The psychodynamic approach to leadership invokes the clinical psychology model developed by the likes of Freud, Jung, and Erikson (PSU WC, 2019, L. 3). It asks us, as leaders, to examine our family life, fantasies, and shadow self and to consider how those influenced our view of self, conflict reactions, and motivations, among others (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 3). The approach uses a four-stage model to examine behaviors, called the Clinical Paradigm (Northouse, 2016). The paradigm begins by assuming that there are rationales behind every behavior, even seemingly irrational behaviors, we must discover the rationales behind our actions. Second, it asks us to consider our unconscious or subconscious motivations and thoughts, to find blind-spots in our thinking and to consider the parts of ourselves we don’t want others to know – our shadow selves. Third, we must consider how we are affected by our emotions and how we affect those emotions. Finally, we must consider how past situations influenced the present (Northouse, 2016). In short, we must come to better know ourselves to better understand our actions and behaviors.
This approach yields useful insights. For example, as we grow as children we learn, through direct and vicarious experience, methods for handling conflict (Northouse, 2016). We learn these from our interactions with other children, parents, siblings, caregivers, and teachers, among others (Northouse, 2016). Given that conflict is a persistent and important part of relationships, these lessons have a great impact on how we approach and manage relationships and conflicts as adults (Northouse, 2016). Northouse (2016) notes that these patterns can be beneficial or maladaptive as we grow into adulthood. Effectively, they can be good or bad habits. It is important to note that the theories do not tell us which are specifically good or specifically bad, just that some of our patterns may lead us to more or less desirable outcomes. Knowing our and other’s “core conflict relationship themes” (CCRT), allows us as leaders to better navigate and manage conflict (Northouse, 2016, pp. 301-302).
I work for a family business that is primarily owned by two brothers: Jeremey and Travis. The brothers are quite different, especially when it comes to handling conflict. Travis is quite direct and assertive, sometimes to the point of aggression. Jeremy, on the other hand, is more reserved and often avoids conflict. Over the fifteen years that I have worked for them, I’ve had to learn to navigate their CCRTs. Before I knew myself, though, I had a hard time working in difficult situations with either of them. In looking back, using the clinical paradigm, upfront, would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of grief. I am a goal-driven, organizationally-affective individual – I like getting things done that benefit the whole group. I also take pride in my work and will defend a position, sometimes to my detriment. The rationale I develop behind my actions tends to privilege the benefit of the group and, sometimes, my opinion over others. I want others to respect me, my work, and my knowledge: sometimes that comes off as arrogance. I am a boisterous, extroverted, highly expressive person. I don’t hide my emotions, positive or negative. I’ll be the first to propose a toast and the first to call someone out. I can see how this comes across as volatile. I was taught by my parents to stand up for myself. It was a bit of a survival thing, too. I was the only out gay kid in my high school. A high school of 2,400 students. I had to learn to be defensive to survive. I would say that I am direct, assertive, and expressive in conflicts.
Back to the bosses. When I have a conflict with Travis, they go one of two ways: quick or explosive. When they’re quick, they’re great. We both respect each other’s intelligence, expertise, and ideas. But, when they go the other way, it gets ugly. He’s threatened my job and I’ve called him some choice names. This normally happens after Travis uses a particular technique: badgering. Travis gets an answer in his head to the question he is asking you. He will keep asking you the question in different ways until you give him the answer he was thinking of or until we both blow up. Our CCRTs play well until we get into a badgering situation. I’m sure there’s something I do that contributes to it, I just can’t put my finger on it.
My conflicts with Jeremy, on the surface, go a lot smoother. I normally, in the moment, get what I want. He’ll agree to almost anything unless it really scares him. Often, when we disagree he’ll push off the discussion or avoid having the conversation. Even to the point where he will manufacture reasons to avoid having the discussion. For example, I had prepared a customer survey, something we agreed to at our management meeting the month before. He had sent out the agenda for the next management meeting and I replied asking for time to discuss the survey. The agenda was full, but I figured I should ask anyway. I would have been totally okay with delaying the discussion. Jeremy, however, moved to block it entirely. He was at a lunch with several other business leaders and they discussed the survey. He told me that they didn’t want to discuss the survey, that he didn’t know I was working on it, and that the price increase we have coming up will distort the results so we shouldn’t do it. I was infuriated. I hadn’t asked for a decision, I asked for a discussion. I’d honestly be okay with delaying, but Jeremy blocked me out. We had a very heated and terse phone call, I almost quit. Later that day, I confronted him. In working through the conflict he confessed to me that he was upset at me because I texted him during the sales meeting about a schedule change. I had texted him after he abruptly changed the schedule and knocked my presentation off the agenda. I simply said that I would have preferred a heads up, that I had prepared for the meeting. He accused me, in this debrief of coming “at him” in that text message, that I called him disrespectful and mean in it. It’s good to keep receipts. I showed him the text, it contained nothing of the sort. Jeremy’s CCRT is avoidance and buildup. He lets things fester and brew, he gets resentful and lashes out passive-aggressively. We are often incompatible because I am direct and assertive, he seems to see any form of assertiveness as aggressiveness.
I’ve come to understand how my life’s lessons, the habits I’ve formed, and the patterns those created interact with others. The difference between Jeremy and Travis’s CCRTs is stark and my difference from both of them is severe, as well. Psychodynamic approaches help us understand how we interact with others to create the realities we live in (Northouse, 2016). I’m reminded of something a therapist friend of mine taught me: we are the biggest thing to happen to our own worlds. My reactions to Jeremy’s passive-aggression yield the latent explosive conflicts that we have; the same goes for Travis – I react quite visibly to badgering. In all honesty, it reminds me of bullies from high school. I have a hard time respecting Travis in the days that follow these encounters.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 3: Psychodynamic approaches. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved June 15, 2019, from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/03_lesson/printlesson.html