Article published on “Organizational and Social Dynamics”


In this article, we explore a core set of organisational and social dynamics at work in the business world: the denial and disowning of the part we play in co-creating the world we live in; and the splitting needed to protect us from the guilt and shame that owning our part would unleash. We begin with exploring the Winnicottian splitting between the “false self” and the “true self”.

We then venture into new territories, by exploring the denial, disowning, and splitting that is needed in the “business as usual” economy to keep business going and avoid acknowledging its degrading impacts on social and ecosystems, creating, to paraphrase Winnicott, a split between a “false world” and a “true world”.

Mainstream organisations have tended to structure this splitting formally through organisational defences, but are now at risk of being flooded with their split off parts. We then ask ourselves what can be done to start addressing our impact truthfully, and contribute to a shift from a degrading economy to a regenerative economy. The importance of containing and working through the guilt and shame that this might generate is explored, as well as the notions of purpose and purposeful leadership.


Keywords: systems psychodynamics, social systems, organisational change, leadership, defences.


On a recent radio programme, a leading French environmentalist summed it all up: “I think it’s better to drive your old diesel car to work if you work on an organic farm than to feel proud of cycling to work when actually you work for Monsanto.” In saying that, he shone light on one of our long-held collective blind-spots: we co-create the world that we live in, not only by our actions as citizens and consumers, but also (and perhaps primarily) by our own contributions to the impacts that the organisation we work for has, directly or indirectly, on the world.

In other words, we may have spent too many decades focusing on professional competencies and career trajectories (outputs), when perhaps a more fundamental question was left off the radar: what world are we helping our organisation to co-create (outcomes) thanks to these professional competencies and career that we invest in it?

In this article we will explore the conscious and unconscious dynamics at work when, through the roles we take up in organisations, we contribute to shaping the world we live in, and what leverage we have to align these actions with our intention.


Bursting the bubble

Michael is a man in his forties, who read at one of France’s best business schools, and was moving towards a promising career. Throughout his childhood he was told, as most of us were, how important successful studies were—the key to a fulfilling career, to achieving one’s full potential.

As he graduated from his prestigious business school, Michael got offered several tempting jobs. He opted for one of the big three pharmaceuticals companies, and did so for several reasons: first of all, the overall mission of the company caught his altruistic self; contributing to the world population’s health, and solving some of the greatest health challenges was a quest worth embarking on. The company’s huge resources also meant that much would be possible, and that boldness and creativity would not only be encouraged, but also met with the appropriate means for action. Finally, joining such a big, international company meant entering a field in which his own career could grow and blossom.

As the years went on, Michael became, quite naturally, identified as a “high potential” by the company’s talent management department, and was offered several career opportunities, including leadership posts abroad, where he was able, each time, to confirm his potential for becoming, one day, one of the top fifty executives in the company.

Twelve years after joining, however, Michael decided to quit. Not for a competitor, with higher salary and even greater career prospects. Not because he had enough of the health sector and wanted to explore another industry. No; Michael resigned and decided to launch a business that, despite being in the same field as his previous job, was the antithesis of what he had been doing: he left one of the Big 3 to launch a natural health products business.

Michael’s story illustrates many others at the beginning of this twenty-first century. At the heart of it, we find a recurrent pattern, in which brilliant graduates, full of potential, choose to resign from a promising career not for a better paid job or one that holds greater perspective, but for something altogether different. In other words, they quit not only their job, but the very paradigm in which career has been “sold” to them, in order to find something that could not be found in this current paradigm, and could only exist in a new one.


Career development and splitting

Most of us—and most certainly Michael—were asked throughout our childhood the eternal question: “what do you want to be/do when you’re older?”. Undoubtedly, this question was meant to be helpful, to enable us to draw from within us a vision of what our adult life might look like—thus helping us identify the type of studies that we might need to undertake in order to fulfil this vision.

Of course, this envisioning question also served as a container for our parents’ anxiety, providing reassurance that their offspring would indeed “do something with their life”, but also giving them the opportunity to reframe the vision in order to help their child “aim higher”.

In that context, children over the last few decades have been thinking in terms of professions and in terms of industries: being a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, working in a bank, in finance, being a consultant …. In their own unconscious, and that of their parents (and of society more broadly), those professions and those industries carried certain values, and served as markers of success, both in the eyes of those around them (external sources of gratification) but also in terms of financial achievement.

In her article Les ‘hauts potentiels’ et le ‘faux-self’”, Maryse Dubouloy (2006) explains the impact that such a construction of one’s possible future has on the individual once (s)he is confronted with the reality of the work environment. Anchoring her argument in the work of Winnicott, she suggests that very early on, in order to secure their parents’ love and positive regard, children will over develop those capacities, attitudes, and behaviours that they sense are more highly valued by their parents, at the risk of leaving other parts of themselves dormant, or at least under developed. In the process, they thus develop a “false self” that they present to the world, and hide in their own unconscious (through a splitting process) who they really are, their “true self”.

Having worked with dozens of those high potentials managers, Dubouloy started identifying a pattern, where after brilliant studies and excellent beginnings in their careers, those high potentials often go through a deep inner crisis when confronted with an event hitherto unusual for them: a big failure, such as a lost contract, a missed promotion, or being fired. For the first time, their over-adapted self can no longer “save” them; it can no longer provide the gratification they have constantly sought, leaving them with a huge sense of emptiness and of worthlessness. Unaware, they stumble across the chasm between their false and true self, between the false promises of narcissistic security on the one hand, and the unbounded possibilities of being who they truly are, which at this precise moment does not feel at all liberating but rather oppressive and persecutory.

Michael’s story finds many echoes in Dubouloy’s work, yet it offers a new dimension to, and a new perspective on, the chasm. The false promises and the development of a false self are indeed present here too. Undoubtedly, Michael did well at school, fought hard to enter one of the best and most prestigious business schools in France, and chose a big, internationally renowned multinational corporation to work in, because it matched the expectations his family had on him, and embodied what success looks like in society.

At an unconscious level, Michael most probably operated a splitting of his self into a true and a false self, unconsciously ensuring that his public persona matched external expectations (thus providing him with external gratification) whilst suppressing his true self from his conscious experience. Michael’s resignation, therefore, may well be linked to a desire to let his true self come forth, although data do not entirely match what Dubouloy has indicated as the usual triggers for such an internal shake-up: Michael’s decision did not follow a failure-induced crisis; he didn’t lose out on a promotion, nor lost a contract, or anything of the sort. Could there be something else at work here?

Looking at the data again, we can see that Michael’s decision came about when he began to realise the impact the pharmaceuticals industry had on the world, and therefore his own contributions to that impact. As a marketing director, his job was to ensure that an increasing amount of customers would buy the company’s drugs. Increase in sales was therefore a key indicator of success. However, at the same time, research began to show that increasing use of antibiotics were actually one of the root causes of antibiotic resistant microbes.

In some ways, the more antibiotics he helped sell, the more antibiotic resistant microbes he would help develop. Another insight came when, at a conference for the pharmaceutical industry, he discovered that of all the drugs produced by all pharmaceuticals companies, probably about 15% were more effective than placebos—whilst the remaining 85%, of course, produced a lot more side effects than placebos.

Slowly but surely, Michael also came to realise that the business model of the pharmaceutical industry requires people to be ill in order to work; the mission statement that originally attracted him to the company (contributing to the world population’s health) actually relied on its shadow side: requiring people to be ill. Promoting health was therefore not expected, because it ran the risk of putting the company out of business.

So much so that, as a marketing director, he was once asked to contribute to finding a way of selling a molecule that the R&D department had discovered, but for which there was no known disease. They ended up finding broadly-linked non pathological behaviours that they could then package as a syndrome, in order, later on, to frame it as an illness. As he puts it, “we entered the meeting with a molecule, and we left with an illness.”

In other words, what really came through for Michael after twelve years in his job, was not just the splitting he had to operate in order to “be successful” in the eyes of others and of his false self, but, perhaps even deeper, the splitting he had to do of the impact he himself was having on the world through mobilising his skills and competencies at the service of his company. I use the expression “even deeper” because, in many ways, the splitting of the impact that our professional actions have on the world is not just an intra-psychic dynamic; it is also, and perhaps first of all, a societal dynamic.

It is induced by the very paradigm in which most of us are invited to imagine ourselves professionally, when asked “what do you want to do/be when you’re older?”, rather than “what do you want to contribute to when you’re older?”. A paradigm that values career progression intrinsically without inquiring into (and even less evaluating) the impact those increasing professional responsibilities end up having on the world. Perhaps shifting the frame in that way could yield huge transformations.