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Posted on January 19, 2020
Updated on October 13, 2021

Aspiration, Ascendancy and Achievement in Organisations

Structures and Systems

Charles Handy (1982) likens organisations to countries. When we travel to different countries we find different cultures which have different philosophies, beliefs systems, traditions and so on. So it is with organisations. Just by going into different organisations we get a feel of the different atmospheres and different levels of energy.

These different values and beliefs make up the culture and are reflected in the structures and systems.

Senge et al (1998) note that “a system is a perceived whole whose elements ‘hang together’ because they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose. The word comes from the Greek verb sunistanai, which meant “to cause to stand together”.

Systemic structure is the pattern of inter-relationships among key components of the system. This includes the hierarchy and processes as well as the attitudes and perceptions, the quality of products and the ways in which decisions are made etc.

Different cultures call for different psychological contracts.  Different people will be more comfortable in one organisational culture and others more comfortable in another. Matching the psychological contract of the organisation and the individual is therefore more likely to lead to a more stable workforce.

Changes in systems take time and often change makers start to believe that nothing is happening. However, it takes time for people to move through the competence curve, take re-training, change beliefs, develop different approaches and so on. Therefore it is important to hang on to strategies rather than give them up if it looks like they are not working. Having clear evaluative techniques set up at the beginning will aid this process.  Change can then be measured.

Today’s organisations have to respond extremely quickly to demands from the environment, the government, the international networks and so on. At the same time, the need for quick responses organisations are also required to supply high quality products and services.

These pressures can create crisis. The crisis is often brought about by a mismatch between environmental demands and organisational capabilities. When crises occur people attempt to match the current situation with a past experience. We all feel safer when we find something we can use that we have always known. However, this becomes problematic when we are being encouraged to think differently and move out of the old ways of doing things. At some point we may need to undertake a total reconstruction of the models we are using (DeSanctis and Fulk eds., 1999).

The difficulty comes when we those involved in the contract are operating from different models.

For example, we might consider Handy’s work on cultures and structures. He notes that the power culture is pictured like a web. It’s patron god would be Zeus who ruled by whim and impulse, by thunderbolt and shower of gold from Mount Olympus. This culture depends on a central power source, with rays of power spreading out from a central figure.

Having a model we can use to assess what is happening in an organisation can be helpful, particularly when we need to assess where to make an intervention. We then need to link this with what we are in control of and what is outside our control and what we can influence. If we are consultants we need to take into consideration the fact that as soon as we are involved we influence the dynamic. Just as if we are new to an organisation we make a difference to the dynamic. It is what we do with this that is important.

Systems of feedback loops tend to maintain and consolidate a system. We need to introduce ways to question the system, and often more usefully, ways that the employees question the system. We can do this by asking questions such as “What would it be like if….”, or “What differences would be produced if……….”.  We need to help people explore the meaning of different events and the importance they place on these. In this way we can encourage people to think forward rather than back.

The Dynamic Diagnostic Diagram (3D Model)

Mountain’s 3D Model can be used for diagnosing the structures and systems in an organisation. This diagram can be used to assess where the focus of an intervention needs to be – at a structural level in the organisation. Some questions are:

  • Is the purpose or identity clear?
  • Are there clear values and a philosophy?
  • Are these expressed and widely shared?
  • Are all aspects of the structure congruent with these?
  • Do all aspects of the structure have shared goals?
  • If not, what are the leadership strategies to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction?

It is almost as if the physis arrow goes right up through the centre of the diagram.

Ascendancy 3D Diagram

©  A. Mountain, Mountain Associates

Other thoughts on the topic:


Berne talked about the “thrust of life” which he called the aspiration arrow or Physis.  

He drew this arrow from the Child ego state of the offspring in the script matrix and it indicates the natural desire to be script free.   

This has since been drawn by others as an arrow going up through the central core of the person, which is intended to show the healthy inner core.  

This also implies that we all aspire, and are drawn to health and growth as a natural part of life itself. If we are alienated from the power of our inner core we become depleted in energy.

Some see this as our spiritual dimension, others as a natural biological force. For example, Hay (1995) talks about plants forcing their way up through concrete. In relational terms Physis is similar to Buber’s (1944) I and Thou, which does have a spiritual dimension to it. Buber notes that “I need a Thou to become. All actual life is an encounter”.

Berne’s terminology “thrust of life” indicates an energy dimension. When this energy is blocked we either try to find ways to adapt and compromise, give up trying, get angry and rebel - still being caught - or find ways to do it our way and remove the block.

Clarkson (1992) has written a great deal on Physis stating that life is flux, life is change itself and therefore “Physis comes spontaneously from within as part of a greater and general ‘fire’. Change must occur because change is life”.

We can see Physis at work when new ideas are developed and an organisation takes these on board and then this affects change in a product or system.

Organisations can encourage and enable growth or they can inhibit it. For example, some companies circulate their training manuals to the staff for them to decide which courses they need to take. In Japan, managers are apparently expected to support the development of their staff, and this is part of their appraisal system. In contrast, in Britain only one fifth are likely to receive training, even after requesting it.

Blocks to growth also come about through racism and prejudice. Interestingly, we talk about the organisational “glass ceiling” which prevents many women achieving status within the hierarchy.

We can use the script matrix to explore the effects of change on the individual. 

For example, Company A has been taken over by Company B. Employees are loyal to the old regime. For their part, the old regime still have their jobs though they don’t have the power. The message or injunction they impart to the staff is 'Don’t change'. The counter injunction is 'Please me'. 

The new directors come in and make changes and do not expect anyone to have difficulties with this. The injunction here is 'Don’t feel', with the counter injunction 'Be strong'.  

The employees fantasise that they will be alright as long as they rebel. They are torn between loyalty to the old ways and established directors and their desire to move on and be part of a new organisation.  

In terms of Physis, they need to choose how they will respond.

The re-engineering process (Hammer & Champey, 1994), used in many organisations in the 1990’s, at its best, was about the organisation becoming script free and deciding now whether systems and processes were relevant rather than just staying with things as they were.

When different companies merge, there will be different cultures within them. This will affect leadership styles, ideas about what is success and what is failure and how one gets promoted around here.

When mergers occur between companies in different countries account will need to be taken of the different views and value bases of each. This will affect expectations as well as communication processes. Therefore, managing a diverse workforce can be a difficult task not necessarily because of the real differences that exist between people, but because of those we believe exist.  

These stereotyping behaviours are more pervasive than a prejudice because they often set standards on which people are judged and what people expect of themselves.  

Stereotypes provide an initial basis for ordering the world and are an attempt to make sense of events around us. When we observe or comment upon other groups (the out-group) we tend to exaggerate the similarities of the members of that group and ignore the differences between them (“They are all the same anyway”). Furthermore, we exaggerate the differences between different groups and minimise the similarities.

Organisations are places where growthful experiences can take place. They offer opportunities to make decisions, to lead, to follow, to co-operate, learn from others, be creative and so on.  

Organisations offer a sense of belonging, of community and can develop an individual’s sense of commitment to something greater than themselves.  

In this sense, we can consider how organisations meet our basic needs. These needs are part of the motivation process and they have been written about in different ways by different TA theorists including Fanita English.

English (1987) called these the drives:

  • Survival (self-preservation drive)
  • Creative (excitement drive)
  • Sleep (drive to rest)

Three of the drives Berne outlined were:

  • Stimulus or sensation
  • Recognition
  • Structure

Berne’s terminology for these was “Hungers”.  

He saw these hungers as the motivating force for human beings. Berne gave weight to interpersonal relationships in this respect. Others felt that seeking strokes was the primary motivating force (see the work of Claude Steiner). Strokes, therefore, took on a primary position within Transactional Analysis theory and people appeared to be hunters on the look out for these.

Between 1953 to 1957, Berne wrote that the child perceives the world as having the possibility for threat or satisfaction. He linked three aspects of motivation namely - biological, psychological and cultural.

English believed that any two drives may be allied and may even be in conflict with the third or exclude the third.

These drives influence our development, our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the present. For English, the creative drive links with Berne’s stimulus hunger. Freud only thought of this as the sexual drive but English highlighted the need for human beings to be curious, playful, excited and to have adventures and take risks. All of which could have both positive and negative outcomes.

An example of the combinations of drives might be a busy person working hard and drinking lots of coffee to keep going.  In this instance they would be excluding the sleep drive and using their survival drive to perhaps look after themselves and/or their family and increase their finances, and their creative drive to develop their project.  

However, when a drive is excluded they may well find that they start to become ill, they become depressed, or are forced to stop to rest in some way or other.

These drives will also influence the relationship between leaders and followers.  

Leaders might be more inclined to exclude the sleep drive, whilst followers might be more inclined to exclude creativity.  This develops symbiosis, and has dangers in the negative side of creativity turning into aggression.  

This is how individuals can come together to become a hostile crowd.

Use of Consultants

Different types of organisations have different expectations of consultants.  

This will be influenced by what is in the Cultural Parent of the organisation (Drego, 1983).  

For example, if we work in an old established bureaucracy that does not value change then they will want a consultant to just tinker with systems and processes but to leave it fundamentally as it is.  

Multi-nationals whose emphasis might be on results will want consultants who negotiate with the staff to achieve these results. Aspiration then becomes stagnated and blocked.


Wickens talks about the ascendant organisation which he states combines high control of the processes and a high degree of commitment of the people.  People are more likely to accept the control because they “own” the processes and are responsible for maintaining and improving them. They have an understood, shared culture that permeates all behaviour and ensures equity of treatment throughout.

Ascendant organisations are positively led by people who care about all the stakeholders and who seek to align the objectives of the organisation.  Responsibility is genuinely devolved allowing individuals, within the accepted framework, to be creative and make their own inputs. The organisation is able to respond flexibly to changing pressures. Such organisations combine the best of all cultures and can appear almost anywhere.

Organisations can be successful for considerable periods of time even if they could not be described as Ascendant. There will always be examples of the autocratic company that is successful. However, staff turnover and sickness levels may be high, but research would be needed to bear this out.

One of the key responsibilities of a leader is to align the organisation. To be really successful, the leader needs to be able to either introduce controls without losing the commitment of the employees, or to generate commitment without losing control.

The importance for organisations is how to maintain the balance between control of the processes and commitment of the people.

In order to do this all those employed by the organisation need to develop a sense of being valued, as well as a sense of belonging and acceptance.  

They will also need to find ways of aligning their values with those of the organisation  and ensure that some of their basic needs are met, ideally over and above that of financial remuneration.


Where the individual’s or department’s goals do not match those of the organisation there is likely to be conflict, at worst, and loss of production at best.  

Commitment and motivation will be lost as the individual/department etc. attempt to pull a different direction

Organisations and individuals are more likely to achieve when people at all levels are willing to:

  1. assess the culture
  2. promote the positive
  3. make the workplace safe for thinking and creativity
  4. reward risk-taking
  5. help people become resources for each other
  6. put learning power to work
  7. map out the vision
  8. bring the vision to life
  9. connect the systems
  10. get the show on the road

This requires that the leadership:

  • prime people at all levels to be self-directed
  • treat mistakes as learning opportunities
  • rework systems and structures
  • create a supportive culture
  • celebrate learning for its own sake
  • celebrate
  • transfer knowledge and power between people
  • have people structure their own learning
  • teach self-evaluation
  • aim for liberation of human intelligence
  • respect and use different learning preferences
  • identify and share learning and thinking styles
  • encourage each employee in all areas of knowledge
  • development needs to be logical, moral and fun
  • develop ideas through dialogue and discussion
  • re-examine everything (Kline P & Saunders B, 1993, amended)


Alder H. 1995, The Right Brain Time Manager , Piatkus

Berne E. (1972), What Do You Say After You Say Hello? ,  Corgi

Buber M. (1944), I and Thou, T. &T. Clark

Clarkson P. (1992), Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy: an integrated approach , Routledge

D’Amore I.1997, The Source of Motivation and Stroke Theory, TAJ 27:3

DeSanctis  G & Fulk J. (eds.) (1999), Shaping Organization Form, Sage Publications.

Drego P (1983), The Cultural Parent , TAJ 13:4

English F. 1987, Power, Mental Energy and Inertia , TAJ 17:3

Freedman L.D., 1993, TA Tools of Self-Managing Work Teams , TAJ 23:2

Handy C. (1982) Understanding Organisations, second edition, Penguin Education

Hammer M & Champy J. (1994) Reengineering The Corporation: a manifesto for business revolution, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Hay J. (1995), Transformational Mentoring , McGraw Hill

Kline P & Saunders B (1993, ) Ten Steps to a Learning Organisation, Great Ocean Publishers

Makin P., Cooper C., Cox C., (1996), Organizations and the Psychological Contract , The BPS

Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2011) Working Together - Organizational Transactional Analysis and Business Performance Gower Publishing

Senge P et al (1998), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Nicholas Brearley Publishing .

Wickens P. (1995), The Ascendant Organisation , Macmillan Business