Reconceptualising Social Defences for the Purpose of Organisational Change: Causes, Consequences and the Contribution of Cultural Theory

By Nick Papadopoulos

Chapter 6: The theory of social defences has changed little since Menzies Lyth’s development of Jaques’ initial hypothesis. Yet despite its utility, the problem of bringing about organisation-level change in the contexts in which its use was originally intended has remained. Arguably this is because it prioritises the psychological dimension over the social causation and operation of social defences. Recent theoretical developments have contributed to this difficulty by emphasising the ubiquity of social defences in all organisations as an inescapable consequence of the nature of most work and emotions arising in primary task performance. This development should be treated as a background given and not the foreground explanation. To assume their inevitability and target their psychology draws the intervention focus on to the people involved and helping them to understand and work through what they are caught up in. While this is an important aspect of intervention, especially for personal and leadership development and training purposes, it can avert attention away from: the social nature and operation of social defences; what they are a reaction to; or to the potential consequences they may in turn generate.

Part of the theory’s difficulty with change is its under-developed and under-utilised social side. Instead of focusing and intervening on the psychological nature and effects of social defences on individuals, what is proposed here is treating social defences, in the first instance as symptoms of social or external causes that need to be explained, not what is doing the explaining. This allows us to see them as social entities in their own right and to treat them for analytic purposes as independent of the people involved. With this we can begin to trace: their social triggers or what in their environments they are a reaction to; and to hypothesise about their organising logic, “reason-for-being,” and what in the wider organisation they may in turn affect.

The Durkheim-influenced cultural theory of Mary Douglas is introduced as a sociological and political resource to supplement and bolster the social operation and consequence-generating effects of social defences. It can assist to hypothesise about their political nature and the underlying values and assumptions informing the grievances driving them. We can then do the same for elements in the organisation including changing external conditions, new policies, practices or leadership and the unanticipated consequences that these can generate. Such elements are what give reason for social defences to develop. We can then hypothesise about where their potential consequences may be directed. To capture this social defences are reconceptualised as social or structural entities in their own right as “informal institutions” that generate their own feedback processes and operate according to their own internal organising logic that in turn affects and generate consequences back on to the people and organisation.

In its current state, social defence theory lacks a sociological and political perspective from which to draw out the purposive, political and normative dimensions of behaviour within groups and organisations (see Emery, 1997). Such a political dimension is at best only implicit in Bion’s use of Freud’s secondary processes to differentiate between task and basic assumption behaviours. What can be missed are the political grievances and jostling that can occur in groups. These draw on social values about what is right and wrong, how the group should be organised and what it should pursue and how. Such behaviour should not always be reduced to its psychology which can miss is distinctive influence and signature on groups and outcomes. A social-moral-political perspective can act as an alternative lens through which to view and supplement psychoanalytic exploration and insight. This is where the mature works of Trist, Emery and Jaques ventured into. Cultural theory offers one such alternative and theoretically consistent social, moral and political lens.

I start with Menzies Lyth’s innovation, differentiate between organisational and individual or team and look at the theory’s problem of change before introducing the re-conceptualisation. I then highlight some relevant contributions of Emery, Trist and Jaques to open up the theoretical space, before introducing the central concepts of cultural theory, and how they can be utilised as a practical resource to social defence theory and intervention. I finish by applying these ideas to Menzies Lyth’s seminal case study.

Menzies Lyth’s Innovation
Such a development is not inconsistent with Menzies Lyth’s innovation of Jaques hypothesis. She gives social defences their own social quality that is independent of the individuals and their collective defences. She also gives them a systemic component that through processes of feedback, loop-back to influence the people involved and the organisation. This is where she clearly diverges from Jaques who emphasised how “all institutions are used by their members as mechanisms of defence against primitive anxiety” (1955: 496) which cohesively binds “individuals into institutionalised association” (1953: 420-21). Instead, she stressed that social defences are more than a duplicate of people’s unconscious psychological dynamics. Once they are triggered, they operate independently through being built into organisational structures, systems, operating cultures and work practices. They become “an aspect of external reality that old and new members must come to terms with” (Menzies Lyth quoted in Krantz, 2010; see also Menzies Lyth 1989: 26-44).

However, she does not seize on the social and systemic implications of her innovation and subtly undermines it. She does this by placing the causality of what occurs within organisations on the needs of its members for social and psychological belonging and satisfaction. While I do not suggest that this view is wrong, what it does is turn attention away from the social causation and operation of social defences, and how they may impact the organisation. It turns the causal attention on to the people and their psychology which then become the basis of change intervention. This translates into practice as a focus on what she initially called “socio-therapy” (1959) or helping individuals and teams come to grips with their situation.

Theorising and initiating organisational change however, is qualitatively different and in addition, to individual and team change. It ultimately concerns where the causality in the relationship between psychological and social factors is placed. This in turn informs where the emphasis and design of change interventions is placed. To assume that changing individuals will change organisations ignores the influence of an organisation’s strategy, culture and its structures, systems and leadership practices on people’s thought and behaviour (Burke and Litwin, 1992; Burke, 2011). These are the social or structural conditions that broadly define the opportunities and constraints acting on people.

Social Defence Theory and the Problem of Change
A recurring problem of social defence theory and practice is the difficulty of bringing about organisational level change in the contexts where its use was originally intended (Long, 2006; Krantz, 2010). Several reasons for this have been suggested. These include the ubiquitous nature of social defences found in all organisations (Bain, 1999); and how individuals need and use social systems as a means of “maintaining their identity and protecting themselves against intolerable internal conflict” (Miller, 1976: 20). This theorising makes social defences difficult to change (Menzies Lyth, 1959) and only explains why change may be psychologically resisted (Long, 2006), not how change or stability come about. It by-passes the challenges of grappling with organisational level change and instead attend to the psychology involved and to developing interventions directed at individuals or teams. The challenges of facilitating organisational-level change led Emery, Trist and Jaques to re-focus their attention to the wider environmental representing the causal influences acting upon organisations (Emery and Trist, 1965) and the organisational design or structural influences on behaviour (Jaques, 1995). These contributions do not by-pass psychology but prioritise the role of social influences and causation. What this does is invert causality from psychological to social factors and treats unconscious psychological dynamics as the symptoms and starting points for further investigation and not the discovery itself. As symptoms, they represent the important early warnings of potential problems or change.

The Reconceptualisation
Developing the social side of the theory firstly requires an understanding of how the nature of social context can itself exert influence on thought, feelings and behaviour. This can be done by utilising institutional, systemic and sociological models to supplement and build upon psychoanalytical methods. Secondly, it requires prioritising that once social defences are triggered, they will exhibit their own distinctive characteristics and social dynamics. These are independent of the people involved, and exert a causal influence back on behaviour and organisational outcomes. This was Menzies Lyth’s innovation.

Thirdly, what is missing is the theory’s ability to trace the social processes set in train and to predict some possible social consequences that the social defences may generate2.

What is needed, I argue, is a reconceptualising of social defence systems as informal institutions that generate their own feedback processes back onto and in turn influence both the people involved and the larger organisation within which they operate. They are reconceptualised as “institutions” to identify them as distinct social entities in their own right, and as “informal” to stress their tacit and often unconsciously operating or loosely-held nature. As institutions they inherently carry within them the organising logic and social values associated with one or a mix of cultural theory’s elementary forms of social organisation. As institutions they can be seen as sets of behavioural practices that cultivate their own distinctive thought-styles, or ways of thinking, doing and feeling on the people operating within them. The ‘thought-style’ that is cultivated in turn reinforces the institutional practices from which they are generated and becomes the causal engine generating the effects that social defences have within the social contexts they operate.

What can appear as psychologically motivated behaviour may also be seen as the “thought-style” cultivated within social defences. Similarly, what groups do is to generate behavioural practices and a thought-style that feedback loops onto the individuals. This in turn reinforces the institution they have co-created even if it’s at odds with their own values, beliefs and preferences. In organisations individuals can belong, through their various roles, affiliations, and team memberships to several institutional practices creating internal conflict, confusion and generating seemingly irrational behaviour. The value of seeing group dynamics in terms of their thought-style is that the behavioural practices cultivating them can be seen and studied as institutional or social entities in their own right.

This casts a different light on group-as-a-whole dynamics identified by Bion (1961) and Rice (1969). Focusing on the basic assumption pattern and mechanisms of defence may miss the social operation and consequence-generating effects that groups can have. This is especially in the wider contexts that groups perform in, are influenced by, and in turn influence through their goals and desires. Prioritising attention on the primary processes in group dynamics can miss the organising logic and guiding social values operating within them. How a group uses its secondary processes or task-focus was a central feature of Bion’s group theory and practice that he crystallised during the Northfield experiments. In recent times these have tended to be downplayed within the paradigm (Armstrong, 2012). The secondary processes it is argued should also include how individuals’ use their political beliefs and values to influence each other and the groups they belong to.

Cultural theory through an institutional perspective on groups and social defences can offer one such additional perspective. For diagnostic purposes a social or institutional lens for example can be incorporated into Wells’ (1995) systemic, five levels framework. The framework utilises five systemic categories – intra-psychic, interpersonal, group-as-a-whole, inter-group and organisational – to identify and place where unconscious psychological dynamics may be emerging and better understood. It’s a variation on Lewin’s alternating ‘figure-ground’ perspective. While it offers a systemic view of psychological dynamics, it remains a psychological perspective on behaviour. This is not the same as a distinctly social perspective. The importance of this is that where a more psychological perspective may direct intervention toward individuals and teams as a way to understand and “work-through” the emotions and dynamics they are caught up in; an institutional or social perspective will direct intervention on the nature and organising logic of the context itself and how this is triggering and influencing behaviour. These address the organisational systems, structures and working practices that Menzies Lyth’s innovation directed attention as where social defences operate. A social perspective can analyse the social nature and operation of both the social defences and the context in which they arise.

The Contributions of Emery, Trist and Jaques
The work of Emery, Trist and Jaques provided the opening of the theoretical space to include a more sociological perspective alongside psychoanalytic insight and method. It helped to identify the under-developed and under-utilised social side of social defence theory and to provide the clues of how to bolster it. It drew attention to the regulative, political or values-based and cultural-cognitive influences on behaviour. Together their works highlight how internal structural conditions and external organisational environments are not only the context in which psychological dynamics such as social defences appear, but frequently their causal drivers. It helped focus attention on what is required to bring about organisational-level vs. individual and team change. This requires inverting causality from psychological to social factors and treating social defences or the psychological dynamics on display, in the first instance, as symptomatic rather than causal. They are something that needs to be explained and not what is doing the explaining. This was Jaques’ rationale for abandoning his social defence hypothesis (1995 and 1998) 3, and like Emery and Trist to focus instead on the social variables influencing behaviour and developing research and intervention methodology that can provide viable causal explanations of the social causes, the social processes and consequences set in train by social defences. Arguably providing such feasible causal accounts can assist organisational leaders and the consultants to better respond.

Cultural theory exhibits much of the logic inherent in the latter works of Emery, Trist and Jaques. It also builds on Menzies Lyth’s innovation to the theory through reconceptualising the nature and functioning of social defences as social systems in their own right that generate their own social consequences. With its roots in anthropology and political science, the strength of cultural theory lies as a social, political and institutional theory of socio-cultural conflict, viability and change. It is used here to assist in explaining how social stability and change occur, and to provide a true social perspective4. One that sits alongside psychoanalytic ones when using multiple systemic perspectives as different levels of analysis or diagnostic lenses as advocated in the paradigm (Wells, 1995), and alongside methods facilitating the in-depth study of emotional experience in organisations (Armstrong, 2005).

Cultural Theory: Formal and Informal Institutions and Thought-Style
Cultural theory offers a viable and missing theory of how social environments and the formal and informal institutional practices found within them, generate their own social dynamics. Unlike many social theories it gives a clear role to individuals and their agency in co-creating, challenging and transforming their social environments (Douglas, 1982)5, while emphasising the social causation of behaviour and of the consequences generated in social organisations. The causal emphasis is placed on the social environment and institutions as the independent variables, or something that can better do the explaining (6, 2011) and not psychological dynamics. Causal priority is given both to ‘thought-style’ (Douglas, 1986) and informal institutions in generating outcomes in social organisations (6, 2011). Especially those outcomes that are unintended, conflict with espoused purposes or principles, appear to come from nowhere, or are subterfuge or undermine organisational functioning in subtle ways. These are the internally generated outcomes within organisations that are difficult to spot and mostly operate beneath the level of conscious awareness.

For example, organisations, networks and groups, large or small, formally-constituted or informal, are both nested within larger social environments while also generating their own distinctive or more immediate social environments or cultures. Seen this way, each social environment, group or organisation will draw upon existing or established behavioural practices or institutions as well as creating its own. Defined most simply as conventions to achieve a purpose or solve problems (Douglas, 1986: 46), institutions are behavioural practices that cultivate their own distinctive “thought-style” (Douglas, 1986) or ways of thinking about and doing things. Once cultivated, institutional thought-styles will influence their members to think and behave along similar lines, whether they agree with these in principle or not. Douglas (1982) suggests that how an institution or culture is created is through a series of on-going contributions and negotiations between members of a group in which everyone contributes, actively, passively or even anonymously, but doesn’t necessarily agree with the specific results or the outcome. This outcome generates a “collective consciousness [that] manifests … by making penalty-carrying rules and justifying them” (p. 190). In this way, institutions provide for the coordination of behaviour, but also “establish order and regulate” it, providing for the patterning of social relationships. Institutions not only make “the rules of the game, they structure the incentives of players” (Douglas, 1996:19, 9 and 15). Perri 6, building on these ideas, further differentiates between the “style” of thought from its “content”. While institutions will cultivate distinctive thought-styles or a manner in which ideas, beliefs and feelings are framed and used; its actual content consists of its specific ideas and beliefs which may be accepted or not. In this way “people with diametrically opposed ideologies [or world views] may exhibit similar thought-styles [and] ideological allies may think in contrasting styles” (2011: 1).

Seeing the social defences that manifested as informal institutions, arising in reaction to particular events and or other practices or institutions, and cultivating distinctive ‘thought-styles’, which may be conflicting, can better account for both their social operation and their consequent impact on the organisation.

Douglas suggests that all thinking and hence behaviour is to some degree institutionally influenced. This is in keeping with mainstream theorising about how institutions exert their own “regulative, normative and cognitive” influences on people and behaviour (Scott, 2008). But also more recent theorising that suggests how it is informal institutional practices that are tacitly or loosely held that in particular exert a causally critical influence on behaviour and organisational outcomes, frequently making it possible for formal institutions to achieve the leverage they do (6, 2011: 59). This is because they are better able to work around the more formal and often cumbersome procedures, channels and structures to get things done. Equally so and exactly because informal institutional practices are tacitly, loosely, and albeit unconsciously held; their regulative, normative or cognitive contours can be are sufficiently ambiguous to “provide opportunities” for actors to use their “creativity and agency” to “exploit” or manipulate conditions for change, or for “endogenous developments” reflecting “gradual and piecemeal changes” to “show up or register” as changes especially if we consider longer time-frames (Mahoney and Thelan, 2010: 12 and 2). Moreover, because they are tacitly held, informal institutions can be triggered by and in turn trigger their own psychological reactions in people, but also allow the influence of both conscious and unconscious human agency that contains both a deliberative and choosing quality while allowing for both resistance to existing conditions, or the creativity to do something different (see for example Emirbayer and Mische, 1998; Di Maggio, 1988; Wilson, 2010).

The Cultural Theory Typology and the Elementary Forms of Social Organisation
Douglas starts from the assumption that all forms of social organisation, like the people in them, are never static but are continuously being built and challenged through an on-going process of bargaining and negotiation between people. From Durkheim, she takes two key ideas. The first is his social origin of thought – the idea that “classifications, logical operations and guiding metaphors are given to the individual by society” (Douglas, 1986: 10) and from this she develops institutional thought-styles. For Durkheim, it is not beliefs that explain society, which in their diversity contribute to differing forms of solidarity and conflict, but society that provides the individual with a menu of social, political, moral and philosophical beliefs and tools for thinking. It is such a menu of assumptions, beliefs and tools for thinking and (psychologically) reacting that breathes life into and from which her elementary forms of social organisation draw.

The second of Durkheim’s ideas are his two dimensions of sociality – social regulation and social integration. These represent two distinctive ways in which any social environment is shaped and will in turn influence people’s thought, behaviour and pattern of social relationships. These are the degree to which any human environment, large or small is socially regulated (where rules and regulations constrain behaviour); and the degree it is socially integrated (where group membership or affiliation influences behaviour and choice and contributes to a shared world-view). What Douglas did was to cross-tabulate them, revealing four distinctive elementary forms of social environment. Each contains a distinctive way of organising social relations along with an underlying ethic, set of values and cultural bias. Diagrams One and Two respectively capture the two social dimensions and the four elementary forms. Diagram Three explores the underlying values and behavioural dynamics embedded in each of elementary forms and Diagram Four, the types of organisational designs that may be found in the organisations environments, institutional practices and cultures reflecting particular elementary forms. These diagrams summarise the literature that describe the elementary forms and how they operate within institutions and social environments (see: Douglas, 1982 and 1986; Thompson et al, 1990; 6 and Mars, 2008, Thompson, 2008; and 6, 2011).

Diagram One: Durkheim’s Two Dimensions of Sociality or Social Organisation
(Cross-tabulated by Douglas)

Diagram Two: Douglas’ Four Elementary Forms of Social Organisation
(Adapted from Mars, 2008)

Diagram Three: Underlying Values and Behavioural Dynamics of Elementary Forms

Diagram Four: Organising Strengths, Weakness and Tendencies to Disorganisation

Within the Elementary Forms

The Cultural Theory Typology and the Elementary Forms as a Social Map for Organisational Diagnosis
The elementary forms are best approached as theoretical types (Coyle, 1994). They rarely if ever exist in their pure form but in some combination of weighted mix or hybrid (6, 2011) within institutions, groups, networks, organisations and societies, or whatever configuration of groupings people are to be found in. Because of the overlap of people’s memberships to such groupings, individuals can be exposed to a conflicting variety of influences and pressures depending on the groupings they belong to and the institutional practices they have developed preferences for, or subscribed to, or spent most of their time within. These influences ultimately reflect the nature of the elementary forms underpinning their immediate and wider contexts in which they circulate, and the external and internal pressures operating upon and within them.

In this way there is rarely ever one culture in organisations of any size, but several, often competing for both adherents or in offering the best solutions to pressing problems. Because different cultures, like individuals’ preferences for some more than others, reflect competing underlying values, beliefs and assumptions6 this offers an alternative conceptualisation of conflict and competition with social groupings based on competing socio-political values, assumptions and preferences held by individuals or coalitions7. Like the people in them these hybrids can remain relatively stable over time, or in response to changing circumstances, crises or internal conflicts quickly change their relative weighting. But this is never a simple or straightforward process. If a hybrid shifts or changes so too will the pattern of social relations and the underlying values buttressing it. This leads to tension, conflict and dislocation until some relative pattern is reached, settled upon or emerges through default.

For example, change either the organisational pattern or design of a group’s social relations and this will affect, undermine or dislodge the existing values supporting it. This in turn through individuals’ resistance or indignation may assert a countervailing opposition. Likewise fiddle with existing organisational values, as leaders are prone to do to achieve some end or means, and this will affect, undermine or change the design or pattern of relations (see Thompson, 2008). The thrust for such change can come from either external sources that exert pressure upon systems, or internal influences, such as brooding debates or conflicts, making the existing design or values of a social organisation less viable. This reflects the theory’s dynamism in accounting for both relative social stability and quick or slow change. It does this through casting light on two underlying social factors, the social-political values and the pattern of social relations that together buttress social systems and will initiate change if either is affected or manipulated.

Diagram Five represents the typology as a blank social map on to which various groups, organisational initiatives and policies, or individuals’ social, political or moral philosophical assumptions and social defences can be approximately plotted. I have used this in the research phase of a consultation to roughly map where the organisation had been, where it currently was and where its policies, politics, people and social defences were likely taking it.

Diagram Five: A Cultural Theory Social Map without the Boxes and as Theoretical Extremes Allowing for Hybridity (6, 2011) and For Incremental Movement between the Elementary Forms (Adapted from Coyle, 1994 & Boyle & Coughlin, 1994)

The utility of cultural theory as a social map, allows firstly for gauging the social nature of social defences, that are external to or independent of their individual contributors, and which are guided by an organising logic and social values of an elementary form of social organisation or hybrid. Secondly, it can gauge what in the environment, such as policies, initiatives, external influences, each also containing their own internal organising logic to which the social defences were a reaction. From here, the third step is to identify and trace what in the social environment, the social defences as consolidated social entities in their own right will in turn likely affect.

Thought-Style as Lynch-Pin and Causal Engine Generating the Social Consequences of Social Defences
One of the important ways in which social defences operate like informal institutions is in the thought-style they are likely to cultivate in people, or how through common behavioural practices individuals come to think and act along similar lines. Douglas (1986) places the causal influence of behaviour within institutions on the thought-style they cultivate. In Menzies-Lyth terms this is how “members become like the institution in significant ways … sharing [its] common attitudes” (1989: 40-41). With Fenichel’s ideas, she strives beyond her emphasis on “socio-therapy” and working through (1988 and 1990) to a conceptualisation of what organisational change involves when she states that “institutions, once established, may be extremely difficult to change … they modify the personality structure of their members, temporarily or permanently … [but] to change the members one may first need to change the institution” (Menzies Lyth, 1989: 26, my italics) but again she does not develop this idea.

Organisational change requires such a focus. In this way the causal influence attributed to thought-style on behaviour in institutions generated by underlying elementary forms of social organisations (Douglas, 1986; 6: 2011) helps to transverse the roles played between psychological and social factors in organisations and action research projects (Trist, [1950] 1990).

Thought-style also closely relates to what Menzies Lyth defines as “work culture”. It is the analysis of culture she suggests, following Alistair Bain’s influence, that is one of the three kinds of analysis, along with role analysis and structural analysis that organisational consultants must be concerned with. Work culture which she suggests is the “most closely related to psychoanalysis” considers such things as “attitudes and beliefs, patterns of relationships, traditions, the psycho-social context in which is done and how people collaborate in doing it” (1990: 466-7). For Douglas, it is the “thought-style” cultivated within institutions that “set the preconditions of any cognition”. “Its essential nature” she suggests is “hidden from members of the thought-collective” (1986: 13). It “encodes information” and contributes to “making routine decisions, solving routine problems and doing a lot of regular thinking on behalf of individuals” (p. 47).

What may seem like the operation of unconscious psychological dynamics underlying collective anxiety and social defences, while not exactly the same as, may in fact be better approached as the thought-style collectively cultivated and generating it own separate or social influence on behaviour and the organisation. In this way we not only theoretically better capture the social operation of social defences as informal institutions, operating and generating feedback within larger institutional wholes, but can also through cultural theory and the values and organising logic encoded in its elementary forms of social organisation, better predict in terms of the underlying elementary form embedded within social defences what they may be a reaction to in the organisation, and what possible social consequences are they likely to generate.

The concept of ‘thought-style’ is here used as a lynch-pin to theoretically reach into both the social and internal nature and contributions of individuals, and the underlying psychological reactions and dynamics that have been activated. Socially it can capture the political and moral assumptions and values-orientation driving the institution and hence behaviour. Such sociological dimensions are mostly absent from psychology.

Menzies Lyth’s Case Study through another Lens
Through the lens of cultural theory, social defences as informal institutions can operate according to their own guiding social logic which in turn gives shape to a distinctive thought-style that influences the ways people collectively think and act. This can capture the social nature and operation of social defences or what in the wider environment they are a reaction to.

If we look at Menzies Lyth’s nursing study, the wider hospital environment was organised around a single and dominant organisational form, hierarchy. The excessive pressures of a dominant and domineering organising hierarchy especially between doctors and nurses, left nurses with little or no discretion to use their initiative let alone their thought and insight in caring for patients. This was despite their considerable medical knowledge in the treatment, compared to junior doctors and especially in the care and rehabilitation of patients. The dominance of the hierarchical form left little room for alternative ways of organising to develop or to be facilitated or championed. It exerted considerable pressure upon nurses to conform to its demands. As a result the social defences that manifested in the nursing service took on the social character of a defensive adaption to hierarchy, or in Bion’s terms basic assumption “dependency”. Within a dominating hierarchical form dependency is frequently the most viable and only defensive manoeuvre open to people. Those nurses who could tolerate the dependency were arguably more likely to stay, whereas those who resisted voted with their feet and left. Or what in Bion’s terms is basic assumption “flight”. In this case the ‘flight’ manifested through nurses leaving and junior nurses dropping out of their training, a major reason for the consultancy request in the first place. This “flight” did not manifest along with ‘fight’ or be utilised to push forth an alternative way of organising the nursing service and the hospital that could still achieve the hospital’s primary task within its current budgetary limitations. The social defences which Menzies Lyth so adeptly described were symptoms of this organisational backdrop.

From a cultural theory perspective, the nurses’ dependency can be seen as displaying an isolate form of organising. In going along with their constraints, they behaved more as isolated individuals in ways that reinforced their marginalised and disenfranchised role within the organisational hierarchy. If instead, their social defence system displayed elements of egalitarian or market organising we may have seen respectively, more coordinated protest and supportive camaraderie, or initiative in their finding alternative ways of doing their work within the constraints placed on them. The dominating hierarchical form promoting “dependency” subverted competing organisational forms from being mobilised.

Compared to the dependency found in response to dominating hierarchy, in market or egalitarian organising we could expect to see variations of basic assumption fight/flight as the most viable forms of defence as well as both basic assumption ‘me’ in market forms and ‘oneness’ in egalitarian along with the logical consequences that these could generate. In hybrid forms, which are mostly found in empirical settings; different institutional practices, departments, organisational levels, and leader’s initiatives may be organised under the sway of different and competing elementary forms. This better accounts for the psycho-social dynamics and political manoeuvring that is found in many organisations which in turn exert competing pressures either toward stability, seeking to reinforce the dominant elementary form within the mix or hybrid, or change represented by the challenge and alternative offered by one of the less dominant forms that may act as an attractor or rallying-point of resistance within organisations. In these situations the social defences are likely to be organised according to a less dominant and competing elementary form to that of the dominant one.

In her study, Menzies Lyth’s started by analysing many of the structural elements exerting an influence upon nurses’ behaviour. This was through the various working practices and systems that were put in place guiding what nurses ought to do. Although she clearly saw how the wider structural elements operating within the hospital system and the hierarchy between doctors and nurses exerted pressure on the local design of the nursing service and the social defences that became built into the work practices; we can see from her later work that her preference (1990) was to focus on how the nature of work itself evoked primitive psychological reactions, anxiety and defences within individuals and helping them deal with their emotional reactions (Pecotic, 2002). While this represents one important aspect of overall intervention, and perhaps the only avenue open to consultants working within the lower organisational layers of monolithic public sector or human service organisations, this is not the same as organisational-level change. Menzies Lyth was mostly likely aware of such distinctions, if only implicitly, of the types or levels of change, but she was not working with the organisation’s leaders and was discouraged by the matron to go beyond her mission. Nevertheless, where she implicitly placed the causal emphasis, on the nature of the work evoking the anxiety-defences, side-stepped the larger challenge of seeing how the wider hospital structure was itself contributing to the design and organisation of the nursing service and contributing to the high rate of nursing turnover and younger nurses dropping out of their training; and how the social defences were themselves a reaction to the wider pressures acting upon the nursing service.

By Focusing on how the nature of the work was evoking the social defences, this made it more difficult to assess how the organisational forces and pressures were acting upon the service and in turn the nurses’ work, or how subtle changes to these forces in turn affected the service. Instead, these contextual influences were treated as a given that could not be changed, despite the difficulties and countervailing pressures they posed. This was one of Emery’s criticisms of how open systems theory was utilised within the paradigm, since it mistakenly held that once inputs and outputs were taken into account, the system under observation could still be treated as a closed system. This did not allow seeing how the external environment and internal organisational design were themselves exerting more of an influence on individuals’ thought, behaviour and endeavours, more so than their own intentions. This was limiting the options and agency open to individuals within these settings (see Emery, 1997). In such situations, if leaders could be shown how the consequences of organisational design or influences from the external environment were undermining primary task, and then facilitated to explore alternative designs or adaptations with the input of staff most affected, this could lead to organisational-level change within the boundaries of existing fiscal and technological constraints.

Cultural theory offers a separate lens from which to view the influence and role of the social context or environment on behaviour that is not reduced to but used alongside the more psychological accounts and contributions that within the socio-analytic paradigm are held as shaping the immediate environment or social field under study. Cultural theory can provide an alternate lens on how socio-political-cultural conflict, viability and change can occur. This is done by inverting the causality of behaviour from psychological to social factors and seeing social defences in the first instance as symptoms that need explanation rather than as causes. As symptoms, social defences become the starting-points to further organisational diagnosis and analysis. The underlying elementary form postulated as driving social defences systems can then studied as a reaction, positive or negative, to the elementary forms operating within other institutions, formal or informal, and within the larger organisational whole or its external environment. Utilising cultural theory also allows us to better infer the possible causes and social processes through which social defences operate and the likely consequences they may generate upon the organisation or social context.

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1These ideas developed from retrospective research of a four-year coaching and consulting project within a medium-sized multinational manufacturing company. Social defences had developed only well after an external organisational crisis, but also well before real organisational problems. It was as if the social defences forewarned of the impending crisis, but a traditional style action-research intervention of presenting evidence, working hypotheses and facilitating problem-solving discussion did not lead to change. This was in spite of the relative accuracy of the working hypotheses pinpointing the likely causes of the social defence to the consequences of the actions taken by the senior team in response to the earlier crisis. Nevertheless, the true and diagnostic value of the appearance of social defence for the consulting was their forewarning. But focusing on the anxiety and defence dynamics, and inviting the senior team to explore their own dynamics undermined the intervention as did the lack of a causal explanation linking the senior team’s actions firstly to the social defences and secondly to viable predictions of likely consequences if not attended to. The findings of this case will be set out in a later publication.

2Three analytic models were useful in developing the social side. Feedback loops, counter-posing agency and structure as two types of causality (Mouzelis, 2008) and adopting a broad institutional framework that differentiates between the formal and informal organisation and captures the regulative, normative and cognitive (Scott, 2008) influences on behaviour. Social defences operate within the informal organisation as task-enhancing or task-undermining informal institutions that generate their own feedback and consequences.

3His belligerent statements that psychoanalysis is dysfunctional in organisations and that “it is badly organised social systems that arouse psychotic anxieties” and not people “concocting” organisations for their psychological needs (1995: 343), detracts from his important insight and prods a defensive confrontation from psychoanalytically informed consultants (see Amado, 1995). His debate with Amado (1995) have polarised the two perspectives rather than bringing them together as argued here. I have argued elsewhere that Jaques would not have arrived at many of his latter insights without his earlier emersion in psychoanalysis. He erroneously did not differentiate psychoanalysis as a theory from psychoanalysis as method as Amado suggested, but turn his psychoanalytic insights into the dependent variable or something that needs to be explained (Papadopoulos, 2010).

4A true social perspective is one that is not built up from psychological insights but relies mainly on ‘social facts’ or explanations to account for other social facts. This was Durkheim’s innovation to the sociological method in the 1890’s and is a distinguishing contribution of sociological analysis in social science (see Keat and Urry, 1975). With Menzies Lyth’s innovation, social defences can be seen as ‘social facts’ that could and should also be explained by other social facts.

5For a broader discussion advocating the importance of finding role for both people’s or ‘actor’ agency and social structure in explaining both stability and change in social theory and the social sciences more broadly, see Mouzelis (1995 and 2008).

6Be it about how the world works or different assumptions of human nature or the best solution to pressing problems, each underlying elementary form within various social contexts cultivates a distinctive ‘bounded rationality’ or world-view.

7Wood (1988) found that the basis for sub-grouping, splits and coalitions found in small groups was better explained on the basis for preference for socio-political values and beliefs, such as political beliefs or affiliations than upon other factors such as race or gender and arguably psychological dynamics alone. Moreover, the underlying elementary forms evident within groups, more so through individuals’ competing preferences and through their negotiations, arguments and disagreements contributes to the creation of group dynamics, and to a more conflict-prone thought-style that is subsequently cultivated and in turn generates its own feedback influence back on members. Such thinking also provides an alternative view of the conflict and competition of group dynamics based on competing values and beliefs rather than on psychological group-as-a-whole dynamics alone.

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