The Id, The Ego, and The Office

It’s the corner office, of course. It belongs to the founder and owner of the firm, a man who has long indulged a reputation for running his engineering supply business with unyielding authority–at least until now. Now he’s yielded his authority, all right: He suffered a stroke that has cost him his speech and possibly his mind. Knowingly or not, he has left his three daughters in charge of the family business. Just how difficult their task is going to be becomes clear to one visitor after he examines the adornments on the office wall and sees three telling pieces of evidence: the daughters’ high school diplomas.

“He treated his daughters as these possessions ,” says Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, the New York corporate consultant the family hired to help them through this transition. “He always thought more about how they would grow up to serve him, rather than helping them develop into independent, free women.”

Where others might see a sentimental gesture–a father’s pride in his daughters’ accomplishments– Sulkowicz senses something more sinister. And if his interpretation seems somewhat Freudian, that’s because it is. Sulkowicz is a psychoanalyst.

The situation in this case is literally a family matter, but Sulkowicz has found in his corporate practice that business conflicts always carry a certain primal association. And so they should, he argues, since a business setting is simply the breakfast table writ large: the over- (or under-) demanding patriarch, the under- (or over-) rewarding maternal figure, and, always, the minions who can’t help but regard the authority figures in the corner office with the same sort of ambivalence they still associate with the all-powerful parents of their own childhood–and who therefore, well, act out.

Sulkowicz isn’t the only psychoanalyst to take the lessons of the couch and apply them to the boardroom or cubicle. As psychopharmacology and managed care began costing them clients in the 1990s, some analysts sought an alternative way to ply their trade. They found it at the heart–or in the psyche, anyway–of the economic boom. In 1996, about 10 members of the American Psychoanalytic Association formed what became the Committee on Corporate and Organizational Consulting. Today that committee has tripled in size.