Psychoanalytic approaches to coaching, leadership and culture

This short essay by Dr Simon Western addresses Jacques Lacan’s famous comment “don’t give up on your desire”. The first part discusses the meaning of this statement, and also how it is misread. The second part offers a coaching case study to show a practical application.

“Don’t give up on your desire” is often misunderstood as a social injunction that tells us to strive to get whatever we want….with our consumer culture shaped super-ego’s screaming at us “you deserve it… your entitled to be happy!”   This misreading reflects a growing entitlement culture that underpins how consumer-capitalism works, for unless people are constantly feeling a desire for something they wouldn’t buy goods and services?   However, Lacan was saying was something quite different to this popular misreading of his work. Lacan was exposing two gaps, the first between our unconscious ‘true’ desire and the ‘false’ desire of our ego. As what we consciously think we desire and what we really/unconsciously desire are often very different and competing desires.   This explains why people get such pleasure-out-of-their-displeasure that is they complain about something, but they clearly get an unconscious pleasure as they remain very attached to it and refuse change their relation to this behaviour or action when offered alternatives. In psychoanalytic terms we say they have a libidinal attachments and investments in this way of being.

Lacan was also showing us the gap between our own desire and the desire of the other which may account for why so many of us struggle to find deep contentment in today’s “society of commanded enjoyment” i.e. today there is a social command that it is our duty to be happy, and if we are not happy something is wrong with us and we are failing both ourselves and others. The task of coaching clients in this space is to help them free themselves from the happiness imperative, which paradoxically means not to give up their true desire (see .) When we are busy chasing false ‘ego-desires’ and the desire of the other and expecting it to make us happy we are always left feeling a little empty.  We buy the new car or dress and get the face-lift and we feel good for a fleeting moment then get that empty feeling that haunts us in today’s world.  This is because the experience of lack quickly returns- and so we desire some new product or service to fill the space. That’s how consumer capitalism works. If we managed to fulfill our desires we would no-longer buy the stuff, or work like demons to chase our imaginary dreams. The Buddha teaches along these lines but with a difference.  The many variations of Buddhist teaching tell us that desire is the root of our unhappiness, the cause of suffering and evil

The Buddhists teach that to end our suffering is to lose our desire and our ego. This may be one solution to solving the problem of the human condition but let’s be honest, how many of us get anywhere close to this?   And is it really possible or desirable to lose desire and ego? Whilst excess of both can lead to problems having desire and ego are also important drivers of creativity and progressive social (and personal) change, as well as feeding an array of what may be negative effects.    Also there is a strong critique of Buddhism as appropriated by the west, which claims that it becomes distorted and is used instrumentally.   Mindfulness for example, has become the desired corporate training method of the day, as it helps employees with their stress levels and at the same time helps to create a compliant, uncritical and hardworking workforce. Buddhism and it’s derivative Mindfulness can be used instrumentally and out of context, to help produce the perfect corporate worker transforming us from being questioning subjects who resist coercion and strive for the common good, to becoming mindfully pacified, conformist employees.

Our desire is the desire of the other.

Lacan identifies how desire is not something that comes from deep within us but is thrust upon us from early encounters with the other. Our ‘true’ desire is thus found via the unconscious and it is a social desire.  From our infancy our desire is to fulfil the desire of the other (mummy or daddy) and we spend most of our lives repeating whatever patterns we fall into as infants. Put another way, our desire is caused by the others lack (remembering lack causes desire)

What is your Desire? A Key Coaching Question

When coaching senior leaders, I often open with this particular question: “What is your desire?”. On the surface it is a question that provokes an instant response – our ego response – I desire success, I desire happiness, I desire promotion.   This opening question is also purposefully a little unsettling and disruptive.   I am not asking the normal coaching questions such as ‘what are your goals?’ or ‘what would you like to achieve in these coaching sessions?’.   This question about desire opens up a different space, which as a psychoanalytically trained coach I enter with relish.   I coach the leader on a journey, helping them to realize the unconscious and social aspects of their desire.  How they are working to unconsciously please the ‘others’ desire, to fulfill the others lack.  For example, I coached one leader who was striving to achieve at all costs, relentlessly pursuing promotions and personal success at the expense of family and personal happiness and being quite brutal and unforgiving to others making himself unpopular with peers and losing his own self respect. In the process he was facing personal burn-out and began to question his way-of-being-in-the-world. What we discovered through our coaching work was that his driving desire for success, was not his own desire but it was to please his Fathers desire, or more accurately his fathers lack.  His Father wanted his son to achieve what he himself had desired but had failed to achieve i.e. he lacked the social recognition, power and respect he felt he deserved.   The results of this coaching work enabled the leader to slowly to undo his predicament. There is nothing wrong or pathological about this- it can be a good driver for success and pleasure but his paradox was of striving relentlessly for a desire that made both him and those around him uncomfortable and unhappy.   This coaching work helped him to reconfigure his desire and he began a process of shifting his way-of-being-in-the-world. His drive, his way of enjoying, his relationship with himself and others began to change, one small step at a time.   As he began to change, others began to recalibrate their relationships to him.   Small changes led to bigger changes and two years later this leader actually achieved a senior role he had previously thought out of his reach.   This is how psychoanalytic coaching works- the ends are not achieved via a direct and linear goal seeking path. The changes are emergent and are achieved as a by-product of a meandering and depth approach.   What had really shifted for this leader was something that was not easy to name (his relationship to the real).   He had become more humane to others and less self-orientated. His desire shifted from a blinkered focus on success to engage more with his family, colleagues and ultimately himself.   It was this relational approach to others that was previously missing, that then qualified him to become a senior leader.

In this coaching work we discover something new, something potentially life-changing for the individual and for their relationship to others and to their work.  Psychoanalytic coaching takes us beyond targets and goals and works on non-tangibles that can have a huge impact on the individual. Rather than seeking to fulfil goals (desires) the coaching works to undo them, to challenge the underlying logic that drives them.    The leader who engages in this challenging work (and some don’t) begin to see patterns as to how they chase ‘false’ ego-desires and the desire of the other and they get glimpses of ‘the real’, the part of them they cannot put words to but that fuels their libidinal drive and their true desire.   As they work through these issues they are able to get back on track or find new paths and new energy as they (re)discover true aspects of their desire and of themselves.

Dr Simon Western is President-Elect at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching and adjunct Professor at University College Dublin.  Analytic network coach certification training is held regularly in Bath.

(Visited 2,150 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment