Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 94
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Freud in the Workplace

An examination of Freud's theories reveal striking insights into how subordinates relate to authority.

Have you ever had a subordinate get all emotional on you displaying anger, love, or admiration? Have you ever had someone react emotionally to criticism? Does it strike you as odd that teens rebel against parental authority and then a few years later marry spouses bearing a striking resemblance to these same mothers or fathers? Or perhaps it seems oddly familiar.

Sigmund Freud understood. And Bonnie Oglensky, from City University of New York, recently turned to his century-old ideas in an effort to improve our understanding of employees. She explored Freud's theories concerning dependency and control, and then applied them in examining a case of a 32-year old, Korean attorney in a minority law firm. In the case, the attorney talked at length about her experiences in the firm, and from the case Oglensky identified Freudian themes repeated countless times in other work settings, themes Freud explained long ago, which led her to new insights the rest of us can use to be more effective as managers.

Here's a tip: The next time you interview, ask about home backgrounds and encourage elaboration of relationships with parents. The chances are good you'll hear themes that will be repeated with you if you hire this person. That's because early relationships with parents become a framework for subsequent authority relationships. People look for bosses that feel familiar to them and then play out scripts and dramas relying upon themes from childhood. For example, a child who experiences conditional love becomes overly sensitive to criticism. Criticism both reminds the child love is being withheld and shows the child how to receive love, by correcting the behavior being criticized. As a boss, when you notice performance deficiencies in this person and try to address them, you'll suddenly find yourself in the middle of an emotional drama where your words and intentions take on unexpected new meanings and you'll find yourself in the midst of a powerful struggle with phantoms from early childhood. You didn't have a chance. Your words were filtered through expectations that added all the elements needed to play out the drama one more frustrating time.

The same thing can happen when you fail to say "Good morning," as your people arrive and find you've triggered miserable feelings of rejection and abandonment. Heck, you were just thinking about all the work you had to do!

At the other extreme lie employees who lift up the boss to a lofty pedestal, idealizing and showering compliments and admiration upon him/her. Such dynamics may cause subordinates to feel nourished and to strive to fulfill high expectations, or they may cripple their efforts. They may feel small and insignificant. At its worst, these employee dynamics collide with a boss who has delusions of grandeur who imagines all the adoration is justified. Then you have a real mess.

Two things to remember:

First, these patterns of acting and reacting, feeling and choosing are based on wishes, images, and ideas that are strong, contradictory, and unconscious. Often, people don't know these notions are swimming around in their brains and would deny they were if you suggested it.

Second, children depend upon parents for survival, yet the goal of growth is independence. So it's natural for them to thrive in a state of dependency and at the same time strive for removal of the parent to achieve independence. As adults, to occasionally feel very dependent is comforting, but sometimes it's also painful. You trigger all these feelings because of your authority relationship with subordinates.

Like riding a bucking bronco, Professor Oglensky suggests you keep these dynamics in mind as you manage your people, and she cautions against punishing people with indifference and impersonality when they express normal needs for dependency and recognition. Our admiration for independence in our employees make such reactions likely, she believes, if we're not careful.

She also reminds us that we need to stand at the boundary between our people and the larger organization, negotiating demands made by others to fully utilize our people's abilities without overwhelming their resources. This is a need which never goes away.

And finally, she reminds us that we're people too, subject to the same influence of unconscious thoughts. And most of us have bosses too.

Reference: Oglensky, Bonnie D. (1995). Socio-Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Subordinate. Human Relations, 48 (9), 1029-1056.

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