal and family histories. The psychoanalytic concept of transference sheds light on how those histories shape our experiences, perceptions, and behaviors in organizations. Second, people fulfill deep, often unconscious, desires through work. Thus, motivation is complex and is not always rational. (Readers may want to refer back to a recent posting of an article deconstructing the concept of bounded rationality and reconstructing it in terms of bounded emotionality.) Third, the psychoanalytic perspective views organizations as sites where broader social and cultural dynamics are enacted. Here, by focusing on language, there is an acknowledgement of the wider structures embedded in the individual and group mind. Fourth, organizations are simultaneously a source of, and defense against, anxiety. As individuals experience anxiety within organizations, they create organizational structures to contain this anxiety. Organizational defenses often distort the psychological reality of the organization, pull people away from the primary task, and undermine rationality. (For an example see Menzies-Lyth, 1960 or Hoggett, 2010). Finally, organizations have great potential for realizing collective visions. They are an integral part of individual identity (For an example see Driver, 2010 or Petriglieri & Stein, 2012), self-esteem, and socialization. Many people find that the organizations that they belong to are a source of strength and affirmation.

“All in all then, the contribution of psychoanalytic study of organizations seeks to extend the insights of organisational theory and the tasks of management, by exploring unconscious dimensions of organisational life, uncovering hidden aspects of the relationships between individuals and groups, and highlighting the importance of emotion and fantasy in organisational life” (pg. 358).

Readers may also want to refer to the September 2012 special issue of Organization Studies entitled “Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Organizations: What Can Psychoanalysis Offer Organization Studies Today?” The articles in this issue incorporate a wide range of theoretical perspectives with psychoanalytic theory in application to organization studies. Topics include: trauma, turbulence, identification and affect, postmodernism, identity, leadership, and critical feminist theory.

Organizational Studies Special Issue



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