By definition, psychotherapy provides therapy for the psyche. Thus, therapeutic activity aims to change your mind or your soul. It’s not for nothing that it’s called mental health.
Supposedly, therapy shows you how to get in touch with your feelings, to discover what you really, really want, even to think more clearly, constructively and optimistically. Different forms of psychotherapy approach the problems differently, but they all seem to value some form of introspection. In principle, once you purge your mind of bad thoughts, learn your true feelings and think and feel more constructively, your life will move along swimmingly.
This sounds well and good, yet it ignores the often decisive influence of other minds. How others see you, how they think about you, whether or not they respect or trust you… all of these must be considered if we are to know how to live a happier and more productive life.
Of course, therapists have sometimes fudged the issue by saying that you should not concern yourself with your reputation. You should follow your bliss or act on your desire, regardless of how others feel about you, how they see you, whether or not they respect or trust you.
This is, dare I say, folly.
No man is an island, the poet said, and no individual mind exists in isolation from other minds.
Admittedly, therapists tend to follow the lead of Erik Erikson and declare that your sense of identity, your sense of being the same person then and now is merely a state of mind.
If you think that this is the case, imagine walking around one day, performing your daily routines and having no one recognize you for who you think you are. How long before you start doubting your conscious belief that you know who you are?
If you look at the larger issue, you will not get very far in this world if you pay no attention at all to how you look to others, whether others respect you or disparage you, whether others trust you or like you. Your good character, your ability to function within society depends in very large part on how others see you. Ignoring your reputation and your responsibility to build a good one is very bad advice. It is certainly not the royal road to mental health.
After all, libel, slander and defamation of character are civil torts. In the world of political correctness you can be shunned by society and have your reputation ruined beyond repair if you say the wrong thing about a certain group of people.
All things considered, it is astonishing that so many therapists function as though other minds did not really matter.
For this reason I was especially intrigued by an article by Karen Cates, a woman with considerable experience in management.
Cates emphasizes a simple point: if you want to exercise leadership or to manage other people it matters enormously how they see you. Thinking that it’s all a state of your mind will undermine your chances for managerial success.
Cates raises a great question: how can you have any control over the way people talk about you? How can you have any influence over your staff’s gossip about?
And, perhaps as importantly, can you do so without sound like a whiner and a complainer?
Leaders, being in the spotlight, are particularly at risk. Team members often see only parts of projects. They can miss meetings, or work off-site. Ordinary scenarios can breed uncertainty (“What did he say?”), followed by speculation (“He seemed pretty unhappy with the project schedule.”) Before you know it, the team has created your story. “He’s going to make some big changes around here, even though the delays aren’t our fault.” In a heartbeat, you can go from being a motivating leader whose team gets the job done to a self-interested jerk willing to throw his team under the bus.
How does an effective manager tamp down the tendency to gossip? How did Cates learn the habits that made it less likely that others would fill in the blanks with their own narratives?
The answer, she found, was to communicate clearly and directly, to share plans and strategy, even the reasoning that led to the creation of a plan. This means… to share facts and information.
In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, what they fill in will often be negative because worst-case scenarios at least prepare them for action. As a leader, you need to own your stories, for your sake and for that of your team. By sharing expectations and communicating direction about how events should be interpreted, you not only manage your reputation, you make the workplace feel safe and predictable.
A good leader is not mysterious. He or she is, as the often maligned statement goes, transparent.
Unlike many psychotherapists, a leader is not inscrutable. He does not behave in a way that will encourage interpretation. In this way he is the opposite of psychoanalytically inspired therapists, the kind that wrap themselves in mystery, the better to provoke interpretation and gossip.
If you want to learn how to be a good manager or an effective leader the example set by psychoanalytic therapists is entirely wrong.