A systemic psychodynamic coaching approach looks deeply at the underlying issues and elements that are limiting the performance of individuals and organisations, as such it takes into consideration a multiple of personal and environmental factors that influence behaviour and performance. Separating the two elements, the psychodynamic theories examine emotional experiences of individuals whilst the systemic approach looks at how these emotional experiences inter-relate and impact groups, families, and organisations.

According to Fraher (2004) “systems psychodynamics is an interdisciplinary field that integrates three disciplines – the practice of psychoanalysis, the theories and methods of group relations and a systems perspective”. With its foundations in psychodynamics the unconscious and what is out if awareness is central to the approach and builds on the principles of Freud and Klein. Individuals have unconscious thoughts, feelings and urges too painful to be admitted consciously but they still have an impact and influence the individual’s behaviour, functional or dysfunctional.

As such, emotional experience is significant to everyone’s make-up and individuals have developed these characteristics of managing or blocking them which becomes part of their personality.  A psychodynamic approach helps individuals look at themselves and investigate their “inner theatre”, being self-reflective in-order to understand themselves before they move forward. It looks to bring the unconscious into awareness, recognising that and how unconscious factors impact repressed emotions and create current patterns of behaviour. The approach takes individuals to their “edges” and can be uncomfortable and unbalancing but can provide deep seated change in personality.

A systems approach considers a group of individuals as an inter-reacting organism, whether it be a family, organisation, or a group of friends. In each group individuals play a role which is in relation to the groups task and is impacted by the environment they are in, as a result, at any one point in time individuals are members of many systems and adopt multiple roles. Bion’s (1961) theory on group processes focussed on differentiating rational behaviours and activities associated with tasks performance and those geared to the emotional needs and anxieties of the group. It is important to understand that within each group there are several influencing factors; the group itself, the task of the group, the environment that the group operates in, the individuals within the group and finally their roles withing the group, both conscious roles and unconscious roles.

Neal (2021) identified that when working with groups or organisations there are two factors that need to be considered, “the inner world of the individual” and “the inner world of the organisation”, he also identified that the PRO triangle is a key model to work with to do this. Pelham (2016) states that “it is our role in the organisation that is the bridge between ourselves and the organisation, and it is our role that gives us our sense of identity there”, building on this and introducing the importance of “task” Borthwick (2006) identifies “in order to take on a role, the individual must understand the task and its relatedness to the system it serves”.

Looking at organisations as systems and individuals as playing roles on behalf of the system, when an issue, or problem is identified or placed on a person it must be seen that this is not the individual, they are simply the “voice of the system”. This introduces the concept of organisational unconsciousness and that any presentation by an individual must be viewed as a “systemic symptom” and addressed in this way, the problem is in, or with, the system and not with, or the fault, of the individual. Combining these approaches is complex and Newman (1999) states “systems psychodynamics is a term used to refer to the collective psychological behaviour within and between groups and organisations, it provides a way of thinking about energising or motivating factors or forces resulting from the interconnection between various groups and subsystems of a social system”.

As a result, systemic psychodynamic coaching looks to discover “what is really going on”, impacting performance, disruption, or lack of performance. The approach involves looking below the surface, understanding what is not being said, finding where are the clients and individuals blind spots are, if using the “Johari Window” this would be the quadrant “unknown to self and unknown to others”. As such when coaching “emotion is data”, emotion that is said, implied and felt by both the client and the coach, Sandler (2011) outlines that “Freud identified that certain aspects of the analytic situation encouraged unconscious transference of emotions onto the relationship with the analyst”.

Systemic psychodynamic coaches often work with the PRO model, understanding the inter-dependencies as they are all intrinsically linked – the dreams of the night before, or argument with a family member. The coach needs to pay attention to images and thoughts that emerge, for both the client and coach, as they can pick up what the client is thinking, or what may be in their subconscious and bring it to their awareness.  Whittington (2021) explained that the stance of a systemic coach should be “distance with compassion, being compassionate to the system, and whilst understanding the system being careful to service the whole, operating with radical inclusiveness, a refusal to collude with stories and an acceptance of what is said as neither write or wrong, just information”.

For more information contact Glyn@cateran.ie


 Blignaut, S. (2020). Exploring systems psychodynamics: the weird and wonderful world of the unconscious. [Blog]. Retrieved from https://sonjablignaut.medium.com/exploring-systems-psychodynamics-the-weird-and-wonderful-world-of-the-unconscious-89d15eb9c872

Borwick, I. (2006) Organisational Role Analysis: managing strategic change in business settings. In “Coaching in Depth. The Organisational Role Analysis Approach” Karnac Books. 2006

Fraher, A. (2004). Systems Psychodynamics: The Formative Years of an Interdisciplinary Field at the Tavistock Institute. History of Psychology, 7(1), 65–84

Neal, B. (2021). Systemic Psychodynamic Coaching [In person]. UCC MSc Lecture – Zoom.

Pelham, G. (2016). The Coaching Relationship in Practice (1st ed., pp. 87-88). London: Sage.

Sandler, C. (2011). Executive Coaching – A Psychodynamic Approach (1st ed., pp. 1-35). Maidenhead: McGraw Hill.

Whittington, J. (2021). Systemic Psychodynamic Coaching [In person]. UCC MSc Lecture – Zoom.