Isabel Menzies, building on the work of the noted group theorist, Eliot Jaques, described the ways in which mental health systems create “social defense systems”[1,2]. She described how systems develop specific and static protective mechanisms to protect against the anxiety that is inevitably associated with change. The defense mechanisms she describes sound uncannily like those that we see in victims of trauma - depersonalization, denial, detachment, denial of feelings, ritualized task-performance, redistribution of responsibility and irresponsibility, idealization, avoidance of change.
Over time and as a result of collusive interaction and unconscious agreement between members of an organization, this agreement becomes a systematized part of reality which new members must deal with as they come into the system. These defensive maneuvers become group norms, similar to the way the same defensive maneuvers become norms in the lives of our individual patients and then are passed on from one generation of group participants to the next. Each new member then, must become acculturated to the established norms if he or she is to succeed. In such a way, an original group creates a group reality which then becomes institutionalized for every subsequent group (2). This aspect of the “groupmind” becomes quite resistant to change, rooted in a past that is forgotten, now simply the “way things are”.
A good example of the way the unconscious group operates is the way a group selects a “troublemaker” who then performs a function on behalf of other members of the group as well as themselves. This is the person who always challenges administration, who constantly argues, who gives off nonverbal signs of frustration in meetings but never does anything positive, who is always tardy, and who bullies other people . “Many groups and organizations have a ‘difficult’, ‘disturbed’, or ‘impossible’ member whose behavior is regarded as getting in the way of the others’ good work. There may be a widely shared belief that if only that person would leave, then everything would be fine. This view is very attractive, hard to resist and tempting to act upon…. As happens very often, no sooner had one troublesome person left, than another one appeared. … this unconscious suction of individuals into performing a function on behalf of others as well as themselves happens in all institutions (pp. 130–131) .
In a similar way, the unconscious, covert aspects of the organization grow up informally alongside or, perhaps more accurately, within the overt organization to provide services and benefits not provided by the overt organization. These arrangements can parallel, complement, or even replace formal organizational structures and processes . Of all the explanations of conflict in organizations, it is these shadowy, largely unconscious sources of conflict that are likely to be the most problematic in caregiving organizations. We may be relatively good at solving many task conflicts and even resolving overt interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings, but we get blindsided by the unconscious group forces of which we are only minimally aware. We often only observe in retrospect the damage that has been left in the wake of these shadow experiences.
When most of the organizational energy is going into social defensive routines, the organization is unable to fully actualize its mission. As organizational scholar Manfred Kets de Vries has pointed out: “When social defenses no longer target a specific, temporary danger but become the organization’s dominant mode of operation—the permanent, accepted way of dealing with the angst and unpredictability of life in organizations—they become dysfunctional for the organization as a whole. Though they may still serve a purpose (albeit not constructively), they have become bureaucratic obstacles, embedded in the organizational structure. Once firmly entrenched, they have cultural implications for the whole organization” (p. 314) .
1. Jacques, E., The social system as a defense against depressive and persecutory anxiety, in New Directions in Psycho-analysis, M. Klein, P. Herman, and R. Money-Kryle, Editors. 1955, Tavistock: London. p. 478-498.
2. Menzies, I.E.P., A case study in the functioning of social systems as a defense against anxiety., in Group Relations Reader I., A.D. Colman and W.H. Bexton, Editors. 1975, A. K. Rice Institute Series: Washington, D.C.
3. Obholzer, A. and V.Z. Roberts, The troublesome individual and the troubled institution., in The Uconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services, A. Obholzer and V.Z. Roberts, Editors. 1994, Routledge: London. p. 129-138.
4. Egan, G., Working the Shadow Side: A Guide to Positive Behind-the-Scenes Management. 1994, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
5. Kets de Vries, M., The Leader on the Cuch: A Clinical Approach to Changing People and Organizations. 2006, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.