Prominent teachers and clinicians, including Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan and Clara Thompson, founded the William Alanson White Institute as a psychoanalytic training institute in 1946. The founders were committed to the idea of psychoanalysis as a response to human pain and to a proactive political and social stance with a view toward redefining social structures to support individualism and personal freedom. Their intellectual positions were in sharp contrast to the dominant Freudian views, which focused more exclusively on the internal operations and dynamics of the person. The Institute’s founders were instead interested in the interactions between individuals and their interpersonal environment.
A small group consisting of three psychoanalysts who had trained at the White Institute and several people from other professions came together to begin the Organization Program in 1990. They, along with the Institute’s leaders at the time, pushed hard to establish the program. Our founders, echoing those of the Institute, were convinced that applying psychoanalytic concepts to the study of organizations would lead to a deeper understanding of how organizations function and would improve both organizations and the conditions of society.
They also were particularly informed by the traditions of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, where practitioners developed group relations theory and furthered both the socio-technical theory of work and action research. A hallmark of their practice was the idea that change comes most effectively when developed by an organization’s participants working in conjunction with practitioners skilled in understanding organizational dynamics.
Our Beliefs and Process
The Organization Program emphasizes concepts arising from psychodynamic thought and systems thinking. These include the concepts of boundaries, primary task, role, authority, projective identification, transference, group dynamics, and the importance of understanding the effect of anxiety on organizational life. We look at organizations from multiple perspectives—intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, organization and system.
The Program consists of four semesters over two years of weekly evening classes, supplemented by occasional workshops as shown in the Program Calendar. One of the hallmark features of our teaching has been the first semester’s coursework on role, which begins the participant’s experience in the Program. This semester helps participants understand the differences between role and person, informal and formal authority, role taken and role given, and the influences of one’s family of origin and the organization itself on how one takes-up a role.
The second semester focuses on concepts that are central to understanding the socio- and psychodynamics of organizations. These include the study of what facilitates and impedes taking up authority, the differences between large and small groups, systems theory, and other aspects of group dynamics.
The second year focuses on the application of learning. Participants apply the learning to their own work dilemmas as well as to cases presented by guests who are organizational leaders, academics and consultants.
Ralph Biggadike, a Program graduate and a Professor at the Columbia University Business School, recently said: “The emphasis on actually experiencing group dynamics is most valuable: each entering class becomes its own learning entity in group dynamics and, at the same time, we each individually learn about ourselves working in groups."
The Program enables people to learn to be more effective in role, to understand and manage organizational complexity, and to bring about productive and lasting change.