Managers don't let their emotions at the door!

Psychoanalytic insights for better management practices
Mihaela Dumitrui and Jean-Michel Violaii 2009

Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorders affect employees often more severely than the average injury or illness. Last April, a global survey on human resources has ranked “managing work-life balance” among the most critical challenges for the years to comeiii. At the same time the pressure on managers is constant as organizations are asking for more commitment, more performance, more development, more efficiency, more innovation, just to name a few.

In that context, a better knowledge of the hidden life of managers might certainly help organizations get the best out of their people. If psychoanalytic approaches to leadership are not new, they are still underusediv. However, over-rational management practices are frequently failing to address individual issues or even worst, they are counterproductive. In the light of recent development on innovation, we point up how managers ’inability to change and to innovate is rooted both in their inner conflicts and in the way organizations fail to provide a fertile context and we outline some ways toward the emotional development of managers.

The manager's compulsion toward repetitive behaviors

The great difficulties to change and to innovate are well recognized in management. However, the impediments to change have often been linked to some managerial failure in the behavior of change rather than recognizing the deep and hidden drivers of people’s behavior.

Unable to break free of the past, people have an increased tendency to perpetuate and replicate old structures and behavior, despite new contextual requirements. Moreover, even with the adequate knowledge at hand, managers are very often bound to repeated decision patterns in a knowledge-doing gap. This is especially true in cases of growth, leading to some Icarus paradox where success brings failure. From a psychoanalytic point of view, these are blind spots, repetitive behavioral patterns, which have deep unconscious roots in personal history or in childhood experiences. For example, a difficult relationship with the father might generate in the adult life problems with authority and respect of rules. This bounded behavior is leading managers to select only confirming information, ignoring or sorting out any conflicting perspectives. Unfortunately, managers don’t like to hear about unconscious behavior because they want to be in control all the time, and this unconscious is uncontrollable. However, when they decide it is time for introspection and start psychoanalysis, they are surprised to discover how many of their so called rational decisions are in fact irrational, derived from psychological inner conflict waiting to be solved.

In a society mixing personal and social constraints, a manager might feel trapped between the desire to be himself or to be as the others wish him to be, to play the role the organization wants him to play, the “good manager” that may conflict with his inner desire. The only way for a manager to avoid the trap of group dependency is to feel good in his skin, to have a healthy amount of narcissism. People injured narcissistically in their childhood by their parents will always look into others for confirmation, recognition and affiliation. Managers, more than other people, might become addicted to the employees projections and idealization in them. That's why they need to acknowledge their vulnerabilities, their hunger for admiration in order to make good decisions and to grow a healthy organization, where there is place for truth and honest feed-back.

The coercive organizational context

Some organizational theorists have used the prison metaphor to illustrate the growing amount of expectations and psychological constraints, what Kets de Vries calls a toxic environment. We already know well about the fear of losing one's job, about the breakdown of the family-like organization, about the survival syndrome, but we still ignore a lot that many ineffective behaviors tend to be rooted in managers' emotions and that many organizational practices tend to reinforce this pathology.

Organizations, acting as inhibitors, fail to recognize that managers are caught in a maelstrom of conflicting expectations from organization and personal life, each fighting for attention, time and care. Managers are very often people who have devoted most of their life to work. It is starting sometimes from an experience of deprivation or from an insecure home environment which puts them in the position to work to gain their independence. It is a way to manage an extremely scaring situation, and to control a world that through their eyes looked unsafe and hostile. They work, they fight for success, they reach professional achievement, but they still feel unsafe, until the point at which they do nothing other than work, forgetting about having a personal life. They feel depressed, anxious, always hungry for something they cannot name despite their success, which is maintaining the vicious circle of depression and lack of satisfaction.

In a world of continuous changing opportunities, and increasing amount of psychosocial-constraints, managers need to achieve their personal psychological independence in order to fully apply their talents at work. Only the managers that have access to their inner desires and make place for satisfying them, are the healthiest ones who can build good relationships with their colleagues and employees in a continuous flow of exchanging, an active and satisfying give-and-take.

Elements towards a good enough environment

Organizations should realize that management does not have to provide all the solutions, especially as there is no “one size fits all” solution to individual search for balance. They should however admit that very often solutions are lying in people themselves. That's why they should take great care at providing an environment in which they can grow and develop. What elements may prove to be essentials in building such an environment?

“A good enough” organization is one that provides a holding environment, that sets limits, not too rigid, not persecutory in an excessive way, and not too lax, but flexible enough to allow people to feel free to play, to create, to use at maximum their talents and to learn from experience. It is good enough to buffer its employees from the dangers associated with power, authority, deprivation, and the employees own internal conflicts. By allowing people to play, to experiment within manageable risk, it provides them opportunities to grow, and to develop personally and professionally in a way that is making them more creative, more independent, and more autonomous. We suggest that the ability to play in an organization represent the “royal way” to innovation and creativity, because just in the interpersonal, intersubjective exchange lies the greatest potential to explore, to discover, to find new meanings and new solutions.

This is why we can say that the creativity and ability to innovate are directly linked with the adult’s ability to play in a safe environment. Bettelheim stated as early as 1960 that “creativity in individuals is destroyed by the environment,” and his work was completed by Winnicott with respect to the decreased or almost absent potential for creativity under rigid political systems or in pathological societies. In an environments where people have just to comply with the rules and regulations, to devote their energies in anticipating demands of the superior, there is an increased amount of anxiety, which leaves no room for hope, or for allowing people to look at the world. in a creative way.

The situation of Romania is very interesting from this point of view. As the world competitiveness report has identified business sophistication and innovation as main competitive disadvantage it is amazing to observe such a huge gap between innovation and creativity in the civil society (music, fashion, cinema, software programming…) and rigidities and inertia in business. In the last years of rapid growth this weakness was not really an issue but as the country is probably entering an era of maturing markets the growing need for differentiation and innovation will become a key challenge. We can outline three ways toward a good enough environment to build a competitive advantage through people:

1) Structures. Bureaucracies, based on standardization and strict hierarchies, were outstanding tools to produce efficiency in an industrial era. But in a knowledge-based economy we need structures to produce effectiveness, agility, learning, able to deal with uncertainty, unlearning and innovation, continuously, no matter the industry. To face this challenge, organizations should rely on their employees, fostering their initiatives, tapping into their knowledge and networks, backing their exploration, providing them support.

2) Human Resources practices slowly start to acknowledge this need. There is an emerging trend towards a people-based approach recognizing individual aspirations and the need for personal development. McKinsey has recently advocated the need to define employee "customer" segments to tailor benefits package as a way to manage talent. A famous HR professor and consultant has even proposed to get rid of performance review, seeing it as an impediment to personal development leading to disruptive teamwork.

3) Project-based management. A project might belong to that intermediate area of ​​experiencing to which are contributing both the inner reality of a person and the external life, ie the organizational environment, developing people and the organization at the same time. Within a project, stress may be huge but it could, under specific conditions, provide a good enough environment with rotating leadership, exploration, a sense of belonging and clear recognition of individual knowledge.

Going in that direction, it will not only allow for better talent management, for better retention of people but, most of all, for better differentiation and innovation skills. Organizations should keep in mind that to get the most out of their people they have to help them first: help them know themselves better, help them express themselves, help them contribute to the performance.i Mihaela Dumitru, MD, MBA, is Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist
ii Jean-Michel Viola, PhD is Associate Professor of Management at CEU Business School
iii BCG and WFPMA, Creating people advantage, how to address HR challenges worldwide through 2015, 2008.
iv For a recent use of psychoanalysis in the unexpected field of finance, see Tuckett & Taffler (2008), Phantastic objects and the financial market's sense of reality: a psychoanalytic contribution to the understanding of stock market instability, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 89 (2 )