Formulating racial conflicts at work: PART 1, adapting Malan’s triangles


As human beings we are constantly engaged in sense making. We make hypotheses about the world, others and ourselves. We revise them. We seek to connect the… dots. Partly, this helps us achieve a sense of mastery in the world. Psychological formulations follow these same principles. They essentially aim to derive meaning from a client’s material in a way that allows a shared understanding, usually of a situation that might have led someone to experiencing psychological distress.

Formulating includes reflecting on what might have brought a situation, problem or crisis into being and, what may keep it going. At their most fundamental, formulations are therefore explanatory narratives about the stuckness we may come to experience, at certain moments in our lives. There are various types of formulations dependent on theoretical models and orientations. The present is concerned with a psychodynamic formulation (of racial conflicts in the workplace) and the dangers of exclusively applying individualistic lenses to structural issues. The following vignette will be used as illustration.


The vignette below is a composite of various people I have worked with rather than a specific individual. 

Sara, is a Black British woman (of Caribbean  heritage) in her early thirties who works as a manager in the civil service. Sara had been experiencing severe anxiety, debilitating shame and difficulties working with her manager, a white man towards whom she seemed to have developed a ‘phobic’ response/extreme fear. Sara was frequently finding herself advocating for less senior employees of colour facing discrimination or other racial slights. This added much tension in her relationship with management. She essentially became the voice of racism, thus the ‘troublemaker’, was treated with hostility and regularly covertly disrespected. Sara was finding the workplace increasingly oppressive and presented as tearful, hopeless and overwhelmed in the assessment. Exploring the transferential relationship between Sara, and her manager and the workplace as a structure; formed a significant part of the intervention. Of particular note, Sara had a history of bullying, including racial harassment in her childhood, and had been the carer for her widowed father, who spent most of her life in and out of severe depression.

Malan’s two triangles formulation

Malan finalMalan (1995) posited a ‘universal principle of psychodynamic psychotherapy’ which he illustrated using two triangles to organise defensive and relationships patterns: the triangle of conflict and the triangle of person. This schema allows ideas and concepts derived from a client’s material to be organised in a formulation. The triangle of conflict proposes that the expression of feelings (F) is kept at bay by various defences (D) and anxieties (A). The triangle of person considers interpersonal factors and, aims to represent how conflicted relational patterns in the client’s past relationships (P) are enacted within current relationships (C) and, transferred onto a therapist (T).

Paying close attention to their response to the client (countertransference) is central to the triangle of persons. This is posited to provide an important source of data about the client’s mental state and difficulties e.g. the way the client may be experienced by others or how they may more generally function relationally. Countertransference though, is just one source of hypothetical information which may or may not be supported. And, because countertransference taps onto the therapist’s own unconscious conflicts, it is vital that the therapist attempts to find within the client’s material and/or other evidence, corroboration for their reactions.

Sara’s formulation using Malan’s (1995) two triangles.

Disclaimer: some may find this initial formulation, written to examplify how individualistic approaches to distress have the potential to victim blame, pathologise and re-traumatise; difficult to read. 

Using the above vignette, the triangle of conflict may formulate that Sara becomes overinvolved in (racial) conflicts and projects onto the white manager or workplace abusive feelings (D) to block herself from attending to her sense of badness, the (hidden) feeling (F) and; to manage feelings of worthlessness and shame (A). The triangle of persons on the other hand, should Sara trigger feelings of safeness in the therapist (T), could propose that she saw the therapist as a mother figure to protect/save or impress. Perhaps, others in Sara’s current relationships (C) may have similarly been protected (such as the employees of colour in the workplace) or feared (such as the white manager) and; this splitting pattern may potentially reflect unresolved grief over the loss of her mother (which she could not protect), the caring role towards her father she fulfilled most of her life and, the terror she experienced towards the perpetrators of her racial abuse as a child (P).

This basic formulation is naturally one of a number of possible options and, would only hold true so long as it made sense and was helpful to Sara. As demonstrated, the formulation entailed attempting to triangulate relational data in order to draw a meta-theory (of relationships and ego functioning) for the client. Thus, at the core of Malan’s formulation is 1) the therapist’s reactions (countertransference) to Sara, 2) the mechanisms/defenses which may be employed by Sara to avoid pain, 3) Sara’s relational history.

A proposed reformulation: Malan’s adapted triangles

The above conceptualisation would be of limited use in organisational settings indeed, one may argue it may be weaponised to further position Sara as the problem, locate the disturbance in her and/or absolve the workplace from considering its contributions to the conflictual situation.  Doing so reproduce racial tropes and unequal social configurations. This is very problematic. Whilst it is important to consider the employee’s relational history and defenses as this will undoubtedly influence the nature and outcome of any conflict, it is equally crucial, if not more so; given power differentials and thus the unequal capacity to harm and do violence, to consider the organisation’s defense patterns.

An organisational triangle of conflict and of person

adapted finalIn this reformulation, which makes proposed adaptations to the classic two triangles, the organisation’s functioning is centred, rather than Sara’s. One may consider hostility and acts of shaming as organisational defences (D) enacted towards the issues Sara wishes to bring, as attempts by the organisation at keeping race and racism unspoken or silent. This may be hypothesised to be a means by the organisation of managing its anxiety around the legitimacy of Sara’s concerns or in other words, that it may well be racist (A) and; that the underlying impulses are shame and, an overwhelming fear that racism cannot be contained and/or that it may annihilate the organisational structure (hidden) feeling (F). The organisational triangle of conflict would focus on the employee’s response to the Organisation (O) (which thus replaces the T of Malan’s model) and, would of course relate to the organisational defenses. We may propose that Sara’s experiences of shame and distress in the workplace are appropriate responses to real acts of exclusion and marginalisation enacted towards her in her current relationships at work (C).

And finally, posit that current organisational acts are particularly injurious to Sara due to her past, including her history of bullying and racism, the death of her mother (P) and thus, her likely vulnerability to loss and rejection. In other words, we may formulate that Sara is being re-traumatised within an organisational context that has put up violent defenses to protect itself structurally and thus psychically, from its fear of racism.

Concluding thoughts

Conflicts are co-created; often intersubjectivity and unconsciously. They serve multiple needs and functions for organisations, teams and individuals and indeed for the macro society at large. This is true of racial conflicts as well. Sara may well have a propensity or valency to be victimised due to her early victimisation and/or for standing for race equality, a role that socially invites violence within white supremacist structures. We may also even interpret that Sara’s activism in the workplace amount to a sublimation of the impulses created by her unmet needs as a bullied and bereaved child and/or that by seeking justice for others, Sara may vicariously be attempting to obtain justice for herself. And to a large extent; none of this matters. These are simply hypothetical interpretations which cannot really be put to test. We will never know, for sure.

What we do know though, is where we choose to lay our attention as psychologists and therapists, can have significant implications and consequences for individuals particularly, for those with less social power and, for the social order. Our focus may well mean the difference between a marginalised employee unfairly losing their job, being re-traumatised (thus a reproduction of social inequality) or an organisation shifting its gaze onto itself. Consequently, while the adapted model by no means holds more (or less) truth than the initial formulation, it provides a level of analysis which is all too often absent from the conversations people of colour have in therapy and at work. Formulations do not seek to impose particular meanings or truths onto experiences, but do have the potential to amplify more marginalised and silenced truths and thefore shift the balance of power. The present is an invitation to reformulate; wherever we can. And of course, this too is political.

I welcome feedback and alternative formulations.

Thank you for reading.

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  1. Hi Guilaine,

    This is such an interesting article! I’ve just begun my module on Psychotherapeutic Interventions and one of the first things we are looking at, is the importance of the therapeutic alliance and whether this takes priority over the model of therapy and I think that when it comes to racial trauma and making formulations, the relationship is more important than the model of therapy, because the therapist must be able to take into consideration social factors, causal factors, previous interventions, and ethnic and cultural factors. It is also important to establish trust and mutual respect so that the therapeutic experience is not a re-traumatising experience, which it very regularly is for people of colour who are seeking therapy, because if the therapist is unable to show empathy especially for a client who has suffered racial trauma, then there is the risk of counter-transference from the therapist, thus destroying the alliance. As patients we might also be too concerned with whatever judgements our therapists is making, instead of our own healing.

    In my previous module, I came across a great study entitled “Changes in Ego Strength in patients with neurotic and personality disorders treated with a short-term comprehensive psychodynamic psychotherapy” by Cyranka, Dembinska, Klasa, Mielimaka, Mülder-Nieckowski, Rodzinski, Rutkowski, Smiatek-Azgaj and Sobanski (2018) and I felt it was relevant to your article because of defence mechanisms and also high neuroticism traits being linked higher levels anxiety. The study found that patients with low ego strengths are more susceptible to possessing inadequate defence mechanisms which means that their ability to cope is compromised. As people of colour, worthlessness and shame are feelings we are forced to take, so even if we use defence mechanisms they may not be effective in protecting our ego, weakening our egos and having a negative impact upon our mental health.

    This is great work and I cannot wait to read more of your findings!

    Cece xoxo

    Smiatek-Mazgaj, B., Cyranka, K., Dembińska, L.,
    Klasa, K., Mielimąka, M., Müldner-Nieckowski, L., Rodziński, P., Rutkowski, K., &
    Sobański, J.A. (2018). Psychiatr Pol.
    28;52(1):115-127. doi: 10.12740/PP/OnlineFirst/40020.

    1. Thanks for engaging. You are right therapeutic alliance is paramount & failing to take into account the socio-political context does affect it. Racism does influence ‘ego strength’ as do other traumatic experiences. But it can become a little tautological, and circular eg. why do people experience trauma? They lack ego strength…Why do they lack ego strength? That is because they have experienced trauma…not particularly helpful. There are limitations to psychodynamic theories, I don’t embrace them without conflicts or wholeheartedly (but then again I rarely embrace anything wholeheartedly and…there are limitations to anything!)
      Thanks for commenting, looking forward to my findings too (Or more accurately writing them up)…

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