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Reading and Carrying: a framework for learning about emotion and
emotionality in organisational systems as a core aspect of leadership
Kim James and Tanya Arroba
Dr Kim James
Director, Cranfield Executive Doctorate
Cranfield School of Management
Cranfield University Bedford
Tel: 01234 751122
Fax 01234 751806
Dr. Tanya Arroba
Consultant, Cranfield Customised Executive Development
Cranfield School of Management
Cranfield University Bedford
Tel: 01234 751122
Fax 01234 751806
Tanya Arroba Associates
22 Rectory Road
Tel: 07778 918468
Reading and Carrying: a framework for learning about emotion and
emotionality in organisational systems as a core aspect of leadership
This paper outlines a developmental framework for introducing systems
psychodynamic concepts in the context of leadership development. The model
focuses on two key aspects of the leadership role needed in today’s organisations.
These are the ability to Read what is less obvious and below the surface in
organisational systems, and the ability to manage what is Carried by those in
leadership roles. These abilities inform choice of behaviours and intervention by
leaders in their organisation systems. We argue for the need for appreciation of the
systems psychodynamics within organisations and identify the difficulties in
including these aspects in leadership development programmes. This paper provides
a case study of a leadership development programme where we use the Reading and
Carrying model as a bridge to understanding the emotion/ality that impinges on the
leadership role. We discuss the difficulties that learning about emotion in and of the
system can bring, by looking at the emotion raised in the learning experience.
Emotions – learning about emotion in organisations – leadership development –
systems psychodynamics – emotions of learning
Reading and Carrying: a framework for learning about emotion and
emotionality in organisational systems as a core aspect of leadership
It is becoming increasingly important for leaders to understand the emotion and
emotionality within organisations they lead. In this paper we outline a model that
provides a bridge between the more accessible and rational aspects of organisation life
and the hidden aspects of organisational dynamics. We provide a case study of how
this has been done in a leadership development programme.
There is widespread interest in the leadership role in the post-industrial organisations
of the 21
century. Changing organisational forms bring different demands on those
in leadership positions. The historical emphasis on understanding leadership through
studying the behaviour of leaders is no longer sufficient to deal with the complexity of
today’s organisational life. The current discussion of distributed and shared
leadership recognises that leadership is no longer necessarily the province of those in
senior executive positions (Denis, Lamothe, and Langley, 2001, Lambert 2002,
Pearce and Conger, 2003, Raelin, 2003). Yet, even given this realisation, the
development focus largely remains on the characteristics and behaviour of the leader
despite calls for alternative development practices (see for example, King and Rowe,
1999, Kakabadse and Kakabadse, 2002).
Popular views of leadership capture the wish for leaders to be different, to be more
able, even magically to erase difficulties, in fact to be the hero of the hour
organisationally-and many personal histories of leaders are best sellers. However, in
new organisational forms, a notion of individual heroic endeavour is not the most
helpful image of leadership. Leadership rather needs to be viewed as a function of the
whole organisational system. This is evidenced by the fact that people may be
successful in leadership roles in one organisation and yet not in another. What can be
achieved in a leadership role is not just the result of personal characteristics but of
what the organisation is collectively capable of working at. Indeed it is possible that
an individual taking up a leadership role can only be the leader the organisation
allows. This more complex view of leadership brings into focus the notion of taking
up a leadership role within a particular organisational system: a systemic perspective
on organisations was brought to prominence by Senge (1990). Those taking up
leadership roles are part of the system in which they exercise leadership and
leadership can only be understood by considering the leader-system dynamics.
The leadership capacity of an organisation involves emotion: after all people are
inspired by dreams not plans. Experience in the workplace generates feelings, both
positive and negative and, irrespective of whether these are acknowledged or
suppressed, they will influence choices in taking up a role. Emotionality, defined by
Reber 1995, p247, as ‘behaviours that are observable and theoretically linked to the
underlying emotion’ exists within the organisational system. Leadership roles elicit
fantasies that reflect human needs and the drama of human attempts to connect and
relate to others. Thus leadership, deciding on what task people should work at and
how to go about it is not about resourcing and planning but rather about intervening in
the emotions and emotionality of organisation life. Kets de Vries (1991) said in his
introductory paper to Organisations on the Couch, it is a myth that executives and
organisations are rational. This means that emotion and emotionality are significant.
Yet as Carr (1999) says, these are experienced as ‘bad’ whilst rationality is split off as
‘good’. It is therefore hardly surprising that emotion and emotionality are not often
the focus of attention, either for those in leadership roles or within leadership
In this paper, we outline a developmental model which we believe provides a
framework to facilitate development of these less obvious aspects of awareness that
are needed by those in leadership roles This model is a useful framework to introduce
those on leadership development events to the hidden, and often unconscious aspects
of organisational life. The emotionality within the system is often a difficult aspect to
introduce in a leadership development programme, and we offer a case study of a
leadership development programme we have been involved with for a number of
years, as an example of how to introduce and work with the complexity and paradox
of the hidden, beneath the surface life of individuals, groups and organisations in a
way that does not invite rejection or resistance of the core concepts.
We recognise that learning about emotion/ality in organisational systems presents
challenges for leadership development, and we explore the challenges we face in
running this programme. Equally learning about emotion/ality invites emotion as part
of the experience of the learning, and we explore that element as well.
Reading and Carrying – two key elements of taking up a leadership role
Our original work that lead to the development of this model was focused on
understanding skill in working in the political environs of public sector organisations
and was disseminated through the predecessor of this journal and elsewhere
(Baddeley and James, 1987a, Baddeley and James 1987b, Arroba and James 1988,
Arroba and James 1990, Baddeley and James 1991).
The two dimensions that we found to be key were the ability to place a focus on
Reading the situation, combined with the ability to manage what is personally being
Carried into the situation. Our recent work has highlighted the importance of these
two dimensions for those in leadership positions. Leadership positions involve
making effective choices in how to act in a context that contains different and difficult
to understand viewpoints and approaches.
The dimension of Reading means having the willingness and ability to turn attention
outwards to Read the context. We identified two poles to this dimension. At one end
lies the ability to clearly focus outwards and grasp the less than obvious aspects of the
organisational setting, gather intelligence and act on it appropriately. At the other
end, we found behaviour that reflected an unwillingness or inability to focus
outwards, or only to Read the situation through a constrained and limited lens. It is
the ability to appreciate the need to Read the situation, backed up by skill in doing so,
that characterises good Reading capacity.
The dimension of Carrying, managing what is being carried into a situation, means
having the ability to tune into the internal world and be aware of what thoughts and
feelings are present, understanding the basis for what is being carried, using this
information and making conscious choices about action. Again, we found that there
was a distinction between two opposing ends of this dimension. On the one hand a
robust, grounded and integrated sense of self being carried into a complex situation: a
strong and present sense of self enables managers to act calmly, paying attention to
the task rather than being driven off course by their feelings. At the other end of the
dimension we found evidence of an ego-defensive approach being carried: the person
felt the need to protect their feelings rather than focus on the organisational task. Our
research found that the more frequently a person was able to manage what they
carried and move away from defensive and gamey behaviour and engage a robust,
integrated sense of self, the more likely they could behave effectively in situations
involving multiple agenda.
To be able to ‘Read’ and ‘Carry’ well requires the manager to become aware of
aspects of the organisation that are usually not attended to and even actively avoided
because they are perceived have a negative affect for the organisation. Without
awareness of difficult emotions that underpin observable behaviour, much
organisation behaviour is puzzling; the manager who can’t understand why a perfectly
good plan is not being executed may have few choices for intervening if s/he doesn’t
grasp that it is underwater rocks their ship has run into.
Reading and Carrying are dynamic skills. No context remains static and therefore the
ability to Read the context needs to be a dynamic process. For example, taking up a
new role can highlight the need to understand a new organisational system. Often on
first joining an organisation, there is clear recognition of the need to Read the new
context but this tends to fade with familiarity. Equally what is being carried varies
from situation to situation. Carrying defensiveness in a situation will have a very
different impact on consequent behaviour than Carrying a feeling of confidence. The
skill lies in inner attention as events unfurl and reflecting on how the inner state
resonates with past experience or is related to the current situation.
The two dimensions of Reading and Carrying are intricately linked: for example, if an
initial assessment of the mood of a meeting is hostility to your proposal, this may lead
to defensiveness in expectation of attack.
Putting the two dimensions together we posited four behavioural options with
emphasis on behaviour resulting from what is Read and what is Carried. The four
behavioural options are depicted in Figure 1, in the 2x2 model.
Where unskilled Reading meets lack of self-insight, the ‘choice’ is frequently ego
defensive behaviour as a way of defending the self in situations that one cannot make
sense of or feel good in. We called this option ‘Inept’.
Where an integrated sense of self resulting from the experience of being either
comfortable with one’s capability or perception of being on familiar territory meet an
unskilled Reading of the environment, the result is Innocent behaviour.
Where skilled Reading meets self- serving and defensive ego needs the resulting
behaviour is likely to be controlling and manipulative. We called this Clever
Where skilled Reading meets self-insight and willingness to put oneself at the edge of
what is familiar, to risk new options because the situation calls for one’s highest
values to be exercised then the Wise option is chosen.
These four behaviour options of Wise, Clever, Inept and Innocent we elaborated with
the images of Owl, Fox, Donkey and Sheep, as shown in Figure 1. These images can
be helpful in making the behaviour options more accessible. Using a 2 x 2 model and
using accessible images was both a good and a bad move. The model was easily
remembered as the 2 x 2 and for the names – but often divorced from its origins the
behaviours frequently get referred to as if they were personality types. The authors
are frequently emailed to provide the ‘questionnaire for diagnosing which animal
people are’ and have had many offers from trainers who wish to provide us with one
that they have devised.
While such instruments could have some value, such as getting people interested in
the model, they miss the main findings of our research, that in complex organisational
settings, people need the ability to simultaneously understand the world ‘out there’
and their interior world, make sense of both and choose appropriate behaviour and
that we all have the ability to act in all four ways. The strength of the model lies in
understanding how each of us can be Wise one minute and Inept the next. The
external world we need to Read is in constant flux and the interior world is equally
variable and the interface between the two is crucial in making informed choice of
(Take in Figure 1 about here)
However, in order to deal skilfully and appropriately with the complexity of today’s
organisations, it is necessary to consider what needs to be Read and what needs to be
managed in Carrying terms.
Reading and Carrying: a systems psychodynamic perspective
Developing the skills of Reading the situation and understanding what is being carried
in a situation requires attention to a systemic perspective on organisational life and the
unconscious forces at work. An appreciation of the dynamics of the organisation as a
system, shifts the emphasis from individual deficit to an awareness of the system as a
whole. We share the view of Neumann and Hirschhorn (1999) when discussing the
contribution of psychodynamic and organisational theories to psychologically difficult
organisational settings, that dynamic approaches often are contrasted with those
approaches oriented towards observable and measurable behaviour. Increasing
awareness through methods such as 360 degree feedback instruments has been found
to be very helpful, and builds on the use of observable and measurable behaviour.
However, we believe that being Wise in the difficult organisational settings of today
requires a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the system, and thus a systems
psychodynamic approach adds to the awareness of what is there to be Read and what
may be being carried at a deep, unconscious level.
The work that has been done on leadership from a systems psychodynamic
perspective provides a totally different frame of reference for leaders. They acquire a
leadership map that includes the idea that leadership roles are taken up in a context
that exerts influence on the leader just as much as they influence the context. An
understanding of leadership behaviour as emerging from the interaction of the
individual personal characteristics of the leader, the group and the organisation
dynamics that he or she enters into on taking up a leadership role can help managers
develop a more fine-grained approach to intervening in their organisations.
The ability to be Wise in a difficult situation involves Reading not just the accessible
aspects of the situation, be it the context of the organisation or the accessible aspects
of the world within the organisation, it requires the ability to Read the inaccessible
and hidden aspects of organisational life. As Neumann and Hirschorn (1999) point
out ‘sources of energy and motivation frequently are inaccessible to the conscious
mind of those people involved even though behaviour and emotions are being
affected’. As Armstrong (2000) outlined, emotion in and of the system can be seen as
a disturbance, something that needs to be contained or managed, or it can be viewed
as a source of intelligence to be understood and put to use.
Unconscious emotionality present in the organisational system is not easily accessible
because it is a primitive emotional terrain that humans largely feel uncomfortable with
and so deal with in ways that prevent us from having to consciously pay attention to.
It is based on early developmental issues that are evoked when we engage with others
in groups and organisations and relate to our life long journey of individuation,
dealing with needs for belonging and acceptance rather than isolation and rejection
our desire for space to be ourselves rather than conformity at the expense of self.
Anxiety about survival and the role of powerful figures who can withhold or give
what we need in infancy and the family are also present when we become members of
organisations as adults. Klein and Bion developed key theories that underpin this
work (for example, see Klein, 1959 and Bion, 1961). These undercurrents of envy,
competition and rivalry, ambition, aggression and most crucially fear and anxiety are
those that drive rational plans and strategies onto underwater hidden rocks. The
differences in power and authority between organisation members can evoke
primitive authority relations. This can happen between people and their direct line
manager or in relation to distant leaders, for example, senior directors with whom
there is infrequent personal contact. The primitive anxiety surrounding survival can
be experienced in times of re-organisation, mergers, or when promotion and pay are at
issue. Competition for recognition and attention from the boss in teams or project
groups can evoke sibling rivalry and challenges that carry responsibility and risk, such
as customer demands, regulatory inspections and managing change, can give rise to
However, to do business and have conversations by the coffee machine we have to
prevent all the emotion generated by joining in a social system from overwhelming
us. We do this by using defenses such as keeping away from consciousness an
emotion such as rage that threatens to be overwhelming (‘I never feel angry; except
when I very occasionally surprise everyone by losing my temper’). There are also
social defenses that are collectively shared ways of containing or preventing emotion
overwhelming the system: ‘we blame our problems on the accountants/IT people/ the
management; if only they were as good as us’. These defenses can get enshrined in
structures and practices that enable people to find ways of making working with
others psychologically possible, feel less risky and even be enjoyable. The original
studies of social defenses were conducted by Menzies Lyth (see for example, Menzies
Lyth, 1970, 1988) and the ways in which anxiety and containment of anxiety play a
part is well described by Krantz (1998).
Leaders who don’t understand the notion of ‘emotional turmoil’ and are not able to
Read this aspect well and work with it, will act in ways that are at best Innocent and at
worst Inept. The task of the leader is to change things and move the organisation
forward, and Neumann (1999) highlights the difficulties inherent in the process of
organisational change. By bringing about change, the leader is automatically
disrupting existing arrangements for emotional peace and as an authority figure is a
legitimate emotional target for the ensuing emotions. As leadership is required from
more managers, more people have the freedom to make more decisions, use initiative
and operate within the organisation’s overall strategic vision, rather than do
prescribed tasks. This may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it offers
interest, a sense of personal power, excitement and the possibility of a more satisfying
working life. On the other hand it means that the individual must utilise their inner
sense of inner authority to guide their decisions and choices. The internal authority
carried in a situation has all the power of the past, bringing with it learned models
from early experiences with authority, such as with parents and teachers. Leaders
exercise their inner authority and need to be aware of this aspect of what they Carry
within them, as Hirschhorn (1997) outlines in his work on leadership in post-modern
Leaders are also authority figures for others. They are thus invested with others’
imagined and projected power and authority, beyond that which goes with their
position. Others will often wish for leaders to wield extraordinary power and thus be
capable of making all well in the organisational world. At the same time, there is a
hatred of this idea of the power of the leader and so relationships with others when in
a leadership role are not straightforward. Leaders disappoint because they can be seen
to be fallible and real rather than idealised and distant. Yet leaders need confidence in
their capacity to contribute. In relying on their personal authority they must bring
more of themselves into the workplace, their ideas, feelings and values. In taking up
leadership roles people are thus more personally exposed and vulnerable, as Hirschorn
(1997) has argued. This indeed requires leaders to be psychological resourceful and
to Carry a robust and integrated sense of self into their role.
Heifetz and Laurie (1997) capture the essence of the Wise leader who works
effectively at their role in the emotional life of the organisation. In their
conceptualisation of the leadership role, leaders capabilities include: identifying
adaptive challenges; regulating distress (creating a holding environment, a place for
processing thoughts, clarifying assumptions); stopping old initiatives in order to
enable new ones; being responsible for direction, protection, orientation, managing
conflict and shaping norms; having the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty,
frustration and pain without getting too anxious him/herself; communicating
confidence; counteracting distractions such as scape-goating, projections of negative
emotion into other groups that prevent people from getting on with their work;
developing collective self confidence; giving voice to all people- whistle blowers,
deviants, and creative original voices, normally routinely suppressed. They view
leadership as learning rather than having a vision and selling it to people.
There many aspects of what is Carried in a situation that are not accessible. It is
helpful to increase awareness of how early authority experiences have impacted on
current views of the leadership role and how messages from early life can influence
which psychological roles are taken up on behalf of a group, such as being the person
arriving to save the day. A lack of awareness of these elements and difficulty in
managing them will increase the likelihood of Inept or Clever behaviour.
Wise behaviour is more likely if, in taking up a leadership role, a manager pays
attention to what is Read and Carried, bringing to consciousness emotionality of the
organisation experience not usually attended to or valued as useful intelligence.
Developing leadership capacity in Reading and Carrying in depth: a case study
in introducing systems psychodynamics
As Brown and Starkey (2000) point out in their discussion of the Wise organisation,
‘wisdom is associated with an ability to perceive the broader picture and ‘the
connectedness of things’’. Perceiving the connectedness of things that exist beneath
the surface is a particular challenge. Creating the conditions for learning about
organisation dynamics is difficult; the emotion and emotionality to be studied is
largely unconscious. Primitive emotion is actively defended against and perceived as
destructive and unwanted, a disturbance, not a source of intelligence, to use
Armstrong’s (2000) dichotomy. This does not make it an easy aspect to cover in a
leadership development programme.
Creating the learning environment
Executive development is often perceived as a retreat from the harshness of day to
day organisational life and ‘learning should be fun’ has become a by-word in many
management development circles, not least because repeat business more frequently
relies on ‘happy sheets’ rather than extensive evaluation of learning and application.
Little of the other work they do with provider institutions such as Business Schools
prepares them for the depth of feelings they can be confronted with in experiential
work designed to explore these dynamics, nor will the other work support them in
making sense of the experience. Much of the other management development activity
they will engage in will provide much more definitive answers to their questions and
will contain more knowledge sharing and less reflection. Most people attending a
university Business School programme expect intellectual challenge, and are not
expecting the emotional challenge that working with the deeper unconscious aspects
of the organisational system can bring. There is thus an emotional component to this
type of learning.
James, Jarrett and Neumann (1998) provide an exploration of the issues involved in
introducing Group Relations Events to explore unconscious organisational dynamics
for executive MBA students. The case study they outlined identified the difficulty of
working in a very different way with the students and some of the issues involved in
learning about emotion in organisational systems.
There is also the dynamics of the organisational system of the provider institution to
take into account. In the case of the programme we are describing, the history of this
type of work within the provider institution played a major role. Within an
organisation that prides itself on research led executive development the emphasis is
on cognitive challenge and taking a step away from the norms of the organisation
carries a certain risk.
The history of the programme is also important. In this instance, there has been a
wish on the part of the client companies to include the emotional aspects of the
leadership role. In the early days of the programme the focus was on deeper
understanding of the individual leader, but gradually awareness has grown of the
importance of the systemic perspective on organisations. It is now clearly stated as an
objective of the programme that participants need a deep appreciation of how
When introducing systems psychodynamics, the tutor team play a key authority role
and are thus part of the system in which learning opportunities are offered. This
needs to be borne in mind when planning and delivering a programme that invites
reflection on the deeper aspects of organisational life and the leadership role.
Taking up a leadership role means figuring out and specifying how the part of the
organisation the leader is responsible for relates to the main task of the organisation.
Specifying what the contribution is to that task requires the leader to bring together
the people needed to do it and in so doing the leader then needs to address how to
manage the relationships thus created so that people can get on with the task rather
than be diverted by the emotionality of the situation and organisation dynamics
surrounding the task. The leader therefore creates a safe enough space for the team or
department to get on with the task. That mirrors the role of the tutor team on the
programme, needing to create a safe enough space to enable the participants to get on
with the task of deepening understanding of what needs to be Read and how to
manage what is Carried to enhance wise choices, without being distracted by the
emotions surrounding this task. Winnicott (1965) described this as a ‘holding
All these aspects needed to be taken into account as we developed a module to
introduce and explore the inaccessible and less obvious aspects of organisational life.
We were concerned to find a way of using the notion of the skill of Reading and
Carrying as a bridge to increasing understanding of the deeper psychodynamic aspects
of the leadership role.
The Learning Design
The LDP (not the name by which clients know it) is a consortium programme run
three times a year for a group of member organisations that nominate up to four
participants per programme. The participants are normally middle- to senior
managers, with an average age around mid to late thirties. The organisations
represented cover a wide range of sectors, including financial services, the public
sector, IT and manufacturing.
The programme consists of two five day modules and a final follow-up day. The
course is aimed at developing leadership potential. The first module is a mixture of
inputs around strategic management, economic analysis and organisational culture.
Leadership is discussed in terms of a requirement for senior executives and
participants have the opportunity for short individual development discussions with a
leading faculty member around information based on psychometric instruments. Here
the focus is on observable and measurable behaviour. After an interval of
approximately two months, the participants return for the second module.
The second module is where we turn attention to the less accessible aspects of
organisational life, both in terms of what needs to be Read and what might be being
Carried. For this module three tutors work as a team. This is in contrast to the first
module, which is tutored on a lecture-by-lecture basis. Having a constant team
throughout the week is an important part of the design. Not only does it add to the
safety provided to explore difficult issues, but also, by being with the participants
tutors pick up data that may be relevant for understanding what is brought to the
experiential work. The experiences of the tutors as part of the system are a rich source
of intelligence about the dynamics of the learning organisation created for the week.
There is a banner headline for the week, which is displayed in the lecture room and is
introduced at the start of the module. The banner is ‘becoming the successful leader I
want to be’. At first sight this may appear to hark back to the notion of leadership as
purely an individualistic activity. We want, however, at the early stage of the module
to achieve three things: engage the participants with the programme; emphasise the
centrality of choice in taking up a leadership role; ease gently into the deeper aspects
and the systems psychodynamics model. We are aware of a possible contradiction in
using such a banner in a module designed to introduce the collective, hidden and
unconscious aspects of organisational life, but we want to acknowledge each
participant as an actor from, and returning to, their own organisational system and
therefore our aim is to develop awareness within each participant about the
emotionality of organisations. We are also keen to move explicitly away from the
deficit model of development and to emphasise choice.
The style of the second module is more reflective than the first. As Brown and
Starkey (2000) point out, ‘ critical self-reflexivity fosters alternative perspectives of
self’. Whereas the first module tends to have a structure which is self evident to the
participants and is characterised by a number of frameworks which have immediate
appeal at the cognitive level, this second module does not have the same apparent
structure, but has a declared objective of assisting the participants in looking
“underneath the surface” of individuals and organisations.
The experience of the week offers an opportunity to process experience as well as
some theory, some experiential work to ground the theory and some reflection time
for participants to see how the experience of the week, including the opportunity to
process the experiential work, is a parallel of their working environment.
Moving participants from a learning mode in week one that comprises mainly lecture
inputs and case studies to a reflective process is difficult. However, we have found the
image of ‘above and underneath the surface’ to be one that managers can identify with
and that provides a helpful start to the week. An OHP depicting water, with jutting
rocks captures their imagination and most volunteer that organisational life requires
navigating these types of waters. Thus oriented to the nature of the week we map the
focus for each day and introduce the Reading and Carrying framework.
Participants then work on a scenario they have been asked to bring with them of a
current issue they are dealing with. They work in small groups, including a tutor,
using the Reading/ Carrying framework. They are encouraged to ask each other
questions and look for evidence in people’s behaviour and organisational patterns that
might support their analyses (we do not want ‘underneath the surface’ to be
interpreted as an opportunity for wild surmising).
The following day explicitly focuses on exploring what each person is Carrying.
Participants explore personal models of leadership and authority and how these
mental models impact on how they take up their roles as leaders. Participants are
encouraged to explore different beliefs about taking up leadership roles that they have
learned from past authority figures and how these may influence their assumptions
about leadership and the choices they make in their leadership role. This is achieved
by a series of exercises that invite reflection on current and past experience. By the
end of the day participants can begin to see how they shape their leadership but also
what projections they might attract from others, their predilection for identification
with some projections and the valence they have for some psychological roles in
The third day focuses more explicitly on Reading organisational dynamics. This
begins with telling a story reported in James and Arroba (1999, p 67) that vividly
demonstrates how some group experiences can be understood from a systems
perspective. It shows how the emotional tone of the group needs to be read to make
sense of the behaviour observed. Participants discuss and report their analysis of the
story and relate it to their organisation challenges. They are then introduced to some
theoretical concepts that will help develop their Reading skills.
We anchor these theoretical concepts through (anonymous) examples of management
teams/individuals and organisations to which we have consulted, rather than to
extensive psychoanalytical theory. We do aim to give them enough theory for the
sceptics to see that we did not dream this up when the programme was designed, for
them to have some useful ideas to assist in their Reading of their collective behaviour
in the experiential exercise that follows, but not to overwhelm them with a ‘101 in
psychoanalysis’. This is difficult at two levels: the danger is that manager participants
do appear to believe that in an hour and a half they should have covered ‘all the
existing theory’-that indeed it is the tutor’s job to have summarised everything they
need to know on the topic; the beginnings of the resistance to learning about these
issues is emerging. The managers are given indicative material to take away should
they wish to follow this up (for example, from Kets de Vries et al, 1991, Obholzer and
Roberts, 1994, Hirschhorn, 1997, Gabriel, 1999).
We then offer an inter group exercise. The exercise is designed to look like a business
simulation but in fact virtually no information is given about the organisation beyond
its name and the sector it operates in. We provide a list of roles in the organisation and
participants choose who will undertake which roles. Three groups are established, a
Board, a staff representatives group and a group of middle managers. The tutor team
carry out a number of roles, acting as shareholder, journalists or customers and thus
are explicitly part of the system studied. The format is flexible and the team takes
decisions as to how to intervene and in what way as the exercise unfolds. There is a
finishing time given and then attention is turned to processing the experience. Work
on the first two days of the week has alerted participants to the area of unconscious
and hidden aspects of organisational life. On the third day they are challenged by
being placed in an exercise that effectively involves them in creating and dealing with
the dynamics of their own organisation. Despite the shortness of the event, about three
hours experiential work, there is a wealth of data about the emotional life of the
The Tutors’ Roles
During the week the tutors take up many roles. In the early part of the week the tutors
play roles that will be familiar to the participants, such as providing inputs and
facilitating discussions. During the intergroup exercise the role of the tutors becomes
more complex. The tutors are not there, contrary to the hopes and expectations of
many of the participants, to provide feedback as to how well or not the exercise was
undertaken. Instead, the tutors carefully observe the behaviour of the participants in
the intergroup exercise and themselves attempt to Read what might be going on, in
terms of the dynamics in the system. Since these can never be known precisely, the
tutors then offer their hypotheses about the dynamics in the system, as they saw them,
as part of the processing of the exercise. Participants are invited to explore the
dynamics of the small groups of which they were a part, and of the whole
organisational system. Tutors join with the participants in an exploration of what
might be going on, rather than engaging in the more normal feedback process that
accompanies a business simulation. The aim is for participants to gain insight into the
dynamics of an organisational system and develop their capacity for making sense of
the beneath the surface aspect of organisational life, rather than evaluate how good the
organisation they created was. The unfamiliar role the tutors take up at this point is
often criticised as it does not fit with participants’ expectations of feedback and
facilitation. Frustration is often expressed because the tutors are seen to be
withholding information. As leaders of the exercise they are often attributed with
complete knowledge. It can be an element of safety that at least, surely, the tutors
know exactly what is happening. When the tutors share a hypothesis as opposed to
giving feedback, this is viewed sometimes as a hostile act on their part. Being able to
recognise that Reading organisational dynamics is a difficult and not exact science
and living with the ambiguity and uncertainty of that, is part of the learning. However,
it is important the tutors stick to this role if participants are to be supported in
exploring difficult and unexpected emotional experiences during the exercise and not
retreat to more familiar territory.
We offer two examples of this exercise in action taken from two different groups of
participants and some conclusions that were drawn.
Example 1: Choosing an unlikely participant as Managing Director
The process of allocating the twelve participants on one particular programme was
conducted extremely rapidly. Four of the dominant male personalities made it clear
that they wanted to work together and made a strong bid to form the staff
representatives group. No one from the remaining eight participants chose to
challenge this and the membership of the Board and middle management groups
emerged with little discussion.
The Board group elected the only woman amongst the twelve as the Managing
Director. As the inter-group experience unfolded, it became clear that she was only
able to operate if the staff group gave her permission. The middle management group
was ineffectual and was largely bypassed by the Board in involvement in the
development of the agreed action plan.
This experience provided the basis for discussion about the roles of women managers
in the organisations represented on the programme as a whole. It also provided the
opportunity to discuss the issue of conflict avoidance on management development
The exercise provides the possibility of conflict between the three groups and, indeed,
within the groups. In the majority of cases, this conflict is contained or avoided by
the group of participants. The dominant staff representative group contained four
possible candidates for the position of managing director. A hypothesis for discussion
offered by the tutors to explain why they had not chosen to form the Board was that
they did not want to compete amongst themselves, preferring rather to control the
exercise by giving permission to the “token” managing director.
Example 2: Middle Management – the default group
The role allocation process in this inter-group exercise was somewhat different to that
described above. In this case, there were a number of people who quite clearly
wanted to take the lead and elected themselves to the Board, again with little
challenge from the remainder of the participants. Others wanted to experience “being
on the other side of the table” from their normal roles in management and quickly
formed the staff representative group. The middle management group in this case was
formed from the group of people who were left behind, and this selection experience
was carried through into the rest of the exercise as the middle management group
struggled to find an identity or a role within this organisation.
This experience provided the basis for discussion about the need to take up roles
within the organisation rather than allow these roles to be defined by other groups or
individuals. It also allowed for discussion of the role of the tutors as authority figures
in the exercise. The middle management group complained that tutors had not given
them enough to learn from and not enough to do. It was the tutors’ fault for not setting
up the exercise correctly. They were willing to give feedback to the tutors (and indeed
did so extensively on their reports back into their organisations) on how to do this
better. The exploration of their dependence on the tutors and the opportunity the
exercise offered them for exploration how easy it is to be ‘empowered’ or ‘’dis-
empowered’ was hard for some members; one remained convinced to the end that it
was the tutors role to give him tasks to do in the exercise, whilst others saw the
Pulling the learning together
It is in the process of reflecting on the exercise that we encounter most resistance to
learning about emotions and emotionality. Frequently there is denial of what
occurred, a wish to allocate blame if the experience was uncomfortable, resentment at
the tutor team, and a resistance to acknowledging the anxiety present in the system.
The focus of the exercise is on Reading skills in relation to the inter group dynamics
and awareness of what individuals were Carrying that impacted on how they took up a
role both as ‘organisation’ member and learner, and how this relates to their ‘preferred
organisation roles’. The processing session does highlight the emotion involved in
learning about emotionality in the system.
Considerable emotion is generated amongst the participants by the intergroup exercise
and requires further debriefing the following day. At this point the debrief is allowed
to flow between Reading the dynamics of the organisation as a system created in the
intergroup exercise and a personal exploration of what was being Carried into, during
of and out of the exercise in terms of personal feelings, thoughts and experiences.
Through this reflective process we emphasise the importance of processing the
experience and explore the idea of making space for processing workplace experience
back in the host organisations. We also draw parallels with how we as a tutor team
work with their emotional experience as programme participants to how they can
assist their staff to process and make sense of difficult workplace experiences. We
also include the role that leaders play in stress management, using a systemic
perspective rather than a view that pathologises individual stress. We turn the focus
to the interaction between what is Read and what is Carried. In particular this
involves reflection on how they take up their leadership roles in their current
organisations: what are they personally bringing to the role and what the wider
organisational influences may be. This stage of the module is about taking the notion
of unconscious and organisation dynamics back into the workplace and away from the
here and now events of the programme so the afternoon is spent in small groups in
which participants have an opportunity to explore their leadership roles in depth.
The final day of the module attempts to pull the learning together sufficiently for
participants to re-enter their workplace the following week with enough sense making
for them to operate effectively while keeping the door to learning ajar. Work on
careers frames the morning’s work. This consistently rates highly in enabling them to
link the ‘underneath the surface’ ideas of the week to a sense of where they are going
and to use them in their lives.
The tutors eschew the use of a linear, bullet point action plan for this programme. The
week requires a vehicle which is more compatible with the notion of the unconscious
mind and which will anchor them to the musings, reflections and dreams they have
uncovered as the week progressed. So participants are provided with the means,
including magazines, newspapers, paints and pens and nice picture frame, for making
a collage that captures what the week has meant to them. They are encouraged to take
this away to keep on their desk at work.
Thus the Reading/Carrying framework linked to a systems psychodynamic
perspective using cognitive, reflective and experiential sessions, provides a leadership
development opportunity encompassing an understanding of emotion, both in the
leadership role and in the process of learning for leadership.
Most participants seem to get something from the experience in the programme we
have used as an example of introducing systems psychodynamics to a group of senior
managers who are unfamiliar with the notion of the beneath the surface life of the
organisation. It does seem to provide some insight into the ways in which powerful
emotions impact on ‘becoming the successful leader I want to be’.
The feedback to the consortium partners varies from ‘this was mind blowing and so
relevant‘ to ‘could have been faster and ‘not sure this is relevant’. The LDP partners
who commission the programme often see this week as the key developmental week
for the participants, even though it is the first week with its emphasis on the ‘hard
stuff’ that is the hook for most of the participants. We believe the Reading/Carrying
model offers a useful developmental framework for exploring the interaction between
the personal and organisational dynamics of the leadership role and developing Wise
behaviour as a leader. The tutor role during the programme is varied; lecturer,
facilitator, consultant, coach and requires us to be vigilant about our role and the
learning methodology for each section of the programme.
The experiential work does not offer the tried and tested, in depth learning
opportunity that people have on traditional Group Relations programmes. We have
tried to develop an executive development week which includes some experiential
work in a format that does not raise so many defenses against learning that the whole
concept of unconscious dynamics are rejected. The use of the Reading and Carrying
framework as a vehicle for bridging participants’ expectations that leadership
programme will help them sort out their personal deficits as leaders to the difficulties
of studying group and organisational dynamics could be rightly criticised as too
simplistic. The artificial divide into what is Carried and what is Read and the
interrelatedness of the two skills is clearly problematic if one is intent on providing a
tight explanatory model. However, it does provide a visual picture onto which hard to
spot and study dynamics can temporarily be hooked; long enough perhaps for
managers to engage with us and reflect on their relevance to their own organisations.
This learning is much more difficult for participants than the facilitative and personal
approach taken on many management development programmes. Purely intra
personal and interpersonal approaches to understanding leadership are often more
appealing and the certainty provided by methods such as 360 feedback can be
perceived as more exact and prescriptive, perhaps comforting in this respect even
when the news is bad. The pain of discovering one’s deficits appears to be acceptable
in development activity but experiencing the primitive emotions operating in groups
and organisations is more difficult to tolerate and a bridge to this experience needs to
be created. We believe the Reading/ Carrying model provides such a bridge and leads
the way for leaders to understand emotion and emotionality in organisations.
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Figure 1: The Reading and Carrying model
C R R Y I N G
© Kim James, Simon Baddeley and Tanya Arroba/Politics