The greatest tragedy in life is that we only understand it backwards yet we must live it forwards – Kierkegaard
A metaphor commonly used to represent organisations is that of an iceberg. The part of the iceberg we can see, that piece above the water line, represents the formal aspects of organisations – its rules, procedures, practices, reward system, protocols etc. These are regarded as the rational aspects of an organisation. The piece below the waterline is made up of those elements which are less objective in nature, more open to interpretation and considered as the informal side of organisational life. These include cultural norms, patterns of behaviour and the attitudes, values and emotions of employees.
Manfred Kets de Vries, the Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, and rated by The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist among the world’s top 50 leading management thinkers has long been an advocate of exploring organisations ‘below the waterline’. He regards the more common approaches to understanding organisations as often inadequate oversimplifications and proposes that we ignore other elements at our peril . The danger, he suggests, lies in perpetuating patterns of dysfunctional and problematic behaviour because their roots lie below many executives’ level of conscious awareness and may ultimately cost the organisation its livelihood. Many other experts agree that these are among the casual factors behind many corporate failures including the downfall of Enron, Parmalat and Long Term Capital Management .
To address this issue and avoid such outcomes, Kets de Vries applies a clinical paradigm in his 30+ year career of working with blue-chip multinational organisations and their leaders. This means he pays attention to three issues. Firstly, he considers the critical role of a leader’s ‘inner theatre’ as the starting point of many of their actions and decisions. This ‘inner theatre’ constitutes the script by which we understand ourselves and which acts as a guide to our interaction with others. Evolving through early interactions with parents, caregivers, teachers, and other influential people, it constitutes the foundation of an individual’s personality and sets us up to engage in certain ways with the world. The problem is that many leaders are oblivious to this ‘script’ which has shaped them as it commonly operates below their level of conscious awareness. They fail to recognize that patterns of behaviour acquired in the past, which may have been functional then, are dysfunctional now but continue to strongly influence present and future behaviour.
Secondly, he encourages us to recognize that there is rationality behind every act of irrationality. Somewhere, somehow, seemingly irrational behaviour makes sense for the individual. The job of leaders is to identify the source of their irrational behaviours, interrogate them deeply and use the insight gained as a starting point for developing more functional approaches to the world.
Thirdly, he emphasizes the role of unconscious drivers of behaviour. This psychodynamic approach to organisations (enacted professionally by members of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations, of which Kets de Vries was a founding member in 1983) acknowledges that people are complex and contradictory and that their behaviour is a function of multiple, often contradictory, influences. It recognizes that workers are subject to unconscious, unresolved conflicts that they carry with them which then play out in the relations and interactions workers have with each other, often with problematic consequences. Modern neuroscience has confirmed the role of the unconscious in our behavior with studies illustrating that decisions originate in the unconscious . As the human brain can only consciously process 40 of the 11,000,000 pieces of data it is bombarded with every second, a question remains concerning the impact of data below our level of conscious awareness . Thus the psychodynamic view rejects the purely rational and economic view of work and encourages us to acknowledge that statistical analysis of big data does not tell us everything we need to know about the behaviour of people in organisations.
However, few organisations welcome attention to such matters. They prefer to regard themselves as rational and objective rather than consider these murkier domains as explanations for performance and effectiveness. But this paradigm has illuminated accounts of what may appear irrational behaviour amongst some of the world’s most successful business leaders including Henry Ford, Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Welch, Michael Eisner, Conrad Black and Martha Stewart .
Kets de Vries encourages us to acknowledge that organisations cannot perform successfully if the quirks and irrational processes that are part and parcel of the leader’s ‘shadow side’ are ignored. In his work with global corporations, he encourages leaders to act as sleuths in making sense out of their behaviour and actions and to build a greater understand the critical dimensions that make up their inner script. He advocates an approach to leadership that encourages reflection and leads to insight which can help them avoid getting stuck in vicious circles and becoming prisoners of their own past. Wise leaders, he says, realize the extent to which unconscious, irrational processes affect their behaviour. Those leaders who fail to take their irrational side into account, however, are like ships’ captains proceeding into icebergs where the greatest danger lurks below the surface.
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Dr Melrona Kirrane is an Organisational Psychologist and lectures predominantly in the areas of Organisational Psychology, including Selection and Assessment, Leadership & Decision-Making, Employee Well-Being and Change Management on our MBA programe. She maintains an active research agenda and is currently carrying out work in the areas of personality at work, successful change management changing and work-family conflict.
Kets de Vries, M. (2001). The Leadership Mystique
. Prentice Hall
Long, S. (2007). The Perverse Organisation and its Deadly Sins
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Damasio, A. (2006). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
. Random House
Wilson, T.D. (2009. Know Thyself
. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 4, 384-389
Maccoby, M. (2003). The productive narcissist: The promise and peril of visionary leadership