Session #1 - Transcript (April 28)

Professor Manfred Kets de Vries and KDVI Associate Graham Ward participated in a second Q&A session on the deeper challenges faced by leaders and followers today, exploring in greater detail the psychodynamic and systemic lens. The session was lightly edited for clarity.

Graham Ward: How did the psychodynamic approach come to be used in organisations?


Manfred Kets de Vries: When I was at the Harvard Business School in the 60s, the focus of many organisational studies was on structure. Very few people were interested in the person within the organisation and how to bring back the human being into the organisation. As I recall there were three spaces which did so. One was the Menninger Institute, run by Harry Levinson. Another was Abraham Zaleznik, who was a professor at Harvard as well as my mentor, and the third was Elliot Jacques from the Tavistock Institute. Jacques was a psychiatrist and sociologist, who along with a number of people, were interested in the nature of work and the use of psychodynamic concepts in that context.

As a side I am glad to see some of my ex-students to take the time to attend this session. It’s nice to see their faces, I see them too little and some, I have not seen in a long time. I remember, as a free association, that I interviewed one of you in the halls at INSEAD Singapore and you told me “you must be crazy” and that I felt was my reputation. My wife says the same thing.

When I was at the Harvard Business School, I selected psychodynamics over mainstream Organisational Behaviour. It was an area perceived to be minor with nobody really caring about it. Slowly, after the 60s, issues such as culture and emotions became more and more important in organisations. Now every serious executive knows that the most important things are culture and talent management. There, the psychodynamic systemic approach can make a contribution.

I sometimes call this a clinical approach because psychodynamic can seem formidable because people often think of a man sitting on an old sofa with a heavy Viennese accent. I don’t have a Viennese accent, but I do have a strong accent.


GW: Manfred, you trained as a psychoanalyst and yet you’ve devoted your life to looking and working in organisations. Why did you decide to devote your professional career to organisational psychodynamics rather than simply working as a therapist?


MKDV: That’s a very good question and there’s also a danger of rationalisation in hindsight. I started my psychoanalytical training at Montreal, which luckily was not a very orthodox programme, but rather eclectic. That has always been my orientation to whatever intervention I undertake as consultant, coach and psychotherapist. If you think about a typical psychoanalyst, how many patients does he or she see in a lifetime? Very few. I had the ambition to spread the idea of bringing the person back into the organisation to a larger audience.

To me it was interesting from an economic and management background to be interacting with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. I was the only deviant at that time. And I was lucky that my training analyst, also the head of the mental health hospital in Canada, had a sense of humour; otherwise he would not have taken me as a candidate. But that’s another story.

I feel that I have made quite an effort to spread the psychodynamic systemic orientation around the world. When I came to INSEAD, I always make the joke that the left side of people’s brains was overdeveloped, and that I have made a contribution to make it more balanced.

I started the INSEAD programme on Consulting and Coaching for Change, which is now a Master’s programme, and introduced coaching in executive programmes. Now everybody in the school gets some form of coaching. As a business school, we are the most coaching oriented, in particular, in team coaching, where there is the added advantage of group pressure for people to change.


GW: Manfred you’ve talked about the word “psychodynamic” being a formidable word which can scare people off. But you’ve been very successful to mobilise many people over the years to deploy this technique in organisational life across the world. For those unfamiliar with it, what are the core elements of this approach and what it might mean if they were to use it within an organisation?


MKDV: At the Harvard Business School, the primary mode of teaching was the case method. I have myself written probably more than 100 cases and used case studies extensively when I taught the MBAs. Case studies can be useful. In my small leadership program, I use the live case study, which is more powerful, because it puts the individuals in the centre of the case. The people in the seminar are the case studies, making it much more here and now...

I try to tell people, and they realise this during the class, that what you see is not what you get. People may behave strangely but there is always a rational behind irrational behaviour and you have to be somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes to detect what is going on. Telling your story, and especially a number of key scenes within that story, can be very powerful and have a cathartic effect.

The second thing is the ability to do some detective work on your history, especially the patterns that were developed in your early life. What was an effective defensive strategy to form your character when you were young may no longer be effective in your current life. Many times, we repeat the same patterns without knowing why.

Another concept is transference. All relationships are coloured by previous relationships. An easy example is, if you have a very autocratic father and you always got into fights with him, there is a great possibility that if you come across someone who reminds you of your father, you go on automatic pilot. When people start to work through the source to practice different behaviour patterns, things start to change.

These set of principles fit together into a clinical or psychodynamic orientation that can set in motion reflection and change.


GW: To build on what you have been saying, in this crisis, all our collective emotions and unconscious are coming out to the surface. How can we as professionals use the psychodynamic approach in the current crisis? What should we be looking out for?


MKDV: The state of world leadership was not very good before the crisis. Now, with this crisis, there is an invisible enemy, so you also have paranoid reactions. This is a breeding ground for the inner autocrat to emerge.

On a micro level, the experience of the crisis depends on the context and living conditions. Some people are in the city; others in the countryside with space and nature, and this makes a difference. There is also the element of personality. Introverts may have more inner resources to stimulate themselves. Extroverts, who need external stimuli, will find confinement and isolation more difficult. 

There are also other symptoms of dealing with confinement, for example anger in and anger out. Anger in involves depressive reactions such as drinking and substance abuse. The other is anger out, as we witness with the rise of domestic abuse.

These are extreme examples and what can we do about it? I tried to explore some of this in a recent article Cabin Fever Syndrome. One is to set time and space boundaries. Identify what you want to do that is productive and make agreements with the different people you are with, and vice versa. Also, there is a greater possibility for conflict and to be aware of that. It’s also a good idea to start a journal and begin the process of an inner journey.


GW: One final question before we open it to the audience. You mentioned that telling your story can be very powerful and cathartic and you just mentioned writing a journal and to use this crisis as an opportunity to do that. Why do you think from a psychodynamic perspective it would be cathartic to do either of these things?


MKDV: There is a social psychologist from Texas, James Pennebaker, who writes about the importance of journal writing for therapeutic effect. According to brain studies, other parts of the brain get involved during writing. I once wrote an article about it based on what I was noticing in my classes: for people who write in a journal, writing has a calming effect on them.

As a side, I got a marvellous email from an ex-student last week. He runs a very large company and made the decision not to furlough anybody. People who made above a certain amount of money would have a freeze and a cut; but would be paid in shares to be redeemed later on. The creditors who could not pay their bills would get an extended credit. He also collected 7 million to distribute to local hospitals. He said that thanks to the programme he found the inner courage to do what he believed to be the right thing, despite pushback from the major shareholders. And the result was an incredibly positive effect on the corporate culture which bonded the company.

It’s easy to be a leader when things are easy. The moment of crisis is the real time to show your character.


GW: It’s a fantastic story. It shows how you can change the world one person at a time if that person is influential and has been given the opportunity to think and reflect. When it comes to the crunch, they will do the right thing and his or her individual action can impact a lot of people.


MKDV: I was very touched.


GW: We’re now going to open it up to the audience and invite some people to ask their questions.


Flooris van der Walt: Manfred, you just mentioned a psychodynamic change of a leader in a great company. How many of these changes would it take to change industry, or our understanding of leadership in the future? Is this change sustainable?


MKDV: It’s a very good question. Freud was once asked what he could do and said: I can change neurotic suffering to common human misery. He was really a cheerleader, to say the least. I wrote an article last week about two scenarios for Life After the Pandemic One is the pessimistic one, plus ça change, plus la même chose. I feel a bit depressed when I look at how the European community has reacted: everyone for themselves when this should be the time for people to rise to the occasion.

You see I am struggling with the answer. Without hope we are dead. Napoleon said: leaders are merchants of hope; who speak to the collective imagination of people to create a new future. On the other hand, we see all the time the forces of regression and paranoia taking place. In the US, we see Governor Cuomo from New York who for me is doing a fantastic job in being straight forward and on the other side, you have other leaders playing the violin and the blame game.

The more positive scenario lies with examples such my ex-student. I have a fantasy, where I take 21 leaders from my CEO programme, who are themselves responsible for 100,000 people, and if I can make them a little more humane and a little more effective, it may have a trigger effect.

As humans, we have something that animals do not have: the frontal lobes. We can visualise future scenarios, and ask ourselves, what kind of legacy do we want to leave behind? What kind of world do we want for our children and grandchildren? How do we want to be remembered?

So, I haven’t given you a straight answer Flooris, but I have hope.


Yuen Yen Tsai: I have been reading your books from ’94. I have also introduced you to the group I work with, who are design thinkers. In this specific Covid situation, how can play show us certain futures?


MKDV: Play is extremely important. To act out scenarios can reduce fear. I talked earlier about the talking cure, and the ability to talk through things and experience catharsis. Similarly, play can give us some kind of immunity. You become more realistic on what you can do, rather than fall into despair. I have done it a little bit. I think I am more orthodox, and you are more adventurous in that respect, but I think it is a very good way to explore and play act certain scenarios. I always challenge people by telling them you are the expert, just do it. Write a few pages about your ideas and experience and share it with people; there may be something there.


Martine Bizouard: Some of my clients mitigate their emotions by partnering with someone else to make clearer and wiser decisions. However, in times of crisis, there is distress and anxiety, and most people tend to need help but do not ask for it. How can we help these people who are not asking for help?


MKDV: Martine, what do we do during New Year’s? We send cards and notes. This is the time to reach out and ask how they are doing. Some people are self contained and it is up to you to make an assessment of their situation and reach out. And it’s a great way to invest in the long term.


MB: It’s actually the experience I had with my most active client. I reached out to him to ask how are you at the beginning of the confinement, and 2 weeks later he called me and now we have weekly meeting to advance on issues and to transform the company. I didn’t realise that compassion was what I did. Thank you for that.


MKDV: I have had many students, and some have over the years reached out to me. Sometimes I also advise them. I also try to make an effort to have lunch and dinner with people to keep a form of contact. I find this very good, even for my soul; I may get more out of it than they do. In many ways, as coaches and psychotherapists, we are containers, or a garbage cans, for others.


Robert Parker: This crisis is, for quite a few generations, very new. But how do you see it impacting the younger generation in particular?


MKDV: I think it impacts everybody. But the younger generation, Millennials and Gen Z, are more socially conscious. The idea has now shifted from shareholder to stakeholder value, in which organisations have a social responsibility. The antidote to the dark undercurrents of society is education, especially in the education of women in developing countries as they are the cultural setters. That gives me hope. When I look at my own children and grandchildren, they are much more socially conscious than I am.

Fundamentally, we have a number of important major existential needs: meaning, belonging and having choice and control over our lives. These are some important patterns that colour everybody’s life and we should be more aware of them.  Particularly meaning, which is related to purpose, and finding a purpose that is related to your personality. What are you really good at? What gives you pleasure? What gives you energy?

Most executives don’t know themselves. They don’t know what they are really good at and what they are not good at. That’s one of the focus of my programme: what should they really work on?


GW: I have one final question. You’ve been working in the field for 50 years. You’ve seen organisations and leaders shift and change. To what extent are you hopeful that organisations will learn and develop to more thoughtful and reflective and put people at its center?


MKDV: You know Graham, we have a folie à deux the two of us; so, the question you are asking me is the question you are asking yourself…Without hope there is death.


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