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Psychoanalytic Business Coaching

The secret desires of teams – Part II: The unconscious company

Companies are shaped, managed and structured by people. The principles described in our last article on the existence of an unconscious, can be found not only inside oneself or between individuals, but also as collective dynamics in teams. You will find some ideas on this topic in this article.

The influence of managers on team communication

Studies on psychoanalytical coaching show that the personality and therefore the unconscious of the executives plays a major role on dynamics in teams and the communication in the whole company. It is not surprising that the personality of the team leader influences the mood in the team. If you lead your team in a very authoritarian way, you will certainly also experience your employees as not very impulsive and creative. Processes probably run smoothly and there is a high degree of perfection, chaos is contained, but ideas are not bubbling up either. But what exactly is happening psychodynamically?

Let’s continue to assume that there is a determining and rather dominant leader. Their more or less unconscious desire is certainly the desire for security, control and the feeling of power and influence. The determining fear is the loss of control. But what is the superior actually afraid of? Often people who execute a high degree of control over others have had the experience in their biography of feeling controlled and powerless themselves. Because this experience of powerlessness was so unpleasant, even today the execution of power is the only seemingly bearable solution. You exercise control over others and in this way you avoid having to feel powerless. They also channel their own restrained aggressions in this way. If such a leader has a significant influence on a team, the following can happen: Unconsciously, employees adapt themselves to the wishes of the superior and try to fulfil them. In the former case, the employees would have adapted and work diligent, but not very creative. However, they would experience themselves as not very free and autonomous, which could lead to more or less open aggression depending on the personality of the individual. If the manager in question notices this, he/she feels confirmed in the fear that aggression could easily get “out of hand” in this team and he/she pulls the reins even tighter in his/her own way.

Scenes of family dynamics are often found in teams

Supervisors often take on the role of the parents and the employees take on the role of the children, competing or connected siblings. The neurotic profile of managers creates an emotional space in which the issues of autonomy/ powerlessness/ creative exchange/ impulsiveness/ desire for care/ self-esteem and so on are addressed in a way that is appropriate to the nature of the manager. He or she only allows the emotional topics as much space as he/she him/herself can bear or even perceive. Another example is a manager who has the unconscious topic of care strongly rooted in his/her personality. They experience themselves as benevolent and friendly, but in their team topics such as exhaustion are common. Employees have the feeling of being neglected, competing for resources and they experience feelings of envy. I want to express the following: communication in a team is always to be seen under the aspect of the dynamics between the two people communicating, but also against the background of a mood in the team. And this is strongly influenced by the leadership of the team.

Collective defense

This leads to another interesting aspect. Employees are increasingly approaching each other in their way of dealing with feelings, i.e. in their way of defending themselves. On the one hand, this is, as just described, shaped by the management level. On the other hand, a collective dealing with fear and other feelings also develops in teams. The Tavistock Institute in London has done extensive research in this area, which has been very productive for psychodynamic work with companies. The basic assumption is, that every company has a task and that this task is accompanied by an inherent fear. The fear of failing, of not being able to accomplish the task, is the risk that every company carries within itself. This fear has to be endured in the company and in order to achieve this, the company has to develop a kind of collective defense. When you go into a company, it can feel as if you are entering a family system: there is a very specific climate, habits, a certain way of communicating and a certain way of dealing with feelings and overcoming fears. In one company they are pushed away by laughter, in another they are kept quiet, in a third fear takes over the control of the team through panic.

You might ask yourself and your team:

  • Which emotional topics are we able to talk about in our team and which not?
  • How does our team deal with fear?
  • How does our manager shape our team and the communication between us?
  • What is my role in the team and what are my unconscious wishes for the team?

The “favorite way” to deal with fear

Such dynamics have developed over years in companies. It is certainly also a result of how the management level acts on such fears, but a collective defense can also remain in the company for generations and become increasingly rigid (here too, the comparison with families is not far off).

It is important for me to emphasize once again, that such a defense makes sense and makes ABSOLUTE sense for the mental health and functioning of a team. Without defense we would get flooded with our wishes, feelings and fears. Defense is included in every communication and only when the defense becomes too rigid and “interferes” too much, it becomes difficult. The Tavistock Institute in London has studied moments like this quite closely. When the risk involved in a task is too high or for other reasons, the fear grows and so does the defense. Then the team reacts with some kind of survival mode, a mode characterized by quite archaic principles.

The team in survival mode

If a team is in such a mode, then communication can no longer work. Gross distortions, strong feelings of listlessness, competition or other dysfunctional dynamics are not far away. In order to be able to switch back to a work mode, external supervision is often required. Ultimately, however, it is a question of the manager being able to restore emotional security. He/she must be able to bear and calm the feelings and above all the fears of the employees. Just as the mother takes over the child’s fears, calms them down and then returns them in a bearable way, it is the task of a good manager to perceive and absorb the emotions in the team and to create emotional security so these emotions do not disturb the team. To do this, managers must be able to reflect on their own feelings and wishes that they have for the team. Whether it is a desire for care, narcissistic validation, or power. It is important to know these desires and not to act prematurely on them. Certainly, no one is free from a desire for power or for confirmation. But the question is whether leaders support the team or vice versa.

Emotional security in a team is the key to creativity and productivity

So what it takes is emotional security in the culture of the team. An attitude that empowers the team members to perceive emotions, to communicate authentically and to ask critical questions. Mistakes are then no longer mistakes, but trigger interest: What exactly happened here? What unconscious desires have “interfered” with this? What was perhaps still unclear in the overall process? What does the colleague’s tantrum have to do with the whole team? The same applies to dealing with conflicts: What exactly do the two squabblers depict? If both sides of the conflict are seen together: aren’t they two sides of the same issue, an ambivalence we may all be familiar with? If we understand feelings as needs and acknowledge the beauty of needs, then we understand processes in their depth. Then obstacles become possibilities and a creative and proactive climate is created in which the potential of the individual can flourish.

Dipl. Psych. A. Wurst

You can find out more about the unconscious in business communication in our individual coaching or in the next blog article, which will deal with the unconscious in team communication.