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This chapter begins by defining the systems psychodynamic approach, which is followed by a discussion on the history and conceptual framework of the approach. An exploration of the theory of basic assumptions ensues. Thereafter the ACIBART model with reference to anxiety and the associated defence mechanisms (individual, social and system domain), conflict, identity, boundary, authority and role including the organisational role analysis (ORA) method and task are discussed. The chapter concludes by highlighting the concepts of containment and holding.


With the enormous drive to enhance personal, group and organisational performance in the 1900s, came an understanding that the lack of goal setting and motivation was often not the source of poor growth and development (Fraher, 2004). It was realised that more often than not, it was not only the observable (overt, conscious and rational) but also the hidden underlying (covert, unconscious and irrational) personal and institutional elements that stall and sabotage growth and advancements (Obholzer, 2006). It became increasingly apparent that these “hidden” factors were crucial elements that needed exploration if the most effective outcomes were to be achieved. In essence, this approach is about recognising and mapping out the various overt and covert issues on the path ahead, while at the same time exploring ways to alleviate them and creating awareness and a monitoring system that alerts one to the presence of sabotaging or colluding factors (Gould, 2009).
More recently, the importance of emotional intelligence, defined as our capacity to see and respond to our environment and interactions within it for what they really are rather than distorting reality, is widely recognised (Roberts & Jarrett, 2006). These distortions in our way of seeing things contribute to the problems we experience in our relationships, which ultimately thwart our personal and professional growth and development. The systems psychodynamic approach helps individuals to gain a more insightful and realistic grasp of their inner and outer worlds while highlighting the connections between them (Dimitrov, 2008). The inner world in our minds informs our view of the outer world and how we encourage the outer world to respond to us. Similarly, our experiences in the outer world are deeply internalised in our inner world, thereby shaping our perceptions and configurations of our inner world (Armstrong, 2005).
Using an analogy, Obholzer (2006) explains systems psychodynamics as having two components. The first component refers to the systemic element and “focuses on the stage, the props, and the backcloth of human interaction, whether the setting is personal or work related” (p. xxii). He goes on to explain that the second component refers to the psychodynamic element and “focuses on the stage, with emphasis on the self as character and all the responses, both positive and negative, that the other players on the stage trigger in the particular self and in each other” (Obholzer, 2006, p. xxiii). Keeping in touch with and reflecting on his or her feelings, the individual can consider whether the emotional response is relevant to the situation and subsequently decide on the most appropriate way to handle the situation.
According to Neumann (1999), the term “systems psychodynamics” refers “to the collective psychological behaviour” (Neumann, 1999, p.57) that occurs within and between groups, organisations, and society. For Gould et al. (2006), the key principle of the systems psychodynamic framework is contained in the combining of the terms “systems” and “psychodynamic”. The term “systems” depicts the open systems concept of an organisational system and refers to its design, processes, its mission, reporting relationships, division of labour, the nature of work tasks, levels of authority, primary tasks and boundaries and the transactions across them (Miller & Rice, 1975). The term “psychodynamic” represents individual experiences and mental processes (e.g. transference, resistance, fantasy and object relations) along with the experiences of unconscious group and social processes (Hirschhorn & Barnett, 1993).
Moreover, systems psychodynamics speaks to an evolving body of knowledge observing work and life in organisations that facilitates a deeper understanding of the whole system in order to take action for the purpose of sustainable improvement and development in functioning, performance and well-being (Stapley, 1996). In this approach, one strives to “gain a good enough understanding of what is happening or not happening in a system in order to take effective action (or in-action) to improve in a more lasting way the functioning of that system in its environment, while offering opportunities for psychic development for the people concerned” (Vansina & Vansina-Cobbaert, 2008, p.114).
The basic hypothesis of this approach relates to the employee who is seen as a microsystem approaching the work situation with unfulfilled unconscious family needs, stemming from relationships with parental figures and significant others, that he or she attempts to fulfil in the context of work (Czander, 1993). However, the employee experiences unconscious conflict because in reality the organisational role or person in role is not his or her parental figure or significant other. These needs are inevitably frustrated as they are not aligned with the reality of the work situation, causing anxiety for the employee and/or group as a collective system (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). Working from a systems psychodynamic perspective, the primary task is to push the boundaries of awareness in order to enhance understanding of the deeper, covert meaning of all organisational behaviour (Smit & Cilliers, 2006).
Because this framework is two-pronged, it first places the issue of concern in a broad systemic context, be it the personal family system, the work group, the organisational system, the colleague system, the manager-subordinate system or broader society (Miller, 1993). Secondly, in line with the psychodynamic field, it studies the emotional aspects and contributions of the various parts of the system (Armstrong, 2004). The unspoken, not thought of, denied and repressed issues, both personal and organisational, are explored.


While systems psychodynamics had its birth with the publication of Miller and Rice‟s seminal volume Systems of organization (1967), Miller and Rice did not explicitly make use of the term in their book. According to Gould (cited in Fraher, 2004b), Miller coined the term systems psychodynamics over informal discussions about their work in the late 1980s, and the concept grew from there. It was not until 1999, when Neumann released her book, Systems psychodynamics in the service of political organizational change, that the concept of systems psychodynamics was explicitly discussed in a scholarly publication (Fraher, 2004b).
As an interdisciplinary field, systems psychodynamics integrates four theoretical approaches, namely the practice of psychoanalysis, open systems theory, object relations and the theories and methods of group relations (Dimitrov, 2008).


Aside from the conservative social climate, the Victorian era (1837-1901) was associated with significant advances in medicine, science and technology. One of the advances in thinking during this period was that of Sigmund Freud‟s theories of psychoanalysis (Dimitrov, 2008). Although psychoanalysis showed an early interest in the nature of group and organisational processes, neither Freud nor his colleagues followed through with this line of theorising (Gould et al., 2006). However, while Freud was not considered a group theorist, his psychoanalytic theories relating to individuals and the impact he had on the work of Melanie Klein can be credited with providing the building blocks for the theoretical foundation of systems psychodynamics (Fraher, 2004b). Moreover, systems psychodynamics is said to have originated from psychoanalysis, as a consequence of trained psychoanalysts, such as Jaques (1953), departing from the established discipline of psychoanalytic therapy and embarking on the study of social systems (Colman & Geller, 1985).
Rejecting the rational view of work, the psychoanalytic perspective maintains that statistical analysis provides little information on organisational behaviour, groups and people working in the system (Gould et al., 2006). The premise of the psychoanalytic approach is that unconscious and irrational processes and dynamics contribute to organisational life (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). Previously unresolved relationships and dynamics within the family system, that is, with parents (as authority figures) and siblings (as rivalry figures), are transferred into present-day work relationships (Maccoby, 2004). It is thought that these processes and dynamics become more pronounced in instances where there is real or perceived risk and anxiety in taking up a role and fulfilling organisational tasks (Long, 2006). These unconscious,irrational processes and dynamics influence performance and behaviour at work as well as relationships with the external environment. Overcome by these irrational processes and dynamics, they generate for us collusive fantasies about relatedness to others and offer a distorted mind-set that shapes inappropriate and dysfunctional behaviours (Jarret & Kellner, 1996). According to Armstrong (2005), effective resolution can only be realised when the organisation moves beyond surface level issues to address these deeper underlying complexities and introduce relevant changes at that level.

Open systems theory

The second element of the quartet of influences on the systems psychodynamic perspective, relates to the task and boundary awareness from open systems theory and the work of Von Bertalanffy (1950). Furthermore, the work of Lewin (1947), in which he noted the importance of studying groups as a whole significantly influenced open systems theory. It should be noted, however, that Miller‟s (1959) paper on boundary differentiation together with the work of Rice, Hill, and Trist (1950) in which they described the organisation as an open system, are considered touchstones of open systems theory. Rice is also recognised for introducing the concept of primary task in relation to open systems theory. In addition, Miller and Rice (1967) in their book, Systems of organizations, further developed the concepts of organisational task, boundaries and transaction across them.
Open systems theory allowed for the concurrent study of the relationships between employee and the work group, the work group and the institution, and the institution and its external environment (Fraher, 2004a). Rice (cited in Miller, 1993, p.10) noted, that the open system “exists and can only exist by the exchange of materials with their environment…the process of importing, converting, and exporting materials is the work the system has to do to live”. This perspective made available an important connecting concept, that of boundary, in that the flow of materials in and out of the institutional system occurs across a boundary which serves to both separate and connect the institutional system and its environment (Miller, 1993). Open system theorists perceive this permeable boundary region as an important area for the exercise of leadership. A loose boundary could allow for the external environment to become too influential, disturbing the internal work of the institution. In contrast, a highly rigid impermeable boundary may result in the institution becoming stagnant and less flexible to external environmental changes and demands (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). The survival of the system is therefore dependent on an appropriate balance between insulation and permeability in the boundary area.
Furthermore, this notion of boundary management has also been applied to individuals in relation to their boundary management (Fraher, 2004a). Drawing on the theories of Freud and Klein, Miller (1993) and Rice (1965) equated the ego function of individuals with the boundary area. According to Rice (1965, p. 11), “in a mature individual the ego mediates the relationship between the inner world of good and bad objects and external world of reality, and thus takes, in relation to the personality, a leadership role”. Hence when individuals are engaged in group and institutional life they are influenced by both their external institutional context as well as their internal world which is informed by their past experiences, beliefs and expectations. An ego is said to be mature if it is able to define the boundary and distinguish between what is inside the individual or human system and what is outside the individual or human system, and regulate the exchanges between the inside and outside in such a manner that the individual can achieve his or her task. Nonetheless, the institutional system can also conjure up primitive feelings, such as dependency or aggression, and unbeknown to the individual, these feelings slip past the ego function. Inevitably these feelings have an impact on the individual and institution (Fraher, 2004b).
Accordingly, Koortzen and Cilliers (2002) describe open systems theory as a field that examines the relationships and connections between systems, that is, the relationships and relatedness between, say, the individual and group, individual and institution, and group and other groups (Lowman, 2002). Notably, the system is able to maintain a steady state for as long as it adapts to change (Haslebo, 2000).

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Object relations theory

Having conceptualised the person as object seeking, object relations theory is primarily concerned with the analysis of the person‟s relations with both external and internal objects, which can be real or fantasised (Klein, 1975). The term “object” is used because it refers not only to a person, but may also include an organisation, group, idea or symbol. With an understanding of the person as object seeking, this theory explores the several ways in which a person reacts to the need to be attached, related and linked to other objects such as family, people, work and institutions (Czander, 1993).

The work of Melanie Klein

Crucial to the foundation of systems psychodynamics is Melanie Klein‟s object relations theory (Dimitrov, 2008). Klein (1985) proposes that the adult‟s unconscious and self-protecting defences originate in childhood. She further suggests that anxiety and stress of daily living can result in unconscious regressive acts which distort perception of the challenging situation, thereby offering a means to cope with it. These defensive strategies are not befitting of the real situation and could include splitting of good and bad, projection of one‟s own feelings onto others and denial of thoughts, feelings and experiences that are too anxiety provoking to bear (Jarrett & Kellner, 1996).
Melanie Klein is also responsible for the conceptualisation of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions (Armstrong, 2005). Klein theorised that the predominant defences for avoiding pain are splitting (dividing feelings into distinct opposite elements e.g. good and bad) and projection (disowning one‟s unacceptable feelings/impulses and locating them in others), and this she called the paranoid-schizoid position (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). She preferred the term position as it portrayed the notion of an amalgamation of object relations, anxieties and defence mechanisms that continue all through life, with one position usually dominating over the other. The paranoid-schizoid position is based on the idea that infants perceive people as part objects and not whole complex entities (Miller & Rice, 1975). In this position paranoia is the dominant anxiety and splitting and projection the dominant defence mechanisms. This position is characterised by splitting off and projecting outwards bad parts of the self, subsequently creating external figures that are feared and hated (Colman, 1975). The splitting and projective processes relieve one from the anxieties that emerge due to attempts to contain conflicting needs and conflicting emotions. It is the initial position and occurs in early childhood but recurs throughout one‟s life. A threat to survival or self-esteem results in the reappearance of paranoid-schizoid functioning (Stapley, 1996).
With the growing integration of the ego and the recognition of whole objects, the previously split feelings and experiences of for example love and hate, acceptance and rejection, are eventually integrated during a stage Klein refers to as the depressive position (Klein, 1975). In this position, depressive anxiety is the dominant anxiety and is associated with the fear that one‟s own destructive impulses will destroy loved ones and dependent objects. This introduces feelings of ambivalence and guilt about the anger and hate one might feel towards loved ones (Czander, 1993). Reparative efforts are used to restore the loved internal and external object and this process forms the basis for all creativity and sublimation. In this position one is more reflective and able to contain projections, discussing and thinking them through rather than acting them out. Again this position recurs through life and people oscillate between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive position (Baker, 2006).
Object relations theorists such as Klein placed much emphasis on the environment (Atkins, Kellner, & Linklater, 1997). In the early years, parents are considered the child‟s environment and if they are “good enough” they serve as a barrier between the child and the threats stemming from the external environment (Klein, 1985). Moreover by providing a reliable and empathic environment, the parents are also able to protect the child from her/his own internal world. Kleinian theory suggests that if the parent-child relationship is positive and “good enough” it provides the child with an idealised image of her/his parents which in turn lays the foundation and shapes the child‟s capacity to work (Stern, 1985).
For Klein (1975) engaging with the external world such as working in an organisation, serves as a means of controlling and enduring one‟s internal world. In that, working in an organisation provides the individual with an opportunity to project or displace internal conflicts onto work activities or objects, consequently allowing for internal anxiety to be controlled and internal conflicts to be resolved (Klein, 1985). As a result work is perceived as an attempt to control and overcome internal conflicts and their subsequent anxiety.

Group relations

Wilfred Bion, an analysand of Klein‟s, extended her conceptual framework by applying it to adults and groups (Dimitrov, 2008). He put forward a theory of group processes based largely on her theories of splitting, part objects, projective identification and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. He shed light on the relevance of these concepts for understanding group processes. Leaving behind the traditional psychoanalytic approach, Bion adopted the idea of studying the group as a whole, a notion first introduced by Le Bon and McDougall whose contributions were fundamental to the history of group relations (Gould et al., 2006). Group as a whole is defined as the “behaviour of a group as a social system and the individuals‟ relatedness to that system” (Dimitrov, 2008, p.4). Extending Klein‟s theories, Bion explored how group membership and experiences in groups can trigger primitive conflicting feelings similar to those evoked by the mother during early childhood. It should be noted that while there have been significant advances in the field of systems psychodynamics, Bion‟s work and the Kleinian concepts in which it is rooted, in part, are still considered the hallmark (Gould et al., 2006).

The theory of basic assumptions

While working with small groups in institutions such as Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital and the Tavistock Clinic, Bion made observations which shaped his theories of group behaviour (Dimitrov, 2008). It is said that the most critical contribution Bion made to group relations theory was to distinguish between the two behavioural levels present in all groups, that is, the productive sophisticated work group and the basic assumption group. In the basic assumption group mode of functioning, Bion describes three group-specific defence mechanisms, namely basic assumption dependency, basic assumption fight/flight and basic assumption pairing (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003).
Bion (1961) hypothesised that in the sophisticated work group mode of functioning, behaviours and activities are directed towards rational task performance with intent focus and close contact with reality. In this mode of functioning, the group operates as an open system. In contrast, in the basic assumption group mode of functioning, behaviours and activities are oriented towards fulfilling emotional needs and alleviating the anxieties of the group together with avoiding pain and other feelings work might arouse (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). In the basic assumption mode, the group operates as if it was a closed system, ignoring and defending itself from external reality. Basic assumption functioning occurs in groups whose tasks are perceived as dangerous (Lawrence, 2000). It has also been suggested that this mode comes into play when members of the group experience excessive anxiety, task performance is perceived as extremely difficult, and group consensus is threatened by envy, jealousy or competition (Stapley, 2006). Such a situation arouses basic assumption behaviour because it serves as an alternative easier way out.
Moreover, in the basic assumption group there is an underlying belief that members are fully equipped by instinct to fulfil group activities (Lawrence, 2000). However, in the work group, members are mindful that they need to learn and develop their personal and interpersonal skills in order to make meaningful contributions to the task. Given this, the work group state leads to advancement, while the basic assumption state leads to stagnation and regression (Stapley, 2006). In basic assumption mode, the group conducts itself “as if” it is gathered with a different goal in mind than task completion, and behaves “as if” it came together for dependency, fight or flight or pairing. Consequently, consuming energy to defend itself against internal fears and anxieties, the group does not advance or achieve any constructive outputs (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). According to Bion (1961), while a basic assumption can change several times in an hour or persist for months, only one basic assumption operates in a group at any given time. In addition, in the life of a group, members oscillate between the work group and basic assumption mode of functioning, with each member of the group carrying a valency for a particular basic assumption.
a Basic assumption dependency (baD)
In group situations, more often than not, there are instances were conflicting ideas and feelings exist resulting in possible pain and anxiety for members (Stapley, 2006). The group may subsequently regress from work group state to basic assumption state. Under the basic assumption dependency, members behave as if the group exists for someone to take care of its members, and inevitably a leader is mobilised to assume the role of the omnipotent protector (Bion, 1989). The group unconsciously determines the most ready and suitable member to assume this leadership role. This person is thought of as all-knowing and able to do and understand everything and anything. The climate in the group is one of helplessness, powerlessness and dependence on an individual to provide guidance, protection and nurturance (Smit & Cilliers, 2006). In this state of functioning, characterised by the wish and concern for security, members behave as if they are inadequate, immature and devoid of purposeful thought with nothing to contribute. However, sooner or later the leader will be experienced as a failure for having not met the impossible expectations of the group. The group takes offence and reacts with anger and resentment, subsequently encouraging another group member to replace the failed leader (Obholzer & Roberts, 1994). Inevitably the new leader will also be faced with failure of the impossible tasks set out by the group, and the vicious cycle continues.
b Basic assumption pairing (baP)
Under the basic assumption of pairing, the primary concern for group members is uniting as a defence against anxiety (Koortzen & Cilliers, 2002). Adopting a mood of irrational hope, the group behaves as if the pairing or uniting of two people, ideas or concepts within the group, or one person or idea within and one outside the group, will save the group (Stapley, 2006). Again, those with a valency for wishful and hopeful thinking may assume the role providing optimism for the group that something “magical” will occur and rescue the group from its difficulties.
Furthermore, in the pairing state, as a defence against anxiety the group looks to the future hoping that an upcoming event will bring with it a “magical” resolution (Bion, 1961). The group shows no interest in working realistically towards this future but relies on hope and this “magical” resolution. Following the event, members are inevitably left disappointed, but hope quickly returns because of the idea that another future event will prove more fruitful (Lawrence, 2000).
According to Koortzen and Cilliers (2002), in order to cope with anxiety, alienation and loneliness, the individual or group tries to pair up with perceived powerful individuals or groups. Pairing can also manifest as splitting. The experience of pain and anxiety may prompt splitting of the whole group into smaller groups where feelings of safety and belonging can be met (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). This may lead to intra- and inter-group conflict.
c Basic assumption fight/flight (baF)
In the state of fight/flight, the group behaves as if it has come together to fight with or flee from an “enemy” or imminent “danger” (Klein & Pritchard, 2006). The basic assumption of fight/flight is characterised by irrationality, over activity and earnestness, without much careful and rational thought being applied. Engaging in this state, group members avoid anxiety and circumvent challenging tasks by creating an external enemy (Stapley, 2006).
The primary concern for group members is self-preservation in the face of anxiety (Gould et al., 2006). It is therefore imperative to find a leader to take such action, as action is a critical means to preserve the group (Huffington, 2004). However, leadership in this state is based on paranoia and once the threat passes, the leader is no longer needed until some form of threat resurfaces again. Again, this operating state hinders growth and advancement as the group‟s energies are directed towards its phantasies while keeping reality at a distance (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). This keeps at bay the disturbing reality that the threat lies within the group and not outside.
d Basic assumption one-ness (we-ness) (baO)
A fourth basic assumption of one-ness was later added to group relations thinking by Turquet (Lawrence, 2000). Under the basic assumption of oneness, team members wish to join in a powerful union with an omnipotent force in order to free itself from active participation while assuming passive membership. This relieves anxiety and results in a feeling of wholeness and well-being. Searching for unity, groups can be seen striving towards cohesion and synergy, assuming that problems will be resolved because of this strong united force. In so doing, there is a complete denial of differences accompanied by the notion that all people are alike. It is as if team members become lost within the all-consuming feeling of unity (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003).
e Basic assumption me-ness (baM)
Contrary to one-ness, the fifth basic assumption group of me-ness places emphasis on separateness as a defence against anxiety (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2003). In that group mentality, members feel threatened or anxious about losing their individuality and thereby deny the existence of the group which is perceived as a source of persecution. In the basic assumption state of me-ness, the individual escapes into his or her own fantasy and safe, comfortable inner world denying the reality and disturbing presence of the group which is perceived as contaminating (Smit & Cilliers, 2006). The existence of the individual is of utmost importance and within this culture of selfishness exists the individual‟s reality in which he or she is only aware of his or her boundaries which have to be protected at all costs (Stapley, 2006).
It is thought that contemporary society with its turmoil and associated risks, has given prominence to the basic assumption of me-ness, in that, me-ness is said to be stimulated by conscious and unconscious social anxieties and fears of this time (Koortzen & Cilliers, 2002). As individuals become cognisant of disturbing realities in the external environment, they withdraw deeper into their safe inner realities as a defence against confronting challenges. Interactions in the basic assumption state of me-ness are mechanical and devoid of affect (Lawrence, 2000).

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The acronym BART discussed by Cytrynbaum and Noumair (2004) speaks to the constructs of boundary, authority, role and task which are the main areas explored within the Tavistock conference framework. Building on BART, Cilliers and Koortzen (2005) developed the CIBART model which serves as a framework and method to qualitatively assess and understand the causes of conflict and the subsequent resolve or work through of the systems conflict dynamics. It is widely maintained that conflict within and between an individual, group or institution results from and leads to uncertainty and anxiety, defined as a fear of the future (Cilliers & Koortzen, 2005; Stapley, 2006). Following from CIBART, a seventh construct, that of anxiety was added to the model, with the resultant ACIBART (Van Niekerk, 2011) model emerging. In this study, it is argued that the changes in the organisational and family system in relation to gender parity and the role of women lead to opportunities, but also evoke feelings of uncertainty and anxiety within the system and for its members. This subsequently results in intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict within the systems as well as the use of defensive and sabotaging behaviours. Hence in this study, the ACIBART model is utilised to assess and understand the causes of conflict and anxiety within the systems and how this contributes to how women take up their domestic and management roles and their subsequent impact on the work-family interface.
The seven ACIBART constructs are described below.

5.7 ROLE
5.8 TASK

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