What lies beneath organisational behaviour : the role of hidden and unconscious processes at work

Hunter, Michelle (2018) What lies beneath organisational behaviour : the role of hidden and unconscious processes at work. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


There is much controversy about the value that psychoanalytic theory can add to the study of organisational behaviour, which goes beyond the rational and technological explanations offered by orthodox management perspectives. A key tenet of psychoanalytic theory is that mental processes that are "hidden" and operate at an "unconscious" level can impact employee behaviour, outside of their awareness (Kets de Vries, 2009). (In this thesis such processes are referred to as "below-the-surface" motivation.) Given the value of this knowledge to organisational leaders, it is surprising that so little is known about the potential impact of "below-the-surface" motivation on employee attitude, engagement and performance. This four-study thesis investigates the role of "below-the-surface" motivation in employees' "propensity to resist change", "avoid conflict" and "show less commitment to the organisation", which are implicit processes referred to in this thesis as "below-the-surface" motivation. It does so firstly by describing the researcher’s positioning and philosophical approach, and the theoretical and practical objectives of the thesis. The researcher was guided by the belief that organisations exist as concrete entities, which prompt employees to react to them in psychological ways (Durkheim, 1895). Having adopted a combination of positivist and post-positivist approaches, the process of "operationalising" was used in an attempt to measure "below-the-surface" motivation in a standardised way (Arnaud, 2012). Opportunity sampling was used to select participants from three public-sector organisations in the UK and the Middle East region. Study 1 reviewed two psychoanalytic-informed coaching methods and found evidence of their usefulness for improving self-awareness of implicit processes, and for working/consulting at a "below-the-surface" level. Study 2 examined the relationships between employees' use of "immature psychological defence mechanisms" and their propensity to resist organisational change, finding evidence that employees' level of "core self-evaluation" played a mediating role in this. Study 3 found evidence to suggest that adopting a systems-psychodynamic coaching approach was useful for helping leaders from the Middle East region to develop awareness of their conflict avoidance behaviour. Study 4 applied Winnicott's (1952) "good-enough" care theory and found evidence to suggest that it could further understanding of the relationship between employees' perception of organisational support (POS) and affective commitment (AC) in the context of organisational change. The thesis concludes with a reflective account of the overall findings, which suggest that "below-the-surface" motivation can impact employee behaviour in the workplace.

The implications of these findings for the occupational psychology community are that psychoanalysis can offer an alternative and critical perspective of organisational behaviour, which has wide explanatory power. Reflective and reflexive statements are offered throughout to highlight some of the challenges that the researcher encountered during this doctoral journey. For example, despite the philosophical choices made, due to the researcher’s involvement in the process, at first it was a struggle to "step back" from defending the theory, attending to the limitations, partialities and flaws in the evidence base. The underlying reasons for the researcher’s appeal for positivist and post-positivist approaches are also reflected on. Recommendations are made for the design and delivery of development interventions to raise awareness of "below-the-surface" motivation within organisations, and suggestions made around possible areas of future investigations. The thesis adds nuance to our understanding of organisational behaviour, and it evaluates the value and contribution of psychoanalytic thinking to the practice of occupational psychology.

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