Essay: Critically discuss the value of the concept of social defences, in explaining why organisations* may fail to meet their primary task.


Freud (1894) believes the ego uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from anxiety, which arises as a byproduct of the conflict between the competing demands of the id and the superego.

Building on Freud’s theory, Klein (1959) theorised that the infant experiences anxiety in its’ first few months of life and deals with it by splitting and projective identification. The internal persecutory anxiety is projected onto the breast and then experienced as both an internal and external threatening bad object (De Board 1978). When the anxiety that people experience becomes too great, it triggers unconscious experiences of early infancy. This leads to the development of defence mechanisms in order to survive (Klein, Ibid).

Klein’s theory of projective identification and projection forms a central part of Bion’s (1961) theory of groups. Bion theorises that if a group and it’s members feel threatened, anxiety causes it to withdraw from the task at hand and uses its energy to defend itself against the anxiety.
The theories described above are social defences (against the anxiety), which are themselves unconscious. Freud (1915) describes the unconscious as that which contains our primitive drives and impulses influencing actions which we don’t necessarily become aware of and are driven by the id. The analogy of an iceberg is often used to demonstrate that what lies below the surface of the water (the unconscious) is greater than that which is visible above the water (the conscious).

These anxiety defense mechanisms are important in that they shape an individuals’ behaviour, which in turn will have an effect on the individual within and organisation and in turn can affect the organisation as a whole, not least as regards anxiety that arises when confronted by change.
Using these psychoanalytic theories, this paper will give a greater insight into the understanding of the functioning of organisations, with an emphasis on anxiety and change and the ways in which individuals and groups defend against this-thus failing to achieve the group’s primary task. This paper will use ideas that began with Freud and further developed by Klein and then Bion-particularly Bion and his study of groups.
*For the purpose of this essay, the terms ‘group’ and ‘organisations’ will be used intermittently.

A Potted History

Before the 1930s, the investigation of groups and organisations was not a generally recognised theory of study (De Board, R 1978). Psychoanalytic theory initially concentrated on individuals and was first extended to group life by Freud (1922) Later, Melanie Klein’s (1946) object relations theory both built upon and departed from Freud’s theories and later others such as Bion (1968), Jacques (1955) and Menzies (1960).

The defence mechanisms that Menzies (Ibid) and Jacques (Ibid) described, built on the development theory of Melanie Klein (Ibid), especially her idea of primitive anxiety and the mental mechanisms in the paranoid-schizoid position. Jacques (Ibid) theorised that the same defence mechanism is used by individuals in an organisation who in turn project their bad internal impulses and bad internal objects onto another individual within that organisation. The organisation itself then either unconsciously or, consciously, by choice introjects and absorbs them (De Board 1978, P. 117).
Jacques (Ibid) coined the expression ‘social systems as a defence against anxiety’ to describe the operation of social systems in an industrial setting. Menzies (Ibid) later applied it to the study of social systems in the nursing service of a general hospital to describe how systems develop mechanisms to defend against the anxiety that comes with change.

Bion (1961), argues that organisations function in order to perform a primary task. Certain elements in the’group’are devoted to performing the task and will organise themselves to do so. Bion (Ibid) calls this aspect of the’group’the??work group. This group develops strategies, plans and structures to achieve their goals and motivate others within it to do their jobs. Organisations seek knowledge, learn from experience and constantly reflect on the best ways to achieve their objectives. The work ‘group’ has many features in common with the ego, it is strongly linked to??reality??and capable of rational and strategic??thinking. Individuals within a work group retain their individuality and their contributions and needs are recognised, valued and used. They co-operate effectively in carrying out the task. There is a sense of time, of the continuity of the past, present and future, and of??development??and progress. The’group’values its past experience and learns from it. The members are able to tolerate pain,??anxiety??and uncertainty with some hope and confidence. In this mode then, the group has every tool that it needs in order to achieve success in carrying out its task.

The opposite of the work group however is that of the basic assumption groups described by Bion (Ibid) as that where the group assumes the opposite of that of the work group described above. He describes three types of basic assumption:

i) Basic assumption dependency, the’group’acts as though it believes that the??group, and its task, will be sustained by a leader who will provide all that is needed to accomplish the task and provide for them. No work or suffering is required.
ii) Basic assumption pairing, the’group’tends to set up a pair of members to whom it leaves the task of finding a solution, the brilliant??idea??which would eliminate the need for waiting, working and suffering ‘ what Bion calls the Messianic hope.
iii) Basic assumption fight or flight, in which the’group’believes that the task can be accomplished by identifying things, or people, they believe are preventing the accomplishment of the task, and so seek to destroy or escape from them.

In other words, the social defence system is about how organisations can protect against mental pain, a group of people unconsciously colluding to protect themselves against anxiety and tension at their work place, often at the expense of carrying out their real task. With its’ origins based in anxiety, then one can envisage this as projected and given an independent existence in the social structure and culture of the organisation. The psychoanalyst John Steiner (1985) describes this function as ‘turning a blind eye’. The social defence system then can also be about turning a blind eye to difficult emotions, topics or relations, resulting in an undermining of necessary activities (tasks) and genuine emotions.

Organisations and individuals within them then defend themselves to such an extent that the systems-psychodynamic function of the structures comes to the fore at the expense of supporting their primary tasks. This is particularly evident in stressful situations, like during periods of organisational change (Cooper, Dewe & O’Driscoll, 2002). The need to avoid anxiety largely forms the nature of organisations. Therefore, one can argue that anxiety underpins behaviour in organisations (James & Clark, 2002).

The Value of the concept of Social Defences.

It is important to recognise that social defense mechanisms are important in shaping an individuals’ behaviour which can directly affect the life of an organisation to which the individual belongs and that when used in moderation, defense mechanisms can have positive outcomes-as in Bion’s (1961) work group. If they endure, however, they may become the person’s only way of handling anxiety and may prevent the development of healthy relationships, thus causing more problems than they solved.

The energy needed to dispel anxiety will inevitably be concentrated on the defending of that anxiety, which in turn means less energy is concentrated on work (as th primary task). These defenses will in turn draw energy from the organisation’s own resources in order to deal with the causes of the anxiety-such things as managing individual performance, sickness and absence management. The individual themselves may avoid tasks and fail to participate (for example in meetings), be unable to take responsibility for making decisions, become actively resistant to change (fight/flight)-thereby unconsciously sabotaging any change, they may even leave the organisation such as in Menzies’ (1960) study .

Group members can act as if they are helpless and dependent. They know nothing and they can take no responsibility, split off and project their qualities onto the leader who is perceived to be omnipotent (basic assumption dependency). If the leader accepts this role, he/she will sooner or later fail, because no one can in the long run fulfil such infantile expectations. Demands on maturity, independence and competence by the leader will be turned down and the primary work task will fail.

Bion’s (1962 ) theory of learning is also of note because he also includes the fact that we don’t always want to know. He says that we unconsciously avoid or resist knowledge (such as during times of change). Failure to learn from experience is in other words linked to fear of thinking. Instead, we prefer to get involved in what we do know (thereby resisting change) . This results in thoughtless actions, impulse actions or action as a means of avoiding thinking. To learn from experience as Bion describes it, we need to put in some hard mental work – we must be able to recognise, and think about, our own emotions.

Gabriel hypothesised in his paper that organisations themselves create anxiety by making certain demands upon individuals within it. The process of demands then ‘exacerbate anxieties which individuals may carry with them, over their self worth, their competence and their ability to get on with others’ ( Gabriel, Y. 2005, pg 9) including leaders and followers.

Mechanisms to contain anxiety therefore might put leaders/managers of organisations and indeed the organisation itself in a difficult position, due to costs that will undoubtedly be incurred. Also in dealing with the unconscious dynamics by building relationships with individuals as well as relationships that these individuals have with others, might also increase anxiety because engagement is also a source of anxiety in systems-psychodynamic relationships (Krantz, 2001).


This paper was written in an attempt to critically examine why groups fail to meet their primary task. From the evidence, it is clear that individuals in organisations need to assess their own levels of anxiety and those of others. This will allow them to introduce mechanisms that will contain their own anxiety and the anxiety of others, in order not to impinge on the primary task.

Anxiety defences are based in the unconscious, but also in that of reality. When a situation becomes too distressful for a person to manage, then the individual regresses and is then revealed within organisations as a social defence mechanism in order to alleviate the person’s feelings of anxiety, guilt and uncertainty (deBoard 1978). This takes immense energy, which then leaves less energy for the primary task and the work group ceases to operate and cause the group to function in one of the basic assumption modes.

In addition, those expected to effectively manage defence mechanisms (leaders/managers) may also fall victim to the unconscious-not having resolved their own defenses, which in turn may be unconsciously triggered by another’s defense mechanisms and seek to have their own needs met by projecting them onto the other. It would seem important therefore that everyone in an organisation must seek to ‘work though’ their own unconscious defences.

Psychoanalytic theory offers an insight into what happens when individuals work together in organisations and helps us to understand unconscious processes that occur within individuals and how they act. In particular it shows how anxiety can stop productivity and drain away energy from oneself. It also shows how people relate to each other in organisations. What it hasn’t gone into any great detail on is that of the role of leaders and managers who are expected to make sense of what has been written and this warrants further research and exploration. However using a psychoanalytical approach to the study of social defences within organisations can give managers/leaders the insight needed in order to be able to understand and therefore resolve any defences which may hinder performance of an organisation which if not dealt with may threaten its’ very existence.

In order to address social defence mechanisms, we must all aim to become very conscious, by bringing individual unconscious anxieties to consciousness. The meaning of which can then be examined in order to search for understanding as in Bion’s (1962) theory of thinking.

I suspect, (within my organisation at least), that the introduction of Schwartz Rounds, aimed at providing an opportunity to staff from all disiplines across the organisation, to reflect on the emotional aspects of their work – may go some way to achieving, bringing the unconscious to consciousness, however as yet, it is too early to tell.


Bion, W. R. (1961). Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. London:Tavistock Publications.
Bion, W. R. (1962). Learning from experience. London:Heinemann.
Bion, W.R. (1968) Experiences in Groups. London. Tavistock Publications.
Cooper, CL., P.J. Dewe, and M. O’Driscoll (2001) Stress and Work Organizations: a review and critique of theory, research and applications. California: Sage.
De Board, R. (1978) The Psychoanalysis of Organizations. A Psychoanalytic Approach to Behaviour in Groups and Organizations. London. Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Freud, S. (1894).??The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
Freud, S. (1915). The Unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.
Freud, S. (1922) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Gabriel, Y. (2005) “ORGANIZATIONS AND THEIR DISCONTENTS’MIASMA, TOXICITY AND VIOLATION.”??Critical Management Studies 4 Conference. Cambridge, England. .
Jacques, E. (1955) Social Systems as a Defence Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety. In M. Klein, P. Heinemann, and R. E. Money-Kyrle (Eds.), New Directions in Psychoanalysis. London:Tavistock.
James, K., and Clark, G. (2002). Service Organizations;issues in transition and anxiety containment. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 17 (5): 394-407.
Klein, M. (1946) ‘Notes on some schizoid mechanisms’, in J. Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Melanie Klein. London: Penguin
Klein, M. (1959). Our Adult World and It’s Roots in Infancy. Human Relations, 12:291-303.
Krantz, J. (2001). Dilemmas of Organizational Change: A Systems Perspective, in L. Gould, M. Stein and L. Stapley (eds.) The Psychodynamics of Organizations. London: Karnac.
Menzies, I. 1960. A Case study in Functioning of social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety. Human Relations, 13:95-121.
Steiner, J. (1985). Turning a Blind Eye: The cover up for Oedipus. Int. R. Psycho-anal., 12:161-172


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