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Revelation vs. Salvation

Gordon Lawrence (1994) suggested that the psychodynamically oriented approach to coaching has an emphasis on “revelation” rather than “salvation”. In adopting a psychodynamic stance the role of the executive coach becomes one of trying to assist the executive in making sense of their work experiences, rather than solely facilitating goal achievement, skill development or teaching management tools and techniques.

Systems psychodynamic approaches encourage exploration and discovery as part of the coaching process, rather than following a fixed coaching formula and agenda. The coach must therefore refrain from responding to the client’s projections that the coach can somehow ‘save’ the client from their work problems, or that the coach has the powers to convert them into a high performing executive.  Instead, the coach engages the client in a collaborative process that educates and informs; the revelations arising from their work become the basis for action and learning.  

Introduction to Systems psychodynamic theories

Executive coaching is concerned with enhancing the effectiveness of the executive’s professional practice. The work of the executive coach is often about helping the executive improve their ability to provide leadership to what are often complex, social work systems. Hence, the executive coach must take into consideration the multitude of personal, organisational and environmental factors that influence behaviour and performance.

To those seeking to coach others in an organisational context, systems psychodynamic theories and approaches can usefully inform and add depth to the practice of executive coaching as follows:

  • Psychodynamic theories recognise the centrality and significance of emotional experience, while
  • The systemic approach contributes recognition of the essential inter-relatedness of emotional experience (Hutton, Bazalgette and Armstrong, 1995). The combined theories provide a framework for understanding how emotions impact on the functioning of a work or socio-technical system.

I spent three years at RMIT gaining my Masters in Organisation Dynamics to provide some learning directed at executive coaching. I intend to be a ‘peak’ coach and to work in the role, as defined by Mersky (1999, p.1), who uses psychoanalytic thinking in her organisational development consulting work, describing her consultancy stance as follows:

“I use many models – one of which is the analytic role ideal. I think of this ideal as follows: observe clear and appropriately bounded role and set of role relationships; manage and learn from countertransferential feelings toward the client system; and work – in Bion’s (1967, p. 17) terms – without “memory and desire”.  

The consultant attempts to function as a non-threatening ‘container’ for the clients projections and – through them and other sources of data, both organizationally objective and emotionally internal – develop an understanding of the underlying issues and dynamics in the system”.

The conceptual basis that has informed my executive coaching

In this section I discuss ‘opens systems’ theory and then organisations as social systems in terms of boundaries, object relations, and social defenses in organisations. I will link the theory about open systems to social systems and describe how people take up their roles and how organisations and individuals ‘learn from experience’; a key success factor for an executive coaching organisation

Open-systems theory

Open-systems principles are derived from Von Bertalanffy’s study of biological systems (Morgan 1997, p. 39). A living organism, organisation or a social group is a fully open system characterised by a continuous cycle of input, internal transformation (throughput), output, and feedback (or experience), and shows the interdependent and interactive nature of the internal relationship with the environment. Other characteristics are:

  • Homeostasis – referring to the self-regulating ability to maintain a steady state,
  • Entropy/Negative entropy – taking in energy to counteract the tendency to deteriorate,
  • Structure, function, differentiation, and integration – illustrated by the ‘bicycle and frog metaphor’ (Mant 1997, p.52), where the essential difference lies in the relationship of the parts to the whole.
  • Requisite Variety – the internal regulatory mechanisms of a system must be as diverse as the environment which it is trying to deal.
  • Equifinality – in an open system there may be many different ways to reach a given end state.
  • System evolution – the survival capability to move to more complex forms to deal with the challenges and opportunities posed by the environment.

Organisations as Social Systems

Organisations are best understood as a “socio-technical systems” (Morgan 1997). The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations named this concept in the 1950’s to represent the interdependent nature of work. Their research in coal mining and manufacturing industry showed how social and technical aspects of work were inseparable. Miller and Rice (1967) showed that changed structures resulting from new technology, such a “long-wall mining”, while greatly improving productivity, adversely affected the social fabric and loyalty of role holders present in the organisation. This affiliation of role holders to the organisation is determined within the sentient system (Miller and Rice 1967 p.260) or culture. The Tavistock studies point to the fact that organisations, groups and individuals have resource needs that are satisfied from the wider environment through performance of work related roles or task system. All human systems are open-systems with boundaries to regulate transactions between the system and its environment (Alderfer 1980 p.269).


Organisational theories have long emphasised the significance of the boundary that separates the organisation from its environment, one division from another, and people from the roles they take up (Hirschhorn 1990). In open systems thinking the boundary separates the outer world of opportunities and challenges from the inner world of work and transformation.  The ‘permeability’ of boundaries regulates the ‘transactions’ between the system and its environment. Because open-systems depend on transactions with the environment for their survival, there is an ‘optimal’ relationship between each system-environment relationship (Alderfer 1980 p.269).

During times of major change there are both psychic and systemic factors that impact on the ability of the organisation to implement the new approaches (Krantz 1998).

Projective Identification 

Central to adopting a psychodynamic stance, are concepts drawn from Melanie Klein’s theory of Object Relations. Our understanding of how anxiety affects psychological functioning owes much to Melanie Klein (1946, 1963). Klein studied the early life of infants, and their relatedness to their mothers. Her work on ‘object relations’ refers to the mother’s breast as an ‘object’, the sole focus of the infants world, who may simultaneously considered it good and bad. The infant is nurtured and feels good, while at the same time fears annihilation associated with the death instinct.

There are two states of psychological functioning; firstly where the ‘good’ object is internalised or introjected, and secondly where the ‘bad’ is projected to the outside world i.e. to the mother. While Klein did not refer to group psychological functioning; her work has helped inform our understanding of how anxiety affects organisational performance.  The first state of mind is ‘paranoid-schizoid’, where primitive coping behaviour is apparent, such as splitting, projective identification, and idealisation. In this mode people resort to blame, scapegoating, and persecutory thoughts. It is a distorted view of reality provoked by high anxiety and leads to rigid and non-creative interpersonal relations. Secondly there is the depressive mode of functioning, where people operate in a competent and capable way and experience themselves and others as integrated wholes. In this mode people can collaborate and build value across boundaries without concern for mere survival and self-protection.

Based on Klein’s work on object relations, Wilfred Bion (1961) developed theory on group processes. His publication “Experiences in Groups” focused on differentiating rational behaviours and activities associated with task performance, and those geared to the emotional needs and anxieties of groups. Bion identified ‘fight/flight’, ‘dependency’, and ‘pairing’ basic assumption behaviour in groups as the manifestations of experiences and unconscious fantasies originating in infancy.  This work and its psychoanalytic underpinnings are the approach adopted in the group relations and organisation theory tradition of the Tavistock Institute.

Social Defense Theory 

Understanding group relations and workplace anxiety has been greatly influenced by the research of Menzies Lyth (1960) who developed ‘Social Defense Theory’. Menzies studied nurses working with the sick and dying and described how rituals and processes employed by nurses seemed to be designed to protect them from the anxiety of their work tasks. If nurses were not able to depersonalise their involvement with the sick and dying, the psychological burden may have been too much for them to handle. The changes of wards, waking patients to administer medicine and the ‘look alike’ uniforms operated as social defenses against becoming too intimately connected to sick and dying patients in their care. Through the processes of splitting, projection, and introjection, the nurses attempted to survive the anxiety of their roles.

The experience of taking up a role or the experience of a changed role or relatedness to an organisation may be at either end of the psychological functioning continuum described by Klein (1946, 1963) i.e. disintegrated, fostering blame and projections, or destructive infantilising authority relations, in the paranoid-schizoid mode, or where complexity is confronted, emotional-laden questions are addressed openly and honestly, challenges are linked and integrated, managing experience coherently (Krantz 1998), which is the depressive mode of psychological functioning.

Focus on Role

The role is the link between the individual and the organisation (Borwick 2006), and to take a role people must understand their task and its relatedness to the system it serves. A role is a key part of any organisational change, and more importantly a crucial domain for initiating change. Krantz & Maltz (1997) conceptualise the elements of a ‘role’ as follows:

(a) specific assigned duty, activity, purpose, and/or function that is required for the pursuit of some common effort in a group, team, and/or organizational effort (given and/or taken);

(b) part, piece, or share in the overall mission and system of tasks present in an organization;

(c) unconscious, assigned, and/or assumed function in the covert system of irrationalities or sentience attendant to the organization’s overall mission and system of tasks; and

(d) the way in which an individual understands and then works with his or her role as given and taken within the organization’s systems of task and sentience.

There are two ways to enact a role, either facing the real work it represents, or escaping the risks it represents by violating it. Hirschhorn (1997), comments that when we violate a role we create and sustain an ‘anxiety chain’ by crossing boundaries. Boundaries represent a real difference between people and situations and the difference between reality and fantasy. Living in an illusionary world, out of role is an attempt to eliminate risk. The other mode of functioning is to take a role. When we take a role, we limit the consequences of our own fear.

Theories of action: theory in use and espoused theory

People in organisations have theories of action or mental ‘maps’ with regard to how to act in particular situations (Argyris and Schon 1974). These mental constructs guide action rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. Argyris (1957, 1962, 1964) researched the relationships between individuals and organisations and established that there are two theories of action. Firstly there is what we say will be our action, or espoused theory, and second there is what we actually do, or theory-in-use. Theories-in-use contain assumptions about self, others, and the environment. They are our ‘hard-wired’ frames of reference that govern behaviour without the need to think.

The espoused view is governed by values people believe their behaviour is based on, or what they intend, while theory-in-use is governed by the actual values a person uses to act. When the consequences of the strategy employed are as the person intends the theory-in-use is confirmed. Alternatively the consequences may be ‘unintended’, and more particularly they may be counterproductive to satisfying their governing variables i.e. a mismatch between intention and outcome. Argyris and Schon (1974) suggest there are two possible responses to the mismatch represented by the concept of single-loop learning and double-loop learning. The diagram below illustrates the process:


Learning involves the detection and correction of error. A simple thermostat works in this manner; however this single loop-learning (Argyris and Schon 1978: 2-3) will only allow an organisation to carry on with its present policies to achieve its present objectives. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organisation’s underlying norms, policies and objectives. 

Incorporating Systems Psychodynamic Approaches into Executive Coaching Practice

There are two points I need to make about incorporating systems psychodynamic approaches into executive coaching practice. Firstly, systems psychodynamic approaches are based on a set of complex theories and it is assumed that to use the approaches effectively the coach will have a high level of self-awareness, emotional resilience and the ability to manage themselves appropriately in the coaching role.  Training is essential and some form of ongoing supervision is recognised as important.

My second point is that while I have highlighted the value of incorporating systems psychodynamic approaches into executive coaching practice, I do not consider a sole focus on the psychodynamic aspects of the client’s experiences of their work role, or organisational system is, in itself, sufficient for effective executive coaching practice. There will be times during a coaching intervention when the coach can best serve the client through focussing on the more technical and individual aspects of the executive’s performance.


Systems psychodynamic theories and methodologies have much to offer the field of executive coaching. They provide an excellent framework for developing emotional awareness and for appreciating the impact of social defenses on workplace culture and performance.  They also provide a framework for coaches to educate their clients and develop within them the sophisticated leadership and self-management skills necessary for effective performance in contemporary organisational settings.


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