Personal Development: A systems-psychodynamic approach


From FTSE100 board leaders to SME middle management, here are some of the biggest self-imposed obstacles we see in coaching and leadership development work.

Rigidity of self-perception

Self-insight lies at the heart of any real change.

Easy to say, hard to realise.

As we grow up, we form a picture of our selves – our character and personality – in our heads. Our experience starts to give us messages that translate into a ‘script’ that we strengthen over time as we repeatedly act in line with it. To oversimplify, what starts out as “I set myself high standards and work hard to achieve top grades” can later in life translate into a leadership approach that says, “I set hugely stretching targets for myself and my teams. This helps drive performance in the short term but can undermine innovation because I and my teams avoid failure at all costs.”

This is normal and natural – after all, if we didn’t have self-beliefs about what makes us, ‘us’, we’d have no sense of identity at all.

But if we want to change behaviours, if we want to grow and progress, we need to challenge these rigidly held beliefs to make space for a different ‘script’. The basis of this change is having the bravery and acuity of self-reflection to recognise the things about ourselves that have become rigid or fixed; and then take steps to unpick and understand the ones that no longer suit our purposes, both professional and personal.


Self-caricaturing is the natural consequence of the rigidity we described above. Let’s take an example.

Peter comes for his first coaching session. Looking at his performance, he’s clearly a capable guy. He’s pretty self-effacing, is amiable, and avoids direct disagreement.

He describes himself as the ‘the facilitator’ of his team – if a topic is driving some disagreement, Peter plays the role of bridging ideas and enabling compromise. He is very well liked by his peers and, despite being identified as having potential, has seen others be promoted ahead of him.

In the next session, Peter shares his own ambitions and how he feels stuck, lacking confidence in his ability and his own ideas. He wanted to fit in and prove himself an asset to the team when he first arrived, and he never managed to go beyond the role of enabling facilitation and compliance. As we talk, he becomes much more animated, correcting me when I make an incorrect assumption and taking more space to express himself.

What’s happened here is that Peter has taken his self-identity and run too far with it. He’s self-caricaturing, taking his personality traits and overplaying them. His team have also latched on to the role he’s cast himself in, using him as a symbol for stability and compliance, and a useful person to have around when things need ‘cooling’. It’s getting in the way of his personal and professional fulfilment, and it’s also preventing him from being the asset to the organisation that he has the potential to be.

We all do this to a certain extent – it makes us feel secure and comfortable to have a clear place in a group – but it can also limit our choices. Plus, once we go down that road, we’ll find that other people will play what we’re transmitting back to us. We’ll take a certain role in a group and become ‘the arrogant one,’ ‘the ambitious one’ ‘the shy one’. This makes it even harder for us to change as people exert pressure on us to stay in that role, without even realising that they’re doing it.

Blame and accountability

The natural consequence of these things – rigidity of thought patterns and self-caricature – is that we are less able to hold ourselves accountable for how we behave. It leads to a situation where our reason for behaving a certain way (not getting on with a certain person, for example, or having qualities that aren’t helping us develop in the context we wish to) is simply that we’re ‘just like that’.

We place the responsibility on the other party. If we’re not being recognised for our work, it’s because our manager is dense and unappreciative; if other people find it hard to take feedback from us, it’s because they’re over-sensitive; if we’re finding it difficult to progress in an organisation, it’s a fault of the system, not our own approach or capability.

This kind of attitude is an issue: personal accountability is at the heart of development work. If we can’t take responsibility for our part in establishing a pattern, relationship, or situation, we disempower ourselves of the ability to change it.

So what’s the solution?

Effective self-development requires several things, and none of them are easy:

  • Self-insight

Be prepared to take a long hard look at the patterns you’ve formed and how helpful they are in the context in which you want to succeed. This is often aided by being open to other people’s feedback on how they perceive you.

  • Personal accountability

Once you have some insight into how you’re behaving and why, you need to be able to take ownership. This often involves some humble pie as we take a fresh look at situations in which we may have felt the wronged party, but are now re-evaluating how much of the responsibility actually belonged to us. Our interactions need to be approached on adult-to-adult terms.

  • Willingness to change

The idea of change seems inspiring and easy, but the process itself will feel counterintuitive and extremely difficult. When it comes down to it, changing behaviours doesn’t feel like the right thing to do at all; it feels risky and sometimes downright ridiculous. Commitment to the change and support are required to make it stick. 

  • Vulnerability and bravery

Most of us spend our lives trying to avoid being vulnerable – we’re programmed to evade seeming ‘weak’ or unsure, and in many organisational cultures it feels like the death knell for any professional prestige or credibility. But in fact, vulnerability is a necessary part of the development journey, as we become more sensitive to how others are perceiving us and question ourselves more often and with more acuity. This takes no small amount of bravery.

All of these things are difficult to do alone: ideally, they require a line manager who supports your growth, a decent coach who has a clear and effective approach, and sufficient wriggle room in your organisational and personal life for you to make the changes.


- Bion, W.R. (1961), Experiences in groups and other papers. Tavistock Publications, London.

- Klein, M. (1959), “Our adult world and its roots in infancy”, in Klein, M., Envy and gratitude and other works 1946-1963. Hogarth Press, London (Writings of Melanie Klein Vol. lll), pp 247-263.

- Ogden, T. (1979), “On Projective Identification”, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, pp. 357-373.

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