Systems and subsystems at work

Let’s assume that the job you do is relatively congruent with your personality but you struggled to answer the questions in the preceding section. The next step we could take in finding out why you feel anxious at work is to look at your role as being a small part in a complex system. Organisations are complex systems but they function on basic principles.

Open systems theory was developed back in the 1960s by two psychologists at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations to better understand how organisations function (Miller & Rice, 1967). Open systems theory refers simply to the concept that organisations are more strongly influenced than we think, by their environment. This includes other organisations, economic, political and social forces as well as the resources the organisation needs to survive.

At its simplest, an organisation is a big rectangular box in which a version process takes place. Inputs come into one end of the box and are converted, and outputs emerge at the other end. In a shoe factory, leather enters the box and is transformed by shoemakers, and shoes emerge at the other end. Essentially, organisations create value by transforming inputs into more valuable outputs. You can think of hospitals like this, with sick people arriving in admissions and well people being discharged. Professional service organisations transform problems and information into solutions. Miller and Rice called this transformational processing the ‘primary task’ of the organisation. The primary task is the thing the organisation has to do in order to survive.

However, as with all things in life, this is not as simple as it first sounds, because within any organisation there exist different definitions of the primary task. For example, if we think of a shoe factory, the primary task of the chief executive might be to keep the shareholders happy by maximising profits. The chief executive believes that to do this the shoe factory needs to minimise costs and maximise speed of production.

However, the primary task of one of the factory’s master shoemakers might be to make the best quality shoe possible, this requires the best and most expensive materials and time. These primary tasks of the CEO and shoemaker are incompatible. You get the point? Already we have two competing primary tasks within the small shoe factory. It is these competing primary tasks that lead to conflict. We tend not to experience this conflict as a conflict between subsystems’; we experience it as a personal conflict with Philip in the accounts department or our unreasonable line manager/ direct report.

This model was later developed to include concepts from psychoanalysis and group relations (Cardona, 2020). Psychoanalysis sheds light on unconscious processes both within the individual and in teams and organisations. It recognises that many of our behaviours and emotions at work are driven by forces that are not immediately conscious to us.

For example, your relationship with your boss is likely to be coloured by your earlier relationships with authority figures. If, let’s say, your parents were strict and authoritarian during your early formative years (birth to five years old), then the chances are that irrespective of their actual behaviours, you will experience your line manager as being strict and authoritarian. And if your boss is a kind and permissive type, you might behave in ways that provoke authoritarian behaviour from them.

Psychoanalysis also brings the concept of defence mechanisms to understanding our behaviour within organisations. For example, when we feel anxiety, we can cope with this in various ways. We can deny that the problem that is causing the anxiety exists or is a serious problem. We can in effect turn a blind eye to it. Another common workplace defence mechanism is projection - in other words, blaming somebody else when something goes wrong.

These unconscious defence mechanisms occur in groups of people as well as individuals. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who studied group dynamics, coined the term ‘anti-task’ to describe activities that are unconscious avoidance of the real work that needs to be done (Bion, 1990). For example, having yet another planning meeting, rather than just getting on with things. In effect, the superfluous planning meeting sabotages the real work task.

Bion said that groups, or teams at work, can be in one of two modes: work task mode (getting on with the task) or anti-task mode (avoiding the work task). In work task mode, the team feels energetic, creative and effective. It is doing what it is supposed to be doing. In anti-task mode, the team has a different purpose. For example, say one team member has an idea that all the other team members just know is not going to work. Rather than tell that person kindly but firmly that their idea is a non-runner, the team struggles to get through the agenda and puts off the decision to the next meeting. This may be to avoid hurting the feelings of the person whose idea it was, or just to avoid the discomfort of dealing with an opinionated or loud group member. From the outside, the team looks like it’s doing a lot of productive work, but actually it’s avoiding the real work. This is what Wilfred Bion would describe as anti-task behaviour.

Bion identified three ‘unconscious traps’ that teams sometimes fall into:

  • • Dependency: when the team becomes over-dependent on the leader. It feels like the team loses all of its skills, experience and capacity for independent thought, leaving just the leader with all the responsibility. This can be initially seductive for all concerned. The leader feels important and the team can sit back and relax. But after a while, the team ends up feeling useless and de-skilled and the leader feels isolated, put upon and anxious.
  • • Pairing: this is similar to dependency. In this trap, the team abdicates their responsibility not to the leader but to two other team members, who as a pair discuss a decision while the rest of the team passively look on, letting them get on with it.
  • • Fight or flight: this happens when the team gets caught up in ‘fighting’ an external enemy rather than getting on with the job. This can be seen most clearly in the development of organisational silos, where the performance of the business becomes secondary to not being pushed around by those idiots in (for example) sales and marketing, finance or compliance.

All of these processes and traps (defence mechanisms) reduce anxiety in the short term, but they always rebound to cause conflict in the long term. These conflicts cause stress and anxiety, and can lead to burnout.

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