Original Research

Deploying culture as a defence against incompetence: The unconscious dynamics of public service work

Peliwe P. Mnguni
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 38, No 2 | a1000 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v38i2.1000 | © 2012 Peliwe P. Mnguni | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 08 July 2011 | Published: 10 January 2012

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Peliwe P. Mnguni, University of South Africa, South Africa

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Orientation: The intractability of public service delivery and a polarised societal landscape heighten anxiety and reinforce a propensity for public service organisations to be used for defensive purposes.

Research purpose: This article employs social defense theory to explore manifestations of anxiety and defense within South African public service organisations.

Motivation for the study: Dominant discourse on public service institutions over-relies on political, sociological and public administration theories and tends to ignore psychosocial explanations. Further, whilst the psychodynamics of social service work are generally understood, the unconscious dynamics of generic public service work remain under-theorised.

Research design, approach and method: This conceptual article draws on my personal observations as a reflective citizen and experiences as a consultant to government departments.

Main findings: Herein, an argument is advanced that the deployment of ill-qualified party loyalists to key positions in the public service is perverse: it serves as a collective defense against the impossible aspects of the task at hand. The appointees, in turn, deploy organisational processes to defend against feelings of incompetence and the inevitability of failure. This practice, coupled with acute resource constraints, sets up front line staff for scapegoating.

Practical/managerial implications: An appreciation of the multiple meanings of public service work and the defensive role played by public institutions stands to inform purposeful change towards sustainable public service organisational practice.

Contribution/value-add: The discussion seeks to contribute to attempts that employ systems psychodynamics to make sense of anxiety and defense within organisations in general and public service institutions in particular.


incompetence; public service work; socio-cultural; Systems psychodynamics


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