Exploring systems psychodynamics: the weird and wonderful world of the unconscious.

Sonja Blignaut
15 min readDec 28, 2020
Photo by Lachlan Ross from Pexels

My first experience of a group relations conference and a systems psychodynamic consulting stance was weird and profoundly unsettling. It was also one of the richest learning experiences in my life. We spent five days in a state of confusion, ambiguity, and often deep frustration. The learning environment set up by the faculty felt artificial and rigid. We found ourselves in a world of rigidly held time boundaries, highly ambiguous instructions, and weird consultants that kept speaking in riddles (or what my husband called “Lord of the Rings language”). After a while, in this environment, defenses could no longer be maintained, and patterns started emerging: power plays, boundary challenges, scapegoating, and all kinds of gender and race dynamics. After three days, it suddenly became crystal clear: this weird setup was a near-perfect mirror of every organization I have ever worked in and every social system I have ever been part of.

After that first experience, I have attended several other learning events and joined a learning group. The best way I describe what I have gained is a profoundly different way of seeing, a new lens through which to observe human systems. Looking at the theory and practice of systems psychodynamics through the lens of complexity, I could see many and rich synergies. For example, the use of constraints and emergence, taking a non-reductionist approach and systemic perspective, working with roles, not individuals, and the importance of relationships and interactions, to name a few.

Attending these events has become a ritual for me, a way of disrupting myself by intentionally entering a space of utter ambiguity and uncertainty and emergence. Much of what I have learned about how to “be” in uncertainty has come from this field. So I thought I’d start this series of exploratory blogs reflecting on the field of systems psychodynamics. I also expect this to be the most controversial of the ideas I will explore as systems psychodynamics (sometimes called group relations) often elicit negative and cynical responses. Reasons are many and varied, and I will try to unpack some of these later on.

Before going further, a caveat: I am not an expert in the field of psychology. I have a strong interest and have gone to great lengths to experience and be trained in systems psychodynamic processes. My intent here is not to build a scientific case for these ideas. I wanted to start here because I believe these ideas provide useful lenses for many other areas I would like to explore. I cannot do this field justice in one or even several posts, so I recognise that I may be omitting several key contributors and ideas.

What is systems psychodynamics?

According to Amy Fraher, “Systems psychodynamics is an interdisciplinary field that integrates three disciplines — the practice of psychoanalysis, the theories and methods of group relations, and open systems perspectives.”

Petriglieri & Petriglieri states that “Systems psychodynamic scholarship focuses on the interaction between collective structures, norms, and practices in social systems and the cognitions, motivations, and emotions of members of those systems. It is most useful to investigate the unconscious forces that underpin the persistence of dysfunctional organizational features and the appeal of irrational leaders. It is also well equipped to challenge arrangements that stifle individual and organizational development.”

A diverse group of scholars and practitioners have contributed to the field over the years, many related to the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations Both Fraher and Petriglieri (referenced at the end) offer excellent summaries of the history of the field if you want to know more.

Early ideas came from among others Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein (psychoanalysis); Wilfred Bion, A.K. Rice, and Kurt Lewin & Eric Trist (group relations & socio-psychology) and Andras Angyal, Ludwig von Bertalanffy and later Russ Ackoff, Ross Ashby and Einar Thorsrud (open systems theory).

Because of its psychoanalytic foundations, systems psychodynamics unapologetically engages with “the unconscious”.

While many different approaches address unconscious aspects of human experience and behaviour, psychoanalysis addresses it head-on.

Whereas all human sciences advance towards the unconscious only with their back to it, waiting for it to unveil itself as fast as consciousness is analysed, as it were backwards, psychoanalysis, on the other hand, points directly towards it, with a deliberate purpose — not towards that which must be rendered gradually more explicit by the progressive illumination of the implicit, but towards what is there and yet is hidden — Foucault, 1970, p. 374).

The unconscious

Ideas and theories around the unconscious mind didn’t originate with Freud. However, in no small way, his work popularised it. Freud is a controversial figure, and much of his thinking has been proven spectacularly wrong. Unfortunately, this creates a tendency to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.

We know now that the unconscious brain doesn’t exist or function in the way Freud suggested; however, we know that the brain performs countless tasks that we are not consciously aware of, such as managing autonomous bodily processes.

I think it is fair to say that while scientists have made great strides in understanding consciousness, it is still a topic of active debate and research among various disciplines. And while the dichotomy or split between conscious and unconscious may not be entirely accurate, there seems a broad acknowledgment that things influence our cognitive functioning, relational interaction, and meaning-making that is not in our conscious awareness. (To keep things simple I will keep using the language of “the unconscious”.)

Psychodynamic scholars and practitioners’ overt focus on the unconscious and their subjective interpretive stance are often viewed as unscientific by scholars from other and even related disciplines.

In their excellent 2020 paper, Gianpiero and Jennifer Petriglieri writes:

“The insights that taking a psychodynamic lens make available, reviewers told us, are compelling but not convincing, more poetic than precise. On the one hand, those are fair characterizations of the main protagonist and construct of psychodynamics-the unconscious-whose work is always to compel and seldom to convince. On the other hand, systems psychodynamic scholarship can help scholarship reconcile these dualities. …. the best scholarship in this vein has the precision of poetics — rather than the precision one might associate with a scale. The kind of precision that does not sacrifice richness and leaves room for contradiction.

Just because it is an interpretive, and at times critical, perspective, it does not mean that everything goes in systems psychodynamic theorizing. Quite the contrary. Its interpretive methods call for ruthless self-examination, as well as, and as a form of, data analysis”

Besides being viewed as unscientific by academia and other psychological disciplines, the focus on unconscious dynamics often confronts individuals and groups with highly uncomfortable realizations that trigger defenses. Many systems (if not most) maintain a form of self-deception where their stated objective is to change, but they act to protect the status quo, i.e., they say they want to change but do everything they can not to. With its non-positivistic focus on the unconscious dynamics, motivations, and patterns in human systems, systems psychodynamics is threatening to anyone colluding with such facades.

For these and other reasons, systems psychodynamics has been largely marginalized. I agree with Gabriel & Karr (2001) when they say: “It is our contention that psychoanalysis opens valuable windows into the world of organisations and management, offering insights that are startlingly original, have extensive explanatory powers and can find ample practical implementations.” And I am also sorry that the following has not happened: “It is also our contention that as scholars of management and organisations move beyond the standard platform of organisational theory, centered on rationality, hierarchy and authority and become more interested in symbolic, irrational, emotional and discursive dimensions of organisational life, the insights of psychoanalysis will become more mainstream to the field and its applications more wide-spread.”

To lay the groundwork for a more detailed exploration, I need to highlight a few foundational understandings:

Systems psychodynamics is not about individuals only: it is about the complex interplay between individuals and collectives (or systems).

Because of its link to psychoanalysis, many assume that this work focuses on the individual. That is not the case. Systems psychodynamics is “a term used to refer to the collective psychological behavior” (Neumann, 1999, p. 57) within and between groups and organizations. “Systems psychodynamics, therefore, provides a way of thinking about energizing or motivating forces resulting from the interconnection between various groups and sub-units of a social system” (Neumann, 1999, p. 57). Fraher, 2004

One of the most valuable things I have learned in the years that I have been exploring this field has been to look at individual behavior through a systemic lens. Instead of “problematising” individuals, we can see every person (or sub-system) as playing a role on behalf of or in service of the broader system. Individuals labeled as disruptive or lazy, in need of training or performance management become “voices of the system.” We become curious about what they represent or what role or function they are fulfilling on behalf of the system. We ask questions like: How does it serve the system for someone to take up the role of disruptor, or the challenger, or the nurturer? What is it in service of? For example, a pattern that plays out over and over again in virtually any system is scapegoating. Often a new leader is first set up in the role of savior, and later becomes the scapegoat that must carry away the group’s failure. Removing a so-called problematic individual seldom has any benefit as another person will typically take up the role. This is not to say that there are never real performance or other issues with individuals. Still, inter-personal dysfunctions are only considered when systemic, and intra-personal ones have been ruled out.

It is deeply humanising, acknowledging that people inside and outside of organisations are emotional beings with personal and family histories.

Gabriel & Carr writes:

“Viewing people as emotional beings neither denies nor underestimates the importance of reason and rationality in human affairs. Even rational acts, however, such as the pursuit of profit or career, the avoidance of waste or danger, the punishment of offenders and so forth, are often underwritten by an emotional agenda, such as ambition, excitement, anger, fear, nostalgia and so forth. ….

In short then, a psychoanalytic approach to organisations looks at people in organisations, not as rational agents, as passive functionaries, as economic beings or as cogs on a machine, but as distinct individuals, with emotional and fantasy lives, with histories and pasts, diverse emotions and developing identities.”

In laymen’s terms, I would describe this as “we all have stuff”. In our formative years, we all were all of imperfect human systems. Even the most functional of families or the best of teachers weren’t perfect. We bring this “stuff” with us to work, we may want to believe that we can “leave it at the door” like we would a coat, but we can’t. It influences how we relate to others, especially to authority figures. It also profoundly impacts how we “show up” in our formal roles. While there has been an over-focus on individual development and too little emphasis on the contexts, processes, and structures we subject people to in the world of OD, I firmly believe one can never afford to ignore the impact individuals and the impact their psychodynamics have the systems they belong to (and vice versa).

It challenges over-simplified views on human motivation.

“In contrast to “motivation theories,” ritually taught in management schools, psychoanalytic approaches recognize the complexity and dynamic quality of human motivation. Motivation is not a question of finding the right button and pressing it, but recognizing that, through work, people pursue many different conscious and unconscious aims.

Some people “sublimate” or channel into work most of their physical and emotional energies. … For many people, work is simply a necessity, earning a living. For others, it represents an attempt to placate a critical super-ego that inherited the parent’s, “You don’t try hard enough.” Yet others work hard to build their self-esteem, to earn the respect of others, or ostentatiously to display commitment to their organisation. — Baum, 1987; Obholzer, 1999; Smelser, 1998). Some may work non-stop as workaholics to outperform their rivals, often acting like children seeking a special affection from the heart of a parent) or, equally, to dodge domestic obligations towards spouses, children, and other “loved ones.” Some may even work as a means of overcoming their fear of death, seeking immortality in the legacy which they may leave — Sievers, 1986).

In all of these instances, then, work is a range of activities driven by complex motives, which may express both instrumental rationality and hidden unconscious desires, or the latter masquerading as the former).” — Yiannis & Carr

This is important to understand from an organizational development perspective. It has profound implications for how people “show up” in their formal roles in organizations and notions like engagement and performance management. It also has implications for leadership and the impact of managers on the wellbeing of staff. If a person in authority works non-stop for whatever reason, they can set unrealistic expectations for people who report to them. Sometimes the culture of an organization can be shaped by workaholic leaders. Seeking to change this without acknowledging the authority and other psychodynamics at play is futile.

Being part of organizations provoke anxiety.

“One of the most important insights into organizations’ functioning concerns the causes and consequences of anxiety. Anxiety is seen as an incapacitating emotion which individuals defend themselves against through the mechanisms of defense. Organisations are undoubtedly systematic generators of anxiety. They breed anxiety in many forms by making unyielding demands on individuals — that they should control their spontaneity and emotion; that they should work with people they do not necessarily like, doing tasks which they do not necessarily enjoy, often being treated in an impersonal and cold way they do not particularly appreciate; that they should display loyalty and commitment towards an entity that may casually dismiss “redundant employees”; that they should do tasks for which they do not feel adequately prepared or clearly briefed, that are psychologically demanding and, sometimes, physically dangerous. In addition, they exacerbate anxieties that individuals may carry with them over their self-worth, their competence, and their ability to get on with others.” — Yiannis & Carr

I sometimes wonder why I choose to work with large corporate organizations. Most of them, in my experience, are dehumanizing and brutal places. Never has it been more evident than during this COVID19 pandemic. In narrative inquiries we have conducted in organizations worldwide to understand people’s work experiences in this pandemic, we found a dominant pattern that describes systems that lack empathy. People tell of performance expectations have stayed the same or even increased, despite staff members needing to navigate remote working, lack of childcare, and the constant existential threat of being in a global pandemic. Stories abound of micro-managing leaders employing surveillance techniques on staff and meetings scheduled at all hours with no respect for family obligations and self-care. People are burning out, and I suspect that we are already starting to see the emergence of another pandemic, this time relating to mental health.

Defenses against anxiety emerge on an individual and systemic level.

Individuals have many and varied ways of defending against anxiety, and so do groups and systems.

“Many defenses against anxiety may be furnished by organisations themselves, such as hierarchies, rules, boundaries, and so forth.

The downside of these organisational or social defences against anxiety was well appreciated in the early work of Jaques and Menzies-Lythe, who noted that in containing anxieties, organisations often resort to dysfunctional routines which stunt creativity, block the expression of emotion or conflict, and, above all, undermine the organisation’s rational and effective functioning. Just as individual defenses immerse the individual in a world of neurotic make-believe detached from reality, so too do organisational defenses immerse their members in collective delusions, in which they pursue chimerical projects or run blindly away from non-existent threats, while disregarding real problems and opportunities. Like the individual neurotic, the organisation may then find itself at the centre of a vicious circle. Just as neurotic’s personal self-delusions deepen the sufferings for which they ostensibly offer consolation, likewise corporate delusions merely re-enforce the malaise of the organisation.

It is now generally agreed that the management of anxiety is a core task in every organisation — excessive anxiety leads to highly dysfunctional defensive routines, while inadequate anxiety breeds complacency, inertia and gradual decay — Baum, 1987; French and Vince, 1999; Gould et al., 1999; Hirschhorn, 1988; Stacey, 1992; Stein, 2000).” — Gabriell & Carr

Understanding that much of what we view as dysfunction in large organizational systems are, in fact, social defenses that work to contain anxiety and help the system remain productive is an instrumental insight. It explains why people will complain about yet protect dysfunctional aspects of a system. It also helps explain things that could seem irrational to an external consultant. An example I have encountered many times involves dealing with issues involving diversity and inclusion in large organizations. This provokes significant amounts of anxiety and more than one organization, I have seen elaborate structures set up, ostensibly for this purpose, but unconsciously set up for failure. Many create so-called D&I forums or committees tasked with championing inclusion across all areas in the business. These forums are often tasked with “holding management to account” and given the supposed mandate and authority to challenge management and executive teams when they need to. In many organizations, this is one gigantic “check-box exercise” that allows them to pretend to address these issues while maintaining the status quo. These forums are staffed with junior personnel who would very likely never survive actually challenging a C-suite executive, even if, on paper at least, they have the mandate to do so. The critical thing to ,realize however, is that this is usually not intentional or even conscious. Setting things up in this way serves as an unconscious defense.

Organizations are open systems and, as parts of society, are places where broader social and cultural dynamics are enacted

As we have already established, the psycho-analysis of organizations cannot be “reduced” to the psychology of individuals. Furthermore, it is essential to recognize that individuals and systems do not exist separate from prevailing social and cultural conditions. “Social and cultural phenomena, such as religious ideas, political conflicts, and economic interests, become part of every individual’s psyche through the influence of identification with role models and even though the different uses of language. In this connection, we use the term “psychostructure” to describe the ways that language functions to “embed” such social and cultural features into the individual psyche — Carr, 1993; Maccoby, 1976).

Organisations then become arenas where wider social dynamics, such as class, race, gender, and so forth, are acted out. Different organisations may have different psychostructures; for instance, different configurations allow different displays of emotion, different manifestations of disagreement and conflict, different outlets for aggression and solidarity. These are expressed in different cultural and social artifacts that organisations use to express their identity, including buildings, logos, offices, language uses, communication devices, and so forth. All of these may then be interpreted to yield insights into shared conscious or unconscious fantasies among organisational members. In this way, a massive building may stand as a symbol of omnipotence or as a manifestation of arrogance and hubris.

Wider cultural trends, such as authoritarianism or narcissism, therefore weave themselves into the psychostructures of organisations, affecting organisational phenomena, including leadership, communication and group relations, Carr, 1993; Lasch, 1980).” — Yiannis & Carr

In the same way that organisational dynamics are continually influenced by and co-evolving with the people and structures inside, they are also open to their environment. They are continuously adapting to and being shaped by external influences. Organizations are complex adaptive systems and are nested within other complex systems. They need to be treated as complex ecosystems, not static and predictable machines.

I hope that I have set the scene in this first post to explore the potential synergies I see between this work and the thinking emerging from the field of complexity. While systems-psychodynamics have a strong systems influence, as well as complexity influences from the work of Ralph Stacey, I believe applying some of the latest thinking from complexity can further enhance these ideas. In particular, I want to look at:

- how containing or holding spaces, where anxiety can be turned into creative energy, are created through the use of boundaries and task (as forms of constraint and/or scaffolding);

- how theories around role-taking and authority might influence how we think about creating more adaptive and self-organizing organizational structures;

- rethinking leadership in complex and uncertain contexts, and in particular, enabling distributed or collective forms of leadership.

A framing that I will use to scaffold this exploration is BART — an acronym for Boundaries, Authority, Role & Task. These aspects in human systems are deeply entangled; therefore, these are not categories but rather lenses one might apply to gain insight into a system’s workings. I will explore these lenses, and how they are evolving to be more relevant in 21st century organisations in my next few posts.


Fraher, A.L., 2004. Systems Psychodynamics: The Formative Years of an

Interdisciplinary Field at the Tavistock Institute.

Foucault, M., 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.

Lewin, K., 1947. Frontiers in group dynamics: I. Human Relations, 1, 5–41.

Lewin, K., 1948. Resolving social conflicts: Selected papers on group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row.

Gabriel, Y & Carr, A., 2001. Organizations, management, and psychoanalysis: an overview.

Petriglieri, G. & Petriglieri, J.L., 2020. The return of the oppressed: A systems psychodynamic approach to organization studies. Academy of Management Annals, forthcoming



Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist. https://complexityfit.com