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THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST wants to give not only already internationally established psychoanalysts, but also still unknown psychoanalysts the opportunity to post a self-written and not yet published article on the FrontPage of our online magazine!

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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Organizational alignment:
A psychodynamic perspective

Author: Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries


Top executives need to realize that execution of strategy is not an abstract exercise. It involves people. And to have people work together towards a common goal is not a given. People need to be co-opted to make strategy implementation successful. As many senior executives have learned the hard way, to get everyone on the same page, to create alignment, can be an uphill challenge full of resistances. And even if the executives in question do have the will to follow a certain path, they may not have the skills to go there. They may engage in the kind of dysfunctional behavior that makes teamwork very difficult.

Thinking about change, what we shouldn’t forget is that by the age of thirty, our personality tends to be quite stable. But although our personality has greater plasticity earlier in life, we are still able to change the way we behave and act at later stages. Later life-stage behavior change, however, is not all that easy. Senior executives are a case in point. Many of them are at the summit of their career trajectory and have got there as a result of habitual behavior patterns. Although it may be apparent to others that aspects of an executive’s behavior are dysfunctional, most often the individuals in question see no compelling reason to change since these behavior patterns have served them well thus far. As a result, many of them seem to have locked themselves into what can be called a mental prison. They cling to habitual behavior hoping for a different outcome and situating the blame on others. This reminds me of the old saying: “If you find you are riding a dead horse, you should dismount.” And even if these executives are willing to try to change, they don’t really know how to do things differently. They don’t see the other vibrant horses around that they could be riding. They haven’t yet realized that mental health is having a choice.

Busy executives, who want to reinvent themselves to become more effective leaders, will not seek change through lengthy psychoanalytical or psychotherapeutic procedures. Because of their overwhelming responsibilities and time constraints, they often seek more expedient, quick fixes. Clearly, the challenge is to develop a method of intervention that is similar to more traditional therapeutic approaches—addressing, for example, out-of-awareness resistances to change—but in a way that is perceived as meaningful, effective and manageable for executives. It’s here where the group psychodynamic coaching methodology that I have developed can play an important role.

Having observed thousands of executives during various group coaching interventions, I have learned how to bring a number of powerful (conscious and unconscious) psychological forces at play to induce tipping points for change. I am referring to such change inducing processes as providing a cathartic experience, fostering mutual identification, applying a psychodynamic lens (building relationships between past and present), creating a safe, transitional place to experiment with new behavior, enabling vicarious experiences, supporting collective learning, creating a true community, and taking advantage of the altruistic motive. Interestingly enough, a number of consulting firms, not amused by their clients’ inability to execute, are increasingly resorting to various group coaching methodologies to foster implementation. Let me give an example of an intervention I was asked to do:

Pushed to action by rapid evolution in the petroleum industry, the executive team of a global energy company knew they had to transform their solid but complacent organization into a high-tech, sustainability-oriented firm. To facilitate this transition, the CEO had hired Jim, a brilliant professor of engineering, as the new Chief Knowledge Officer. Around the same time, another executive was asked to join the team as Vice President Technology, Products, and Services. John was an experienced executive in the petroleum industry who was seconded by one of the major shareholders to put into operation a large offshore drilling project. These two new additions worsened, however, what was already a rather ineffective top executive decision-making body. True to form, within several months of Jim and John’s arrivals, war had broken out between these outsiders and the other members of the executive team.

The company was heavily committed to its offshore energy project, making it necessary to meet specific deadlines—and pressures were mounting. Although overruns would be extremely costly, there seemed to be a lack of urgency among the members of the executive team to move forward with the project. Instead, turf fights for resources seemed to be more important than goal alignment and working for the common good. Open, constructive communication was missing. Trust was completely absent. All of the executive team members, without exception, were failing in the execution of its intended goals. The absence of clear objectives and agreed processes resulted in unsuccessful execution of the organization’s strategy.

As matters weren’t getting any better, the CEO decided to bring everyone on the senior executive team together for what I euphemistically called a high-performance team intervention. The objective would be to reflect on their interpersonal relationships, work practices, leadership styles, and the organizational culture. The underlying agenda, however, was to create top team alignment and become more effective in implementing the corporate transformation process. Also, I planned to have a look at the underlying sources of the conflict between the various members of the executive team.

It didn’t take much effort for me to find out that due to the executive team members’ poor implementation capabilities, company morale was low, the transformation process was stalled, the offshore project was facing expensive delays, and they were on a fast track into the red. As I summed up in my interview notes, the general consensus was that the executive committee was not really a team but a group of ships passing in the night, each with a different destination. They were unable to drive a consistent action plan deep down into the organization and to unify and fully engage their employees towards execution of its organizational objectives.

At the opening of the team intervention, I gave a short lecture about high performance organizations and effective leadership. Subsequently (to break the ice and instill somewhat of a playful mood), I asked each member of the executive committee to draw a self-portrait, a picture of how they saw themselves as it related to what was in their head, heart, stomach, past, present, work, and leisure. After initial grumbling and skepticism towards such (seemingly useless) activity, all of the executives soon became quite immersed in this task. When all the self-portraits were completed and displayed on the wall, I began the session by asking Jim if he would like to kick off the process by telling the group about his drawing. He readily agreed, as this was the type of creative exercise he was comfortable with to express himself. Subsequently, each member of the executive team including the CEO went through the same process. Each one took the “hot seat” to tell his or her story and was given constructive feedback by the group.

Through the narrative of the self-portrait (combined with the sharing by each person of two 360-degree somewhat psychodynamically oriented survey feedback reports), the group of executives learned surprising things about each other. Furthermore, during the discussions that followed, it became quite clear that transferential reactions were very much at the heart of a number of conflicts between the members of the executive team. Of course, in trying to deal with it, I had to be quite careful. The statement, “slow down, I am in a hurry” was something to be kept in mind. Like in a psychoanalytic session, in this work it is important “to strike when the iron is cold.” The person needs to be ready for a transference interpretation.

One of the outcomes of the team intervention was that the executives had to face the fact that they were part of a larger system and that their present actions reinforced already prevalent silo behavior, social defenses, prevented alignment, and hampered execution. Now, encouraged by the other members of the group, each of them (including the CEO) listed several specific behavior changes they would focus on to facilitate communication and collaboration with the other team members. They all confirmed that they were truly committed to effective execution of the company’s intended strategy and to bring about the transformation process. The intervention was concluded with an action plan to identity ways in which each of them could personally contribute to the team’s alignment and become better at execution. The session included recommendations at the end to ensure clear process and accountability.

By going through this psychodynamic group coaching process, all of the executives gained considerable insights into their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses. As the session included a personal action plan for change—based on their individual feedback reports as well as the comments from the group—they promised to coach each other whenever one of them was straying from his or her specific action points. In addition, for the team-as-a-whole, they had their first real debate to obtain clarity as to where the company had to go in order to be successful and committed to a number of actions to take to become better at execution.

Through the intervention, the executive team started to act, for the first time, like a real team. They were now also prepared to work together—to align themselves behind the intended action plan—realizing that implementation, and not protectionism, was the most difficult part of their job. They were now able to communicate consistently to their employees where they, as a team, were going. Their corporate transformation plan had now become a living document. In other words, they were singing from the same page.

At a follow-up meeting several months later, I learned that the members of the executive team now felt that as a group they had become much more effective. There was a greater openness among them, marked by real dialogue and greater exchange of ideas. There was greater sense of accountability, more trust and less management by fear. This in turn facilitated stronger alignment about the direction the company should be taking. Finally, decisions were now being implemented and the company was seeing progress and moving forward.

Looking back at the coaching event, the executives marveled at the extent to which they had bonded after such a short workshop. They commented on the fact that they were now able to speak their mind; to be more vulnerable; and had developed a greater trust and respect for one another. Having this trust, they had also become better in constructive conflict resolution, leading to a greater sense of commitment and ownership, and, most importantly, obtaining better results. What’s more, the experience of the psychodynamic group coaching intervention made them realize that well-intended action plans were meaningless without also addressing the people issues within the equation.

The executive team members also commented that the psychodynamic group coaching intervention turned out to be a great way to create a truly networked organization, as it minimized the paranoid thinking that had previously been the norm within their virtual, highly diverse teams. Clearly, the group intervention broke down the silo mentality and opened up the path towards becoming a boundaryless company engaged in real information exchange. No longer—as had been the case in the past—was secrecy the norm. Now, all of them were prepared to contribute to a more agile, learning organization. And last, but not least, the psychodynamic group coaching experience had helped them to be more effective in dealing with the Achilles heel that had plagued their organization for so long: execution!

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