A plea for the leader
Employees should act as self-employed persons in the company. Independent, agile work with short coordination channels. This requires flat hierarchies. Or perhaps this trend can even be spun further: is an anarchic form of organization also conceivable in the future?
Do we still need our leaders?
Perhaps this question cannot be answered clearly from a social science or market economy perspective. Task-related requirements of executives have decreased in many areas, employees are gaining more decision-making leeway, and in many places, organizations seem to function without rigid hierarchical forms. On the other hand, globalization and digitalization demand short decision-making processes and efficient communication. There are also many proponents of the structuring function of a hierarchical organization. A controversial discussion, which will not be continued at this point. Rather, I would like to expand it with a psychodynamic perspective, because from this perspective the answer seems clearer than ever:
We need our leaders
– as projection surfaces for the regulation of negative emotions at the workplace.
This may seem reductionist or even degrading. But in view of the fact that well-being at work is seen as an essential condition for job satisfaction and other performance variables, this should by no means be seen as a reduction of the leadership role. On the contrary, a working model in which managers had the capacity to fulfil their leadership role as contact persons, feedback providers and advocates could have an immense impact: because the result would then be not only satisfied but also performance-motivated employees.
The leader as projection surface and container
It is therefore a matter of managers making themselves available as projection surfaces for our emotions, wishes and needs: employees and colleagues can then transfer unprocessed parts (e.g. fears or feelings of envy) to their superiors. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion has called this “containment”. In the early parent-child relationship, the child is dependent on the mother/father absorbing (containing) the unprocessed, overflowing feelings and needs of the child and then returning them to the child in a more digested form. For example, when an infant starts to cry, the mother or father’s desperate search for the cause of the sudden change in mood begins. Is it simply hungry? Or has it been frightened by the passing car? The parent absorbs and digests the strong emotions – expressed by crying – by giving it a title such as “I’m here, you don’t need to be afraid, it was just a car” and thus calming the child. The child is supported in the regulation of its own feelings and should thus learn its own regulatory skills and find a better way to deal with frustration. Even in adulthood, this need to transfer own, unprocessed parts to the outside world remains. In this way we get rid of these overwhelming parts in the hope that our counterpart can handle them and keep them for us. This is exactly what happens in the workplace with our superiors. This may not be apparent in all everyday interactions, but once more it is evident in situations of crisis and tension. If the supervisor in the daily morning meeting once again only complains about what is not yet finished or which processes should be carried out more quickly in the future, this creates tension and stress. We feel attacked, have the feeling of not being enough, not being seen and not being appreciated. In these moments it relieves us to be able to talk about it with our colleagues and to address our anger. Our supervisor is then the projection surface for the anger that arises from the feeling of never being enough – a feeling that arose in very early relationship experiences with our primary caregiver.
What roles do we give our superiors?
Depending on individual relationship experiences, there is a wide range of wishes and needs that we can project onto our manager. For example, the manager can become a strict father who does not give you the feedback you want or is not available at all because some other project is always more important. Or, as in the example above, the disappointed mother who does not see and acknowledge what the “children” are doing.
Conclusion: The manager must fulfil a variety of functions
We need our leaders. They give us stability and a framework. But they can also support us and promote our development, if they have the capacity to do so. And more than that, they can serve as projection surface for our emotions, wishes and needs. It seems that the widespread anger and the resulting devaluation of the manager has an important function for those involved in the organization, but above all for the employees. The manager on the other hand gets the recognition and status of the leadership role, but has to “endure” a lot in return. Sometimes the knowledge about this event helps to find a better way of dealing with it. This is also an important topic in psychoanalytical business coaching.
Please feel very welcome to contact us if you need support. We coach in our premises in Berlin-Mitte or via video.
Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Leonie Derwahl