The Nine Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy

The Nine Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy

The core premise of Organisational (Psycho)Therapy is that flourishing organisations are great places to work, and because of this, highly effective at pursing their chosen purpose.

Definitions

“Psychology is more of the ‘let’s figure out what is going on’ (scientist) and psychiatry is more ‘let’s treat whatever is going on’ (physician)”.

Organisational psychotherapy aims to increase an organisation’s well-being and, as a consequence, its effectiveness. Organisational psychotherapists employ a range of techniques based on:

  • experiential relationship building
  • dialogue
  • communication
  • behaviour change

Organisational psychotherapy posits that application of such techniques may improve the “mental health” of an organisation, including the improvement of relationships – both individual and collective – within the organisation (and often, between the organisation and external parties, such as its customers and suppliers, too).

Distinctions

Although there is no clear division, organisational psychotherapy differs from e.g. organisational psychology in that the former is generally focussed on “treatment”, whereas the latter is primarily focussed on study, research, and the addressing of presumed workplace needs such as e.g. creation of systems, policies, etc.

From my perspective, as a self-annointed “organisational therapist”, organisational psychology most commonly aligns to the Analytic mindset, whilst organisational (psycho)therapy has much more in common with the Synergistic mindset. YMMV.

Put another way, therapy involves inviting the organisation “onto the psychiatrist’s couch” and working through issues using e.g. conversation and a kind of coaching style.

And frankly, I hold organisational psychology, as a discipline, to be responsible for some of the most egregious dysfunctions –  including: job design (narrow specialisms), “training”, appraisal systems, task design, incentive schemes, and pretty much the whole HR nine yards – in today’s knowledge-work organisations. (See also: What are Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints?).

DIsclaimer

The principles listed below are my principles – as practising organisational therapist. N.B. Other folks may work to different principles.

Sick, Sick, Sick

Many organisations are sick. If they were people, many of these sick organisations would likely be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

A common reason given for sectioning (involuntary commitment) is to prevent danger to the individual or society. Organisations with suicidal tendencies may act on these tendencies and harm or kill themselves. Organisations with psychoses are sometimes driven by their delusions or hallucinations to harm themselves or others. Organisations with certain types of collective disorders can present a danger to themselves, their employees, customers, suppliers and society at large.

But organisations are not people. And the psychology of organisations are much less well understood – and less easy to get at – than the psychology of individuals. Much as we might like to “section” organisations, this option is not (yet) available to us (society). Even “voluntary commitment” or therapy is something that very few organisations even perceive as being an option open to them.

And I think we have some way to go yet before organisations come to consider therapy as “acceptable”. In California, for example, most folks regard therapy as a perfectly normal response to the travails of life. There’s little or no social stigma associated with having a therapist (or, for that matter, a life coach). Such cannot be said of therapy for organisations. Organisations rarely recognise they have a collective “mental state”, let alone perceive the nature, characteristics of that mental state at any given point in time.

I posit that even organisations that are relatively healthy, mentally, can benefit from therapy (much like individuals do).

The Nine Principles

The following are the nine principles that I work to when acting in the role of therapist for any given (client) organisation:

1. Risk Awareness

Cognisance of all the things that could go wrong during the therapeutic intervention. Knowing these risks, the therapist may choose to take steps to manage them on behalf of the client – at least until such time as the client chooses to manage them for themselves.

2. Do No Harm

Ensure that individuals, in particular (but also groups, and the organisation as a whoie) do not suffer any (avoidable) negative consequences from the therapeutic interventions. More than this, work to instil hope in the folks within the scope of the therapy (this in itself is a moral and practical hazard, as some organisations are so sick as to cynically attempt to exploit such new hope).

3. Organisations Have a Collective Psyche that Responds to Therapies

Organisational therapy procedes on the basis that the collective psyche of an organisation is similar in nature to the psyche of the individual, and is similarly amenable to therapeutic interventions (although the actual techniques and underlying concepts may differ).

4. Mutual Benefits

Therapy sets out to improve the mutual well-being of both the organisation, the groups within the organisation, and the individual within the organisation. In other words, everyone involved is looking for win-win outcomes. Additionally, at the choice of the client, the scope may include other organisations, groups and individuals (and maybe wider society, too) in this seeking of mutually-beneficial outcomes.

5. Trust

Like any other therapy, the process of organisational therapy is one of building a network of mutual-trust relationships. It starts with trust in the therapist, followed by trust in themselves, expanding to trust in other members of the team, and maturing into trust in the organisation itself.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” explains the nature – and strengths – of “vulnerability-based trust”:

Folks who are not genuinely open with one another – and themselves – about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust, which in itself is a fundamental requirement for the pursuit of mutual benefit and well-being.

6. Wellbeing First

As in therapy, Organisation Therapy has no agenda excepting the general wish to see the client organisation flourish and increase its level of wellbeing. Indeed, the therapist will seek to solicit an agenda from the client, probably over time as their relationship unfolds, rather than have an agenda of their own. See also: Positive Psychology, as described by e.g. Professor Martin Seligman.

7. Work in the White Space

Working on the relationships between people, groups and organisations has much more impact that trying to “fix” individuals. Indeed, some key developments (growth, improvement) can only happen in the context of relationships.

8. Cognitive Harmony

Many organisations, particularly in times of stress or change, suffer acutely from “organisational cognitive dissonance” – feelings of anxiety and discomfort resulting from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or sets of assumptions. Therapy aims to surface such incompatibilities and resolve them, through e.g .changing some of these cognitions, and thereby leading to improved “cognitive harmony”.

9. Evidence-Based

“In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.”

~ William Kingdon Clifford

I believe that wherever possible, therapeutic interventions should be grounded in evidence of efficacy. Some number of the other principles noted here (especially Risk Awareness, and Do No Harm) benefit greatly from an awareness of the evidence.

Summary

In summary, then, organisational therapy offers a powerful prospect of improving the well-being of an organisation, as well as the well-being of the people, groups and other organisations who come into contact with it.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Twelve Principles of Group Counselling ~ Irvin Yalom
Seven Therapeutic Principles in Group Counseling ~ “Counselor” article
Flourish – A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – Prof Martin Seligman

11 comments
  1. I like the concept. To ask for therapy you generally need to accept you are in some way sick. This might be a more productive starting point than coaching someone who already thinks they are great (but is actually sick), denial from the off. Macho management culture isn’t going to make this easy though.

  2. Moira said:

    Hi,
    I interested to know what qualifications you believe an organisational psychotherapist should hold. It is an area I would like to pursue coming from an organisational change background – having focused more on process, policy and systems I would like to use that experience to enable me to support to focus on the people side of change. I look forward to your thoughts.

    Moira, UK

    • Hi Moira,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Firstly, I have to say I’m implacably opposed to qualifications, certifications, etc.. I appreciate this introduces an acute conundrum re: safety where people’s lives and livelihoods may be concerned.

      My view of what makes for a proficient and effective organisational psychotherapist includes:

      Knowledge of group dynamics and team-bulding
      Practice in group therapy
      Skills related to e.g. intervention theory, systems thinking, Theory-X vs Theory-Y (McGregor).
      Coaching abilities (both individuals and teams)
      Servant and Host Leadership (Greenleaf, McKergow)
      Student of Deming, Drucker, Kouzes and Posner, Ackoff, Senge, Goldratt, Semler, Argyris, Meadows, Satir, Jaworski, Ohno, Leonard, Lencioni, Seligman, De Bono, Seddon,…
      Practical leadership (gemba) experience applying some or all of the about in a variety of organisational settings (from small, fast-moving start-ups through to leaden corporates).

      More broadly, I posit that effective organisational psychotherapy covers a great deal of ground, and I don’t think it’s feasible to expect one individual to have all possible / desirable skills and experience. Clients should look first and foremost for folks who they feel comfortable with, and who will facilitate the client’s journey – rather than impose their own biases and solutions. I.E. Someone with a therapist’s posture, rather than e.g. a consultant, coach or ex-executive.

      How does that sound?

      – Bob

  3. Moira said:

    Thanks for the response Bob. Interesting! I do have some empathy for your stance on qualifications and for the fit between client and facilitator. Definite food for thought – may I come back with more questions once I have really chewed over your wise words?

  4. Reblogged this on taherehbarati and commented:
    It is refreshing to read this article as it shares the similar fundamental principles for treating organizations as people. Just imagine, if we consider utilizing what we find useful for individuals’ well being on organizations. What do you think might become possible to individuals who spend 35 h/w in organization? There is a link between individuals’ well-being and organizations’… Enjoy.

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