Supervision and the shape-shifting ‘self’
Summit meetings between world leaders are also meetings of identities. If we look at the interactions of, say, Putin, Trump and Merkel we see – beneath the purportedly rational discussion an often unconscious playing out and negotiation between varied interpretations of gender, nationality, role, political stance, profession, and perhaps religion (Merkel’s father was, after all, a pastor). There may well be other factors at work as well, but what we may infer most clearly is that Trump and Putin are playing roles infused by their view of how a man behaves and is – a ‘strong man’ – and also by what they believe a ‘real’ American and Russian should do. Merkel, in turn, embodies the ‘strong woman’ and perhaps also moral certainty and common sense.
Further to this, comment on the recent Trump-Putin summit has echoed the theme of ‘masculinity’ – Putin is seen as having demonstrated his greater virility while Trump was overly appeasing. (He has been compared to another emblem of enfeebled masculinity, Chamberlain.) Angela Merkel’s current political predicament is at least partly due to the immigration issue and this, too, has been theorised as an issue of identity: was her self-image as a ‘woman’ unconsciously in play when she invited Syrian refugees to come to her country (having previously been seen as ‘heartless’). It was also widely suggested that the démarche resulted from post-War guilt, thereby situating Merkel as a representative of some kind of national pathology.
Lacan once wrote, in a parody of Descartes ‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think’. What he meant was that our essence is influenced by subterranean forces, tributaries of the rivers of history, economics, language, culture, roles, socio-political contexts….whatever we may think we are about or are doing. So a great deal of our identity is subliminal and yet influences how we think, feel and act. So Putin may be channelling Peter the Great and Stalin, Trump: John Wayne and Wyatt Earp, and Angela Merkel: the ghosts of Bismarck (and his concern for the balance of power) with shades of Catherine the Great. Each too may be pinioned by a trait unaire: KGB man, dealmeister and realpolitiker (exponent of practical politics) which has a capillary effect.
If we emerge longitudinally from history, personal and cultural, we are also created latitudinally – through interactions with others – and processually (by which I mean something like Sartre’s ‘existence precedes essence’: we are constantly flowing into new versions of ourselves through action and the decisions we take). So…as Putin, Trump, Merkel and other leaders interact, they figure as representatives of their respective histories and cultural structures and are each changed by the others, and by the process, they are jointly experiencing.
The model of identity as shaped by definitions and associations around such givens as gender, race, nationality, role, profession, religion, class, birth order and sexual orientation is very helpful to those of us who work with human systems: in the case of the supervisor, for instance, we survey a coach or consultant, their client and the organisation in which they, in turn, are embedded or to which they consult. (Organisations have identities, too.) In working out what is going on with the individual entities and their interactions, and what needs to change, the model gives us a more profound approach than merely asking ‘tell me about yourself?’ (To which you normally get what Lacan would call the ‘thought’ version of self. Whereas if you ask a client ‘what does it mean to be a woman, you get a much more interesting answer; if the question is ‘what does it mean to be a woman in this organisation’, the answer is still more evocative.)
So the supervisor’s role becomes, at least in part, to help the coach or consultant to understand the hidden elements of their identity – which often shifts according to circumstances and the systems created with other people – and to investigate how that may affect their relationships with their clients, and whether their self-concept could change in creative ways. Any congruities or incongruities that may help or hinder the accomplishment of the primary task can be unearthed. (As a rough rule of thumb, if the element of an identity is held too rigidly – the definition of a role, for instance – the individual cannot adapt productively to his/her task and environment, and insists that their concept of the role is a kind of Platonic Ideal, which cannot be questioned or modified. It is important to note that there is never an uncontested Real version of any identity signifier: for example, no Real woman or Real Yorkshireman exists…)
The key elements for the supervisor to look out for are the definitions and associations that underpin each element (signifier) of an identity: firstly, what does it mean to be a coach, a consultant, or indeed a supervisor? It might mean, severally, that one always aspires to be: caring and altruistic; a brilliant analyst; or omniscient. As noted, if the conception is too rigid and limited, potentially fruitful aspects of the individual’s personality may be repressed and their interactions with their client may be undermined. So the supervisor might alert the coach to a darker side to their identity, the consultant to the benefits of ‘not knowing’; and remind her/himself of the limits to their knowledge and experience and the need to continue learning. (They can then explore the other structural signifiers that may have shaped them, as well as idiosyncratic elements to their personal histories. Though these, too, are shot through with the current national social norms: compare the child/parent dynamics in our age with that in the Victorian era, and between the Mediterranean and Northern European countries presently.)
The identity model may also, for instance, help a coach to work with clients who are uncomfortable with their role: they may simply be incompatible or the client may need to redefine what being a manager, lawyer, accountant etc. could mean and adjust accordingly. With a client/organisation mismatch, it will be important to analyse the identity of the organisation – what are its key characteristics (e.g. bureaucratic or entrepreneurial; sales or operational bias; strategic/tactical; values) – and if and how the client can accommodate them. In this case, the processual element is also important: is the organisation changing in ways that might be more comfortable for the client? Many individuals leave a company undergoing stressful change, only to find that it eventually emerges as an attractive proposition.
The supervisor shifts through a number of registers in relation to the coach/consultant – therapist, teacher, ethical guardian, joint explorer, diagnostician, and strategic thinker – and an important issue is to choose which they will deploy at any given moment and how their definition is contributing to a productive supervision. For example, if they stay permanently in teacher mode, they may infantilise the coach or consultant and reduce their capacity to learn for themselves or take initiative. (A supervisor of this kind probably has a rigid conception of their professional identity as the person ‘supposed to know’.)
While a world leader will, or should, have an array of advisors who analyse likely personal dynamics in summit conferences, provide potted accounts of national cultures and histories, it is highly unlikely that they dare venture far into the sources of leaders’ self-concepts. Supervisors have that advantage and can uncover rigid or inappropriate identity signifiers at each stage of the supervisory system, which can then be loosened and reconstituted so that thoughts, beliefs, actions and interactions are more fluid and ultimately generative.
James Mackay is a Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s courses in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy, and in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development
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