A Foreign Correspondent (Part 3). By Angus Burnett

Part 3 of an adapted M.A. dissertation by Angus Burnett. It is about leadership, task and organisation in a therapeutic community for children. The M.A. in Therapeutic Child Care at The University of Reading was run by Adrian Ward, Dr. Linnet Mc Mahon, Paul Cain, Deborah Best and Theresa Howard at the Dept. of Community Studies from 1989 – 2006. The book ‘Intuition is Not Enough’ ((1998) Eds. Ward, A. & Mc Mahon L. Routledge, London) captured the model of group work and reflective practice that underpinned all aspects of the course. The course and book continue to influence many people across the field of specialist child care and beyond.

Angus Burnett is Head of Referrals and Partnerships at The Mulberry Bush School.


Chapter 6.  Sinnott House

Learning Afresh

In 2002 I was approached by the Peper Harow Foundation to become the Director of Sinnott House, a relatively small therapeutic children’s home and school in Kent.  Sinnott House had been set up independently of Peper Harow and had only come into the organisation within the past few years. The previous Director who had founded the project had retired and Sinnott House had been without a Director for a year.  As the project had been operating from the Director’s house, the foundation was faced with the choice of finding new premises or closing Sinnott House down. A new house was found close to the original site. The physical move was successful and the newly appointed Deputy Director quickly became Acting Director.  This situation remained for approximately a year until I was appointed.

The previous Director had needed,  in starting from scratch, to be very central to the daily thinking, dynamics and planning of the project.  Over time, staff had come to rely on her in this role and people had subjugated some of their personal qualities to this leadership.  Staff then became protected from the practical and personal anxieties of the work. They did not have to worry about financial considerations brought about by bills or lack of referrals, nor were the moral, ethical and therapeutic dilemmas inherent in working with children discussed as a team.  The Director was relied upon to provide the answers and a basic assumption dependency mentality prevailed (Burnett 2003).  

The Deputy Director revealed to me how much stress this had placed  on the founding Director and that this had partly been the reason for her retirement.  After her retirement, the acting Director/Deputy had had the basic primary task of ensuring the survival of Sinnott House and did not have the time and space to devote to developing the therapeutic task.  During this period, she too must have been experiencing the organizational transferences and group projections of being a new leader.


Roles and Tasks

When I arrived as Director at Sinnott House I recognised many similar factors to those I had encountered on becoming a manager at the Cotswold Community.  These included a lack of devolved roles with which people could be identified and within which they could carry some authority, other than that over the children.  

Although the children all had keyworkers, the actual care was mostly carried out collectively by the whole staff group.  For example, a child’s keyworker may have been working an evening shift but not be involved in settling that child to bed.  Confusingly for the child, the adult may have actually settled another child down for the night instead. I perceived this as a defence against the demands, agony and enjoyment of such an important relationship,

It is clear that there must be a continuity of function; what is not so clear is that there must also be continuity of role – that is, for as long as may be necessary in the treatment situation.  People giving therapeutic help to emotionally deprived children must become involved with them in a way comparable to what Winnicott has described as ‘primary maternal preoccupation’. Once this involvement has been launched, the most essential factor in treatment will be continuity of emotional provision.

(Dockar-Drysdale  1973: 54)

This organizational homogeneity was more broadly manifested in a sense of tasks being done by whoever was most expedient at any given point.  As in my experience in The Cottage, this avoided true responsibility and conscious conflict, although tension and envy of each other were palpable.  As verbalized by a senior member of staff, staff behaved as though they were benevolently doing each other favours in carrying out their work and their daily tasks.  Here, there was an avoidance of acknowledgment of authority and a denial that there was a professional treatment task that people were paid to undertake. Balbernie indicated the dangers of this,

Each person must be clear as to what is not his task (i.e.  when he is moving inside or outside the boundaries of his primary task and what is being left undone when he moves outside it).  It is important to be clear about what is not being done. Collusive obscurity and evasion of painful reality by muddle will adversely affect the morale of the organisation and will lead into motivated resistance to essential clarification.  (Balbernie 1966:188)

Despite this, Sinnott House did contain and help children.  It was not dysfunctional, as The Cottage had been. There was a genuine desire amongst staff to engage in therapeutic care and education with children.  However the staff only allowed for an understanding of the children’s disturbance without reference to the possibilities of disturbance brought by adults.  I was talking to a member of staff who had been at Sinnott House for five years when I mentioned that, as part of the process, adults may at times project their own disturbance onto the children.  To her, this was a novel and interesting idea. There is a danger in undertaking therapeutic work with children that all disturbance is projected onto them in order to alleviate pain in the adults’ unconscious, which may then be worked through by proxy, a Sinnott House characteristic borne out by the comment made to me by senior staff that I would see more therapeutic work if I came to more case discussions, which are entirely about children.


‘Knowing’ the Children

There was another similarity between Sinnott House and The Cottage:  a defensive arrogance made most striking in a team meeting when a member of staff, talking about a child, said ‘We know she trusts us’.  I was so struck by this that I commented that this girl might not trust us. Another member of staff then joined in with the original assertion that this girl did very much trust the staff.  Neither member of staff attempted to provide any evidence for such a bold statement. It seemed that, at this point, there was a strong need to believe in the importance of the work they were doing to counter the fear and anxiety that without the founding Director they were no longer sure and had not been equipped with the theoretical framework or the model of the culture of enquiry to find out.  One of these members of staff also commented in a team meeting that Sinnott House was ‘the best’ even though she had no experience of therapeutic child care prior to her current post nor had she visited other therapeutic communities. Although it was important to change this kind of assertiveness to something more self-reflective, in touch with pain and doubt and anxiety, and it was also tempting to counter and cut through this arrogance, it was also important to recognise the origins and need for this defence and to take time to analyze my own impatience and countertransferential wish to demolish the defences.  I will say more about this later.

Accepting belief as, or turning it into, facts as staff had previously done, creates a culture of received wisdom.  The wisdom that may have been relevant at the time will, without scrutiny, become irrelevant but transform into a defence against the unknown,

To conduct one’s practice on the basis of received wisdom saves the individuals from the emotional uncertainty and anxiety that would come from new thinking about current problems now.  Under the pressures of anxiety, people are freed from thinking, and become eventually possessed by the institution’s practice.  (Hinshelwood  2001: 112)

Slowly the culture needed to change from that of basic assumption groups to one open to question and creativity.  At times, I doubted my patient approach. I had been careful a couple of times not to make executive decisions on matters that did not need my input and would not involve the Director, in spite of feeling pushed to do so.  I reasoned to myself that staff were attempting to recreate the dependency that had existed with the previous Director. At other times, returning to my office after a staff meeting or an individual interaction with a member of staff, I would feel that I had started on the ‘wrong foot’, that I should have arrived ‘guns blazing’ and ‘nailed my colours to the mast’, telling people where I thought there was a need to develop the therapeutic task immediately.   Regaining a thinking space allowed me to recognize that at those times when I most strongly felt the need to declare rather than nurture the therapeutic task, there was a danger of again being drawn into becoming a surrogate for the previous Director. My task needed to be to remain authoritative and clear about the theoretical framework within which people needed to think about their work. 

It was also clear that all aspects of the care, treatment and education needed to be informed and united by the psychodynamic framework of the primary treatment model and individual treatment plans.  Part of the new task was to clarify roles and boundaries, moving away from an amorphous team and task to much clearer intergroups with clear tasks and sentient boundaries. It was important though, in moving from dependency to autonomy, that people did not act independently of the treatment task and authority.   

In choosing a particular framework with which to view the inner life of organisations I, perhaps inevitably, find similar roots to familiar problems.  It is important however that I adapt my approach to these problems in order to best suit the needs of the organisation. A generalised approach to childcare that does not incorporate the idea of using adaptation to needs can be very good but miss vital communication that leads to true emotional growth.  With organisations there needs to be a similar emotional attunement if the manager is to recognise when the organisation is to move and grow. This emotional attunement can seem intolerable but be informative if a thinking space is maintained which allows for the interpersonal dynamics of the group to recognised.


  Chapter 7

Summary and Conclusion

I wrote in the previous chapter of how, through observation and conversations, I began to make sense of the current practice at Sinnott House.  Furthermore, I also had to be attuned to the more subtle information: how these interactions made me feel; the feelings brought about not by obvious daily interchanges but through the act of being in the work environment.

In therapeutic childcare, a balance needs to be struck between being too analytical and intellectual and being too emotional.  Personal defences can push one toward one or the other of these extreme stances. The idea of valency might suggest that individuals will have a tendency towards one of these positions.  However, we can also move between these two positions depending on what we are unconsciously reacting to. It is therefore important for individuals to be constantly monitoring where they are in position to emotions and thought, and striving to use them both to reflect on themselves and on the task.


Tolerating the Transference & Countertransference

There were times when the feelings aroused in me were intolerable and prevented me from thinking about the task, let alone from reflecting on how I was thinking and feeling.  Often however, after the feelings abated slightly, an inner space and voice would remind me to take some time to reflect on the feelings I was carrying and how they were affecting me.  At other times it would take supervision from my line manager or a consultant for me to realise that I was being affected by the dynamics of the institution. It was then that I could look at the transference and countertransference and separate my own pathology from the diagnostic countertransference.  Here is an example of these dynamics in action:

The issue of good practice around food seems to be an area that arouses strong feelings and defences in many people.  Early in my time as Director, in a team discussion regarding a girl’s eating habits, where I disagreed with the majority of the team, I felt frustrated and impatient but also inarticulate.  Having much theory and experience at my fingertips, my inarticulacy seemed surprisingly powerful. I was left with a feeling of being overwhelmed at the task of introducing a new way of thinking and felt myself wanting either to be didactic and dismissive or to bury my head.  I felt like a foreigner speaking a different language and talking heresy. When I had the space to reflect and could separate out my own personal anxieties about being new in my role, I could begin to understand the task that my team had in accepting a new and different style of leadership.  The team had previously had a leader who did the thinking and learning for them. It is possible that my inarticulacy reflected something of the team’s projected insecurity and uncertainty in the face of a leader who expected informed discussion. The team, no doubt, felt as overwhelmed by this expectation as I did by my perceived task.  They felt as though they were being asked to speak a language that they had not yet learned. Their defences were being pushed too far and it was safer to perceive me as a heretic than to tolerate painful questioning of practice. The countertransference to this, as described above by my feelings, was very strong. To reach an understanding of this, which led me to a greater state of empathy for the team, I had first to tease out all the complicated internal dynamics inside me that were aroused by being in a new and demanding job.  In order for this thinking to take place, it was crucial that I not only be open to the team’s projections but also that I be willing to undertake a potentially painful self-analysis, without which I could have attributed projections to the team which did not belong to them but, rather, to myself. I needed to do all of this thinking, not only in order to understand the team better but also because, without it, it would have been all too easy to get caught up in feeling inarticulate and inadequate, leaving me so overwhelmed that I may not have been able to perform my job.

In this example, my internalised theoretical model of working was based on my years at the Cotswold Community.  As described previously, this was a model derived from a clear understanding of task and role, with a commitment to reflective child-centred practice.  There were many forums for scrutinising and questioning this practice. At that point, the Sinnott House team had a very different internalised model, one of being nurtured by an all-providing, all-knowing central figure.  In the early days of Sinnott House, the Director had no peer group, so her interpretation of what she read and the decisions that ensued had no forums in which they could be measured against other informed opinion. Her legacy left an atmosphere closed off from outside comment, overly confident yet without secure foundations for individual consideration and testing of the theory.  If I had been overly didactic, dictating what does and does not constitute therapeutic practice, I may have put myself into the role of the next all-knowing central figure. Certainly, my countertransference to the team’s attempts to put me in that role made this a tempting option. But ultimately, it would have undermined the culture of enquiry that is at the root of genuine therapeutic work.  It is at least in part my internalised working model that enabled me to withstand the pressures from my team to replicate the absent leader of their internalised model.


Learning from the Dynamics

Understanding and being aware of the dynamics at work are not enough, in themselves, to change the culture.  For example, my understanding of my feelings of inarticulacy would not automatically create a culture of enquiry at Sinnott House.  The understanding could help me empathise with my team, but also help me to make strategic decisions. When I first arrived at Sinnott House, there was some quite institutionalised practice done in the name of therapy and good childcare: for example, being refused a further helping of food because, in the adult’s eyes, the child had had enough.  There was a danger of me single-handedly countering and challenging these notions of what constituted therapeutic childcare, thereby becoming the lone voice of ‘heresy’. In this role, my views could easily be dismissed by team members, which in turn would ultimately weaken my managerial authority. I felt that there needed to be a balance of stating what I believed in with an expectation that people would engage in reading suggested papers, supplemented with individuals’ own reading.  I also needed to recognise and utilise those opportunities where a more therapeutic understanding could be stimulated and nurtured, for example those moments when I could see a team member particularly excited by a new idea.

Although all of the above work is ongoing, it was important to look ahead as well.  There were still big jobs to be done. For example, there remained conflicts between household staff and school staff.  The identifiable dynamic is that of ‘irresponsible parent’ arguing with ‘ineffective teacher’, each team believing that they know better about how to care for the children.  The purpose of these projections was to avoid acknowledging one’s own genuine failings. For the teams and their managers, the Director can be a useful receptacle for venting similar feelings of hopelessness and futility: ‘if only the Director sorted that team out, all the problems would be over.’  In a seemingly interminable quarrel between two rivalrous siblings, the Director as surrogate parent can end up feeling the projected feelings of ineffectiveness. In the countertransference, it can be easy to try to take on the role of real parent, when, in fact, the analytic stance should be retained by not attempting to sort out the squabbles but by understanding their true origins.  One way of doing this was to encourage the Deputy Director and senior managers of my team to introduce new theoretical concepts within the teams. In this way, I would no longer be isolated as the lone voice. These senior staff needed to become the carriers and containers of the new culture. That is, they would have to pay attention to the transference/countertransference issues and the group dynamics in order to understand and role-model the fact that, while they themselves cannot be free of the dynamics, they were alert to them.  This awareness would inform their management of their respective teams. This would translate into managers being free of identifying with individuals or staff groups and of inviting identification. Furthermore, it would prevent them from being seduced into basic assumption mentalities. This would then free up a considerable amount of energy and time to study and inform practice.  

Inevitably at times, one manager or another was not happy with the conclusion of the decision making and I was accused of aligning myself with the seemingly favoured team.  I needed to listen at these times and again sift through the transference and countertransference in order to come to some diagnostic ‘truth’ to act upon.


Retaining a Capacity to Think

There had also been times when my capacity to think came under attack, when the demands of the internal and external organisation had been myriad, often coinciding with impingement from other external agencies.  At these times my thinking processes had become disjointed and the ability to concentrate on one matter seemed impossible. This often became a process whereby thinking did not slow down but became more and more rapid and repetitive without solution.  At those times it was not uncommon for me to wake up in the early hours of the morning with my thoughts already at full tilt making it hard to drift off back to sleep and replenish. Although this thinking may be fruitful, on arrival for the start of work some hours later, I could find myself exhausted, unable to remember and think about the night’s agitation.  One cannot remove the children themselves from the equation of understanding: the effect of the children on the carers who work with them can manifest itself in the organization. The Director’s relationship with the organization can then become the container for unintegration, particularly when a team has become used to having a leader on whom they can be dependent.  When these processes are recognised, reflective spaces can be found within staff-meetings and supervision and they become held by thought. If they are not recognised, they become absorbed and felt in raw states throughout the organization. Although I was not directly involved in the children’s care, I could end up feeling the collective effects of unintegration. This struck me one morning in the early hours as I went over and over in my head some small detail of a boy’s care and its implications, until suddenly I wondered why I was losing sleep over this point and not his keyworker.  It seemed to me that the successive layers of containment had not been involved in processing the dynamics in this boy’s treatment but had become anxious, disconnected and allowed disturbance to seep through. For many of the children needing therapeutic care, the capacity to conceptualize and therefore think about their experiences has never been reached. This maturational process can then become defended against as thinking allows some of the painful past to be experienced and unwelcome realisations brought to bear. For a staff team working with these children, the stresses of examining the painful areas of their own psyches in order to then achieve a diagnostic attunement to the children’s pain will be huge.  The children will attack their own limited capacities to think and will have developed sophisticated means with which to disrupt the adults’ ability to think. Because of the potential stresses to themselves, it can also be tempting for the adults to be seduced by their own unconscious and abandon thoughtful analysis.


Thinking with Others

At Sinnott House, as at the Cottage, there was the constant undertow of what Eykman  (1990: 5) has termed ‘The Loneliness Of The Leader’,

He should be able to take a position above and in a way also outside his staff, and he should be capable to endure the loneliness of his position.  This not only means that he has to stand all the reproaches of abandonment of his staff, but also that he himself can not share his feelings of being abandoned with his staff.

The leader, in his abandonment, is not able to share the feelings he contains but must process them and attempt to make useful interpretations and decisions which in turn may be rejected.

At the Cotswold Community, the managers of the units met each day in a forum with senior managers.  Here the immediate past, the present and the future could be discussed, problems aired and feelings acknowledged.  Whilst this could not stop the loneliness inherent in the leader’s position, it provided an empathetic and enquiring culture which gave a context and reference point for the leaders’ work.  The leader could re-establish his bearings so that, while lonely, he could never be too lost and remote. The context of an organisation plays an integral part in holding the culture of the units it contains.  The projects run by Peper Harow were geographically distant from each other and although the Directors of the projects met regularly, there was not the opportunity to meet with anything approaching the frequency of the Cotswold Community.  Consequently, there was not the time or the rhythm to link together the threads of our experiences and find interfaces between our diverse apprenticeships in various therapeutic communities. Whilst this diversity of experience and internalised models brings a healthy eclecticism to the organisation, I feel that this can make the isolation of leadership more acute and anxiety within the organization more prevalent.  Therefore Directors have to be attuned to the emotional state of the inner organization, in my case Sinnott House, and the emotional state of the outer organization, the Peper Harow Foundation.

I have attempted to show in this paper how a Director/manager needs to have a knowledge of and be attuned to the emotional world of the organisation for which he is responsible.  This must be sensitive to the interactions of which he is a part and of the interactions reported to him but also alert to the overall emotional phenomena of the group, as Armstrong (2000:  7) has described it, ‘the organisation as an eliciting object of emotion’. I argue that the object(s) eliciting emotion must be understood to be the small organization which the Director is in charge of and the umbrella organization to which he is accountable. 

This practice of analyzing the projections, projective identifications and transference phenomena, though important at any point in the Director’s stewardship of an organization, can be crucial for any new manager.  It can yield vital clues to the unconscious world of the organisation.

This unconscious world, like that of the children we work with, has its roots and definition shaped by the past and therefore needs patient but firm understanding if maturational processes are to overcome repetitive and ritual defences.  A new Director has great opportunities to attend to the dysfunctionality present in any organisation by comparing the knowledge gained through reflection with the knowledge of the primary task. To do this successfully, the Director has also to pay heed to and rein in his pathological countertransference in order not to upset the functionality of the organisation.  Here, my impatience needed to be understood and transformed into patience.

I hope that these reflections provide a basis for further thought for managers within and  without Peper Harow as a way of understanding their own ‘induction’.  It may also help larger organizations think about how to facilitate greater communication amongst peers.  Attention needs to be paid to primary task and process to enable structures and ethos to permeate organisations which will then provide reference and containment for staff working within them.

Eykman (op. cit.) has compared the leader to a native guide, one who knows the terrain, its  dangers and how to deal with the problems it presents but allows people to find their own way to the destination.  I would add that it is also important that the Director remains aware of where he and his staff have come from.



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