Systems Psychodynamics – A Way to Understand the Chaos at Work

Ruth Robles-McColl, NIODA Alumni

Helen McKelvie

Where does one start with writing about a transformative learning experience? How do you evaluate the change that has occurred when it is all-consuming and feels so intense?

Perhaps you start at the very beginning…this, the first of three personal reflection blogs, intends to provide the reader with a snippet of how NIODA’s Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) has fundamentally changed and shaped my approach to leadership.

Systems Psychodynamics – A Way to Understand the Chaos at Work

In professional settings, particularly within governmental organisations, I often find myself drawn to leadership roles embodying an ‘outlaw’ spirit. Guided by a sense of social justice and an unwavering commitment to the marginalised, I’ve found myself defying the rules of conventional hierarchies, trying instead to work in ways that ensure the ‘greater good’. Embracing what I think of as ‘guerrilla tactics’, I’ve navigated power dynamics, sometimes leveraging charm and subtext to drive outcomes, especially in the male-dominated construction sector. My inclination towards rallying peers to challenge and change institutional inertia reflects both a personal tendency and perhaps an intergenerational approach to life, stemming from an ancestral tradition of speaking truth to power.

The Gift of a Theory and Language

This is why when I first encountered NIODA and the work of systems psychodynamics, my heart sang. During the two and a half years of intense learning through experience and action, I discovered meaningful explanations that helped to make sense of past experiences. My studies at NIODA have provided me with the gift of a theory and language to make sense of some of my difficult experiences in work roles over the past 25 years. In my work life, I’ve noticed a recurring theme: I often find myself in the role of the resilient one, capable of enduring and persisting through significant adversity. Whether it’s navigating through moments of pain, shame, guilt, or blame during the execution of demanding projects, I consistently step up to the challenge. I put in the utmost effort, pouring in blood, sweat, and tears to overcome obstacles and steer projects back on track. This dedication is typically met with admiration and praise from all quarters. However, it’s disheartening to find that when circumstances take a turn for the worse, I can also become the focal point of criticism and scapegoating. Smith and Berg write about the paradoxes of group life and their definition of courage resonates as they posit that it takes courage for the scapegoated individual to understand and navigate the projections placed upon them without internalising the blame.

Reflecting on my approach however, it has been just as insightful to find and acknowledge the potential downsides that such a stance can have, both for myself and for the dynamics within the organisations I operate in. My inclination towards ‘speaking out’ and employing ‘guerrilla tactics’, while rooted in a deep-seated sense of justice and resilience, has occasionally led to unintended consequences. This approach has sometimes created friction in environments where consensus or a more measured approach is valued. I see now that my strong advocacy and determination to challenge existing norms has at times overshadowed more subtle perspectives within the group, potentially leading to a dominance that stifles the diversity of views and approaches.

In the complex and often rigid environment of government work, siloed hierarchies and entrenched institutional practices can often obscure what’s really happening beneath the surface. Systems psychodynamics has not only helped me understand the complexities of these challenges but has also equipped me with the tools to address them head-on.

You may be wondering, what is ‘systems psychodynamics’? It is indeed a term that warrants further explanation.

At its core, systems psychodynamics is about understanding the ‘unseen’ forces that shape how people behave in groups or organisations.

This approach is the intricate confluence of three interconnected domains: psychoanalytic theory, group relations theory and practice, and open systems theory*. Each domain intertwines to form a comprehensive approach, allowing for a nuanced exploration into the complexities of human organisations. It is this interconnection that fosters a deeper understanding of collective psychological behaviour, unravelling the myriad of motivating forces and interactions that transpire within and between diverse groups in a social ecosystem.

And how does that help us make sense of the chaos in organisations?

Sometimes, in organisations, particularly within government, things get a bit muddled because of all the different hierarchies and ‘old school’ way of doing things. Systems psychodynamics gives us tools to figure out what could be going on beneath the surface. One particularly user-friendly tool is called BART, standing for Boundary, Authority, Role, and Task**.

BART Framework

The BART framework is essentially a tool to analyse and understand the dynamics within groups and organisations. In my experience working within large bureaucratic organisations, I’ve found the BART analysis to be a real game-changer. It’s like having a map to navigate through a maze of hidden agendas, unspoken rules, and complex relationships.


Let’s start with boundaries. In an organisational setting, boundaries are more than just physical lines; they encompass time, tasks, and territories. These are the invisible lines that define our responsibilities, the resources we manage, and the timeframes we operate within. Understanding these boundaries is crucial in managing our roles effectively and respecting others’ spaces and limits.


Moving onto Authority. There’s a fascinating aspect of how we exercise our power, both formally and informally. It’s not just about the titles and positions we hold but also about how we assert ourselves in various situations, even when we’re not in a designated position of power.


Roles, both formal and informal, are another vital piece of this puzzle. Each of us plays multiple roles, often without even realising it. Some roles we inherit by our job title, while others we take on or are assigned to us informally by our team dynamics. Recognising these roles and understanding our own ‘valency’ – our tendency or inclination to take up certain roles – can significantly influence how we function and interact within our organisation.

The role aspect of BART has helped me identify not just my official/formal responsibilities but also the expectations others have of me, and perhaps more importantly, the unspoken roles I take up within the organisational culture. I have learned to ask myself what might be happening for an individual within a group that has picked up a particular approach/role (devil’s advocate, the soother, the challenger, the leader, the silent one etc.) Who/what are they serving by taking up that particular role?


Finally, Task – this element has been essential in keeping focused on the primary objectives amidst the challenges of organisational complexity. Understanding the tasks at hand, both at an individual and organisational level, has been crucial in maintaining clarity and direction in my work and, in turn for my teams. Again, it is about stopping to consider, wonder, what is happening with this task? Do we understand what the task is, are we still ‘on task’? Sounds really simple when you think about it, and therein lies the key – you need to take the time and make the space to think about it – a deliberate act of reflection that allows you to pause and consider what else might be going on with the people/group you are interacting with.

Recently I presented the BART model to a group of plumbers and carpenters at a workshop, and I asked them to consider what identity boundaries they hold – things like, ‘apprentice’, ‘senior carpenter’ and ‘qualified plumber’ came up and we then made connections with changes to their boundaries, in particular their ‘turf’ depending on what job site they were working at. These tradies were very invested in the conversation, and it led to many discussions about how they can improve the way they work together. It was encouraging to see that BART can be so accessible for a small business looking to improve collaboration within their teams- just as much as it is applicable to my work in large bureaucratic organisations.

Making sense of the unseen

So, next time you find yourself lost in the maze of office politics, unclear roles, and overlapping responsibilities, remember BART. It helps you understand where you are, who has the power, what your role is, and what you need to accomplish. It’s about making sense of the unseen, the unsaid, and the undercurrents that shape our work life. It’s a practical, insightful tool that helps you make sense of the organisational chaos!

Ruth Robles-McColl, 2023 Graduate of NIODA’s Masters of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics)

May 2024

* Fraher (2004); Nossal (2007); De Gooijer (2009); Sher and Lawlor (2022)

**The following section on BART is mainly sourced from Green and Molenkamp (2005)

 Systems Psychodynamics – A Way to Understand the Chaos at Work!


The National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) offers internationally renowned post-graduate education and research in organisation dynamics, and decades of experience consulting with Australian organisations. 

The study of organisation dynamics brings together socio-technical and psychoanalytic disciplines to explore the unconscious dynamics that exist in every group, team or organisation. Learning more about these theories, and reflecting on the experience of them, can support leaders and managers to unlock great potential in their organisations, tackling issues through a whole new light.

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