Perversion at Work
We’re in an awful pickle right now over actual facts. A psychotic political campaign designed to obscure reality by waging war on fake facts was funny on twitter for about a week. Now this drive towards mindlessness threatens our grasp of reality. Hurl out aggressively the idea that everything is a lie and nobody quite gets the facts. Actually it opens the door to fascism but that’s the subject of another blog coming to you dear reader in a few weeks.
Not wishing to get beaten up behind the social media bike sheds, I’d like to remind you that facts actually exist. Truth does too but sometimes we’re like monkeys in a psychology lab throwing away our profound and deep knowledge of the world for fear of an electric shock from some sadistic scientist for choosing the wrong peanut.
Working in mental health, it’s my experience that most of us have a deep understanding of what’s what. This is based on our grasp of internal and external realities, combined and measured according to our experience of the world and the things we have learned along the way. Psychoanalysis is unfashionably insistent on this point – that both material and psychic realities exist. Both are important to know ourselves and our world. It’s when you shut yourself off from one or other or both of these realities that you start to lose your grasp of what’s happening around you. This is pretty inconvenient when you’re trying to get elected or promoted into management, but vital stuff if you are to keep your mind.
These two blogs walk us through the two sides of workplace reality – the positive life affirming stuff of working in teams and getting on at work and the funny-awful reality of our perversion in groups. Both are actual facts about work. Both worth knowing.
Something strange is happening to leadership at work. The old truths don’t seem to work anymore. Today’s leaders are not really sure which way to go. It used to be seen that every ‘leader’ needed ‘followers’, a hierarchy where people saw their future in the organisation and compliance was the order of the day. When insecurity crept in, malevolent obedience often took over or we looked for other opportunities to progress. Then in the 1990s the bonus culture emerged, a regime where both leaders and followers were captured and motivated purely by money.
The bonus culture had to be supported and maintained by measurement. What gets measured gets done. Decades later the obverse proved to be true. What gets measured gets distorted. Bankers’ bonuses were seen as the totem pole of excellent performance and leadership. Except that the tail wagged the dog and the banks that were “too big to fail” had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.
The public sector was not exempt. In the NHS for example ‘health’ inputs had to be measured. Leadership said that national targets were the way forward, bolstered by a ‘name and shame’ media culture. Then strangely, hospital staff were encouraged to become gamblers and adept at ‘gaming’ health statistics. Patients on trolleys in corridors outside A&E so as not to count against the four-hour wait target; patients being put back to the start time of their procedure if they couldn’t make an appointment or operation date. Many NHS hospitals appear to be ‘gaming’ the system to meet performance targets, in some cases changing the way they care for patients or deliberately ‘fiddling figures’ according to a report by the Dr Foster Group in 2015. A high stakes bet ignoring the actual experience of the patient and their very real health outcomes.
This is not to say that measuring progress, performance and productivity is just smoke and mirrors. Any organisation, public or private, needs to be accountable as a whole to its stakeholders. This accountability is not just for the boardroom, but right down to teams and individuals who are crucial to effective accountability.
The crucial difference is, firstly, that measurement needs to be accurate, realistic and representative of performance; not top-down targets invented to satisfy a whim or individual ego. Secondly, measurement needs to be owned by the teams and individuals, after interaction with the hierarchy on how these aims fit with overall accountability.
There are some well evidenced examples of effective measurement that not only improves productivity, but at the same time develops and encourages those involved. Against conventional wisdom in clinical surgery, the American surgeon and author Atal Gawande has demonstrated that simple application of checklists in the operating theatre gives consistently improved patient outcomes and lowered mortality rates (The Checklist Manifesto: Profile Books 2011). Matthew Syed’s study into ‘marginal gains’ operated by Team Sky, GB Olympic cycling team and others (Black Box Thinking: John Murray 2015) demonstrates that finite incremental improvement and experimentation in an atmosphere of trust where ‘learning by failure’ as an accepted norm delivers fantastic results and competitiveness.
Sixty years ago Edwards Deming, the father of today’s quality movement, advocated ‘continuous improvement’ in a climate of openness that ‘drives out fear’ as opposed to the ‘blame culture’ that is often evident. These policies have since been successfully applied in manufacturing (Morton,C. Becoming World Class: Macmillan 1994) Those seeking real leadership could still benefit from these models of how to lead.
For many organisations the leadership ‘product’ is image. Reputation management is a science of its own. In politics this has become the leitmotif. Our former prime minister(s) were famous for it, in particular David Cameron, for whom the issue of the PR image became dominant. The recent BREXIT experience had fear as a common trademark for both IN and LEAVE camps. However, the IN camp focussed on the economic dis-benefits of leaving the EU, using what might be termed ‘left brain’ analysis, which seemed sensible and rational to the elite and the establishment, but to the millions voting LEAVE it was a fog of statistics that was not relevant to their experience. They voted on their emotions – what felt right to them.
Psychiatrist, philosopher and author Iain McGilchrist has studied the structure and functioning of the brain over many years and has concluded that the ‘divided brain’ – between left and right sides, is not operating as designed and that over centuries, instead of the two sides being complementary and supportive, the western world has allowed the ‘left brain’ to dominate. McGilchrist argues that the left and right hemispheres have differing insights, values and priorities. Each has a distinct perspective on the world – most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it. (The Master and his Emissary: Yale 2009).
What this means is that decision-making at government and political level, as well as in business and organisations has put analysis and tangible facts at a much higher order than creativity, emotions, connectedness and the bigger picture.
It means that leadership has often used the wrong language and rationale to convince itself and the populace; a populace which has now reacted and rejected the rationale of the elite as evidenced by the BREXIT result, and currently the schism within the Labour Party.
Leaders need to encompass the complementarity of the two hemispheres of the brain, embracing intuition and ambiguity as well as hard facts and structural solutions.
Connectivity is vital, asking the transformative questions: who can we work with? Who else can we learn from? Can we build bridges across boundaries to learn and act? Do we need to tackle the problem in the way we always have done? Have we involved all those with differing backgrounds/diverse views?
Successful organisations show that team-working and understanding of difference within organisations is the starting point, flowing through to effective change processes, partnership and innovation with others to provide connectivity. It is about both listening and the language we use to promote understanding and meaning at work. This provides for growth of leaders as well as for the organisations and the people that they manage.
Pervert behaviour appears in any context. One can encounter them in education, in big multi-nationals, in handicraft businesses, or in a small neighbourhood store. Yet no matter where a ‘pervert kernel’ crops up, its victims suffer.
Psychoanalysis offers us important tools for understanding the darker side of relational complications in the workplace. The idea of pervert kernels refers to a dynamic coalition of people powerfully organised within a wider group. In workplaces, a pervert kernel is a group of people centred around a person who turns them against one or more colleagues in an insidious manner – poisoning their relations, undermining the value of the others’ labour and spreading despair on people outside the coalition. These kernels involve an alliance which acts parasitically, distorting real facts and perverting them for narcissistic and at times material gains. On a psychological level, a shared fantasy of indestructibility and impenetrability is realised.
The actions of pervert kernels in work environments are founded in a kind of delusion of grandeur, even though they do not appear as such. Indicative of this is the certainty of invulnerability that they give out and the sense of omnipotence that people in these groups share, which surpass the boundaries of a mere fantasy. It is a sort of delusional certainty, a kind of “madness” whose symptoms are manifested in others. Nonetheless, the ways it is implemented are socially adjusted in every respect.
More often than not the leader of such a perverse team is someone who holds a secondary or ancillary position and someone who does not want to progress or go somewhere else. Most of them create a position of counter-leader. Furthermore, leaders of pervert kernels can be people who simply cannot tolerate the abilities of colleagues, so they try to undermine their work, their position or their image in the eyes of others. Yet for this pervert alliance to be sustained, it needs to be concealed. Secrets and silence are the principal and implicit rules making the experience of working alongside a pervert kernel disorienting and puzzling.
To comprehend pervert kernels we can draw on what Racamier (1992) called ‘pervert thought’, understood as the exact opposite of ‘creative thought’. Pervert thought is not motivated by curiosity or emotions, nor is it interested in engagement with other thinkers or ideas. Rather pervert thought is motivated by the desire for mastery, for action and manipulation of others. It is fundamentally narcissistic and megalomaniac.
An individual with this kind of thinking has an exceptional competence to promptly perceive the abilities and weaknesses of another person, and then use them against them. Hence, they are a ‘pervert narcissus’, capable of luring the other into artificially constructed contradictions, hints, allusions and lies, through an extremely competent use of language. In due course, they will manage to discredit and isolate them from the group of people they are working with and in which they have invested. The pervert narcissist (Racamier, 1992, Hirigoyen, 2012), who is the inconspicuous inspirer of this team, is a person who readily lies, degrades and accuses others. They are driven by a private morality, beyond social order; the symbolic law of prohibition, which sets the fundamental limits in co-habitation of humans, simply does not concern them (Clavreul, 1967). That is why they feel guilty only when they transgress their own private rules and not the laws of a state.
The goal of such a person is to attain a devious and veiled influence. Moreover, they aim at the disintegration of others, at a kind of destruction of the group, no matter how small or big it is. In work environments, they orchestrate around them pervert kernels in an insidious and methodical manner.
As abominable as these pervert narcissists might be, we need to reflect how the narcissistic ideals of our era create fertile ground for these kernels to become established. The promotion of an individual without deficiencies, who is better than all the others – the ‘successful’ one, or even the omnipotent one – transforms the culture of our working lives into superhuman ventures which compress human endurance. In this narcissistic model of being at work, we are all seduced into transforming into avatars that can achieve imaginary goals at a speed which is not humanly attainable. These are narcissistic tales of an era which eventually nurtures even more depressed and deprived narcissists who in turn attempt to survive work by poisoning the people around them.
The psychopathologies of working life are symptoms of a deeper morbidness at the level of the social, of the ‘Οther’. Within psychoanalytic thinking if we are to avoid becoming a casualty of this workplace perversion we need to return to the domain of humanness, one that holds onto our sense of limits, of emotional contact, of reality, realistic satisfaction and achievement. Without this we simply won’t survive.
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