How projection undermines even polished performers

A few of my clients are referred by their HR Director. There are all kinds of reasons why this happens, but one of them is that an individual is seen as critical to the success of the organisation and yet there are aspects of their behaviour that make it unlikely that they will be promoted. If they use position as a way of monitoring their own self-worth, then the lack of promotion can become a serious undermining factor in their relationship with, and commitment to, their employer. It’s my job to help them understand what is going on and give them the resources to make choices for themselves.

Gordon was a good example. As MD of one of the main Divisions in his firm, his financial results were excellent and contributed about 65% of the company profits. His peers were way behind on this scale, but their input to the business strategy and perceived worth to the organisation was often higher than Gordon’s. He couldn’t understand this and often became sarcastic in executive team meetings and could be scathing in his comments about their individual businesses.

Within his own business stream though, he was very highly respected. His staff would, and often did, give 120% – working exceptionally hard, under tough conditions. Gordon would visit them personally at work, and even quite junior staff could expect a visit. He NEVER criticised anyone in these situations – if they were good, he would make them feel a mile tall, if they weren’t he’d quietly have a word with their line managers.

In the industry, his name was well known and highly regarded – indeed he was seen as the natural successor to the CEO. Of course, anyone on the executive team knew that this would never happen – given his way of treating them.

Of course, I had to create an impression with Gordon. He would not suffer a fool gladly. I needed to get him alongside in our first session. We spent it looking at his ambitions and over an hour or so reached a common agreement that something wasn’t right – that he should be promoted, wasn’t being, and so something was wrong. He had his views on this, but we agreed to let the basic conclusion rest before exploring the ‘why’.

In the subsequent session, we reviewed his peers individually and then explored the dynamics of the executive team as a whole and between individuals. Gordon was a little surprised by his own lack of recall of actual dialogue between his peers compared with the extensive recall of exchanges between him and them. We agreed that at the next executive meeting he would do his best to keep his own input to a minimum and instead he would try to make notes of other people’s conversation.

To cut a long story short, we used this material to examine two things – firstly to understand the dynamics of the whole team far better – who was allying with whom, what patterns there were in the exchanges, and so on. We also began to see how much of Gordon’s dialogue was based on interpretation of others rather than the words they actually used, and hence got to realise how much he depended on a classic defence mechanism – projection – albeit used in a rather complicated fashion.

Gordon typically, took his own feelings (about people especially), and instead of acknowledging them in himself, he would project them onto others. So, for example, he found Derek an intellectual lightweight and Derek’s comments often childish in their simplicity. He would witness Shane responding to Derek and interpret Shane’s response as being critical of Derek, even though there was no evidence to support this.

Gordon would then take up Derek’s defence (to an attack that only Gordon perceived was being made) by attacking Shane. Immediately everyone was confused, felt attacked or in imminent danger of attack, and would spring to their own or each others’ defence. It was a bizarre situation and one that frequently repeated itself in different guises.

An approach I sometime use in situations like this, involves us role playing a scenario typical of something that has recently happened in my client’s work. When I sense that the time is right, I will stop and ask the client to talk about the language that they are using. In particular, there will usually be a handful of phrases that they bring into the conversation more often that I would expect. I will replay them back and ask them where they learnt them.

In Gordon’s case the language he used in peer-to-peer exchanges, was polarised around quite dramatic (usually negative) value judgments of other people. However, if he considered that someone (such as Derek) was subordinate/inferior to him he would be highly protective of them. The voice he ‘heard’ when he was speaking these words in the role plays was always either that of his father or his mother. It transpired that when he was between 9 and 12 yrs old, his parents’ relationship was progressively in decline and they were increasingly, and quite violently, critical of one another. Gordon took on the role of protector to his younger brother and would sit for hours in bed comforting him. Eventually the marriage broke up, and Gordon and his brother were sent to boarding school – an experience he described as ‘going from one hell to another’.

With a little insight into what was happening, Gordon’s behaviour in executive meetings changed quite dramatically. He enlisted the support of his peers in reinforcing his new style and was, I believe, quite genuinely remoseful for his antagonism in previous years. While there were still many reservations about his promotion potential, he was given a new chance – and took up the post of VP North America for the parent company.

Best wishes

The abstract above illustrates typical situations that arise in the course of my work with leaders – it should go without saying that permission to quote has been given, names have been changed, and a few details tweaked to preserve confidentiality.

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