Sigmund Freud on leading in irrational workplaces

Does your organisation feel like a perfectly rational place where people calmly make logical choices – or a confusing and frustrating one where anxious people seem to behave in irrational and destructive ways? If it’s the latter, you’ll be interested in the organisational insights that have flowed from the work of Sigmund Freud.

It’s not all about ‘How’s yer father’ !

Freud, whilst not the first psychologist, (Wilhelm Wundt is usually credited with this) wasn’t even the first to discuss the unconscious. His impact was to be the first to scientifically study the unconscious mind – and then to begin to identify ways to work with the behaviour that came from it.

Many of his theories are now subject to considerable debate and he never applied his thinking to organisational life. He earns his place in our ‘Great thinkers about leadership’ list because of his huge influence on so many of the thinkers, theories and practices in what has become the science of Organisational Psychology.

Some (now) familiar ideas…

Freud’s ideas have been hugely influential far beyond therapy and you’ll recognise many of these concepts:-

  • The unconscious mind has a big impact on how we think and behave.
  • We repress some painful memories which then continue to have effects that we are not aware of.
  • We often project our feelings about a past relationship onto other people who have nothing to do with the original person.
  • We are constantly negotiating internally between what we should do and what we want to do.
  • These unconscious effects have particular and magnified impacts on the behaviour people when in groups.
  • We can uncover and resolve the impact of unconscious issues through ‘talking therapy’, hypnosis and examining dreams.

He also believed that much unconscious thought is dominated by procreative urges. We won’t dwell on these theories which are now subject to a lot of debate – despite their apparent relevance in the life of some organisations!

Leader, know thyself!

We can trace back the importance of self awareness in Leadership Development to Freud’s work. Understanding the ways we behave and the impact we have on others is at least partly about uncovering our own unconscious responses. 360 feedback and even psychometric questionnaires can, therefore, trace their roots back to Freud.

Freud’s ‘talking therapy’ is the grandfather of coaching but, less obviously, having conversations about performance in appraisals also has elements which lead right back to the great man.

Finally, Freud was one of the first thinkers about ‘group dynamics’ – the study of individuals in groups. Modern thinking about teams also stems from this work but we’ll examine this more closely when we look at some later thinkers who specialized in this area.

Have a lie down on Freud’s couch…

If helping you with issues at work, Freud would position himself (out of your sight) and ask:-

  • What unhelpful habits do you have – and what might be behind these?
  • In what ways does anxiety reduce your effectiveness – and what triggers it?
  • Who reminds you of someone else from the past that you feel strongly about? In what ways do you treat the new person like the old one?
  • Who around you seems to behave irrationally and is unaware or unable to shift the pattern? How could you help them better understand what they are doing or the effect that it has?

Pick one of these things that really matters to you, and resolve to consider it. Then stop thinking about it. You’ll notice that new thoughts about it will occur to you at odd moments over the next few days – insights from the unconscious mind. You’ll then have some new ideas to consider in deciding how you want to respond.

How we use Freud’s thinking in our work

Helping people better understand themselves and one another is essential to the relationships required for productive work. We help people do this through:-

Learn more about Sigmund Freud

If you’d like to read more you could look at:-

Wikipedia is always a good place to start for a brief and simple  summary of his life and work.

Gareth Morgan’s ‘Images of Organisation’ includes a great summary of the contribution and limitations of Psychoanalytic approaches in organisations. (Sage. ISBN 978-0761906346)

A fuller account of his ideas and application in organisations can be found in Robert DeBoard’s  ‘The psychoanalysis of organisations’’. (Routledge. ISBN 0-4159-05175-4)