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Anton Obholzer & Vega Zagier Roberts, eds., The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organisational Stress in the Human Services, London: Routledge, 1994. Pp. xx+224. £14.99

Reviewed by Paul Hoggett

This collection of essays arises from the Consulting to Institutions Workshop which started at the Tavistock Clinic in the 1980's. As such it represents the work of a central strand within the Group Relations tradition as it has developed through the activities of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations over the last three decades.

Given that the focus of the book is upon human service organisations in Britain during a period of acute crisis and change within the welfare state its appearance is extremely timely. The book achieves its aim of being accessible to staff and managers within such organisations through a series of diverse case studies focusing on the way in which human service workers respond to the anxiety and pain of their work and to organisational crises and threats to survival. A conceptual section introduces a number of approaches to analysis including Bion's work on "basic assumptions" in groups, Kleinian perspectives on projective identification processes and systems theories of organisations. A final section looks at issues relating to organisational growth and development.

I found the book to be full of useful insights. It is difficult to pick on some whilst not mentioning others but, for example, the link between basic assumptions and group cultures made by Stokes (p. 26), the point made by Mosse and Roberts that it is vital for groups who are struggling for survival to have "the right fight with the right people" (p. 155) and Obholzer's reflection that much of the new public management at times appeared to be "paranoid-schizoid by choice" (p. 173) have all given me much food for thought.

What follows is a number of reflections, some critical, some not, provoked by reading The Unconscious at Work. They are informed by the perception that the Group Relations tradition has remained frustratingly marginal to the concerns of those British practitioners to whom they should have an enormous relevance — change agents in organisational and social systems, managers and policy makers in the human services, etc. If psychoanalytical insights are to inform practices beyond the consulting room then the application of psychodynamic principles to working in groups and organisations would seem to be the place where the bridge out into the wider culture should be made. So what is it about this tradition which might help us to understand why, by and large, it continues to amount to little more than an interesting and unique little backwater?

I'll take as my starting point the claim, made on the first page of the book, that the social and the psychodynamic must be deployed together. Readers of Free Associations would no doubt concur with this sentiment but the critical question is what social and what psychoynamic? Regarding the latter one could have few qualms with the general project of the papers represented here. I would just like to make a couple of observations, however. I feel there is a tendency to draw upon a rather restricted corpus of Kleinian and Bionic ideas. Specifically I feel there is much to be said for drawing upon Bion's later ideas, particularly his metapsychological reflections upon the nature of thought. Bion never stopped having the group in mind; Attention and Interpretation for example is as much about the functioning of groups and the nature of "the social" as it is about the nature of mental life. Moreover the link between Bion's later work and that of Rosenfeld, Meltzer and others on destructive narcissism seems to me to offer a new range of insights regarding the nature of thoughtlessness in group life. In their defence, many of the papers in this collection do draw upon Bion's notion of "containment" in a way which provides an illuminating account of the destructive or sometimes positive behaviour of groups burdened with survival anxieties. But there is also a danger here. I sense that Bion's valuable idea of the container/contained relationship is in danger of becoming something of a cliché in psychoanalysis at the moment. A concept which has become so ubiquitous is in danger of being drained of its meaning.

What then of "the social"? It is here that the insulation of psychoanalytically informed practices from developments in the social sciences becomes most manifest. The early Group Relations movement drew heavily from socio-technical systems theory in the 1950's. At the time socio-technical systems theory was very much at the cutting edge of organisational thinking. But that was forty years ago. By the late 1960's systems oriented thinking came under such sustained and devastating attack from a variety of directions within the social sciences that it had become widely discredited until quite recently when ecologically inspired thinkers began to bring it back in. But the Group Relations movement has stuck doggedly, and some would say perversely, to a systems approach throughout this period, and my guess is that this was only possible because of the comparative isolation of practitioners from the intellectual culture that surrounded it.

The strength of this approach lies as a mode of thinking. In other words it encourages us to think systemically and holistically about the relationship between a particular social phenomenon, such as an organisation, and the society of which it is a part and also about the relationship between change within one element and change within other elements of the phenomenon under investigation. I found the collection of essays in this book provided many insights into the nature of the first kind of relatedness. Specifically, many of the essays asked what is the nature of the emotional work that a hospital, hospice or children's home has to perform for society as a whole? What in that sense does society project into these kinds of institutions?

The weakness of this approach derives from the crucial difference between human systems and cybernetic or ecological systems. For power is constitutive of all human systems in a way which simply doesn't apply to the latter kinds of systems. Thus whilst an organisation or family can be thought of systemically it must also be thought of in terms of relations of power. And if I have a major criticism of this book it is that relations of power — between the state and public institutions, between professionals, citizens and service users, between managers and staff, between managers and professionals, between genders, races and classes — are largely absent.

As far as I am concerned the nub of the problem is illustrated by the concept of the pnrnary task. This concept has enjoyed a powerful hold on the imagination of the Group Relations tradition and yet, as several of the essays in this book reveal, its status is by no means unproblemmatic. Classical functionalist approaches to systems theory conceive of any particular system as having its own goals or needs — typically some combination of equilibrium, adaptation and survival. This way of thinking is clearly illustrated in the chapter by Roberts on open systems theory. She writes, "In complex organisms, there will be a number of such open systems operating simultaneously, each performing its own specialised function. The activities of these different sub-systems need to be co-ordinated so as to serve the needs of the organism as a whole..." (p. 28). Critics of this kind of functionalism of which there are a legion) argue that organisations per se do not have needs, nor goals or primary tasks; to believe that they do is simply to buy in to the dominant definition of what a particular organisation is all about, a definition which is the outcome of particular relations of power.

This is particularly true for human service organisations, whether they are housing associations, children's homes or primary care teams. Anyone who spends even a short time in such organisations cannot but be struck by the different views of the aims of the organisation. Its not just that the views of professionals will often differ to those of managers, service users and their advocates, nor even that many differences of view will exist within the ranks of the professionals themselves but those who have the formal authority to define policy (politicians, senior civil servants, inspectors and regulators, academics) constantly change their views as well. Within the public sphere definitions of purpose are constantly and necessarily contested. But amidst this hubbub, at any point in time, some definitions become so dominant that they appear to be common-sense whilst some definitions are so marginalised that those holding them are seen as trouble-makers or dinosaurs, as naive or stupid.

To say that in human service organisations questions concerning tasks, priorities, objectives, etc. are constantly contested is to say no more than that within such organisations questions of value are primary. Above all they are an expression of the connectedness of such organisations to society because of their concern for the birth, development, control, sickness and death of its citizens. In the face of this complexity the notion of "a primary task" can seem not only simplistic but potentially destructive. In particular, if the primary task is defined, as some within the Group Relations movement have sometimes done, as the task the organisation must perform if the organisation is to survive (p. 29) then we are in danger of blurring the distinction, crucial to human service organisations, between survival and development (Armstrong, 1996). When an organisation's capacity for development is at risk what we mean is that its capacity to exist as a place with value is now in doubt. We speak, more perceptively than we know, of workers becoming de-moralised, i.e., of losing a sense of value. These are the stakes that have been played for over the last decade in the British welfare state.

There were many things wrong with the old welfare state, not the least the way in which it disempowered the recipients of its services and programmes. But despite its faults it was at least able to keep in mind something of the complexity of the subjects that it dealt with compare, for example, the multi-dimensionality of the idea of "the patient" with the uni dimensional concept of "the consumer", a "part-object" to the institution as Armstrong (1996) puts it. It is an old phrase now but worth remembering — markets tell you the price of everything and the value of nothing. In my experience the root of the crises which have affected many welfare service organisations over the last decade can be described as the abandonment of development for survival, something experienced by many staff in terms of the feeling that their organisation no longer stands for the values and principles which originally attracted them to it. Financially many human service organisations may be very healthy indeed many have grown considerably over the last few years — survival, in the broad sense in which I am using it, does not imply "scraping by" close to extinction rather it means living without value. To put it bluntly, and only slightly crudely, the "triumph" of market reforms in the welfare service lies in the way in which managers and staff within organisations have increasingly abandoned the goal of development for the goal of survival.

The narrower meaning of survival, ie. the threat to the very existence of certain units, teams and organisations through closure, has become a more familiar aspect of the environment only more recently, specifically with the consolidation of internal markets in education, health and social care in the 1990's. And even now, I would argue, the threat to survival per se derives its power primarily from its form as a paranoid phantasy — only a few actual victims are required for a threat to be felt by the many.

The necessary distinction between survival and development is not held to firmly enough within The Unconscious at Work for my liking. We must make an additional distinction paralleling the one above, namely the distinction between task and purpose, means and ends. As I see it the concept of purpose is one saturated with value, i.e,. with a sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong for me/my organisation to be doing. I would argue that if a group or organisation is to provide a facilitating environment for development to occur it must have a sense of purpose. I have in mind an agreement which is temporary and understood as such by all parties who subscribe to it. They are also necessarily ambiguous otherwise agreement could never be reached. The point is that parties accept this ambiguity or lack of consistency for it is this which provides each with the possibility of infusing the organisation's purpose with personal meaning and it is this which provides the creative space for further development and continuing dialogue, a theme picked up in Obholzer's "Afterword" to The Unconscious at Work. Such temporary definitions of purpose are therefore fictions which serve to bind the group together and contain differences without crushing them. They therefore provide a means of sustaining direction and commitment for organisations operating in the fundamentally contested realm of public life. A group or organisation with a strong sense of purpose has an inner confidence which is to be contrasted with the noisy declamations of those who, having lost all sense of purpose long ago, adopt the lapel-badge approach to values by bedecking themselves with Mission Statements, Chartermarks, Investors in People awards and so on. In this way values themselves become reduced to an element of strategy, something an organisation uses to position itself in the marketplace.

If we are to abandon the idea of the primary task except as something which can be imposed by those with the necessary authority in relatively non-complex environments then it follows that consultants to human service organisations cannot easily make judgements about behaviour which is "off-task" and irrational in some way. Moreover there is a danger that irrationality is only seen in its negative and destructive guise. Bion's Basic Assumptions also fuel Work Group activity; magic, omnipotence, illusion and splitting can and are frequently put to constructive use in organisations. The creative uses of irrationality are as important as the destructive ones and I would have liked to have seen more contributions in The Unconscious at Work which focused upon the way in which psychoanalysis can illuminate processes of social leadership and transformation as well as social systems of defence.

So, if we strip away the device of the primary task what equipment is the consultant left with to navigate the unconscious currents of the organisation's psyche? How does the consultant get a sense of "what's going on here?" Just occasionally, I would suggest, the consultant learns from what people say, perhaps particularly from those whose powerlessness has here to-fore denied them a voice with which to speak. But words are fickle things designed, as Bion noted, as much for the purpose of dissimulation as communication. Thus the usefulness of imagery and many consultants nowadays use imagery (pictures, sculptures, dreams, etc.) and the process of free-associating to imagery as a means of taking organisational participants beyond words. Ultimately however the consultant must rely on her own experience of the emotional life of the group or organisation. As an outsider the consultant dips into the emotional medium of the organisation, this is a medium in which organisational participants are so immersed that they have almost no cognizance of its existence. As Armstrong (1995) notes, a crucial aspect of this medium is what might be called the primary process of the of the human service organisation — i.e., the emotional work it unconsciously performs for the rest of society — keeping death at bay, managing vulnerability, containing madness or violence, and so on. To tune into this medium the consultant must be able to use the equivalent of the counter-transference and become aware of the feelings and sensations which they become recipients of as they work with the group or organisation.

But openness to such experience is only part of the story, sense must then be made of it. How is this to be done? I would have liked to have heard more from The Unconscious a Work on this issue. I was worried that a number of the essays gave insight only into the consultant's sense-making. In contrast a number of contemporary models of organisational research, particularly those inspired by feminist methodologies, give emphasis to interactive approaches to sense-making which recognize the plurality of meanings which, within complex organisations, a shared experience can obtain. As Armstrong (1996) notes, "I do not see dreams as containers of meaning - a puzzle to be solved once and for all; but rather as containers for meaning; available narratives through which we negotiate and seek formulation for the emotional experiences we register."

Psychoanalysis has a great deal to offer models of organisational consultancy and research we seek to be both constructive and critical. The Unconscious at Work demonstrates both the strengths and limitations of the Group Relations approach to this task. To my mind renewal and development within this tradition hinges upon the construction of a more sophisticated approach to "the social" than existing systemic models can provide. Power saturates all human relations, consultants and researchers are part of these relations of power. Effective consultancy requires a double reflexivity, to one's own emotional experience of the collective organisational unconscious and to the nature of one's agency within the dynamic field of forces at play in any organisational setting. Whilst mainstream social science is conversant with the latter it is still largely ignorant of the former. If Group Relations perspectives are to emerge from the margins into the mainstream it must begin to demonstrate a much stronger appreciation of the interpenetration of the realm of the emotions and unconscious and the realm of power and politics.


Armstrong, D. (1995), The Analytic Object in Organisational Work, Paper presented to the ISPSO Annual Symposium, "The Distinctive Relevance of Psychoanalytic Understanding to Organisations", July 1995, London.

Armstrong, D. (1996), The Recovery of Meaning, Paper presented to the ISPSO Annual Symposium, "Organisation 2000: Psychoanalytic Perspectives", June 1996, New York.

Paul Hoggett is Professor of Politics at theUniversity of the West of England, Bristol. He is the author of Partrisans in an Uncertain World: The Psychoanalysis of Engagement (Free Association Books, 1992) and a member of the Editorial Board of Free Associations. He has extensive experience in consulting to organizations and in group relations conferences in Britain and in Bulgaria. He is in the process of setting up a graduate programme in group and orgniizational studies.

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