The Collective Unconscious

The Collective Unconscious   Part 3 of a blog on the European Union Elections


The electorate across Europe (43 million voters) managed to collectively (and unconsciously) achieve quite a sophisticated achievement. Despite the dangerous swing to the extreme right in many countries, (and there were also gains for radical voices on the anti-European left) the overall vote delivered a win for middle ground politics. This means that collectively Europe retained a majority of pro-European MEP’s whilst at the same time strongly signaling a discomfort at the way things are going.   The collective message is this: dangers lurks if nothing changes i.e. more unemployment, austerity and also stifling centralisation that dis-empowers citizens feeds the discontent that can be exploited by the far right……it’s time to act!

The overall result wasn’t planned or rationally organised, perhaps it was just the way things turned out, or perhaps some form collective unconscious organising process took place.   There are two ways to read any collective vote, or for that matter any group organizing process. Firstly as fragmented parts e.g. why did France swing to the right but Italy didn’t?  Why did this part of the group do this, and that part do that? The scientific method is reductionist, it ignores the whole and only looks at the parts with a particular rationalist gaze.   But there is another way to read a collective vote or a group process, and this through beginning with the whole and trying to understand what it means, what the parts contribute to the whole. For example, across Europe moderate voters abstained from voting in some regions, letting the far right win the vote; yet enough moderate voters turned out in other regions to give power to the centre. This delivered a whole that expresses a collective voice ‘we as a whole are worried, angry and frustrated, but we want the centre to hold and fix the mess. As this was not consciously planned or even acknowledged; there must be some unconscious aspects to how it arrived as the outcome.

This collective unconscious expression is rarely reflected upon. Yet maybe it is worth thinking about the collective unconscious processes that create this result, something that is not accounted for in the media or within political analysis.

Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung discussed the ‘Collective Unconscious’’but he was referring to universal archetypes we collectively carry within us as individuals, rather than group or social unconscious processes that occur between us.   The Collective Unconscious I am more interested in emerges from the work of Bion and Menzies-Lythe from the Tavistock tradition.   Bion wrote about three unconscious group basic assumption states he observed within groups; Fight-flight (FF), Dependency (D) and Pairing (P). F-F occurs when the group always looks for an enemy to which they displace their anxiety and energy; feeling under attack and the need to fight or flee a fantasy enemy takes them away from the developmental work they should be doing.   D is when the group is paralysed by its dependency on a leader figure, the group gives up its autonomy, thinking and creativity, and is always waiting for the leader to tell them what to do. P occurs when the group always looks for the next idea or person they can pair with to save them. However, each time a new leader or idea arrives, it is never the right one, and another one is sought. These defensive unconscious states, can be mobilised by leaders; for example, in the European Elections Marie Le Pen and anti-immigration parties mobilise the unconscious collective mentality of Fight-flight. This primitive emotion, names the immigrant as the enemy, and argues for fortress France/UK/Denmark. In Greece the immigrants are attacked physically.   These defensive group unconscious states displace anxiety, and undermine any developmental task that needs to be done, for example – in Europe – fighting immigrations avoids the developmental task of improving the economy, creating jobs, building a civilised society.     Menzies-Lythe observed collective unconscious processes in the workplace.Her famous example was how the nursing profession organised their work in ways that acted as a social unconscious defence to protect them against the anxiety of working with the difficult emotions they faced. For example, what seemed like a rational way of organising the work, undermined efficiency and good patient care. But what it did achieve was the avoidance of close engagement with the patients emotional experience e.g. patients were not called by name but by their illness, de-personalising the patient, and the nurses were depersonalised through the uniformed quasi military way of working.

These group and organizational collective unconscious processes are rarely acknowledged, difficult to prove, but self-evident to observers who pay attention to these processes.  In the era of new technologies that provide mass-individualised communication through social media, the unconscious speaks through these collective-individual engagements with a growing voice…… perhaps we need to spend more time trying to make sense of the libidinal and emotional economies, driven by individual and collective unconscious processes , that are swirling around our virtual networks and physical spaces.

Leadership Lessons: Try to see patterns in the organization, try to read how the collective unconscious is speaking as a whole.   Usually a problem is reduced to belonging to an individual or is a departmental issue that needs solving, but another way of seeing it is as a symptom of a wider issue. Try to think about the ‘problem’ individual or department carrying something unconsciously on behalf of the whole.   For example, quite often, a problem person is replaced, or department re-organised but the problem simple re-emerges elsewhere. Try to imagine the organization as a person with an unconscious –what is the unconscious trying to tell you? To study collective unconscious processes in groups, is a very powerful learning experience[1] and leaders without some understandings of these processes are severely restricted in undertaking their role.

Coaching lessons: Listen to the coachee as an individual, and listen to them as a conduit of the whole, for we all carry a part of the collective unconscious of an organization within us, David Armstrong refers to this as the ‘Organization in the mind’[2]. Listen to the individuals emotions, thinking and engagement (or lack of it) then step back and imagine them as fractal of the whole organization.   Emotions and culture get projected into us, i.e. we carry our own ‘stuff’, and we also carry ‘stuff’ unconsciously from put into us from others, and then act this out. A great coach helps individuals understand these unconscious processes; helping the individual sort out what belongs to them, and what is being projected into them from the wider system. A psychodynamic coach gets beyond problem solving and goal setting to address these unconscious processes.

[1] Group relations conferences are unique in elaborating the conscious and unconscious dynamics of leadership and management in organisations.

[2] http://www.tavinstitute.Organization in the mind. org/what-we-offer/professional-development/leicester-conference/

The Chosen One – When ego distorts wisdom


Imagegetty images

When Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United, one of world’s great soccer clubs, after 26 years of unprecedented success, the question of who could replace him was settled by AlexFerguson  himself. United could attract the very best managers but in the end, Ferguson, like an all-powerful monarch from the middle ages, named his own successor for the crown and David Moyes was selected and became known as The Chosen One.

Whilst Moyes had a lot of respect for managing Everton, a club that always did well considering its limited budget to buy players, he had never managed a club at the very top level, had no experience in European competitions, never won anything, and never beaten any of the very top teams in the premiership. In short his CV didn’t fit with the scale of the job in hand. Manchester United are a global business with revenues of around £420 million a year, owned by American financiers and floated on the stock exchange. Man Utd’s soccer competitors, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona would never had selected him as manager, so why did Fergusson choose him and why did Man Utd business leaders allow it to happen?
In the simplest terms we can say it was Ferguson’s Ego that led to the choice. I say this not using the Ego in a way that is derogatory – we all have egos and a snr leaders task in a high profile job is to harness their ego in service of their role – however sometimes this ego function serves them well and sometimes it gets distorted. Ferguson’s strength of character and Ego drive led him to overcome numerous set backs and deliver unrelenting success (he now shares his leadership skills at Harvard Business school with snr business leaders). Ferguson found retiring very difficult, he tried it once before and returned to the job. This time it seems that he couldn’t completely let go, so he unconsciously chose to leave a part of himself in the role of manager. He achieved this in two ways. Firstly, by personally choosing his successor – any future success would be identified with both the new manager and with Ferguson for choosing him. Secondly, he chose someone in his own image – Moyes was born in Glasgow a few miles from Ferguson’s home, they were from a similar background, shared a similar journey as a player then manager. Most of all, you can see the same gritty, Glaswegian no-nonsense way of talking, and their shared total dedication and work ethic. Ferguson saw in Moyes a younger self. If he could not continue to manage into his 80’s, then he would chose a person (an avatar) that would mimic him. Why did the business leaders allow Ferguson to make this choice… well his Ego had served the club well before, why not in this choice?

There was a collusion around the idea that Ferguson had become infallible – his Ego had distorted his and the business directors’ judgement.

Leadership lessons:

So what does this tell us about Ego and senior leadership?

Firstly, forget the hype about ego-free leaders and the New Age spirituality and Buddhist rhetoric entering the management field these days, claiming servant-leaders and post-heroic leaders need to lose their ego. They don’t! Snr leaders need to be aware of how they use their Ego drive in service of the task in hand, i.e. to serve their company, and also to be aware of how their Ego can distort their judgment too.
Secondly, A CEO or snr leader has to learn how to manage the projections from others that ‘feed the beast’ and support their Ego needs. When you achieve a lot of success, and when others are vying for your attention and approval, problems arise. It is not just the lack of a critical friends challenging decisions that happens. The emotional life of the leader is distorted, they begin to believe and feel they are infallible and can do anything (remember Bill Clinton – he felt so infallible that he had ‘sex’ in the White House, putting at risk his Presidency and all he had worked for his whole life).
Thirdly, many leaders with strong Ego’s are walking a precarious tightrope. It is their Ego drives that when harnessed to ‘doing good’ have led them and their companies to success. It is the same drive that can be their undoing as this case study shows.

Coaching lessons:

To be courageous, to speak the unspeakable to leaders, saying what others fear to say. To help leaders anchor their ego function to the task – to develop in the leader a self-awareness of how their Ego can lead to mission-drift by distorting reality, shaping the world to the ego needs, rather than shaping the company to the demands of the world.