The Unconscious at Work: A Tavistock Approach to Making Sense of Organisational Life


Second edition
Edited by Anton Obholzer and Vega Zagier Roberts
Routledge, 2019

Reviewer: Penny Jones

‘The Unconscious At Work: A Tavistock Approach to Making Sense of Organisational Life’, edited by Anton Obholzer and Vega Zagier Roberts, explores the unconscious processes that occur in organisations, through the lens of ‘systems-psychodynamics’, or what is often referred to as the ‘Tavistock Approach’ (p.5). Its contributors, all practicing consultants, draw on this approach to ask: “Why do our organisations so often seem to be less than the sum of their parts? What undermines effectiveness and morale, and gets in the way of achieving what we set out to do?”

The first edition, published in 1994, addressed people working in ‘human services’ – health, social care and education. This second edition has been expanded and the key ideas revisited for business organisations.

  • Part I follows an introduction outlining the institutional roots of the Tavistock Approach. It offers an overview of the ‘conceptual framework’, and summarises key theories on which the approach is based.
  • Part II consists of case studies from consultants describing work they have undertaken in human service organisations, with a focus on the impact that the nature of this work can have on collective and institutional defences.
  • Part IIb focuses on how workers’ needs and inner conflicts make them vulnerable to being caught up in these institutional defences as they arise from shared anxieties.
  • Part III looks at the ‘unconscious at work’ specifically in business organisations, offering a selection of case studies describing consultancy undertaken in this setting.

It’s fair to say that I approached this book with high hopes. A previous career in the corporate sector led me to work in a number of organisations with varying degrees of dysfunction; and my psychotherapy training and practice has further highlighted the role that unconscious forces can play in creating dysfunctional institutions, and the often catastrophic impact this can have on individuals and society as a whole. I was therefore interested in a book that explores what can go wrong, enabling, as it promises, leaders of these organisations to start to address some of the issues.

The book states that the authors draw on the Tavistock Approach framework, “bringing it alive and making it useful to any reader – manager, leader or consultant, regardless of whether they have any prior familiarity with the underlying concepts”, according to the synopsis on the back cover. They also state that: “The ideas discussed…can be used to develop a capacity for self-consultation” (p.18). However, in the early chapters, I found myself questioning if I felt the book was achieving these goals.

My first issue was its accessibility to anyone not well-versed in psychoanalytic theory. Part I introduces complex theoretical concepts, such as Klein’s projective identification and paranoid-schizoid/depressive positions, with limited explanation. I do not imagine these theories can easily be summarised in the space available, but if, as it seemed to me, the reader requires an understanding of these terms in order to make full use of the material, it surely limits its value to certain audiences.

This links to my second issue, which was an ongoing confusion as to whether this is a ‘self-help’ book, or one extolling the virtues of appointing an external consultant. Case studies in Part II demonstrate notable successes of Tavistock Approach consultancy in various ‘human service’ settings - but it felt at times that the authors were more focused on describing what the process of consultation is like for them, and I was unclear how these accounts worked to foster a capacity for self-consultation. Indeed, many of the case studies seemed to highlight various reasons why it would be difficult to achieve change through self-consultation, as consultants described the challenges they encountered in their work.

For example, on several occasions it is highlighted that resistance from clients is both expected and experienced: “Attempts made by the consultant to clarify the nature of the problem may be strenuously resisted” (p.19). The authors remind us how long and complex a process implementing change can be, even with an expert involved: “it took about a year from the establishment of the staff meetings for us to work as consultants to the institutional process as envisaged in our original model” (p.91); and how challenging it is to be aware of unconscious dynamics we are ourselves involved in: “…our falling into unconscious defensive manoeuvres interferes with our capacity to review the task…From an insider’s point of view, this process is often very difficult to detect” (p.178).

I was left with the sense that the only option for anyone who wants to effect real change in their organisation was to hire an external consultant. The authors appeared to be first introducing a theory that is too complex for many to really understand, and then outlining why it was too difficult to implement without their help.

There were sections of the book that felt much more accessible, where I felt the reader was able to take away insight that they could use without the need for an external consultant, particularly Part III, which is aimed specifically at the corporate sector. Here, the case studies felt designed to give the reader ideas that they can apply themselves. However, Part III felt somewhat ‘stuck on’ at the end, and I wondered if business leaders (and I must acknowledge again that this is my own prioritised target audience) would reach this far through a book which does not feel written with them in mind up to that point.

It felt notable that the most direct guidance on how to use this book for self-consultation appears in the afterword, which left it feeling more like an afterthought. Indeed, I was initially puzzled by the decision to start the book with an introduction outlining the venerable history and institutional roots of the Tavistock, rather than with context that would support readers’ understanding of how to utilise the material within. I was increasingly left with the sense that this introduction in fact served to establish the authority of the Tavistock Approach from the outset – and I found that there was an ongoing requirement from the reader to defer to this authority. Interpretations are offered as fact, with an apparent expectation that the reader will just accept them, without challenge. But if, as the authors describe, they encounter resistance when such interpretations are offered through their own experiential work with organisations, I was unconvinced that organisational leaders, more used to telling other people how it is, will simply accept this ‘authority’. There seemed to be little awareness of the fact that the ideas presented are likely to be well outside of many readers’ usual worldview.

Clearly, I came to this book with my own experiences, hopes and expectations. I wanted it to talk to those whom I have experienced as holding the power to drive change. But of course, this book is not solely designed for the target audience I have prioritised: the business leader. I believe that it could work better for other audiences, those more familiar with the language of psychology and the unconscious. And what of all the people in organisations who are not leaders? Are the rest of us powerless to invoke change? It is true that gaining a greater understanding of the unconscious processes at play in organisations I have worked in, and seeing my own contribution to this, may have enabled me to somewhat shift my position and limit my collusion in it. But there is a reality that in most businesses of any scale, institutional change requires buy-in from the top. And I am not sure that the current presentation of the material within this book will enable such buy-in.

As well as reading this with my corporate experience in mind, I read this book as a therapist. As therapists, we are required to enter our clients’ worlds and put ourselves in their shoes. We consider, how do I reach this client? We question how helpful an intervention is to them, and wonder why we are offering it. And before any productive work can occur, we must first build a therapeutic alliance. In this context, I consider that a successful ‘therapeutic alliance’ would be an engaged reader. There is undoubtedly a wealth of valuable insight in this book and much that it could offer us now, in our current, turbulent world. It contains guidance and ideas on what organisations need to consider when reorganising after a period of significant disruption - and never has there been a more appropriate time for support in this regard. But without sufficient focus on developing the ‘therapeutic alliance’ of an engaged reader, I am left with the sense that for many, the valuable insight it could offer will remain unavailable and the opportunities for change unrealised.

Penny Jones is a BACP registered integrative psychotherapist. She trained at the Minster Centre and now works in private practice in North London. Penny has particular interest and specialist training in working with complex loss and bereavement.
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