Applying Systems Theory in Consulting Psychology

The birth of the systems theory marks a salient theoretical advancement is science history. On the basis of conceptual system modeling, the systems theory leads to new thoughts and new approaches in studies of the real world. This article provides an overview of the concept and historical development of the systems theory. The characteristics and scopes of system model are briefly addressed. Applications of the systems theory in various paradigms such as psychology, social studies, and organizational systems are outlined.

The systems theory has been applied in organizational consulting and coaching to analyze organizational behaviors and resolve complicated problems. Like all social and human systems, an organizational system is considered open and relational. The systems theory also provides a conceptual framework for effective consultation with individuals such as executive coaching. In this article, applications of systems theory in various aspects of organizational consulting and coaching are discussed. The use of systematic thinking for consulting practice is examined; organizational interventions with multiple subsystems are elaborated. This article also analyzes the integration of the open systems theory and psychodynamics as a methodology of assessment and solutions in organizational coaching for individuals.

Systems Theory and Its Applications

The systems theory was developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and contributed by Zadeh, Kalman, Klir, and many others in attempt to “find answers to questions that result from observing the behaviour of real systems” (Veselý, 2011, p. 198). The general systems theory originated by von Bertalanffy in 1962 was predominantly oriented to deterministic systems. As elucidated in Veselý (2011), a general system (GS) is perceived as an abstract model containing a collection of all elements of the real world with relevant problems to be solved. To characterize a general system, researchers study independent attributes, system structures, input variables, output variables, relevant subsystems, and interventions among all system elements.

Because the systems theory was conceived with a broad scope, it constantly evolves to extend its theoretical domain and boundary. For instance, the new system theory (NST) broadened the traditional general systems theory by addressing stochastic system behaviors. The NST introduced causal dependencies and causal probabilities to demonstrate the states of both dynamic and static components in the real world (Veselý, 2011).

The fitness of the systems theory makes the system model applicable to almost any types of real world systems. A system conceptualized by the system theory could be a philosophical system, a biological system, a physical-chemical system, an ecological system, or a social system. A system contains a number of subsystems which interact with each other and together shape the parent system. For example, the social system contains subsystems of families and organizations; each of the subsystems contains individual human beings as subsystems of another level.

There are comprehensive applications of the systems theory in psychology and social studies. From a systemic perspective, psychology is a theoretically heterogeneous discipline seeking a single, cohesive framework to unite the subdisciplines. In study of the evolutionary psychology, the dynamic systems theory can be applied as a hierarchical metatheory for "organizing evolutionary psychology, evolutionary developmental biology, developmental psychobiology, and the subdisciplines of psychology around four specific, interrelated levels of analysis" (Badcock, 2012, p. 10). For the studies of family in social psychology and clinical psychology, a family is “best conceptualized as a system, which exists within the context of larger systems that shape and influence how a family functions and becomes dysfunctional” (Magnavita, 2012, p. 3).

The traditional systems theory classifies systems as open systems and closed systems. In studies of social systems today, “it is recognized that all human systems are open systems” (Fuqua & Newman, 2002, p. 86). Therefore, elements both within the realm and outside of the boundary should be considered in systemic modeling of all social systems that include organizations and its members. The systems theory supports systemic studies of organizational behavior in aspects of the internal nature of systems with salient influence from and to the external environment (Beer cited in Fuqua & Newman, 2002).

Using Systems Theory in Organizational Consulting and Coaching

In organizational consulting and coaching, the systems theory directs consulting professionals to a systemic approach for assessing organization dynamics and improving performance of the organization and its members. A prevailing application of systems theory in this field is systematic thinking. Fuqua and Newman (2002) elaborated that systems theory “is a way of thinking, understanding, and organizing information related to human organizations” (p. 79). In fact, systemic thinking, or systems-thinking as referred by von Bertalanffy, founder of the systems theory, “is considered by many to be one of the most important theoretical advances that occurred in science during the 20th century” (Magnavita, 2012, p. 5). Systemic thinking enlists a unique conceptualization of the organization and how its members are treated. Instead of viewing an organization as a static, sequential or hierarchical structure with fixed elements, the perspective is dramatically changed and broadened to understanding the relationships and interventions that exist within the system and across the boundary to interact with the external environment. Systematic thinking facilitates a dynamic, responsive approach to identifying unique principles and patterns of organizational systems in a holistic manner.

For organizational consultants, the systems theory can be a powerful methodology for modeling and scrutinizing the complex of an organization. According to Fuqua and Newman (2002), the system model of an organization “can be conceived of as being comprised of multiple subsystems” (p. 80) which include purposive subsystems, operational subsystems, methodological subsystems, and psychosocial subsystems. In organizational consulting, consultants deal with conflicts and differentiation among many aspects of the organizational system. A successful application of the systems theory depends on the consultant’s understanding on the organizational system concepts including (1) the system openness that emphasizes on the environmental influences, (2) the residual effects that addresses unintended effects from systematic interactions, (3) equifinality that reveals multiple paths leading to a desired result, and (4) equilibrium that forms a state of social balance among organizations and individuals (Fuqua & Newman, 2002).

The systems theory is also useful in organizational consulting for crisis management and organizational change. According to Kahn, Barton, and Fellows (2013), an organization is a relational system “defined by sets of relationships among people who coordinate their activities in the service of tasks, goals, and missions” (p. 377). Therefore, a consultant can define a relational system to “conceptualize organizational crises in terms of relational disturbance and crisis management as the repair of such disturbances” (Kahn, et al, 2013, p. 377). From operational perspectives, this approach introduces a framework for consultants to analyze the organizational system’s relational health and construct crisis prevention strategies.

In consultation with individual clients such as executive coaching, the systems theory serves as a conceptual framework in assessment of individuals, and it provides comprehensive methods for studying individuals’ relationships with organizations and seeking to understand how individuals cope with their environments (Freedman & Bradt, 2009). Freedman and Bradt (2009) further elucidated that an executive coach may implement the “conception of the development of intellectual capability, called Stratified Systems Theory” (p. 296) to help executives differentiate their work and group their priorities to optimize their daily performance.

When coaching executives, a consultant would adapt a systematic model which combines the open systems theory and psychodynamics. Passmore, Peterson, and Freire (2013) stated that this model “provides analysts, consultants, coaches, and facilitators with a richer and deeper appreciation of the complexity of group psychology” (p. 374-375). In this model, psychodynamics is applied to assist clients in examining the dynamic process of finding, making, and taking up their organizational roles; on the other hand, a systematic approach for organizational role analysis attends to the interaction between psychological and social pressures on the individual-in-role. Therefore, the integration of psychodynamic coaching and organizational role analysis could make a prominent practice in executive coaching for the analysis of authority, responsibility, and roles in groups.


The systems theory conceptualizes a systematic model that maps attributes and variables from the real world in attempt to resolve complicated problems caused by interventions of system elements. Scientists and researchers continually evolve and expand the systems theory to calibrate the precision of system modeling, which makes the theory applicable to broad selections of systems in both natural science and social science.

The applications of the systems theory in organizational consulting and coaching are both practical and profound. On the basis of systems theory, consultants can apply systematic thinking in studies of an organization and its members. An organization is considered as an open and relational system with multiple subsystems. Using a systemic modeling approach, a consultant is able to assess organizational behaviors with emphases on system dynamics and environmental influences. With a systematic understanding of the organization, the consultant could offer better solutions in crisis management and organizational change.

The systems theory may be used as a conceptual framework in executive coaching. The systematic approach helps consultants clarify the complex of relationships among individuals, organizations, and the environment. In coaching of individuals, a system model combining the open systems theory and psychodynamics can be effective in assessment of psychological and social characteristics of clients. Such assessment helps the coach understand the client’s strength, capacities, and goals, thus they can work together towards measurable results.


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Freedman, A. M., & Bradt, K. H. (Ed.) (2009). Consulting psychology: Selected articles by Harry Levinson. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fuqua, D. R., & Newman, J. L. (2002). The role of systems theory in consulting psychology. In R. L. Lowman (Ed.), The California School of Organizational Studies handbook of organizational consulting psychology: A comprehensive guide to theory, skills, and techniques (pp. 76-104). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kahn, W. A., Barton, M. A., & Fellows, S. (2013). Organizational crises and the disturbance of relational systems. Academy Of Management Review, 38(3), 377-396. doi:10.5465/amr.2011.0363

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