Coming Apart at the Seams: What Are the Repressed Truths Holding Your Business Back?

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'There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another...

The fear of poverty
The fear of criticism
The fear of ill health
The fear of loss of love of someone
The fear of old age
The fear of death.'

Self-help guru Napoleon Hill, ‘Think and Grow Rich' (1937), quoted in the introduction to ‘The Humans’ by Stephen Karam

I recently attended Stephen Karam’s fine play ‘The Humans’ (at the Hampstead Theatre), which considers the plight of a modern middle class American family struggling to keep their heads above water.

‘Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’

The Blakes are in many ways a typical family, bound by deep bonds of shared experience, rituals and affection; by in-jokes, teasing and bickering. Their conversation weaves effortlessly in and out of the facile and profound.

‘Well you’ve still got the will to eat superfoods – if you’re so miserable why are you trying to live forever?’

And they have the usual intergenerational disagreements around such things as religion, lifestyle, ambition and work.

‘Are you so spoiled you can’t see you’re crying over something hard work can fix?’

But the Blakes are under attack. They are assaulted from without by unaffordable housing, lack of career opportunities, unstable employment, poor pension provision, debt and unfaithful lovers.

And they are also assaulted from within. Grandmother Momo has dementia. Dad Erik is haunted by nightmares and memories of 9/11. Daughter Aimee has a chronic illness. And there are family secrets that can no longer be suppressed.

The Blake parents steadfastly cling to the belief that the American family is inherently equipped to survive; that they can get through this; that they will endure.

‘The Blakes bounce back. That’s what we do.’

But the context of contemporary life, with its very particular anxieties and inequalities, makes this confidence less convincing. It’s hard to survive in America today. And the sense of a family imploding under numerous and constant pressures is enhanced by the faltering lighting in the apartment building, and by the eerie thudding noises that emanate from the flat above. The Blakes are falling apart at the seams.

In the programme notes Karam sheds light on the theme he is exploring by quoting Sigmund Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’:

‘The ‘uncanny’ (unheimlich) is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, something once very familiar…Something uncanny in real experience can generally be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed.’

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

I found myself considering how modern businesses similarly have to cope with escalating pressures from within and without; how they also suffer tensions that derive from repressed truths dating back to the origins of the company - an enduring blind spot, a perennial vulnerability perhaps; an imbalance of talent and contribution; an asymmetry of credit and recognition; personal resentments and regrets, petty feuds and rivalries; the lack of an apology, the absence of forgiveness.

Often these tensions are suppressed, papered over, for the good of the business, for the profile of the company, for esprit de corps. But veterans and insiders know: the fault lines that were there at the outset can be seen and felt. They are familiar, not far beneath the surface. They continue to tug and tease at the corporate psyche. They play out in its ongoing challenges and disappointments.

Ask yourself this: What are our company’s repressed problems, our unarticulated tensions, the truths that dare not speak their names? What are the stresses and strains that derive from our past, but remain ever-present, uncertain and unsettled?

Often the greatest challenge any enterprise faces is to look in the mirror and see itself – clearly and honestly, without gloss or self-deception. If you at least ask the questions, you may find you’re half way to answering them.

'The changing of sunlight to moonlight,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
The greetings of people in trouble,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
Oh, my sorrows,
Sad tomorrows,
Take me back to my own home.'

The Marmalade, 'Reflections Of My Life’  (William Campbell Jnr / Thomas McAleese)

No. 201

Our Redacted Lives: Why Don’t We Take Our Whole Selves to Work?

‘The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.’

I recently visited the last home of Sigmund Freud (The Freud Museum, Hampstead). Fleeing from Nazi Austria in 1938, the elderly Freud settled in an airy, spacious Hampstead villa, not far from the Finchley Road. He lived there for little over a year - long enough to accustom himself to British life.

‘It is bitterly cold, the plumbing has frozen up and British deficiencies in overcoming the heating problem are clearly evident.’

Freud managed to take with him to Hampstead many of his possessions from Vienna, and he was able to recreate his study and consulting room in his new home. After his death, his daughter Anna preserved things as he left them.

The study is lined with books and filled with Freud’s collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental artefacts. Busts, masks and figurines queue up in ranks along the cluttered desk and shelves. He was fascinated with antiquities and regarded himself as an archaeologist of the mind.

‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’

Not far from Freud’s desk resides his original analytic couch, covered in red patterned rugs and reputed to be very comfortable. To one side, behind where the patient’s head would rest, we see the chair in which Freud would sit, prompting, listening, thinking.

‘The ego is not master in its own house.’

Freud believed that human behaviour is largely driven by unconscious motivations deriving from childhood experiences; that the sublimation of these instinctual urges of love, loss, sexuality and death creates neuroses; and that the unconscious can be revealed in dreams and unguarded moments.

‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’

During the First World War the Viennese newspapers had often been censored and Freud used the metaphor of censorship to explain the way the conscious mind actively suppresses the unconscious.

I was quite struck by the thought of self-censorship in its broadest sense. I’m sure it’s true that we keep a lid on our deepest desires and anxieties for fear of shame, opprobrium, public disapproval; in order to protect ourselves. We are unreliable narrators. We suppress inconvenient truths. We live redacted lives.

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

Example of redacted poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library (using a page from Pat Barker’s ‘The Ghost Road’)

I suspect self-censorship extends to the workplace too. In the office we are more guarded, reserved and cautious about revealing our true selves. We present an edited identity to our colleagues, one which we feel will fit in with the norms of the profession, the company culture and the boss’s expectations.

A young intern came to chat to me in the last week of her time at the Agency. She was studying communication at a college by the Elephant. She seemed intelligent, nice, polite, but not particularly out of the ordinary. We had a twenty-minute chat and she was about to go. She paused.

’Can I ask you one last question? I’ve not mentioned that I’ve been designing and selling my own fashion range online. I didn’t say anything about it before because I thought it might suggest I wasn’t dedicated to advertising. Was I right not to mention it?’

‘Not at all. It’s completely relevant. Tell me more.’

‘Well, my designs have a Somali flavour. I came over here as a refugee when I was 5 and had to learn English from scratch. I want my clothes to express my birth-culture, even though I only have vague memories of it.’

Suddenly an ordinary woman demonstrated that she was extraordinary; that she had life experiences and achievements that few in our industry could match. And yet she had been hesitating to reveal these things because she thought they might not be relevant.

I was touched, but also troubled by the realisation that this woman was in many ways typical. What was particularly frustrating was that as an employer you learn to value originality over orthodoxy; authenticity over affectation. You yearn for idiosyncrasy, individuality and independence, because these are the characteristics that drive culture and innovation.

‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.’

In an ever more automated world a company’s competitive difference is increasingly determined by its ability to realise the full value of its human capital: expressing all talents, articulating whole selves. This is not just a challenge for leaders. It’s something every individual should address.

How often do we present moderated, edited, diluted selves to our colleagues? How often do we suppress the passions and personality traits that may in fact be most useful to the business? Why can’t we take our whole selves to work?

If we can’t answer these questions, then I fear our redacted lives will inevitably become redacted careers.

No. 127

 

Stress Test: Should the Creative Professions Lead the Way in Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace?

While in Vienna last week I visited the art gallery housed in the baroque palace of The Belvedere.  In amongst the extraordinary collection of Klimts, Schieles and Austrian masters, one passes a room dedicated to the work of the eighteenth century Bavarian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Messerschmidt’s Character Heads depict the extremes of human emotion. They are twisted in laughter, disgust and despair. They grimace, gurn and gasp for breath. Initially one can’t help admiring their modernity. The heads seem to be declaring a horror at the world around them, at the absurdity and unfairness of life itself. They reminded me of Bacon.

However, the busts really are very disturbing. Most of them portray the shaven headed artist himself. He created the sculptures by pulling faces in front of a mirror.

Messerschmidt was a troubled man. His early work had observed the baroque conventions of the day. But he suffered illness and career setbacks. He developed paranoia, hallucinations and ‘confusions in the head.’ He left Vienna to live in isolation and he told one of his rare visitors that he had to sculpt extreme emotions in order to keep ‘malign spirits’ at bay. Today we would say that Messerschmidt was suffering from some form of mental illness.

'If I cannot move the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions.'

Virgil, The Aeneid, quoted by Freud

Over a hundred years after Messerschmidt’s death, as the twentieth century dawned, Vienna became the birthplace of psychoanalysis and a centre for the study of mental health. One might expect this of a thriving, progressive, modern city that claimed Sigmund Freud as a native. But Vienna was also in the grip of political upheavals and ethnic unrest. Urban life - fast paced, impersonal and endlessly changing - brought with it stress, anxiety and fears for the future. In art the confident, optimistic iconoclasm of Klimt was giving way to the neurotic angst of Schiele. There was a growing realisation that, whilst the modern age enabled huge advances in personal freedoms and material wellbeing, it was also exacting a heavy mental price.

Fast-forward another hundred years or so to modern Britain. As we rejoice in a new revolutionary age of technology and transformation, news stories about stress at work and mental health in our schools and universities seem to be on the increase.

It’s not difficult to see why.

We’re putting more pressure on our young people to perform; we’re challenging our colleagues to change. We’re endlessly measuring and setting targets. We demand speed, agility, value and competition. Now. We set our standards by celebrity; we set our goals by prosperity. Our youth suffers social media stress and cyber bullying. Our colleagues face reduced access to housing and increased inequalities of income. They work harder and longer with diminishing job security and the office has become an unwelcome insurgent into the home. Our privacy is compromised; our security is jeopardized. And meanwhile the earth dies screaming.

For the creative professions these pressures are, if anything, enhanced. Creative people can sometimes be more sensitive, more paranoid, more ill-at-ease. It’s easy to discount these tendencies as the price you pay for original ideas. But if we value independence, unconventional spirit, eccentricity and the ability to ‘think outside the box’, we should also protect the people that embody these characteristics. We should be well aware that creativity can come at a price to mental health.

No one ever got fired for asking creative teams to work over the weekend. But maybe they should. I suspect that our industry continues to over-engineer solutions; to over-promise; and therefore to feel obliged to over-deliver. Our paranoia about losing business means that we run the risk of losing people.

I worry that the culture of ‘whatever it takes’ may not be fit for the modern age. I’m concerned that sometimes leadership piles on the pressure, when it should be taking it off.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating the leaders that deliver results without delivering collateral damage?

Isn’t the role of leadership to direct talent towards the optimal answers with the least possible waste?

Shouldn’t we think about sustainability in human, not just environmental, terms?

Creative businesses have a good record in pioneering office environments, diversity of employment, professional medical support and social responsibility. Shouldn’t we, the most exposed industry, be leading the way in providing world-class mental health care in the workplace?
 

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day #WMHD

No. 51

Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Sigmund Freud (Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets, strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.

I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?… But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us.They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.

It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…

I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.

Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self realisation.

Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.

I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…

Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…

Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self knowledge, helping them to create their own narratives.

Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.

Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.

Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour, body language, choice of words and phrases.

Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies, symmetries, repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.

Our time is up..

I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality. Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.

First published: BBH LABS 01/05/2013

No. 20