The Field

The psychoanalytic study of organizations, like psychoanalysis itself, contains a number of overlapping concepts and approaches. Over the years it has been developed by organizational consultants, academics, managers, and students who have sought to look beneath the surface at the more complex and hidden dimensions of human behavior in organizations. Here are some definitions based on comments by our members.

For many, this growing field of inquiry is primarily about methods to study the unconscious aspects of groups and systems: ideas, perceptions, relationships, and feelings that are driven out of awareness because of the intense anxiety they arouse. The hallmark of this unconscious domain is irrational behavior, and the goal of a psychoanalytic inquiry is to uncover the unconscious logic that helps to make sense of the irrational, to disclose the buried “roots of meaning.”

For others, the focus is on specific ideas, extending and adapting traditional psychoanalytic concepts developed in the study of individual persons to groups and larger systems. “Transference” and “countertransference,” for example, refer to the sets of assumptions, often derived from childhood experience, that shape and color current relationships. Such influences are often seen in relationships with figures of authority. “Projection” and “projective identification” refer to the displacement of attributes outward on to others; on a group level, they help to explain the phenomena of idealization and scapegoating. The psychoanalytic concept of individual defenses against anxiety has been extended to the concept of “social defenses” – and so on.

For still others, the psychoanalytic perspective is about expanding our narrow “bandwidth of consciousness,” typically conveying a tiny percentage of information about human experience. By paying more attention to human subjectivity, to dreams, to emotions, to imagination and fantasy, it is possible to fill in the “gaps between what’s espoused and what’s enacted,” to gain “a more complicated and complete insight into what happens in organizations.” This approach often emphasizes the layered and ambivalent qualities of human motivation as well as the “socially constructed” nature of our institutions.

The focus of a psychoanalytic inquiry in organizations can be individual behavior in work roles but it can also be group behavior in teams, committees, boards of directors, or any of the many forms in which individuals join together around a task. It can also focus on larger systems: corporations, government departments, foundations, regional agencies, and so forth. Society itself as well as international relations are topics for our inquiry.

These approaches and insights are used by consultants in their work with organizations, managers who wish to understand more deeply the systems in which they work, and social and organizational theoreticians who hope to build a fuller understanding of the world of work.

ISPSO members make a substantial contribution to the literature in this field. The library includes publications by individual members.

The link on the left to related organizations and training or academic programs will help to illustrate the full range of our developing enterprise. The webcasts link will connect you to what we hope to be a series of video webcasts of some of the leading thinkers in this field.