Original Research

Improvement interventions: To what extent are they manifestations of social defences?

Jeremias J. de Klerk
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 38, No 2 | a999 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v38i2.999 | © 2012 Jeremias J. de Klerk | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 June 2011 | Published: 13 February 2012

About the author(s)

Jeremias J. de Klerk, University of the Free State, SASOL South Africa, South Africa


Orientation: The statistical record of change and improvement interventions to deliver on expectations is notoriously poor. Yet, new interventions are started constantly.

Research purpose: The aim is to provide an explanation to the lure behind interventions and to contribute to building a theory on plausible systems psychodynamic drivers and mechanisms of recurrent change interventions.

Motivation for the study: This study provides insights into social defences in ways that did not receive much attention previously; specifically how defence mechanisms act as drivers for new change and improvement interventions.

Research design, approach and method: A literature study, consisting of a literature review and a phenomenological analysis. The study was conducted from the systems psychodynamic approach.

Main findings: Improvement interventions often represent defences that serve to contain anxieties or maintain fantasies. Four specific themes emerged: interventions defend the perception of being in control, they maintain the fantasy that one is busy with worthy actions to overcome challenges, they are defences against boredom or contain anxieties about incompetence, and they maintain the fantasy of being heroic leaders.

Practical/managerial implications: The findings can assist leaders to understand their own defences in order to avoid embarking on non-essential interventions. This can free up much time, energy and effort to spend on other priorities, assisting organisations to achieve better results.

Contribution/value-add: The study refutes the notion that improvement interventions are always rational coping mechanisms and highlights the role of improvement interventions as defences to reduce anxiety, even though they may contribute little to organisational survival in real terms.


defence mechanisms; change initiatives; systems psychodynamics; theoretical contribution; phenomenological analysis; irrational leadership


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