There is a scene from David Bowie’s iconic 1970s movie, the ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’. At the end of the story, the Martian (played by Bowie) is being interviewed on TV. We are shocked to see how dull this one-time supernatural being has become. He has been quite literally brought down to Earth. It is as if this delicate, talented, sophisticated super-being has been normalised by humanity, in order to make him safe. He now fits. This strikes me as a particularly poignant metaphor for what organisations do to their talent.
We see it so often in our work. In executive coaching, for example, I have heard countless times people lamenting to me that they were ‘brought in’ because they have a particular talent, and then seemingly every obstacle is put in their way when they try to express themselves. One woman said to me “They said I was exactly what they were looking for, but they behave like they were looking for the exact opposite!”
So what is going on? Is this a deliberate, wilful attempt to squash people? I think that the reality might be less unkind, but paradoxically more challenging. It could be that what is going on here is an unconscious dynamic. It could be about the shadow of the organisation. It could simply be that whilst our rational selves show unbounded enthusiasm for the new talent, our deeper, unconscious selves, full of our unexpressed and only half-admitted anxieties, are deeply unsettled by it. It makes sense after all, when we see this as such a prolific pattern of behaviour, in so many businesses. I genuinely believe the conscious good intentions they have in hiring new blood, and the frustration they express, in their inability to nurture it. It is what they are unconscious of that I don’t trust.
Isn’t it interesting that so often it is the unstated anxieties that win through, much to everyone’s chagrin? Such patterns are symptomatic of unconscious drives – it is what psycho-therapists see all the time – ‘I want to lose weight, but I just keep getting fatter!’ – ‘I want to be happy, but I just get depressed.’ Always, the unconscious wins. And so, it seems is the case in organisations.
It is tragic what can happen when this dynamic takes hold. A while ago, a colleague and I were working with a group of graduate trainees, on a high-potential leadership programme. They were clearly a very bright bunch of people, but the dynamic in the room was strangely subdued. We were a bit bemused. Using the notion of the ‘self as instrument’, we considered how our own feelings were in some way a mirror of what was going on for the group. We reflected that we felt slightly suppressed, like we were compelled to hold back in some way. So, working against our own reluctance, we took the opportunity of a process review to gently tease out from the group what was going on. Finally it came to light that this group had been pushed back, in an unfortunate way. ‘We were asked to give our opinions, but when we did, they didn’t like what they heard. They basically told us to get back in our box!’ Once we had got this into the open, and cleared the air, they were a delightful group. And they told us, ‘we were called the difficult bunch!’ They had been on the verge of proving that self-fulfilling prophecy with us.
This doubled dynamic, when we inadvertently give out to the world those behaviours that are expected of us, is another sign of the unconscious at work. This playing out of the shadow may manifest itself in other odd and paradoxical organisational symptoms. For example, could we link this to the ‘busy getting no-where’ syndrome? You know what I mean: everyone’s very busy, rushing from one thing to another, with full inboxes, ‘to-do lists’ replete with ‘urgent and important’ things to attend to. When you ask people how they are, everyone replies, ‘I’m sooo busy!’ Yet if you went on to ask them if they are happy this way, people would probably say ‘no!’, and would bemoan the fact that the organisation’s productivity isn’t increasing. In fact, if anything, it is getting less productive.
So what could this be about? Perhaps, again, it is simply because the anxieties of being ‘sooo busy’ are in fact easier to deal with than the reflective space and letting go of doing something different. It is, once again, a process driven by the unconscious, which wins over the conscious, rational desire to be less busy and more productive.
Once again, it seems important to stress that organisations don’t deliberately sit on their talent, or waste their time, like this. We hypothesise that when they say they want this talent to express itself, or to be more productive, they really do mean it. It is important to acknowledge that people aren’t stupid, and that by and large, our intentions are positive. What we are less able to do is acknowledge, and deal with, the irrational, emotive currents that really propel our behaviour. Something gets in our way, a bit like it does for the dieter talking to his or her psychotherapist. It is the complex of unconscious, unexpressed anxieties and insecurities that are manifested. And what the good therapist does is try to help the client see the deeper patterns, and in developing understanding, help them find patterns and practices of genuine change.
This is not an easy process for the individual, let alone for the organisation. It needs some leadership. This does happen of course. I have seen countless examples of leaders (not necessarily the people with the most stripes on their shoulders) getting out of the way of young talent. Some of the best innovations have come when the organisation has developed mechanisms to manage its anxieties. Famously, Volkswagen invented the Golf GTI by letting a group of youngsters get on with it, by creating a separate, twilight unit, that no-one was allowed to interfere with.
This may constitute one of those things we often see in OD and Leadership Development; that the answer is simple to diagnose but challenging to make a difference about; ‘simple but not easy’, as they say. But perhaps it is slightly comforting to know that these pernicious patterns aren’t caused by people being deliberately nasty or contrary; although maybe we find it easier to believe that, than deal with the discomfort of looking deeper?