Can you identify with this?

imgres The lesson for today, girls and boys, is on “projective identification.” (Hey, pay attention. There may be a quiz.)

You’re probably aware that you can unconsciously “project” attributes (bad and good) onto others—whether lovers, therapists, bosses, political leaders, etc. But if you can get those others to “identify” with your projections, things can get really interesting. They can start believing that they are dumber, weaker, more flawed than they really are—or wiser, stronger, more virtuous—depending on your idealized fantasies!

This projective identification is well-known to therapists who must be forever vigilant against it, so they don’t buy into their patients’ imaginings of them and begin behaving out of character.

It’s less-understood in the workplace where executives, managers, and supervisors can internalize their employees’ fantasies about them, good or bad. If organizational leaders don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with—an effective boundary against the onslaught of projections hurled at them—they’re especially vulnerable to such transference. (In the self-help lit they’re sometimes called “wounded leaders” because of their unresolved personal issues.) The raging boss or supercilious executive are typical examples.

I first began to witness projective identification (though I didn’t know the term at the time) in my rock & roll years when I witnessed close-hand the personality changes that many musical artists underwent on their road to success. Some of it seemed pretty harmless—and maybe healthy—up to a point. I saw a teenage Jackson Browne gain in confidence as audiences and critics lauded his precocious songwriting gifts. As he began to buy into the mythology being spun around him in Southern California, he rapidly gained in stature—and charisma. (I remember thinking at the time that this “charisma thing” might just be a mirror, reflecting back the audience’s fantasies of him.) The skinny baladeer once ignored by everyone became a larger-than-life Don Juan poet. Whether he eventually abused that power is up for debate.

I saw a similar dynamic taken to obviously dysfunctional extremes by rock bands who started to believe their own press and act out the “desperado” roles that were expected to play. (The movie Almost Famous captures this pretty well.) Often these megastars had fragile personalities to begin with, which were manipulated by the projections of their fans. (“Wounded leaders” applies here too.)

But the most destructive form of projective identification I’ve seen has occurred not in business or therapeutic circles, and not in the entertainment field, but with spiritual leaders and gurus who are thrown off by the adulation heaped upon them by followers, giving them delusions of omnipotence. In a spiritual community such rock star status can be particularly dangerous—for men especially—because they’re expected to toe the line against sexual promiscuity (if not practice total celibacy) while female acolytes kiss their feet (often literally). Spiritual literature throughout the ages is rife with warnings of the seduction of such power. But they don’t mention that followers are fully colluding in this entrapment by laying their projections on the leaders.

Bringing this back to business, here’s an essay question for you. Do you have a leader or boss who seems to be acting out others’ fantasies—for better or worse? (Less than 100 words please.)

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  1. i once had a boss who considered himself infallible and expected everyone to recognize his superior wisdom and awesome genius. and if you didn't, you didn't last long. he had plenty of acolytes who treated him like a god and helped keep the charade going. he eventually drove the business into the ground of course, which he blamed on others.

    1. Yes, acolytes enable (collude with) the behavior, as we see inside and outside the workplace. All held in place by assumptions of hierarchy.

        1. ASSUMPTIONS of hierarchy. It doesn't work in a lot of situations. I'll expand on this in a future post.

  2. Working for a large, multinational Japanese company, I get to see a lot of Japanese managers and experience their particular take on things. One issue with Japanese culture is that the boss is expected to be the all-seeing, all-knowing Fount of All Wisdom and this expectation is routinely projected at them even by their senior staffers.

    It's a pretty heavy mantle for most people to wear but the majority of Japanese managers I've worked with or for have adopted it - because it's expected of them. Problems emerge in all sorts of situations.

    Sometimes, the boss is boss on pretty much a buggin's turn basis and, while he would never admit it, he feels out of his depth. (This is a Japanese company: the boss is a "He.") But he can't show it. So he either makes a few off the cuff decisions that are so wrong, it's scary and it's damaging. Or he doesn't make a decision, feigning the need to think about it, and no decision ever gets announced because his staffers, having asked, are too polite to push him. Again, this is damaging.

    On the other hand, you sometimes get someone whose pretty darned good and you get some pretty darned good and quick decisions. And orders. And occasionally, this doesn't become a sort of megolomania as the guy becomes intoxicated with all these folks running around following his every order. Just hope and pray the guy wasn't just thinking aloud or mulling over some different options when those staffers rush off and steer the organisation down some totally oddball path because the boss said it mightn't be such a bad idea to re-launch that product the market hated but with a re-worked controller and a 40% price cut...

  3. Great example, Mark! One can begin to empathize with the position that these bosses (and leaders in other fields) find themselves in. Who's to blame? The chicken or the egg? The victimizer is a victim. In the end a destabilized boss can wreak havoc in an organization. The wounded leader creates wounded followers, and the cycle continues.

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