The Unconscious Life of Organisations 2

Menzies of course was referring to aspects of an organisation that were outside the formal life of the organisation , and not subject to widespread acknowledgement in the informal ‘private’ organisation. Indeed, these were aspects that were not even recognised at all as part of organisational life. These were ‘assumptive worlds’ , the taken for granted and the ‘irrational’ aspects of organisations, such as the fear of death in a hospital, the fear of loss of control in a probation service, the desire for revenge in a police service or court etc. The unconscious life of groups revealed by Bion – the fight /flight mechanism, the pairing and the dependence – could also be seen in organisational life.

A colleague of mine told me of an illustration of the way in which assumptive worlds become adopted by members of organisations. He attended a group dynamic training course in which the course members were divided into small groups and each member of the group was assigned a particular role. One such role was that of ‘gatekeeper’ to manage the boundary – the points of contact – between the group and the rest of the course members. In my colleague’s group, this role was allocated to a prison governor, who immediately got up and locked the door to the room in which they were meeting.


The Unconscious life of organisations 1

I’ve already discussed this idea, springing from Isobel Menzies’ work on hospitals and nursing. It’s an idea that is often articulated outside any psychodynamic framework. Rather as individuals have ‘masks’ that they wear for public consumption – often different for different audiences – and more private masks, say for family, partner, children as well as for themselves , so organisations can be viewed in the same way.


An organisation will have a public relations strategy, explicit or instinctive, which takes different forms for different audiences. The Probation Service for example, would have material about or presentations of itself designed for the general public, the Courts, partner agencies, offenders and so on, each forming a ‘mask’ that seemed appropriate to the target audience.

Then it would have a formal and explicit set of presentations to itself – policies, HR procedures, performance reporting formats, management and meeting structures.

It also had an unacknowledged existence, known about and often tolerated but not discussed in the formal organisational life. This would include gossip about bosses and staff, evasions of bureaucratic expectations and so on. One of my colleagues for example, who in the formal organisation was firm in her advocacy of the need for regular supervision and appraisal as an essential component of good management, was also known as someone who often cancelled supervision sessions in the face of other demands, and when supervision did take place would take up large parts of the meetings by talking about herself. This was widely known but never discussed in the formal organisation.


Becoming a manager – 3 years +

So my notes went on:

  1. Growth – 3 years +
  1. Teamship
  2. Secretaries
  3. Shared work – case discussion
  4. Rivalry and conflict conscious and open to discussion
  5. Priorities and objective setting – data
  6. Change – facilitating the new – goodbyes
  7. Role of management – responsible for process and boundaries
  8. Place of unconscious
  9. Mobilising rage

I might now summarise the key points rather differently and so will discuss some of the themes above within other posts in due course, but not as an organised list.

It took until about three years into my job as a manager, to feel secure and to feel that I need no longer be simply preoccupied with survival. The next few years were amongst the most satisfying years in my career, working with a team who worked well together and enjoyed the experience. There was a sort of idealisation still at work within me that took a little while to break down, and that was the dream of the perfect team, the dream that the job was about building a team that would grow and develop together. Reality has the habit of bringing one down to earth! The truth is that people develop in their own ways not according to some fantasy of the manager – they therefore leave for other jobs for example and you have to start at the beginning with a new member of staff who has to get through the same early learning phases of negotiating a working relationship with you. You cannot always choose your new staff, so you find yourself allocated staff who are problematic and far from ideal.

Worse, you learn that even staff you do choose are not always what you imagined they would be and you discover how easy it is to make mistakes in selecting staff. You also have to work with agency policies about staff selection that raise as many problems in some cases as they resolve.

I will come to issues such as this through a number of ‘essays’ that I wrote at various times, which whilst not comprehensive, they will reflect I think the struggles between the emotional transactional aspects of management, and the objective process and policy requirements, between theory and practice. This struggle seems to me at the heart of good management.

This is not as I say, a management text book but neither is it an autobiographical ramble. I will try and rise to the challenge of articulating the management theory I believe I internalised, and drew on as I moved into managerial roles. It will be a brief summary because I am trying not to write an academic dissertation on management theory but to focus on how such material was expressed in the ‘story’ of my working life.

Becoming a manager – 18 months to 3 years 5

So of course, such discoveries were teaching me more about myself and the assumptions I made. Similarly, I was discovering what I could expect from those above me in the organisation. It was easy in probation to become quickly cynical about those at the top of the organisation, easy because of the organisational culture of suspicion of authority. Having enjoyed through my practitioner career managers whom I had found easy to respect and usually supportive, I now had to discover that it was sometimes necessary to work harder to get the best from my managers.

When I started as a manager, I found my immediate superior was a gentle well meaning man. He wanted to support me in the new role and this was for a while reassuring. However, he had little courage in tackling problems. His instinct was to make peace and avoid conflict – not an unknown phenomenon amongst people working with rule breakers and violent impulsive people. It was soon easy to become impatient and dismissive of this manager. In dealing with the conflict in my team, he had little to offer, it seemed. It was as though the work we did was a means whereby he could externalise those more aggressive emotions , locate them in our troublesome client group, and so not have to own them in himself or to deal with the disturbing consequences of feeling angry.

It took a while however for me to see him in this way, and there were a good few months of anger about what seemed like his uselessness as a manager. I had to learn how the same dynamics that were at work between members of my team and myself, were there in my relationship with my boss. I had to stop seeing what I have referred to as the paranoid – schizoid position in my team, the splitting of relationships into idealised ‘good’ and idealised ‘bad’ , as somehow a lacking, a weakness in my staff, but as a developmental phase through which we all have to struggle. I had to recognise in myself the same tendency to see my boss as either good or bad, competent or useless, and therefore start to think how I could work with him to get the best from him.

Having to think about ‘managing upwards’ as well as managing what I was responsible for in my team was an important learning point, and it continued to be significant throughout my career. The struggle to do this was especially overt when I had a senior manager who was a bully, but I always had a sense that I should not buy into fantasies about those above me in organisations, that I needed to find the human reality about them that underpinned the role they occupied.

Becoming a manager – 18 months to 3 years 4

I did find that although the atmosphere in the team was much improved from my early days, it remained hard to sustain regular team case discussions. Officers seemed to find it hard to offer cases for discussion in the first place and then the discussions could often be stilted and shallow. I was having to learn about the impact of rivalry between staff as well as about how team members were working out their relationship with me. Each team member had their own issues to work through – the enthusiastic ambitious young officer who was vulnerable to bouts of ‘mansplaining’ as he tried to recapture the status and sense of authority he had had prior to entering the probation service (he had captained a yacht in the armed forces – I wasn’t to ask….), – the young woman from a relatively sheltered background who was daunted by the primitive nature of some of what she encountered in the work, – the young officer who was a wonderful listener but who felt she disappeared in the team group etc.

With some of the original staff who had struggled to get on with me, the significance of their behaviour became clearer as I got to know them. I was discovering in a new context how for some, anger was a way of expressing depression about the work or about the development of their career. Or indeed about personal issues. One officer had a very uncomfortable chronic medical problem which meant that some mornings she was in visible discomfort. She would not allow discussion of this and easily became angry if she felt the way she coped was being threatened by anyone suggesting that she was in need of help or sympathy.


Becoming a manager – 18 months to 3 years 3

In the circumstances of my first team, with a large proportion of inexperienced staff, I soon had to think about the issue of ‘over-dependence’. Faced with experienced officers who resented management and thought that monthly supervision of the most superficial and pragmatic kind was more than sufficient, was my insistence on weekly and fortnightly supervision for staff simply breeding a group of over dependent young officers?

This issue I had thought through in the context of my casework practice however, as discussed earlier, and I always took the view that what I had learned in working with my clients was equally applicable to supervising staff as a manager. That this approach caused resentment at times is interesting. It seems that I annoyed my chief officer in this first experience as a manager because he felt in my dealings with him he was being ‘caseworked’. Quite why the skills and know-how you applied to work with people in one context became inappropriate when working with people in another was never made explicit. I suspected that the resentment arose from an underlying judgemental assumption about our work with our clients – that the clients were in a morally inferior position to us as workers. As a consequence to apply professional analysis to work with staff was to somehow diminish even insult them. It is always a serious risk that in helping professions, clients are seen as inferior, as just in need of our greater expertise, know-how and moral standing. This unconscious assumption is sometimes turned on its head so that clients become in some way idealised as for example, victims of circumstance, misunderstood critics of a bad world etc.

I don’t mean in saying this that it is ok to simply treat everyone the same taking no account of their role. Nonetheless, we are all as they say, people! I took the same view of the work with my supervisees as a manager therefore that I had taken with clients as a practitioner – that the relationship was a transaction that required an argument. Staff have to find their own independence in their own way, but this would not be achieved by evading any emotional attachments.


Becoming a manager – 18 months to 3 years 2

It took some time to work out how to supervise the senior administrative worker – it was clear that a different model was needed from that I used with the caseworkers. This was because the support staff had entered into a different ‘deal’ with their employer in taking their jobs. They had not taken the work to be agents of change with the clients. This is not to say that they were indifferent to the task of the agency – far from it. For some of them, the work was making a contribution to trying to prevent crime. For some, the work did reflect ambitions to help people. But they were still essentially being paid for providing practical functions. The extent to which it was permissible / appropriate for a supervisor to explore their emotional reactions to the work, and their professional development aspirations had to be individually judged and negotiated with sensitivity. Supervision therefore turned out to be more practical and ‘business’ focussed with more reflective discussions taking longer to emerge. (At a later stage of my time with this team, the senior administrative worker did leave to train as a probation officer.)

There was very little attention paid in my induction as a new manager to how to work with the support staff. It was very easy therefore for them to feel diminished as peripheral to the team, and therefore sometimes to become problematic. I saw this more frequently as a senior manager since fortunately both my managers prior to becoming one myself had seen the importance of support staff to the delivery of an effective service. It is very easy if support staff feel neglected for them to take a less committed approach to work – clock watching, absenteeism etc can all become part of a culture. Alternatively, sometimes staff would compensate for their felt peripheral status by becoming wedded to procedural rigidities whereby administrative practices take precedence over the quality of work delivered to clients. You only have to watch some reception practices in some offices to see how easily this can develop. It is then no use bemoaning the poor quality of the support staff – you have to take a hard look at the quality of team management.