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Transference: The Matrix for Interpersonal and Group Processes
Home | Transference: The Matrix for Interpersonal and Group Processes

Another important element in the leader – follower interface is transference, or the act of using relationship patterns from the past to deal with situations in the present. Part of the human condition, transference can be viewed as a confusion in time and place (Freud, 1905; Etchegoyen, 1991). In essence, transference means that no relationship is a new relationship; each relationship is colored by previous relationships. 

Though the word transference conjures up images of the analyst’s couch, it is a phenomenon that all of us are familiar with: all of us act out transferential (or ‘historical’) reactions on a daily basis, regardless of what we do. Executives arguing in the board room over issues of corporate strategy are in fact trying to cope with unfulfilled and unconscious family needs that date back to early childhood; unconsciously, they are dealing with parental figures and siblings over issues of power. The subordinate who reminds the CEO of his father’s inability to listen or the colleague whose unpredictability reminds another executive of her mother inspires in the adult businessperson the same feelings that those original caregivers did. The psychological imprints of crucial early caregivers — particularly our parents — cause this confusion in time and place, making us act toward others in the present as if they were significant people from the past; and these imprints stay with us and guide our interactions throughout our life. Though we are generally unaware of experiencing confusion in time and place, the mismatch between the reality of our work situation and our subconscious scenario — colleagues are not parents or siblings, after all — may lead to bewilderment, anxiety, depression, anger, and even aggression. 

There are two subtypes of transferential patterns that are especially common in the workplace (and that are often exaggerated in reactive narcissists): mirroring and idealizing. It is said that the first mirror a baby looks into is the mother’s face. Predictably, one’s identity and one’s mind are heavily shaped by contact with one’s mother, particularly during the early, narcissistic period of development. Starting with that first mirror, the process of mirroring — that is, taking our cues about being and behaving from those around us — becomes an ongoing aspect of our daily life and the relationships we have with others. 

For organizations, this mirroring dynamic between leader and follower can become collusive. Followers are eager to use their leaders as mirrors. They use leaders to reflect what they like to see, and leaders rarely mind, finding the affirmation of followers hard to resist. The result is often a mutual admiration society. Membership in that society may encourage leaders to take actions designed to shore up their image rather than serve the needs of the organization. 

Idealizing is another universal transferential process: as a way of coping with feelings of helplessness, we idealize people important to us, beginning with our first caretakers, assigning powerful imagery to them. Through this idealizing process, we hope to combat helplessness and acquire some of the power of the person admired. Idealizing transference thus serves as a protective shield for followers. 

Idealizing and mirroring have their positive side; they can generate an adhesive bond that helps to keep the organization together during a crisis. Because they temporarily suspend the values of insight and self-criticism, they are key tools in the creation of a common vision and the generation of ‘committed action’ on the part of followers. When these transferential patterns persist, however, followers gradually stop responding to the leader according to the reality of the situation, allowing their past (unrealistic) hopes and fantasies to govern their interactions with the leader. 

Reactive narcissistic leaders are especially responsive to such admiration, often becoming so dependent on it that they can no longer function without this emotional fix. Idealization fatally seduces such leaders into believing that they are in fact the illusory creatures their followers have made them out to be. It is a two-way street, of course: followers project their fantasies onto their leaders, and leaders mirror themselves in the glow of their followers. The result for leaders who are reactive narcissists is that disposition and position work together to wreak havoc on reality-testing: they are happy to find themselves in a hall of mirrors that lets them hear and see only what they want to hear and see. In that illusory hall, boundaries that define normal work processes disappear — at least for the entitled leader, who feels diminishing restraint regarding actions that are inappropriate, irresponsible, or just plainly unethical. Any follower who criticises the leader for such behavior or points out cracks in the mirrors risks inciting a temper tantrum, as noted earlier.

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MANFRED KETS DE VRIES, INSEAD, Boulevard de Constance, Fontainebleau 71305, Cedex, France. E-mail: manfred.kets.de.vries@insead.edu

Manfred Kets de Vries is Raoul de Vitry d’Avancourt Clinical Professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD. A prolific author, his specific interests include leadership, career dynamics, executive stress, entrepreneurship, family business, cross-cultural management team building, and the dynamics of corporate transformation and change.

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