Purpose as a way of working through this splitting


Figure 1, adapted from the work of the Grubb Institute1, can help us understand what is at work in Michael’s experience.

In that framework, Michael (a Person) works in a pharmaceuticals organisation (a System) that has an impact in the world (the Context). Through his actions, Michael contributes to co-creating an organisation that, in turns, contributes to co-creating the world. As a Person, Michael lives in this world, and indeed dreams of a world in which he would like to live—a world that he would like to improve, in which one could find more health, more well-being, more happiness. Twelve years ago, he had in fact joined an organisation to fulfil its stated purpose (to improve world’s health) because it was coherent with his own intention for the world.

For all those years, however, the world he wanted to live in was the antithesis of the world his company was contributing to co-create. At a conscious level, Michael was not aware of this. Personal and societal defence mechanisms (such as filtering data, blocking out certain questions, refusing to venture into certain conversations, etc.) helped him stay disconnected from this “true world”, enabling him to operate in a “false world” in which the world he lived in was not the result, in part, of the outputs of his company.

In other words, in order to live in that reality and remain sane, Michael had to unconsciously operate a clear split, within himself, of these two worlds. Engaging with NGOs, with church groups and other solidarity initiatives in his private life; and applying his talents to branding new molecules for his company in his professional life.

Where he found true purpose in his private life, this was absent from his professional life. Worse, the formal purpose claimed by his company as a mission statement (solving the world’s greatest health challenges) proved highly disconnected from the enacted one2 (finding lucrative markets for molecules they developed).

In Figure 1, where the three circles meet is the place where one can lead with Purpose, for instance, mobilise the System to enact a purpose that has an impact in the world congruent with the kind of world one intends to live in. From his position, Michael felt it impossible to access such a leadership space, and chose to stop contributing to co-create a System whose enacted purpose ran against his own. So he left to launch a business (a new System) in which his personal and professional purposes could integrate into one. Just as Dubouloy describes the shift from “false self” to “true self”, we coin here the idea that Michael’s decision was an enactment of his intention to move out of a “false world” and into a “true world”.

From individual to collective denial: the role of organisational defence mechanisms

The denial, defence, and splitting dynamics explored above in detail are damaging for self, and, one could argue, damaging for the world too. For many, whether they work in the business world or simply comment on it, there is a perception though that, however regrettable this may be, this kind of consideration about the impact of our activities on the world doesn’t have its place in business, where, after all, all that should matter is “what is good for business”—the rest being just externalities. So as long as the business grows, all is good, or so they would like us to believe—thus laying the foundations for collective denial and disowning.

Part of the tragedy, beyond the degrading impacts of those activities on our living ecosystems, is that, from even a business perspective, there could not be greater misconception. Any business (System), in order to thrive, has to continuously monitor the world in which it evolves (Context), and anticipate where it is heading in order to modulate its responses to that emerging world—rather than trying to filter out external reality in order to continue on its path of producing the kind of responses it has always had.

To frame it through psychodynamic language, building defences against anxiety can be functional up to a certain point, but never actually resolves the anxiety itself, nor its source. Psychological maturation is what will help work through the anxiety, by addressing the issues that generate it in the first place. But by leading us to believe that “all that should matter is what is good for business”, a societal denial can be sustained by a collective narrative that then makes it very hard to get to the reality of the world we are creating (the “true world”), constantly “selling” us a “false world” which, even if analysed within a business paradigm, would fail its own test.

An illustration of this can be found with the former businessman and now President of the USA, and the huge walls he is attempting to erect. Whilst the most publicised amongst those is the phantasmagorical erection of a wall between the USA and Mexico, another one, more subtle, is already at work: the psychic wall between what the evidence-based science says about climate change, and the policies he is driving through Congress. Whilst those may (or may not) yield temporary success for business, they will certainly increase the rise in sea levels along the coasts (Miami is already facing huge challenges), droughts and wildfires in California, and soil depletion and soil toxicity throughout the land, to name but a few. At this rate, America in fifteen to twenty years time will not be a place in which business can prosper because there won’t be any customers—so busy will they be at trying to survive the conditions they’ll be swamped in.

Denial of climate change is also coming at a high cost for those very industries we might have thought could gain the most out of this denial: the fossil fuel industry. Throughout the world, the first hit seems to be the coal companies, where several of the top players are facing bankruptcy. As the divesting movement has gained traction, and the COP 21 Paris agreement has prompted more and more countries and financial institutions to stop funding coal (an estimated six trillion dollars have been divested so far3), the industry was not able to react quickly enough. Their business model relied on the world using coal, and doing so at a growing rate.

As the evidence mounted of the impact of CO2 on the rise in temperatures, undoubtedly many of those working in the coal industry (unconsciously) experienced an inner split between securing an income for their family today and creating a perilous future in which to live for those very children they were happy to be able to feed today. This splitting necessitates psychic defences in order to last, meaning that at an individual level, rationalising, leaving out data, cutting out feelings, etc., are used to sustain this disconnection from an otherwise unbearable reality.

But beyond these individual splitting processes—and indeed, perhaps even driven by them—it is a true organisational defence system that was created in order to keep the business going4. At its core, it involves creating a culture that leaves out data that challenges the status quo, promotes those who reinforce the dominant story and excludes (through intimidation and/or sacking) those who speak up for alternatives. We see here similar dynamics to those analysed by Amy Fraher (2005) in the cockpit of planes involved in crashes—leading here, for this matter, to the crash of the organisation itself.

Next on the list, unless they react quickly, are the oil companies. Where coal has been used primarily for generating electricity, and can therefore be replaced more and more by nuclear or renewable energies, petrol has gained a reprieve, since it is still greatly needed for transport, food, and building, to name but a few. However, financial institutions are already evaluating the risk of “stranded assets”, that is, being left with assets invested in oil firms that have lost a lot of their value, and are likely to drive a similar turn in the market to the one that has prompted the fall of the coal industry. The risk thus is growing of financial institutions massively divesting from oil companies. What then is keeping oil companies entrenched in this deathly scenario?

Activities vs purpose: mistaking the “what & how” with the “why”

Denial and splitting in the fossil fuel industry are defence mechanisms probably engineered to protect from at least two sources of overwhelming affect: guilt and shame on the one hand (we will explore these later in this article), and an anxiety at the prospect of imminent death on the other, built on a phantasy that in a 2° world5, these companies are destined to die. As a defence against the overwhelming anxiety generated by the prospect of dying, a lot of work and energy is spent trying to continue to exist in the same form (business as usual), even at the cost of bringing the whole ship into a crash.

This, I believe, is because those companies have over-identified with their “what & how” (their outputs), rather than connected to their deep “why” (their outcomes) in order to continuously reinvent themselves. As Simon Sinek (2009) suggests in his theory of the golden circles, true leadership stems from organising around the “why”, not around the “how” and “what”. Yet oil companies are now suffering from having defined their existence around their product (oil), suggesting that they exist in order to bring oil to people and society—rather than clarifying what purpose this oil is meant to serve in society.

Let’s imagine though that oil companies had spelt out that their vision is a world where man can travel, work, produce food, and build cities in ways and speed that he never was able to achieve before, and that their purpose was to provide people and society with cheap energy to help achieve that vision.

For over a century, they used cheap oil to do this. But as evidence mounts that their actions contribute to pollution-induced illness and death, and to global warming (i.e., damaging the Context), they can now re-evaluate their activities (i.e., operations within the System, not the System itself) in order to find another cheap energy to fulfil their vision. Turning to renewables becomes a radical change in strategy, for instance, a spectacular change of product but also a return to the roots of the organisation’s purpose (the etymology of “radical” is the Latin for “root”).

Unfortunately, without that vision, any attempt to switch from oil to renewable is experienced as a betrayal, as an attempt to kill the original business. This paranoid phantasy serves to reinforce the defences and, paradoxically, brings the organisation to a quicker death: whilst giving us a false sense of reprieve in the short term, denial ends up, in the long run, failing to save us from the death that the real problem (if left unaddressed) will inevitably bring. Refusing to explore the “why” and staying focused on the “what & how” comes at a high price.

Another case in point is the French electricity industry. Despite starting with a loose definition of its product (electricity), it gradually evolved towards being a single-product company, with nuclear energy representing about three quarters of its production. At the time, it enabled France to develop some level of independence in terms of energy sourcing, in particular at the time of the petrol crisis in the 1970s (a good example of a System adapting to threats coming from its Context).

Its internal organisation, however—its culture, its beliefs—became suffused with the dogma of nuclear energy. And what was once a strength, is now turning into a huge liability, both financial and environmental. As the cost of maintenance and dismantling is being re-evaluated, it is becoming clear that it has greatly underestimated the cost of its operations. But, as a prisoner of its own model, it is still, for example, trying to develop a nuclear plant in the UK, despite evidence that this will worsen its financial situation.

A recent government-sponsored study is even suggesting that France should continue to build nuclear reactors at the rate of six per decade6 if it wants to retain its knowledge and skills about nuclear technology, even though an increasing number of business analysts are confirming that “nuclear is dead”7.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, increased scrutiny is being applied to the safety of European nuclear plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and is bringing evidence that older plants are at greater risks of facility breakdown; in the words of a key player in the industry, “Europe is now at increased risk of a nuclear disaster”8.

Yet what is happening to mitigate these financial and environmental risks? Not much. As the industry has over identified with nuclear as its raison d’être (thus mistaking outputs for outcomes) and organised a rigid system to crystallise it9, it is now trapped in a super-egoistic story that fails to include evidences from the reality principle. In his article “Turning a blind eye, the psychoanalyst John Steiner (1985) explains how, in Sophocle’s Oedipus tragedy, the choir, from the onset, speaks the truth to the protagonists and to the spectators, but it is as if everyone is choosing to turn a blind eye—to pretend that they don’t know. Oedipus’ own blinding at the end of the tragedy is an acting-out of this process of continuing to not want to face the reality that we know we have contributed to co-create.

So why do we continue to turn a blind eye? What is the function of this dysfunctional behaviour? Undoubtedly it must help protect us from the overwhelming anxiety of having created a situation that we know will lead us to catastrophe, but that we’re not sure we know how to get out of. But more importantly perhaps, looking at what we contributed to co-create and owning our part would certainly unleash in us a great sense of guilt and shame, so powerful that we may fear being unable to survive them.

However, as Gordon Lawrence (2005) puts it in his paper “Totalitarian states of mind in institutions”, “the paradox is that this kind of social defence against psychotic anxiety and, of course, thinking, encourages the conditions for the very psychosis that is feared to erupt.”

Denial, splitting, and defending have had a useful developmental role—but now they are threats to our very survival, as they keep us locked into creating a world that we know, unconsciously but also consciously, is not conducive for more life.