Individual vs Organisational Psychotherapy

Individual vs Organisational Psychotherapy

My recent post on My Organisational Psychotherapy Toolkit turned out to be rather longer (more content) than expected. I had been meaning to include a paragraph or two on the challenges of adapting common therapy techniques – designed and tailored to the individual – for therapy related to the organisational psyche.

Organisational Psyche

Some folks have expressed skepticism about the very concept of an “organisational psyche”. I’d like to make a case for the validity of this concept, before getting on to the question of therapies tailored or adapted thereto.

Robert Kenney has written a extensive paper, laying out the scientific work on collective consciousness, although some may find his starting point somewhat “whacky”.

But I see the organisational psyche as slightly different from the more general idea of a “collective consciousness” – and not just a subset thereof. And quite different from, although informed by, e.g. Jung’s “collective unconscious“.

Group Mind, or Hive MInd a.k.a. collective intelligence is another concept with some connection to the idea of an organisational psyche.


I prefer to start my attempt at a definition with the concept of “psyche“.

“In psychoanalysis and other forms of depth psychology, the psyche refers to the forces in an individual that influence thought, behaviour and personality.”

~ Wikipedia


“In recent decades cognitive psychology has replaced psychoanalysis as the dominant school of psychology in academic centres. Some cognitive scientists prefer the word ‘mind’ over ‘psyche’.”

Aside: I am not opposed to the term “organisational mind” as an alternative to “organisational psyche”. Some folks choose to make a distinction between the two.

So, building on the above Wikipedia quote, I see organisational psyche thusly:

“Organisational psyche refers to the forces in an organisation that influence thought, behaviour and personality of the organisation as a whole.”

This invites some further comment:

First, what about the influence of the organisational psyche on the thoughts, behaviours and personalities of the components (sub-units and individuals) within the overall organisation? Such influence undoubtedly exists, and in reverse, too. But I choose to regard, for the purposes of organisational therapy at least, the thoughts, behaviours and personalities of the components as being distinct from the collective organisational psyche. I recognise the dilemma this “separation” raises. Perhaps one day I’ll get to a place where the dilemma dissolves. Until that day, I’ll live with it. And the way my head hurts when I think about it too much.

Second, what do we mean by “organisation”?


Such an everyday term. So easy to take it for granted. Here’s a short description in line with how I see the term in the context of organisational psychotherapy:

“An organisation is a social entity that has a collective goal and is linked to an external environment.”

~ Wikipedia

Interestingly, the word “organisation” derives from the Greek for “organ”. I like the idea that organisations are “organs” of our social body (society). I do not subscribe to the (common?) view that the “collective goal” of the typical organisation is simply to make money. I prefer Goldratt’s take on the question (c.f. “necessary conditions”).


So now to the question of therapy. If we accept – or choose to believe – that there is such a thing as an organisational psyche, then psychotherapy seems like it might be a reasonable term for the activity of working with – or “treating” – it.

psy·cho·ther·a·py  /ˌsīkōˈTHerəpē/
The treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means.

Note that the root of the word psychotherapy means “healing the spirit”. What better term then for the work of healing the spirit – or soul –  of our organisations?

“Psychotherapy – in the field – is almost always concerned with improvement in the general functioning of patients.”

~ Martin Seligman


There are literally hundreds of different kinds of therapies used to treat individuals and their psyches. Many of these therapies have much research into their efficacy, some into their effectiveness, and some into the reasons why they work. Rather than invent new modalities of therapy specifically for organisations and the organisational psyche, I feel it makes more sense to adapt existing modalities of therapy to the organisational context.

As an example of such adaptation, consider Solution Focus. Solution Focus in its common form is about working with individuals, helping individuals (who may, incidentally, be members of a group) “identify the things that they wish to have changed in their life and also to attend to those things that are currently happening that they wish to continue to have happen.”

It’s not much of a stretch to see how tools/techniques from Solution Focus – such as the “Miracle Question” – can be repurposed to the organisation as a whole. Of course, asking a question of a whole organisation (or as a minimum, the components at the centre of consciousness thereof) is somewhat different than asking that same question of an individual. In fact, this is the reason I favour techniques for improving group dialogue skills.

– Bob

Further Reading

Psyche At Work: Workplace Applications of Jungian Analytical Psychology ~ Murray Stein and John Hollwitz
Mapping the Organizational Psyche: A Jungian Theory of Organizational Dynamics and Change ~ John G Corlett and Carol Pearson
Mass Collaboration – Wikipedia entry
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt
It’s Not Luck ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt
The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy ~ Martin Seligman

  1. Hi Bob, again you raise a very important question here. I agree that Solution Focus is great with organisational settings – particularly as the ‘starting unit’ of SF is a person, not a psyche, soul, brain or any other sub-unit. If you take a look at the working definition of SF practice at you’ll see this:

    ■The focus of SF work is on the interaction between people as described, observed or experienced. We do not introduce systemic or psychological explanatory concepts like inner drivers, inner teams, motivations, systemic structures and hypotheses. Whenever the client is introducing concepts with mentalistic words we use their language to talk about observable signs of progress. For example: “What will you notice when x is better motivated? How will you respond? What will your colleagues notice? What else?”

    ■Much of the work and the explanations of the work would therefore be in terms of ‘people grammar’ – for example “what Mrs V does when she notices Mr W doing something” rather than in mentalistic, molecular or otherwise diagnostic grammar. We focus on what the person wants and we assume that he/she has all the skills to get there. In short the work should focus on what happens between the noses of individuals and avoid being diverted by speculation of what may be happening between the ears of the individual!

    So, the focus is always on people and their interactions rather than ‘hidden’ causes of any kind. It’s surprising how effective this can be when done skilfully – and remember that this approach was designed to deal with ‘mental illness’ rather than ‘just’ poorly functioning management… 🙂

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks again for making the distinction clear to me (and, hopefully, other readers). I see some parallels with Nonviolent Communication, in that Rosenberg suggests we avoid making judgements about people (including, I infer, what’s going on between their ears) and start with what we see in front of our noses. Clean Language seems to take this to its logical extreme, trying to avoid any interpretation (of observable behaviours) at any stage.

      The idea of dealing with people as (whole, skilful) people also sits well with me. And of organisations as whole, skilful entities also. I sometimes (momentarily) forget this perspective when dealing with (vexatious) organisations. But I have experienced the effectiveness of this stance in instances where an organisation is the “client” (person-analog).

      BTW I see a fine and very blurred line between “mental illness” and the affect – or would it be more congruent to say “observable behaviours”? – of many organisations.

      – Bob

  2. Hi Bob,

    I think you know, but I keep honeybees. They have taught me more than any textbook or SESOI (Someone Else’s Set of Ideas).

    I find that colony consciousness with bees is absolutely fascinating. You can feel it, but you can’t touch it. When the bees swarm you can see it swirling in the air, but you can’t catch it! I find the same with organisational consciousness. Maybe it is the same glue that holds both entities together?

    I am also fascinated by the connection between mental health and organisational health – and think that most organisations demonstrate dysfunctional behaviour when decisions are taken out of context. More at:

    So the trick, as a beekeeper is to ensure that you maintain healthy, sustainable colonies of bees and keep interventions to a minimum. All inspections and interventions have this one purpose in mind.

    So, surely, it is with the art of organisational husbandry? For all the theories and frameworks, the skill is the correct intervention in the moment that goes towards sustaining the organism. If in doubt, do nothing and just watch the flow of bees coming into and out of the entrance to the hive. If there is no flow, then ask why….. etc.etc…

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