The Unconscious at Work : A Tavistock Approach to Making Sense of Organizational Life book cover
2nd Edition

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

ISBN 9780815361350
Published February 18, 2019 by Routledge
302 Pages 18 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Why do our organizations 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 Unconscious at Work, Second Edition draws on a body of thinking and practice which has developed over the past 70 years, often referred to as 'the Tavistock approach' or 'systems-psychodynamics'. All the contributors are practising consultants who draw on this 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 – who is curious about what might be driving the puzzling or stressful situations they find in their workplace.

The First Edition was addressed to people working in 'the human services': health, social care and education. Since it was published in 1994, there has been growing interest in the business world, and in understanding more about the 'irrational' side of organizational life. Therefore, this Second Edition includes an entirely new section where the key ideas are revisited and illustrated with case studies from a wide range of business organizations, from large corporations to start-ups and family businesses.

The aim, however remains the same: to enlarge readers' existing sense-making 'tool-kits' so that they can look at themselves and their organizations with fresh eyes, deepening the emotional intelligence they bring to bear on the challenges they face and providing new possibilities for action. The Unconscious at Work, Second Edition is for managers, leaders, consultants, and anyone working in organizations who has been puzzled, disturbed or challenged by their experiences at work.

Table of Contents

List of figures

About the authors

Foreword by Jonathan Gosling

Preface to the Second Edition


A note on confidentiality

A note about ‘a Tavistock approach’

Introduction: Making sense of organizations – the institutional roots of the Tavistock approach

James Mosse


Conceptual framework

1 Some unconscious aspects of organizational life: contributions from psychoanalysis

William Halton

2 The dangers of contagion

Deirdre Moylan

3 The unconscious at work in groups and teams: contributions from the work of Wilfred Bion

Jon Stokes

4 The organization of work: contributions from open systems theory

Vega Zagier Roberts

5 Authority, power and leadership: contributions from group relations training

Anton Obholzer

6 Changing the stories we are ‘in’: power, purpose and organization-in-the-mind

Vega Zagier Roberts


The unconscious at work in human service organizations

Part IIa Working with people in distress

7 Attending to emotional issues on a special care baby unit

Nancy Cohn

8 Containing anxiety in work with damaged children

Chris Mawson

9 Fragmentation and integration in a school for children with physical disabilities

Anton Obholzer

10 Where angels fear to tread: idealism, despondency and inhibition of thought in hospital nursing

Anna Dartington

11 Till death us do part: caring and uncaring in work with older people

Vega Zagier Roberts

12 Working with dying people: on being good enough

Peter Speck

Part IIb Challenges, crises and change

13 The self-assigned impossible task

Vega Zagier Roberts

14 Institutional chaos and personal stress

Jon Stokes

15 The troublesome individual and the troubled institution

Anton Obholzer and Vega Zagier Roberts

16 Finding a voice: differentiation, representation and empowerment in organizations under threat

James Mosse and Vega Zagier Roberts

17 Confl ict and collaboration: managing intergroup relations

Vega Zagier Roberts

18 Managing social anxieties in public sector organizations

Anton Obholzer


The unconscious at work in business organizations

Kay Trainor (guest editor)

19 Family patterns at work: how casting light on the shadows of the past can enhance leadership in the present

Francesca Cardona and Sheila Damon

20 Feelings as data

Kay Trainor

21 The myth of rationality: why change efforts so often fail

James Krantz and Kay Trainor

22 Navigating roles in complex systems

Vega Zagier Roberts

23 Beyond the individual: reframing blame and responsibility for ‘rogue’ behaviour in the fi nancial services industry

Ajit Menon

24 From managing to leading organizations in their contexts

Matthieu Daum

Afterword: Consulting to oneself

Appendix: The genealogy of systems psychodynamics



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Anton Obholzer, BSc, MB, ChB, DPM, FRCPsych is a psychoanalyst, organizational consultant, and former CEO of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. He is a senior member of faculty of the Advanced Management Programme of the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre in Paris.

Vega Zagier Roberts, MD is an independent consultant and coach, an associate consultant at Tavistock Consulting, and a faculty member on the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust master’s programme Consulting and Leading in Organisations and doctoral programme Consultation and the Organisation.


"Setting out the basis for the understanding of work in human service organizations, the publication of the original ‘Unconscious at Work’ in 1994 was a landmark event in the field. In this excellent, updated volume, Anton Obholzer and Vega Zagier Roberts have extended the scope of the book to the corporate sector and have produced a volume of outstanding quality. Drawing on a range of experts who take a psychoanalytic view, this volume comprises a series of superb chapters on a wide range of topics. I cannot recommend it too highly."-Mark Stein, Chair in Leadership and Management, School of Business, University of Leicester, UK

"An invaluable book in developing my leadership of complex organizations and systems. The book really helped me to build my understanding of the impact of the nature of work and context on people’s performance. The book also enhanced my understanding of how basic human experience outside of work define people and teams’ reactions to leaders and each other. The research and examples across a range of settings and sectors really help you build change and performance improvement programmes which will have a lasting positive impact."-Fiona Edwards, CEO Surrey and Borders NHS Foundation Trust, UK

"We have used this classic and exceptional text to inform the design and delivery of our programmes with managers and leaders in health and social care. It is essential that public service leaders recognize powerful emotional states and work with them. A 2ndedition of this book is timely as organizations struggle to cope, adapt and thrive in complex, ambiguous and uncertain contexts. I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about unconscious processes at work and how understanding these can enhance awareness, effectiveness and performance."Ann Mahon, Professor of Health Leadership, Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK

Reviews for the first edition of The Unconscious at Work:

"What makes this book excellent? ...the writing is direct and clear, presenting complex subjects effectively. The abundance of examples is accompanied by intellectual rigor... highly recommended to workers, managers, students and teachers in the human services."-Professional Social Work

"As a reminder of the processes that can bring individual work, teams and corporate planning to a grinding halt this book is invaluable."-Probation Journal