Monday, August 30, 2004

Freud and L.: Transference

Normally you don't often see the name Sigmund Freud associated with leadership in management literature, where followers are described largely in terms of their leaders’ qualities.
In an article in this month's Harvard Business Review, Michael Maccoby interestingly turns this habit around, by delving into the unconscious recesses of followers’ minds. He looks closely at the often irrational tendency to relate to a leader as some important person from the past. A parent, a sibling, a close friend, or even a nanny. Sigmund Freud discovered this dynamic when working with his patients and called it “transference”.

Maccoby explains the most common types of transference: paternal, maternal, and sibling, and shows how they play out in the workplace. He notes that they have evolved as our family structures have changed. Whether followers perceive a leader as an all-knowing father figure, as an authoritative yet unconditionally loving mother figure, or as a brother or sister who isn’t necessarily a model of good behavior, the leader can manage transferential ties by bringing unconscious projections to light. Then debilitating resentment and animosity can give way to mutual understanding and productivity.