Think Piece - Leadership of thinking: What's compulsion got to do with it?

Think Piece - Leadership of thinking: What's compulsion got to do with it?

21st March 2016

Working Well FETL project

How can psychoanalysis and systems theory contribute to the leadership of thinking in the UK FE and Skills sector?


Leadership of thinking: What’s compulsion got to do with it?


The main theoretical concept behind this seminar is Freud’s notion of ‘repetition compulsion.’ Freud thought that we repress those things we can’t think about because they cause us too much anxiety and difficulty. But, Freud said, what’s repressed returns unconsciously through a pattern of compulsively repeating what was pushed out of consciousness. It was this destructive pattern that led Freud to the idea of the destructive/death instinct that co-exists in us along with the life instinct.


The key themes from the seminar were:

  • Overworking and Wellbeing
  • FE and Skills and the impossible task
  • Repeating patterns and history

2.1 – Overworking and Wellbeing

Being a leader in FE and Skills means constant stress: having to keep multiple agendas in view, deal with reduced budgets, do more for less, change, adapt, create new markets, respond to new directions etc.. Overworking is commonplace; indeed it’s hard to stop working. Yet, as across so many sectors now, the wellbeing agenda is espoused. It seems that the inherent contradiction in increasing pressure and stress, while espousing wellbeing, is ignored. We suggest that the contradiction is supported by an unconscious compulsive repetition of actions and attitudes that heighten stress, negate wellbeing and diminish the capacity for thinking. Until this is understood and addressed the wellbeing agenda will remain rhetoric.

Participants discussed the lack of a boundary now between work and personal life. “I never switch off from work,” one of them said. On the other hand, flexible working can mean it’s hard to tell what’s helpful and healthy and what’s overworking and a lack of work/life balance. Sending emails for example, late in the evening is often assumed to be the latter. But, participants pointed out, if someone chooses to take a few hours out, for instance, to be with their children, and then work later in the evening, it may actually be supporting their work/life balance. One participant suggested that for many roles now – leadership included – the idea of working 9-5 is no longer relevant or appropriate. It’s a new paradigm.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The wellbeing agenda is trying to address the signifiant cost of workplace stress through absenteeism and mental health issues. To take this seriously and encourage meaningful change in the sector, leaders need to understand the deep seated compulsion to repeat actions and attitudes that perpetuate stress in the sector – a destructive, unthinking, repetition. This understanding needs to both take account of, and inform, the complex reality of flexible working and how it can encourage wellbeing.

Stress is a much bandied about word. To get underneath the drive to repetition compulsion there needs to be a distinction between the stress intrinsic to leadership (in particular in relation to responsibility and accountability), and the stress that’s self-generated by leadership (for example using the reality of leadership to mask an individual need to compulsively overwork). It’s important to therefore consider the degree to which stress is self -created as a psychological defence. This defence could, for instance, be against the uncertainties surrounding leadership: what to promote, challenge, present, set forth; what’s is possible, imaginable etc. So the preoccupation with stress may itself be compulsive and overworking may be self-imposed as well as driven by external pressures. Take for example, the therapist who works harder and harder complaining all the while about overworking, but unconsciously, in part at least self-imposing this overwork. The self- imposition may be an unconscious attempt to assuage their (unconscious) guilt about the limits of their capacity to make enough difference to people through their work. Could an equivalent apply to the leader in FE and Skills? Do the additional agendas imposed on the sector, such as the Prevent agenda, amplify this? 

2.2 – FE and Skills and the impossible task

Does the FE and Skills sector repeatedly agree to impossible tasks? For instance, agreeing to get learners through GCSE English and Maths, with reduced resources, in considerably less time than schools have and despite the previous failure of schools. Participants commented that no other part of the education sector would have agreed to this so why did they? Presumably there is a question of who makes the demand. Where impossible tasks are demanded by government is there a difficulty with the nature of choice and the tension between serving government as a public sector organisation and having autonomy as a leader? Perhaps the issue then is about how to exercise appropriate authority and professionalism with regards to how demands/tasks which have to be agreed to are implemented. If there is a compulsive repetition of a somewhat blind compliance without identifying where autonomy and authority are (and are not) possible and appropriate, it must have meaning. We wonder if it’s related to the fundamental issue of the sector’s own low regard for itself and the way it has internalised the ascribed identity, esteem and status from politicians and other stakeholders.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The problematic identity, low self esteem and status of FE and Skills seems to result in repeatedly agreeing to impossible tasks demanded –repeatedly – of the sector. These tasks then serve to demonstrate the sector’s apparent inability and low status. This in turn pushes the sector to endeavour to ‘prove’ itself by taking on more impossible tasks. It seems to us that the leadership of thinking needs to halt this viscious circle by encouraging understanding of the destructive pattern and building a different image the sector has of itself and that others have of it.

2.3 – Repeating patterns and history

At the macro level of the system, participants discussed the repeated patterns of responses in some countries, e.g. automatically disagreeing with all things English and some Districts automatically “doing everything other than the way the Local Authority proposed. There is a shift of power in the sector, which at times isn’t recognised and at times, participants commented, leads to a “punishment relationship that is driving leadership.”

The repetitiveness of problems was discussed: “In our organisations,” some said, “we’re never solving the core challenges. Always the same things are troublesome, as if there’s something repetitive taking place, a kind of organisational DNA.” This is reflected, for example, in patterns of staff absences and “our ways of responding”, keeping things safe, acting without thinking or really looking and seeing. We need to “stick to a vision”, as opposed to “constantly changing”.

Exploring repetition compulsion in the sector as a whole, some participants came to the notion of a repetitive pattern to do with the feeling of “being a bullied victim”, associated with disadvantage, being second class in the educational hierarchy, constantly trying to solve problems that can’t be solved at our level (e.g. making good the deficits in English and Maths) and “trying to fix it and be all things to all people.” This group of participants noted how their own early life experiences had led them to constantly try to ‘fix and rescue.’ This is their default position. They thought that the sector attracts people who want to work with the condition of being a bullied victim and held accountable for what others, such as schools, haven’t been able to achieve. We suggest that if many staff in the sector have this disposition the pattern will be continually reinforced and become part of what the psychoanalyst Isabel Menzies Lyth called the ‘Social Defence System.’ That is, the unconscious way in which staff in an organisation (or sector) unconsciously pool their individual psychological defences and the defences become shared by the group – i.e. they become the social defences of that organisation or sector.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The social defence system of the sector and its implications for leadership needs exploring. Are there ways in which this blocks the sector’s health and wellbeing? Are leaders pulled towards a repeated fixing, rather than a strategic re-imagining? A key task for the leadership of thinking is to connect unconscious beliefs to conscious behaviours and actions so that the sector can gradually change – and that includes changing aspects of its social defence system.

Interestingly, there was strong disagreement among participants about the notion of the sector as bullied victim and rescuer/fixer. Some participants commented that this didn’t represent their experience of the sector. The intensity of the discussion and strength of disagreement may suggest another aspect of a repetition compulsion: that the sector cannot bring together its different and disparate views, parts and experiences and is weakened- including politically – through that.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The sector will continue to be underminded and weakened externally and internally if, on the one hand, leaders cannot bring together views and represent a collective with more authority and status. And, on the other hand, if leaders cannot disconnect the sector from its own internal perceptions of deprivation and victim hood where these have taken hold either consciously or unconsciously and continue to be passed onto staff. 

2.4 – Moving forward

Compulsiveness reduces thinking. It is, by definition, without thought. Participants were clear about the need to identify and be steady to the concept of ‘primary task’, which would also provide more clarity about how to respond to external demands.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The leadership of thinking needs to develop the capacity for resistance. Resistance against deviating from primary purpose and task (while remaining adaptive), against attacks on thinking, against the impossible task (or how it’s implemented) generated from within and without. And against compulsive behavoiurs that reduce the possibility of imagining and re-imaging a healthy, not compulsive, way forward and future for the sector.

Gabriella Braun, Project Director and David Armstrong, Project Consultant,
Working Well, February 2016.


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