Quickie: Organisational Psychotherapy Definitions

Some definitions from the field of Organisational Psychotherapy, as laid out in “Memeology:

The Way the Work Works

Many organisations use the word “process” or “system” to describe the way employees are expected – or even required – to approach specific tasks. Often, however, the way specific tasks actually get done diverges a little or a lot from the process definitions. 

Some organisations use the term “the way the work works” to refer to the actual way specific things get done in reality.

You can find more about the idea that maybe the system – “the way the work works” – governs the behaviour of people in the organisation, in the later chapter on The Way the Work Works.


Business as usual (BAU) is a term that refers to the standard day-to-day business operations in an organisation. These operations can include:

  • Staff members carrying out their daily tasks as suggested by their job descriptions.
  • Outcomes or deliverables resulting from (one-off, or out-of-band) projects – projects whose outputs have been integrated into the daily operations of the business.
  • Tasks deemed necessary to running the daily operations of the business.
  • Tasks carried out to fulfil terms of ongoing contracts or agreements.


An integrated or interdependent set of elements forming a complex whole.

Systems Thinking

• An epistemology which, when applied to human activity is based on four basic ideas: emergence, hierarchy, communication, and control as characteristics of systems. (Checkland 1999)

• A process of discovery and diagnosis – an inquiry into the governing processes underlying the problems and opportunities. (Senge 1990)

• A discipline for examining wholes, interrelationships, and patterns utilising a specific set of tools and techniques. (Senge 1990)

• A way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world. (Senge et al., 1994)

Organisational Psychotherapy

Psychology is more of the ‘let’s figure out what is going on’ (the perspective of the scientist) and psychiatry, psychotherapy are more ‘let’s treat whatever is going on’ (the perspective of the physician).

Organisational Psychotherapy  (OP) aims to support an organisation’s “becoming“ – increasing its sense of self-worth, reducing the level of incongruence between its ideal and actual self, and supporting the organisation to become more fully-functioning. This can translate to positive changes in the organisation’s wellbeing and, as a consequence, its effectiveness – amongst other things. Organisational psychotherapists employ a range of techniques – based on experiential relationship building, dialogue, communication, reflection and introspection.

Put another way, OP involves inviting the organisation “onto the therapist’s couch” and working through issues using e.g. conversation and open questions in the Socratic style.

There are three core conditions for effective therapy – whether facilitated by a therapist , or self-therapy:

  • Congruence
  • Unconditional positive regard
  • Empathy

Organisational Psyche

In psychology, the psyche is the totality of the individual human mind – both the conscious and unconscious. Psychology is the scientific or objective study of the psyche. Therapy is the treatment of the psyche.  

The word psyche is based in the Greek word ψυχή (psyche), meaning “life” – in the sense of “breath”. Derived meanings included “spirit”, “soul”, “ghost”, and ultimately “self” in the sense of “conscious personality”. In psychoanalysis and other forms of psychology, “psyche” refers to the forces in an individual that influence thought, behaviour and personality.

Nowadays, cognitive scientists seem to prefer to use the word “mind” rather than “psyche” – mind holds the power of imagination, recognition, and appreciation, and is responsible for processing feelings and emotions, resulting in attitudes and behaviours.

OP regards the organisational psyche as analogous to the individual psyche, or mind. I prefer to remain with the term psyche, rather than mind, not least because the phrase “organisational mind” seems to be somewhat obscure, even risible. 

The concept – and existence – of the Organisational Psyche
is foundational to OP. It is the thing with which every OP therapist interacts.


For the purpose of organisational psychotherapy, we define a transition as a change involving the wholesale replacement of one collective memeplex for another. In other words, the organisation-wide adoption of a host of new and counter-intuitive “truths”, and the unlearning of a host of existing truths.

“It’s hard to teach counter-intuitive truths by explanation.”

Taiichi Ohno


I’m quite deliberate in my use of the term “client” rather than “patient”. “Client” seems more appropriate, given the nature of the relationship between OP therapists and the organisations they serve. But more importantly, I believe that the term “patient” carries with it the implication that the organisation is somehow sick, and in need of a “cure” from the therapist. By using the term “client” instead, we emphasise the importance of the organisation seeking assistance, controlling its destiny, and overcoming its difficulties itself. This self-direction plays a vital role in OP.


The term “meme” (rhymes with “cream”, “”team”, etc.) refers to an idea, concept, belief, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, or rituals. We might regard memes as analogous to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. The term originated with Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene.


We may choose to name groups of memes “meme complexes”, or “memeplexes”. Like the gene complexes found in biology, memeplexes are groups of memes that are often found present in the same individual – and also in organisations. Memes that interact favourably will form strong memeplexes, while memeplexes will resist incompatible memes.

A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.

Richard Dawkins

In OP, we use the term “collective mindset” and “memeplex” more or less interchangeably. And for OP, memeplexes have a special significance, in that we regard the organisational memeplex as a “strong” memeplex, where every meme has an interlocking, or reinforcing connection that binds it together with the other memes in such a way as to resist its removal from the memeplex, and similarly resists the introduction of new, incompatible memes.

In practice, this characteristic suggests that an organisational memeplex must be replaced wholesale, rather than by e.g. swapping out individual memes one by one.

Memeplexes have a special significance in OP, in that we regard each meme in an
organisational memeplex as having an interlocking, or reinforcing connection.

Organisational Mindset

In OP we use the term mindset interchangeable with memeplex – i.e. a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.

We use the term organisational mindset to refer to the set of assumptions and beliefs about the world and the world of work held in common across the organisation – assumptions and beliefs which act to reinforce each other.

These interlocking beliefs tightly bind organisations into a straight-jacket of thought patterns which many find inescapable. Simply tackling any one of these interlocking beliefs causes the other memes of the memeplex to tighten their grip to compensate – and so preserve the memeplex. Without coordinated interventions at multiple points in the memeplex simultaneously, these interlocking beliefs will prevail, as will the status quo.

But if we consider culture as its own self-organizing system,—a system with its own agenda and pressure to survive – then the history of humanity gets even more interesting. As Richard Dawkins has shown, systems of self-replicating ideas – or memes – can quickly accumulate their own agenda and behaviours.

Kevin Kelly, Out of Control 1994, p.360

We can identify many memes in the world of work – management, hierarchy, power, relationships, remuneration, direction, outcomes, stakeholders, customers, value;  to name but a few (see: Part III – The Memes). And when certain of these memes combine, the pernicious homeostatic effects of the whole collective memeplex becomes significant.

We can label many, many distinct memeplexes, or mindsets. The Marshall Model isolates and contrasts just four (i.e. Ad-hoc, Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic).

(The) Social Dynamic

Social dynamics (or sociodynamics) is the study of the behaviour of groups that results from the interactions of individual group members as well to the study of the relationship between individual interactions and group level behaviours.

The field of social dynamics brings together ideas from economics, sociology, social psychology, and other disciplines, and is a sub-field of complex adaptive systems or complexity science. The fundamental assumption of the field is that individuals are influenced by one another’s behaviour.

In Organisational Psychotherapy  we use the term “The Social Dynamic” (of an organisation) to refer to the way in which individuals typically interact with one another in that organisation.

Local Optimisation

For the purposes of this book, we may define “local optimisation as:

Making the “best” decision from the viewpoint of a person or department, rather than from the viewpoint of the organisation as a whole – or even more broadly, from the viewpoint of the “whole system”, whatever that may be.

Further Reading

Blackmore, S.J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.

Cultural Selection Theory. (2020, October 18). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_selection_theory

Universal Darwinism. (2021, April 15). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Darwinism

Bridges, W. & Bridges, S. (2017). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. London Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Kelly, K. (1995). Out of Control : The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Checkland, P. (1999). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice: Includes a 30-Year Retrospective. Wiley.

‌Senge, P.M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday.

‌Kleiner, A., Smith, B., Roberts, C., Ross, R. & Senge, P.M. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

‌Wikipedia Contributors. (2019, July 4). Social Dynamics. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_dynamics


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