Many people do not know themselves

Mandred Kets de Vries

Prof. Manfred Kets de Vries is one of the most influential business thinkers in the world and is one of the first researchers in management to draw inspiration from psychoanalysis. He is the Founding Director of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Centre and the founder of the consulting firm The Kets de Vries Institute. In 2011, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the IEDC-Bled School of Management, and in October this year he will again deliver a lecture, this time as a keynote speaker at the Annual HR forum.He was born in the occupied Netherlands during the World War II, a time that brought about an unimaginable human tragedy. It is not surprising, therefore, that he is interested in researching of the pathological leadership and the abuse of power. It was thanks to his ideas, that social sciences taught at business schools, started including the topic of the individual, the human being, his psyche and his dark sides. In the early 70s such a viewpoint was considered unorthodox. At the time, major academic research and teaching was focused around structures and systems. Nowadays it becomes more acceptable to consider both rational and irrational sides in business, so Kets de Vries' teaching as percieved not only as a  pioneering, but the reason that brought a paradigm shift. Prof. Manfred Kets de Vries open the doors to modern thinking of empowerment and humanization of a workplace. His statement about humans not being rational decision-makers is no longer considered as a herecy. While Prof. Kets de Vries who foresaw already 50 years ago the key weakest points in any organisation, is an inspiring interlocutor, he is at the same time a far from easy person to interview. Talking to him was like a journey that carries you away with its own flow. As a psychoanalyst he is used to approach the subject from various angles, returning to the same idea many times, which can leave a listener, who is accustomed to a more linear thinking, rather confused. On October 10, he will share his views at the IEDC-Bled School of Management in frame of the Annual HR Forum.

In the management cirlces, you are known as one of the pioneers to bring psychoanalysis with leadership and HR practices together. How do you see these three disciplines intertwine?

When I was finishing my PhD at Harvard Business School, everyone was dealing with structures and systems issues. However, it’s a well-known fact that 99% of our behaviour is controlled by our unconsciousness. To get to the bottom of functioning of any organisation, we have to research first the human being, his realities and demons. Here psychoanalysis plays a major role. There are many types of intelligence. The IQ is sort of fixed once we reach the adulthood and there is little we can do to increase it. When it comes to EQ or emotional intelligence, there is room for improvements. Some people say that IQ defines only 20% of the success of the person in life: one gets a job based on his/her IQ, however, he or she gets promoted based on the EQ. The latter is really dependent on the level of the self-awareness of the individual. The self-awareness, or understanding of oneself, own wishes and motivation, is very important.
Above the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi it was written, "Know thyself." This finding is as true today as it was in those ancient times. If we want to develop a more effective leadership, we need to start with ourselves. However, the hardest thing to see is what we have in front of us.

What else apart from self-awareness that leaders might lack?

Majority of leaders might get trapped in four so-called fairy tales. At the beginning of my career at INSEAD I was researching the dark sides of the organisation. My key task was to figure out how to help people who work well to get even better. The research was based on plentiful conducted 360 evaluations. If you are told once that you behave as an arrogant person, you might overlook it, however, if you are told multiple times that you behave as a narcissist, that might draw necessary attention. We need to be aware of our strong and weak points. Majority of people do not really know themselves.

Secondly, a lot of people are full of themselves. Look at neighbouring Hungary, turkey, the USA. Robert Mugabe is a classic example of a leader, who wanted to change the country, but, on the contrary, just destroyed it. Unfortunately, in this age of greed and anxiety, short-term benefits prevail, while bold, imaginative leadership is sorely lacking. Leaders quickly find themselves in so-called room full of mirrors. They see what they want to see and everybody nods in approval. The tendency to overpower and a high position can quickly lead to a disaster!
The third fairy tale is that leaders get the best out of their people. They are convinced that they know their people. But they don’t. Here psychoanalysis comes very handy in seeing the truth behind the veil.

The forth fairy tales talks about the teams. The cost of lack of cooperation in teams can be huge. I advocate for a group coaching for leaders as an experiential form of education that helps grow more effective leaders. My team coaching model, which includes case studies from real life, was developed based on more than 20 years of running leadership programs. It is a process which gently forces people to change. Leadership does not happen in solitude and stands apart from everything else; it is about a group of people who build on the strengths of each individual group member.

There is also the fifth fairy tale of mine, about the organisational culture. Toxic environment is very common. People in such organisations feel threatened. So how can fear be eliminated in such circumstances?

You are cited to offer a solution in a form of an »authentizotic« organizations that you define as environments where people trust each other, have freedom of expression and are autonomous in their work.

It's a utopia. There are no such organisations in reality.

What can we do to counteract fear?

Create safety. If every time you have done something wrong, you are afraid to be "beheaded", criticized, of course, you do not feel safe. HR managers here play an important role in advising the executives. However, in reality HR managers have no power in such situations whatsoever. The Chief HR Officer in fact is usually the CEO. By the way, which animal species is the closest to humans?

If I'm not mistaken, it's a chimpanzee.

Correct. Unfortunately, we are living in a gorillas society. Chimpanzee exercise matriarchy, while gorillas rule unanimously.

Are you talking about a turnaround then? So if HR managers are the catalysts for change, should they in fact focus on trying to enforce changes in leadership skills of top managers instead of dealing (only) with employees?

Exactly. However, that is not the case. HR managers quite often are mere administrative workers. In addition, they are, by nature, people who are genuinely interested in a fellow human being, however, one of their common tasks is making people redundant. Of course, this is very frustrating. The HR profession is a mysterious profession.

What impact as a professor do you have on people's lives?

At the macro level, it is my life's mission to reintroduce the human dimension into organizations - to create organizations that can get the best out of people and help them become more better human beings.

I also set out on a mission to do everything in my power to prevent dysfunctional, pathological leadership. Among teaching methods, I favor storytelling. I am the author of more than 150 case studies, but increasingly so I find it more effective to ask leaders to tell their story. Becoming your own case study is a powerful took. For example, once a year, I have a workshop for senior executives - 21 people responsible for 50,000 employees. If I could change them at least a little bit, who knows what else will change?

Of course, it is a difficult task to change people who are 45 years old, but as a professor I set myself the goal of helping people to feel better in their own skin and to get a bit happier.

Happiness is elusive.

Happiness is not only a matter of good health and bad memory. What is more important is to have something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. Happiness does not come when we get something we have never had before, but by knowing and appreciating what we have.

On October 10, you will be lecturing at the Annual HR Forum of the IEDC-Bled School of Management. What will be your key message?

Well, it certainly won't be straightforward message. I will point out that people are not rational decision-makers and that we all have a dark side. I will also talk about how not to keep feeding bad habits and patterns and how to develop more effective leaders. Leaders sometimes take wrong turns...

Are »demons« of top leaders different from ours?

We are all social beings seeking for meaning. We love to belong, so building a solid network around us is essential. That is the reason why personal and professional life cannot be separated. Having a messy personal life will put us at a disadvantage in our careers; and vice versa.

When looking at my MBA students, I tend to notice a lot of wrong choices made. These causes a lot of confusion, but people still insist on staying in the same line of work forever. In Russia, where I work a lot, for example, people are used to get married young, have a child, who is then “dumped” onto their grandmother for upbringing and then the couple divorces. And the question they ask is: Should I change my partner or my job?

What is better?

It's harder to find another partner, such a decision brings more chaos, children are invovlved. Quite often people live parallel lives.

Would you say that the meaning of success today changed in comparison to what it meant 50 years ago?

My generation was willing to put up with much more nonsense to earn a lot of money for it. This is no longer the case today. Success is about making the right choices. The success of the company is multifaceted and shareholder value is just one of the criteria. This was sometimes not as clear to everyone as it is today. If you produce paints and flush the poison into the river - this is not a success. I would say that new generations are more socially responsible.

Interviewed by Tonja Blatnik for Dnevnik (original in Slovenian):

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