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Executive Coaching

Emotions in Organisations: disturbance or intelligence?

Using case material from a senior exective in information technology, David Armstrong advances the view that a great deal can be learned about the organization from the individuals’ emotional responses to working within the organization. This is a conceptual shift from focusing on emotions as a source of disturbance in organizational functioning to regarding emotional experience as a rich source of information about the organization.

Clare Huffington, David Armstrong, William Halton, Linda Hoyle, and Jane Pooley, Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organizations, Karnac Books: London, 2004. Chapter 1, pp. 11-30.

“ ... If one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego ... “
~ James Joyce, Finnegans Wake1

Stating the obvious

Every organisation, this included, is an emotional place. It is an emotional place because it is a human invention, serving human purposes and dependent on human beings to function. And human beings are emotional animals: subject to anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness or joy, ease and unease.

By the same token, organisations are inter-personal places and so necessarily arouse those more complex emotional constellations that shadow all inter-personal relations: love and hate, envy and gratitude, shame and guilt, contempt and pride—the several notes of Joyce’s “chambermade music”, a wonderfully apt phrase for the emotional choreography each of us weaves, consciously or unconsciously from our encounter with another, or with others.

To this inter-personal music I would add the emotional patterning of what Wilfred Bion referred to as our inheritance as a group species: the simultaneous mobilization of work group and basic assumption mentality: dependence, fight-flight and pairing (Incidentally, it is worth recalling that Bion did not see group mentality as dependent on experiences in groups. It was wired in from birth, or indeed from conception, as much a factor in our internal worlds as in our external engagements—something we brought to that engagement rather than something generated from it, ab initio).

These are, to my mind, propositional truisms. With the possible exception of Bion’s characterization of group mentality, they state something obvious that one hardly needs to be a psychoanalyst or psychologist to recognise and acknowledge. Emotions are constitutive of organisational life because they are constitutive of all human experience. (Recently, neuro-scientists have suggested that they may indeed be constitutive of consciousness itself).2

What psychoanalysis brings and adds is a many layered account of the ways in which emotions shape our experience, their vagaries and vicissitudes (Joyce’s “breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions"), their expression in phantasy, their relatedness to primary objects, their distribution across a psychic field that is both internal and external.

This account is intrinsically developmental, in the sense that it emerges from and is in turn verified within a therapeutic encounter. It follows that in so far as the account is true it is true because it promotes development; in so far as it promotes development, it promotes development because it is true. Put less contentiously one might say that the science and practice of psychoanalysis both illustrate and depend on an assumed link between emotional understanding and mental growth.

Questioning the obvious

From this perspective, it might be seem a short step to offering a largely reductive account of organisations as emotional places. On this account the play of emotions in organisations is essentially sui generis. Organisations are seen as a social arena within which we enact the undertow of our emotional inheritance and its economics, as these have been and continue to be shaped by past and present experiences. Within this arena all the dynamic processes and mechanisms identified from psychoanalytic practice (including here Bion’s constructions of group mentality) are in flow. The task of the analytically trained practitioner is to reveal this emotional world, as it emerges consciously and unconsciously in behaviour and phantasy. And what makes this revelation useful is just what makes it useful in ordinary analytic work—revelation and development go hand in hand.

Hence the statement offered by a notable practitioner within my own institution that the only real difference between psychoanalytic practice with individuals and in organisations is the boundary within which one is making observations.3

I want to characterize this position as one that views emotions in organisations primarily as a source of disturbance, but without assuming that disturbance is necessarily dysfunctional. (Nonetheless it is of course usually clients’ awareness of something felt as dysfunctional that brings them into this form of consultancy).

Much, both of the writing and practice of analytically oriented research and consultancy in the organisational field occupies this position, whether the focus is on individuals, groups, teams or whole organisations. I am thinking, for example, of the work done on narcissistic leadership, or the role of oedipal configurations, or some of the work on group and team dynamics or on inter and intra group relations. Within this body of work the organisation as an independent variable, with its own internal logic: political, economic, socio-technical but also psychic, can easily get lost. Or to put this the other way round, the emotional world of the organisation can appear simply as a function, a kind of artifact, of human relations within it.

To return to the citation I drew on a moment ago, to say that the only real difference between psychoanalytic work with individuals and in organisations is the boundary within which one is making observations tends to foster the idea that this shift of boundary is not finally of much significance, as if such a shift were merely quantitative rather than qualitative.

In what follows I want to argue that on the contrary this shift is qualitative: that we cannot fully understand the place of emotions in organisations without reference to the boundary conditions which define an organisation (a particular organisation) as a human construct. Making this shift I suggest significantly affects not so much how we understand the conscious and unconscious processes underlying emotional life in organisations, as their meaning: what they have to say about the organisation as a system in context. It is in this sense it seems to me that emotion in organisations, including all the strategies of defense, denial, projection, withdrawal, yield intelligence. And it is because they yield intelligence in this way that they may be worth our and our clients’ close attention.

An illustration:

Before considering this position further I want to offer some material from a recent consultancy assignment as a partial illustration.

This involves my consulting to a client who heads up a team of IT staff working with a group of traders in a large multi-national investment bank. The consultation is part of a wider brief negotiated by an American colleague with the boss of the IT division of which my client and his staff are a part. There is a close working relation between the boss and my colleague and it is partly as a result of this that my client has sought out consultation. Both his boss and he himself believe that he will benefit from the opportunity to think through his role and how he works within it. There is also an implication that he needs to hone his management and leadership skills as a prelude to possible promotion. He is aware of a number of apparent inhibitions in his approach to and exercise of those skills.

We start working together, ostensibly on a 2-3 week basis, meeting for two hours. I experience this work together as a tantalizing combination of hopeful feelings on my part—my client is young, bright, attractive, with a lot of technical flair—and frustration, amounting at times to exasperation. Sessions are cancelled or postponed at the last moment, sometimes without notice. Although my client will readily and apparently sincerely acknowledge much of what I try to put words to, it seems to make little or no difference to what he does and the tangles he gets into. I begin to feel we are going round in circles.

One recurring theme has to do with his relations to his boss. His boss is a powerful and dynamic figure, with a highly successful track record. My client knew him from a previous company he had worked in and where he had built his reputation. The two of them had been quite close, socially as well as professionally, and it was through this prior relation that my client had come into his present firm; (just as it was through his relation with his boss that he had come into this consultancy)). In a series of four enigmatic pictures which, early in the consultancy, my client had drawn to represent how he experienced and felt about himself in his organisation, his boss was the only represented figure he had been able to give a name to, placed on top of a kind of gantry, looking ahead.

This relation between the two of them has remained close. They are often on the mobile phone to each other (including during sessions with me) and regularly meet together when they happen to be in the same place at the same time (they are based in different countries).

I should say that although I have described their formal relation as that of subordinate and boss, the accounting relationship between them does not neatly fit into the conventional pattern of an organisation chart. Indeed one of the many apparently puzzling features of this organisational system as a whole, which my colleague and myself have been aware of from early on, is the difficulty of being able to gain any clear picture of the accountability relationships in play. The IT Division serves traders in different parts of the world and trading in a variety of equities. My client is responsible for serving traders dealing in a particular type of equity in a particular country office, but with an additional and developmental global brief. At the time I began working with him there was no appointed head of IT in this office, though this was on the cards and my client was potentially a candidate for it. Also, since traders can be fiercely attached to their own, local, view of their information needs and since this attachment is likely to influence the ways in which local IT staff work with traders, any attempt to introduce a more global information system is likely to be an exercise in persuasion and certainly not dictat. In short, accountability relations within the division are fluid and there is no formal, “special” relation between my client and his boss that would distinguish him from a good many of his peers.

Nonetheless there is a “special relation” between them. It gradually becomes clearer to me that this relation has a peculiar quality. On the one hand it is expressed in a close, intimate and probably collusive form, in which my client takes the role of confidante, back stop, gossip, bouncer off of ideas or of judgments—about the business, about the people, about the politics. This relation is shot through with positive feelings of affection, regard, loyalty and admiration. Less consciously there is an undertow of envy, which tends to be projected in the guise of disparagement of other senior personnel in the Bank, amounting at times to contempt.

On the other hand, the relation can take a masochistic turn, in which my client is continually letting his boss, other senior staff and himself down, through neglecting aspects of his immediate operational role or not taking up tasks he has been invited to do, for example organizing off sites. It is as if letting people down this way is unconsciously and paradoxically a means of testing or proving their commitment or attachment to him.

This relation is replicated in his transference relation to me and vice versa, in that I continually have the experience of being pulled into a kind of rescue mentality i.e. being mobilized to do something that will save him from the consequences of his actions and in so doing demonstrate, as it were, that I genuinely consider him worth saving.

Things came to a head as a result of two events. I have mentioned that there was no appointed head of the IT office in which my client worked and that he was himself a potential candidate for this post—an expectation that he believed his boss had encouraged. Quite suddenly, an appointment to this position was made, from outside the firm. At first my client appeared curiously unaffected (without affect), neither particularly disappointed nor particularly angry. His relation with his boss continued much as before, but with one significant twist—that he seemed now to transfer something of his “behind the scenes” role to his relation with the new arrival: showing him the ropes, briefing him about the people and the politics, helping out with recruitment of new staff etc., while simultaneously, if gently, complaining at the cost to other aspects of his work. (In fact this relation had a new emotional quality to it, in that the element of disparagement was much closer to the surface).

The second event was the completion of a 360 degrees feedback for my client, which he had himself requested, once more perhaps following the example of his boss, who had recently done the same and had found it productive. The results from this exercise underlined the extent to which my client was at risk of compromising his good standing, personally and professionally, with his team, his clients (the traders) and senior management by what were seen as puzzling and frustrating inconsistencies in performance, especially in the more management and leadership components of his role.

Again, my client’s initial response seemed emotionally flat. He was grateful for what people had said, pleased by the undertow of personal regard in which he was held and not apparently taken aback by the criticism. This, he felt confirmed his own view of his “weaknesses” and indeed it was in fact the case that his own self appraisals were often sharper than those of others.

I wondered if this would turn out to be just another circle we would go round. It did not however prove to be so. I had decided, with the encouragement of my colleague, to propose a more active form of engagement, in which we would meet more regularly, at my client’s place of work, where possible weekly and at the end of the working day. Almost immediately I was struck by how much more focused he had become, both in how he presented himself and in the material he offered for work. For the first time he was able to acknowledge something of his anger and disappointment both at himself and towards his boss, but without sourness. At the same time he began to give up the “behind the scenes” role and re-discover and build on his real skills in offering technical leadership, both directly and indirectly. There continued to be setbacks, but it seemed easier now for him to pull back from both the internal and external pressures to “help out” or “make good” (with their accompanying manic edge).

It occurred to me that what the 360 degrees appraisal had done was not so much to tell him something that he didn’t know about himself, but coming on the heels of his failure to be appointed as head of the office, as enabling him to own what he knew. To own what he knew in turn implied relinquishing something else, which had shadowed his self knowledge in a way that robbed it of its emotional meaning—the illusion of the “special relationship”.

It would be possible I think to read this whole episode, from a clinical perspective, in terms of the enactment of oedipal phantasies, projected onto the relationship between my client and his boss (simultaneously my client and myself) and within a construction of the organisation as a kind of extended family. And certainly there were occasions when in working with my client I wondered whether what he might rather have gained from was individual therapy, which at one point he was ready to consider. Although he rarely touched on more personal areas of his life and history, I was aware of aspects of both which could have been seen to be part of a piece with his organisational experience.

However, and quite apart from considerations of my own competence and the boundaries of our role relationship (I was not working with him as a therapist), to have taken this route, either then or now, would miss the opportunity afforded by a different and more organisational vertex.

In introducing the theme of my client’s relation to his boss I referred to the fluidity of accountability relations generally within the IT division and indeed within the Bank as a whole. It was as if the whole organisation and its various parts ran on the basis of informal relationships: networks of influence and persuasion that cut across and often seemed to subvert what an outsider would consider to be formal accountability lines. As my colleague put it, “there is often an apparent blurring of boundaries and difficulty in staying within the tasks and boundaries of the formal role”.

From this perspective one might consider the more pathological element in my client’s relation with his boss as elicited (though not determined) by this structural “weakness” or “flaw”, within which an internal patterning of object relations could take root and flourish. This might then roughly correspond to what I take to be Elliott Jacques’ later position on the relation of psychoanalytic formulations to organisational functioning—which seems to be that in so far as they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a signal of the absence of requisite structure.

But this begs the question of what is “requisite structure” or alternatively of why an apparently “irresquisite structure” has evolved. (As if one gets rid of the notion of individual pathology by substituting that of an organisational pathology defined in accordance with an assumed normative organisational model). In fact, my colleague and myself found ourselves struggling for a considerable time with this issue: were we at risk of interpreting the emotional world of this organisation in relation to normative assumptions of our own, thereby missing the particular intelligence this world gave access to.

The answer we gradually came to was affirmative—yes, we were. And in arriving at this answer new light was thrown on my client’s construction of the “special relationship”. To summarise, and at the cost of some simplification, our hypothesis went as follows. The fluidity of accountability relations and the substitution of networks of influence and persuasion for formal lines of authority was an expression of at least two organisational realities. One corresponded to the developmental situation of the Bank as a whole, which was expanding into new areas of business, buying up or buying in new bodies of expertise, often from diverse business and trading cultures. In this context, there was some sense in keeping boundaries fluid and allowing a certain latitude in how things operated, even at the expense of a good deal of both organisational and psychological mess.

The second and more immediately relevant reality concerned the relation between the IT Division in question and its particular users—the business units and their traders. From a structural point of view the business units are dependent on IT to operate. Furthermore, and increasingly, IT applications can significantly add to the knowledge base of the business, both regionally and globally. In some respects IT could be seen as a leader in promoting and developing global operations, against the resistance of traders who, as mentioned earlier, can tend to focus rather on what they see as their more immediate local needs. On the other hand, it is the traders who traditionally have called the shots as the producers of revenue. For them, IT is simply a service and a very expensive one at that. In this structural and cultural context, there is a premium on building and cultivating special relations, through whatever means, as vehicles and levers of influence. At the same time, the pay off from success in so doing can fall well short of felt considerations of equity. To use a very suggestive image offered by my client’s boss in another context, the senior traders are seen as the “sun kings” who get all the glory, in a way which can “brew rebellion underneath”, feelings of being demeaned and under valued.

One might say that this is a system which both puts a premium on special relations and simultaneously exacts a certain psychological cost: the inevitability of having to contend with feelings of envy and shame, which cannot be contained within a well bounded organisational structure. But none of this is necessarily an indicator of unfunctionality. It may rather be an expression of something that is part and parcel of what I would term the “psychic reality” of the organisation.

From this perspective, my clients construct of the ‘special relationship’ could be seen as a doubtless defensive distortion of an organisational truth: to be understood not simply or not only as the enactment of an oedipal illusion, but as an idiosyncratic response to the in-actment of an organisational dynamic. Moreover this is not just a theoretical point. It has consequences both for the client and the consultant, focusing attention on new questions: for example about the nature of management and leadership in such a context, or about handling the tensions between personal and role relationships. It conveys intelligence, not just about oneself but about the nature of the “organisational animal” and its modus vivendi: a starting point for further exploration. To put this point apparently paradoxically, as he began to give up the phantasy of the special relationship, my client was able to get in touch with and explore the world of special relations he was indeed part of and how he could best cultivate and manage those relations, both individually and through the ways in which he supported his staff.

Transposing the argument: from the individual to the group

I am using this illustration to suggest how an emotional constellation presented in the context of organisational work, which may seem to indicate individual pathology, can simultaneously be understood as a signal of and a disguised response to emotional challenges that are part and parcel of effective organisational functioning (given a certain set of conditions).

This argument can readily be transposed from the level of the individual to that of the group. I think that those of us trained in the method of group relations developed by Ken Rice and his colleagues can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that interpretations of group processes are an answer to a question—why do plans go adrift, or decisions get stalled, or conflicts flourish or feelings of powerlessness, fear, enmity, manic denial or unrealistic hope, proliferate. Whereas it seems to me that in organisational contexts, as distinct say from Group Relations Conferences, all such interpretations are best seen less as answers to such questions as redescriptions of the questions to be asked.

I mentioned earlier that Bion himself thought of group mentality, not so much as a response to what happens in groups as a core ingredient in all our mental make up. It follows I think that faced with evidence of group mentality in organisational functioning, no less and no more than when we are faced with evidence of individual pathology, we need to ask, to be alert to, the question why? Why these experiences in this setting, here and now; what is this possibly saying, revealing about the organisation as a whole—its challenges and dilemmas, the nature of what it does, the ways it is structured, its relatedness to its context? In other words, the emotional world of the group, as we become aware of it in organisational life is itself to be seen as in-actment rather than just en-actment.

What I think can mislead us here is the very model of social systems as defense against anxiety which in other respects has contributed so powerfully to understanding the organisational significance of emotional experience. The origins of this model are usually attributed to a paper of Elliott Jacques, first published in 1955 under the title Social Systems as Defense against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety.4 In this paper, Jacques proposes that, as he was later to put it, individuals unconsciously and collusively “concoct organisations as a means of defense against psychotic anxieties, thereby generating a fundamental cause of problems within those organisations”.5

On this view it is as if organisations live two lives: one concerned with consciously addressing the requirements of particular tasks and one unconsciously aiming to “externalize those impulses and internal objects that would otherwise give rise to psychotic anxiety, and pooling them in the life of the social institutions in which (as individuals) we associate”.6

One difficulty with this model and many though not all of its later variants, is that it tends to split off the emotional world of the organisation from its actual setting in the engagement of individuals with organisational work, within particular structures, and in particular social, economic and political contexts. (As I will argue later, this is a difficulty which Isobel Menzies’ version of Jacques’ model at least in part avoids). Another, related, difficulty is that such a model inevitably views emotions in organisations simply as extraneous “noise”—something that needs containing or managing, but is not in itself a signal of and response to what I will term the reality function of the organisation.

Jacques’ gradual retraction of his earlier position, over the course of 40 years, turns on his bringing into view and formulating a concept of the “organisation per se”, as “an interconnected system of roles with explicit or implicit mutual accountabilities and authorities”.7 As he puts this:
“All human relationships take place within such role relationships. Some form of organisation must be explicitly established, or at least implicitly assumed, before it becomes possible for people to bring themselves or others into relationships with each other by means of taking up roles in the organisation. In other words, organisations have to exist in their own right, before people can collect in them”.8

From this Jacques now argues that in so far as we are prey to what he terms “psychological stresses” in the work situation these arise principally out of the “failure to clarify and specify the requirements of roles” ... “We get gross mismatches between the difficulty of roles and the capabilities of their incumbents. Or we fail to specify the accountability and authorities in role relationships, and leave it up to the individuals to exercise personal power or otherwise manipulate each other in order somehow to get things done. It all becomes an unpleasant paranoiagenic zoo”.9

I think there is much to be said for this view. And indeed the notion of the “paranoiagenic zoo” could itself be taken as an instance of what I have referred to as the ways in which emotional life in organisations can be a signal of and response to some unacknowledged feature of organisational functioning.

However, I do not think that Jacques’ structural model of organisations is a rich enough specification of the organisation as an entity “existing in its own right”. And as indicated earlier I believe Jacques’ notion of requisite structure, at least in contemporary environments, begs as many questions as it seems to resolve. Correspondingly, it seems to me, our emotional experience in organisations, both positive and negative, is a richer resource for probing and understanding organisational realities than he allows.

The organisation as object

With these considerations in mind, I want now to return to and restate the position from which I started. There is a stronger and a weaker version of this position. I will offer the stronger version, not because it is necessarily more valid but because I find it more heuristically useful in practice.

Put simply, the position amounts to the claim that instead of thinking of emotional life in organisations (the organisation as one of the many arenas in which we live out our emotional inheritance, as individuals or as a species) we should think rather of the emotional life of organisations (the organisation as an eliciting object of emotion).

On this view every emotional exchange and every patterning of emotional experience within organisations (conscious or unconscious), either in and between individuals or in and between groups, carries some reference to an organisational object. This “object” is an implicit third in all the “chambermade music” of organisational life, however intra and interpersonal, intra and inter group that music may appear.

By “organisational object” I mean to refer to something that functions as a point of origin of psychic experience—“in its own right”, to borrow Jacques’ formulation—but which, like all mental objects, can elicit multiple responses, be subject to multiple readings, more or less conscious and more or less in accordance with reality.

What then defines the organisation as object? I suggest that it is defined by four boundary conditions. (There may be others but these four are those I am most aware of and alert to in my own work). These are respectively

  • the organisation as contextually embedded (the ecological dimension)
  • the organisation as enterprise (the identity dimension)
  • the organisation as process (the task dimension)
  • the organisation as structure (the management dimension)

It is these four dimensions of the organisational object, I am proposing, that between them generate the emotional patterning within. Conversely the emotional patterning within, whether located in individuals, in groups or across the whole socio-psychic field, is a carrier, a kind of conduit of potential intelligence about the organisational object, seen under these four conditions.

The organisation as structure and as process

The idea that emotional experience in organisations may reflect and be a function of an organisation’s structure and process is not new. It has been explicit in much of the work of the Tavistock Institute and Clinic and amongst colleagues influenced by this work at least since the publication of Isobel Menzies’ seminal paper, also titled Social Systems as a Defense against Anxiety, and first published in 1959.9

In one respect this title is misleading. It suggests a kind of seamless continuation of Jacques’ original thesis. Whereas in fact I believe it turns this thesis on its head. For Menzies the origin of the anxiety that mobilizes defenses is not in the first place a matter of “concoction”. Rather it is a response to characteristics of the nature of an organisation’s work—specifically, in her study, the work of nursing. It is this “objective situation” as she calls it that arouses feelings and associated phantasies linked to “situations that exist in every individual in the deepest and most primitive levels of the mind”.11 Correspondingly the intensity and complexity of the nurse’s anxieties are to be attributed primarily to the “peculiar capacity of the objective features of the work to stimulate afresh these early situations and their accompanying emotion”.12

It is this “objective” situation, these “objective features” of the work, that trigger the panoply of socially structured defenses that Menzies goes on to describe: splitting up the nurse/patient relationship, depersonalization and categorization, detachment and denial of feelings, recourse to rituals of performance, and a variety of methods of diffusing, redistributing and obscuring the locus of responsibility.

Menzies’ work is too well known to this audience to warrant spelling out in detail, even were there time. It is extraordinarily impressive and has remained in many ways unparalleled in the subsequent literature (it is not altogether clear why). I want, however, to draw attention to the following.

First of all, I think Menzies under plays to the point of obscuring the differences between her position and Jacques’. So she refers to “the need of the members of the organisation to use it in the struggle against anxiety ... to externalize and give substance in objective reality to their characteristic psychic defense mechanisms”.13 For reasons I have already touched on this seems to me misleading and reductive. It is not that the objective situation somehow meets an internal psychic need. Rather that it elicits an internal psychic constellation and repertoire of response. We are in the territory of in-actment and not simply en-actment.

Secondly, and here in contradistinction to Jacques’ later view, Menzies is able to show how the absence of “requisite structure” is to be seen not so much as a simple failure to understand the structural logic of the organisation as object, but as itself predetermined by the defensive mechanisms mobilized in face of the anxieties associated with the work.

Thirdly and by implication, Menzies construction of what one might term the psycho-logic of the organisation, opens up new questions of just what kind of structure in such an organisation would be requisite: questions which in her original study she was not able to fully explore.

And finally, Menzies offers an account of why such further exploration can be so difficult, since over time the defensive patterning of the organisation becomes objectified, as “the way we do things”, so that the tension between organisational phantasy and organisational reality is lost. The “organisation as object”, a subject of inquiry, gets equated with the “organisation as given”, an object of adaptation. Emotional experience will then be seen not as a source of intelligence but as a disturbing or frustrating side effect, to be attributed to individual or group pathology, or the particular characteristics of staff or the vagaries of inter-personal relations.

Much of the later work within the Tavistock tradition has drawn on and made use of Menzies’ insights, sometimes coupled together with elements derived from group relations theory and/or the open systems framework developed by Eric Trist, Ken Rice, Harold Bridger and Eric Miller at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Within this tradition the preoccupation has been with a reading of the emotional life of organisations, conscious and unconscious, in terms of the “goodness of fit” between organisational structures and the psychic demands associated with particular tasks and the processes involved in carrying them out. Simultaneously, with charting the various ways in which organisations can get caught in evolving structures and ways of working that are designed to evade the burden of those demands as we register them internally.

Often, however, the relation between emotions aroused by the task and apparently unconnected patterns of behavior elsewhere in the organisation is much closer to the surface. I am thinking, for example, of the way in which the emotions a teacher may struggle to contain in working with children can spill over into her relations to one or other colleague or group of colleagues, gradually becoming fixed in an apparently intractable pattern attributed to personality differences or issues of competence, loyalty and trust. Such displacements, which often exploit functional or structural boundaries, are in my experience ubiquitous in human service institutions and can draw attention not so much to the need for fundamental structural change as for an alertness and ability to process and scan one’s experience, as it were across the organisation, to discern its meaning. This process of discernment can in turn shed light both on the nature of the work and its psychic demands and on what might be termed the strategies of containment in play, both individually and organisationally.

Beyond structure and process

It is not only, though, structure and process that define the organisation as object. No organisation stands alone, insulated from its context, any more than each of us, as individuals, stand alone. While that context is relatively stable or predictable it may be taken as a given, something an organisation needs continually to adapt to, but without having fundamentally to question either what it does or how it does what it does.

I doubt that any of the organisations represented in this room, either those we are members of or those we work with, inhabit such a context. Correspondingly our experience in and of organisations now is likely to be being shaped as much if not more by challenges from without as anxieties from within. These challenges I think, as they are registered emotionally, have to do not only with questions of viability, whether or not the organisation will survive, but equally with the cost of viability, what will and what must be risked in the cause of survival.

Another and perhaps better way of putting this might be that as the relatedness of the organisation to its context becomes more problematic and less predictable, the emotional experience within will both be shaped by and in turn signal questions of identity.

An illustration

Two years ago I was invited to facilitate an Away Day for the Board members and senior executives of a distinguished mental health trust. The focus of the day was to review and discuss clinical strategy, in the light of major challenges the organisation was facing from outside. These challenges were being driven by a combination of political pressures relating to the provision of mental health services, that were in turn related to new arrangements and requirements on the part of commissioners and funders. In response to these challenges the organisation was needing to consider a range of issues concerning the scope and substance of its clinical services and how these could best be presented or marketed to a new configuration of stakeholders, especially purchasers.

Towards the end of the day I became aware in myself of two pervasive feelings. One was a feeling of an absence: more exactly the absence of “passion”. The other was an accompanying sense of loss, associated with what I knew of the past history of the organisation and its founding vision. These feelings were linked in my mind to a difficulty the meeting appeared to have in formulating a view of what was unique about the organisation and its work that could, without embarrassment inform how it presented itself to the outside world.

I wondered aloud whether these feelings, registered in myself, were being carried by me on behalf of others. I suggested that these missing elements may have tended to restrict the creativity or boldness of people’s responses to the various challenges addressed in the review documents. This was not to say that important and constructive work had not been done. But there was something of a flavour of—none of this is of our choosing and we wouldn’t be embarking on it if we didn’t have to.

The response to this observation was muted and hard to read. Was I importing something from outside, linked to my own image of the organisation’s history and identity or was I speaking to what was present in the room. I remain unsure. Someone commented that one would not expect passion here. Its locus was rather in the day to day engagement with patients. But then unless one can access such experience in addressing strategic decisions what guarantees can there be that such decisions may not put the quality and distinctiveness of that engagement at risk.

My sense is that the absence of “passion”, understood as the spirit of the work, was serving as a defense against the acknowledgment of risk. Or rather the acknowledgment of a felt tension between two types of risk: the risk to survival, the viability of the organisation in its market; and the risk to identity, the preservation and integrity of a particular enterprise.

Enterprise and context

By “enterprise” I mean to refer to a distinctive practice or set of practices which embody an organisation’s implicit or explicit concept of the work it does; that define what the social philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, has termed its “form of activity”; its conception of the ends and goods involved; its standards of excellence and sources of knowledge.14

The enterprise and the organisation are not one and the same, One might think of the relation between them in terms of Wilfred Bion’s model of container and contained. (I do not necessarily assume, that the term “enterprise” has a realisation in every organisation, though I am inclined to think that where this is the case, the organisation-as-object will no longer carry meaning, will be experienced as empty).15

Rather than using this model, however, I prefer to view the enterprise as a factor in the “organisation as object”. I suggest that this factor is always potentially held in tension with the outward facing function of the organisation—its contextual embeddedness. Just as in my view the structure is always held in tension with process. This tension surfaces whenever the context in which the organisation operates challenges the terms on which and the means through which the organisation has, as it were, been trading.

Most, if not all, organisations, now are having to face these challenges, be they public or private. Correspondingly they experience, consciously or unconsciously, the dilemmas of balancing the claims of survival and growth against the cost to identity, to embodied practice. It is such dilemmas, arising from a dissonance between these two boundary conditions of the organisation as object, that underlie much of the emotional experience presented by the clients my colleagues and myself are currently working with—be they from banks, consultancy firms, pharmaceutical companies, or schools, colleges, hospitals or prisons. The forms this experience can take are many and may present themselves as “suitable cases for treatment”, either of the individual or of the group: stress, burnout, resistance to change, inter-group or intra-group conflict, loss of competence, intractable splitting between managerial and professional functions, etc.

I think we are only just beginning to understand the underlying dynamics that relate specifically to this dimension of organisational life and what it may evoke from our inner worlds or our group inheritance. But I remain convinced that we will go seriously astray if we collude with the pull into pathologising.

No emotional experience in organisational life is a suitable case for treatment. Rather a resource for thinking, releasing intelligence.


1 cited in Ellman,R. ( revised 1982 ) James Joyce, Oxford University Press, p98

2 Damasio,A. (2000), The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, London: Heinemenn


4 Jacques,E. (1955) ‘Social Systems as Defense Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety’, in Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann and R.E. Money-Kyrle, New Directions in Psycho-Analysis, Tavistock Publications.

5 Jacques,E (1995) ‘Why the Psychoanalytic Approach to Organisations is Dysfunctional’, Human Relations Vol 48, No 4, pp 343 - 349

6 Jacques, E (1955) op cit, p479

7 Jacques, E (1995) op cit, p343

8 Jacques, E (1995) op cit, p343

9 Jacques, E (1995) op cit, p344

10 Menzies, I (1959) ‘Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: An Empirical Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital, Human Relations, Vol 13, pp 95 - 121

11 Menzies, I (1959) op cit, p96 -7

12 Menzies, I (1959) op cit, p96-7

13 Menzies, I (1959) op cit, p100

14 MacIntyre, A.C (1981) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London: Duckworth. MacIntyre’s account is cited and drawn on in a very interesting paper, given as an inaugural lecture by the Professor of Management Studies and Director of the Said Business School at Oxford, cf John Kay (1988), The Role of Business in Society, Said Business School, University of Oxford.

15 Bion’s later reflections on the various transformations which the relation between container and contained can undergo offer many highly suggestive insights into experiences within an organisational domain, even where this is not his immediate focus, cf Bion,W.R. (1970) Attention and Interpretation: a scientific approach to insight in psycho-analysis and groups, esp Chapter 12.


I wish to acknowledge the contribution of past and present colleague at the Tavistock Consultancy Service in formulating the view of emotions as a source of organisational intelligence, proposed in this paper. I also owe a particular debt of gratitude to Dr Sharon Horowitz, without whose working collaboration parts of the paper could not have been written.

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