Doing business with the unconscious, part III: Beyond the leadership industry
Don’t bring me solutions, bring me symptoms!
Recently my four-year-old daughter Lizzie came running into the kitchen yelling, “Daddy, daddy, DADDY!” I was in full 6.30am morning flight at that stage, trying to simultaneously make three breakfasts and two lunches, do the dishes, listen to the radio news and brew coffee. I fixed her with a traumatising glare and said, “What, what?” She said, “No, not the wotwots, my Lego, look!”
It turns out she had Elsa’s head and Anna’s body, which seemed fine to me but was apparently a big problem. Like an average manager I summed up the situation and realised the likely result – I would spend the next 30 minutes searching for a specific tiny pink head among a seething sea of other tiny pink objects. I calmly said, “Don’t bring me problems Lizzie, bring me solutions,” and nodded wisely. We are still looking for the Disney princess’ head.
I’m not the first to call out this adage. Frances Frei from Harvard Business School, for instance, said in an interview that posing this question would result in a predictable response: “Of all the problems you find, I only want to know about the ones you can solve.” But then she, like most, does not look closely at the structure of the relations between people and, instead, drifts off into talking about creating supportive company cultures and using reward systems that are based on the not-very-useful motivation theories I have already talked about.
It is this type of organisational advice that I collect under the catch-all “leadershit,” based on the fantasy that developing leaders will somehow flow down to the rest of the team. Sadly, it is not the leader part that most often flows down.
Let’s look at what managers tend to do when presented with a problem, and then think about how the social bond is enacted and how we can do this differently. The master-slave structure takes problems as complaints, and the master reacts predictably with even stronger attempts to dominate the recalcitrant staff member: “Bring me solutions slave, and make sure they are the solutions I imagine!”
No solution, no problem?
The teacher also reacts predictably: “I’ve taught you about this my studious pupil, now tell me what I already know!” Both of these structures create compliance with existing ways of knowing, even if the specific solution eventually presented has not been previously articulated. That is what Frances Frei alludes to above – if we can’t imagine a solution, then we imagine there’s no problem. The patient-clinician structure, however, refuses to accept this because it pays direct attention to the symptom.
When working well to generate knowledge, the clinician in the structure is not put off by the “unknowability” of the symptom. They have faith that the solution rests within the patient, just like Dr House. It then becomes a matter of re-presenting the symptom back into the system, mirroring it in effect. But it needs patience and a tolerance for being vulnerable – here the manager as clinician does not know the solution and is comfortable saying this. They will then be comfortable paying close attention to the symptom.
So finally, how do you pay attention to symptoms when doing business with the unconscious? One suggestion I often make to clients is that they actually read the scrawlings of their staff on the various sheets of butcher paper and post-it notes collected during consultation sessions and strategy formulation retreats.
And don’t read them for solutions; read the symptoms they describe, then mirror these back at the organisation – not with an attached plan for change, but just as they are: “The executive team are out-of-touch with the realities of front line staff,” “Our IT systems don’t talk to each other,” “Barry from payroll needs to rest his glad-eye.” Then let the structure of the social bond, governed by the symptom, do the rest. This mirroring will stimulate conversation and connection and, if you let it, the production of knowledge. In other words: Innovation.
The final word, then, is to the business "leaders" out there: We don’t need anymore "leadershit." We need amazing managers, ones that are tuned in to symptoms and are willing to be vulnerable. Over to you.
Dr Andrew Dickson is a senior lecturer with Massey University’s School of Management. He specialises in the psychoanalytic study of organisations
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