Doing business with the unconscious, part 1: Managing the Other
Sigmund Freud opens his 1929 book Civilisation and its Discontents with an important recognition.
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement – that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life,” he writes.
This book was written near the end of Mr Freud’s life, a culmination of his insight into humanity from someone whose life was dedicated to examining in intimate detail the unsaid in speech – what happens beneath the convenient surface of consciousness.
In the above sentence, he captures something we can all relate to, that we commonly use "false standards of measurement" and hold these standards in ourselves and others in very high regard. This is the seed of discontent we all feel – a discontent already clear in 1929 and is blindingly obvious in 2016.
Putting aside the wide-ranging social and political implications of this insight, let’s focus on what business can learn from Mr Freud and how his work relates to the problem of management.
Or, to put it more directly, how managers all over New Zealand (and the world) are mismanaging because of their adherence to his false standards of measurement, dictated by the demands of the conscious – power, success and wealth. This mismanagement is of epidemic proportions and is reflected in the fact that 75% of New Zealand employees are looking to change jobs.
So why do people have these false standards of measurement? This question has driven theorists and clinicians interested in the unconscious for more than a century. It is a real puzzle and often only tackled within an individual, and sometimes in groups – during clinical psychotherapy, for instance.
But some features are common between people. In the quote above, Mr Freud says people ‘…seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others.’ The final word is most important, the enigmatic concept of the Other. It leads us to ask ourselves, ‘What am I to this Other?’, ‘What does the Other see in me?’ and ‘Do I stack up?’
In one of my first jobs I worked at Hallensteins in Palmerston North. My boss, Don, was an amazing manager. Amazing in the sense he had an instinct for understanding how his staff wanted to be seen in the eyes of the Other.
One of the first jobs he asked me to do involved building an elaborate window display of skivvies (it was the early 1990s). I spent hours on the task, carefully dressing and redressing masculine mannequins and folding piles of bottle green, dark red, navy blue and black skivvies.
The result was passable, I imagine. I approached Don after I had finished, sweaty and slightly woozy after being buried in the horrors of polycotton for hours, to proudly give him a tour of the display.
Don’s response to my pride was priceless. Without a word he raced to the rear of the store and turned the music off. The shop was full of Saturday morning shoppers. He climbed onto a neighbouring display and shouted, “Excuse me, everyone, excuse me! I just wanted to take a minute to congratulate my new staff member Andrew on his fantastic display – I give you Andrew’s first erection!”
There were peels of laughter and lots of back slapping. I felt very special.
What Don understood is how I enjoyed the Other – then, and now. I like to be seen as a bit risky, subversive, perhaps with a bit of a kink. That is not something the 18-year-old Andrew would have understood so clearly but Don’s way of recognising my work was perfect, he really got me.
The same approach would have been wholly inappropriate for another staff member.
This creates a real challenge for managers. Like Don, we really need to understand our staff, and not via a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator profile, or some sort of phoney leadership-style questionnaire. Instead, we need to invest in the ability of our managers to recognise how staff interact unconsciously.