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Doing business with the unconscious, part II: The social bond

Your average introductory management textbook is bursting with a variety of extremely convenient theories of motivation. Recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Herzberg’s 2-factor theory… I call these "convenient" because, like much research, they tend to gloss over the unexplainable stuff.

Like when someone is demotivated by the efforts of a so-called transformational leader. Or by the resignation of an employee when presented with a profit-share scheme. People are different, their individual histories are essential when trying to make sense of their current actions. 

One way that psychoanalytic theory has tackled the complexity of a social collection of individuals is to look very closely at what some call the ‘social bond’ – how we humans are knitted together.

“Man’s desire is the desire of the Other” is how the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan started this conversation many years ago. Put simply, this means that our unconscious desire has its origins in our relationships with other people – our parents, siblings and friends for instance.

While there are many possible relationship structures, I’m going explain three and how these apply in the workplace – these are master-slave, teacher-student, and patient-clinician.

Master and slave
The first is the relationship between the master and the slave (boss and worker is often a solid substitute here). Can I introduce one of my first bosses, Roger. I remember his flaming ginger moustache and his mockery of the apparent absurdity of this new-fangled EFTPOS nonsense. “It’d never catch on!” he said.

He was the boss at the local branch of a national retailer and I was a checkout chick/stock boy. I keenly remember my first day at work at 15 – a 9am to 9pm shift in the run-up to Christmas. I worked solidly that day without a break; exploitation was not uncommon in that job.

The years I worked for him had a slave-like quality, not in terms of the actual working conditions but in terms of the position from which Roger viewed his junior staff.

The problem with this relationship is that it relies on mutually constitutive positions (the master needs slaves, the enslaved needs a master) that are also, simultaneously, in a struggle "to the death," as the philosopher Hegel famously described. For work, this means struggle and resistance – and not productivity.

Teacher and student
The second relationship is the teacher and student. This is where I tend to see most management in New Zealand firms. Managers here know about "the business." They have often been very effective technical operators who have taken the next step as part of that never-ending career path that can inexplicably turn excellent workers into average managers.

Clinical directors in the health sector are good examples of these. The social structure that they tend to exhibit revolves around their technical knowledge – they literally know a lot about the work, and they assume the position of a teacher to their studious workers.

The effect of this type of social bond was nicely summed up by Dany Nobus and Malcolm Quinn, who said it produces students who also “speak product.” This is clearly an important part of the daily business-as-usual of most organisations, but it is not the friend of innovation when you want people to speak well outside the product!

Patient and doctor
The last structure is reversed: the patient leads this one through presenting their symptom. Think of Hugh Laurie’s character in the television series House.

Last summer I saw my doctor with a persistent sore throat being my only symptom. The clinicians were stumped – not viral, not bacterial, not a seasonal allergy. But they did not give up because I refused to stop complaining and, eventually, they discovered a reason.

It turns out I have an extremely powerful suck. I’m an asthmatic and, just prior to the symptoms, I changed medication from one type of inhaler to another – one that needed a more modest suck to avoid the powder from coating the back of my throat. The solution was always in me.

This position – the one that presents a symptom and expects, in fact requires the other to respond – generates innovative knowledge. One of my grad students, Steve Scott, argues that this structure is in fact the seat of creativity. If managers let it in, that is. Part III of this series will explain how.

Roger McEwanComment