Into the deep: the unconscious at work

Take Away Line

Developing the ability to reflect on the impact others have on us and how we impact on others takes us inevitably into the zone of those things we do ‘automatically’, perhaps to good effect, perhaps to ill effect. Automatic behaviour is unconscious behaviour, driven by unconscious impulses. That’s ok when that behaviour is fit for purpose, but when times change, we have to change too. Our emotional responses to others we encounter at work is a royal road to personal growth – and sustained success at work.

The Idea

While Freud’s idea of the unconscious focuses on the notion of a space in the mind where uncomfortable or forbidden feelings are held, or repressed, Jung takes a broader idea in which the unconscious contains a range of elemental concepts, feelings, images, fantasies, etc, whose meaning is typically hard and sometimes painful to grasp. Because they are unconscious, such ideas can exert huge impact on our behaviour, actions and choices without our being able often to understand how. Greater awareness of these ideas and their meanings can help us mature as people, realising the potential that lies within us, within our own shadow, to use Jung’s term.

For example, strong and uncomfortable feelings and responses in relation the behaviour of certain work colleagues may be because they are in fact impossible people, but the fact of the strength of feeling they somehow evoke in us, feelings that on occasion can be hard to control, suggests also that there may be something more elemental concerning ourselves, something that – perish the thought! – they may even have to teach us about ourselves.

If I look back at work relationships that I have found tricky, I realise now with the clarity of passing time, that each ‘difficult’ person had something to teach me about myself, something they did which on some level I too wanted to do or incorporate but which I denied at the time. My strong feelings in respect of them was a kind of dissonance as I tried to hold back or deny the recognition that, for instance, getting the details right as well as the big picture was also a valuable perspective, or being prepared to be more upfront and give presentations in larger forums was also of value and within my reach, even though I didn’t want to think about it. By being able finally to recognise that these were valuable traits which I too could perhaps acquire while still being ‘me’, I was able to grow slightly as a person. And a more rounded person with a broader range of traits is also a more valuable employee. So, curiously, some at least of my ‘enemies’ bore gifts, gifts that lay in the lea of my personality, in what Jung called the shadow.

The Application

‘A more valuable employee’, I just said. Or leader! One highly effective leader I worked with, within the setting of a leadership development programme, really didn’t understand how his skilful behaviour facilitated the success that his organisation self-evidently achieved. ‘If it’s me, it’s just stuff I do without thinking about it,’ was his modest claim. Yet, the times were changing and he needed also grow some additional skills and personal qualities to handle new circumstances and new challenges that his people presented and which he’d not previously seen. Part of that process was to become more aware of the good stuff that he already did by, so to speak, watching himself doing it, so that it re-entered the arena of choice and, in doing so, enabled some new choices to be selected for the new circumstances.

In another example, the chair of a large national organisation had a reputation for being bright and quickly able to spot the ‘right’ solution, arguing cogently, even at times forcefully, for her point of view. The downside of this ability was that it could have the unintended impact of leaving her fellow board members left behind and even slightly undermined to the extent of feeling, occasionally, that their contributions were almost pointless. ‘What’s the point of a board if only one view counts?’ Fortunately a 360-degree performance appraisal process picked this up and it was possible to advise the chair of the impact her skill was having on others. Changing embedded, automatic behaviour is not easy, but by allowing it to become more conscious to oneself, one can watch it happen, watch the pull before it happens and, finally, allow it to become a deliberate choice, opening up the possibility that other choices can be selected that could still get to a good conclusion but also enable the wisdom of others to be incorporated in the process. ‘What a coincidence,’ she said, during the chair’s appraisal, ‘my husband tells me I do this too!’ Indeed!

There are my other examples of the unconscious at play in a work setting and an understanding of such processes opens up growth in all employees and especially leaders who need to set the tone for their followers. Terms in contemporary management parlance like EQ can be traced to Jung’s understanding of the unconscious.

Debating Points

  1. Who annoys you at work? Why? No, really, why?
  2. What opportunity may be hidden in that annoyance?
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About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
Gallery | This entry was posted in CG Jung and Organisations, Change management, Coaching, Consulting, Happiness at Work, Leadership, Leadership development, Talent development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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