In The Lead: Companies Hire Psychotherapists To Focus on Emotional Impasses

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Wall Street Journal Online

Tolstoy’s observation that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” also applies to companies. And as in families, businesses run into problems when communication breaks down and damages relationships.

A new generation of management consultants, trained as psychotherapists, is making its way into corporate offices. Unlike traditional consultants who try to analyze and improve a company’s business strategy, these consultants focus on emotional impasses at work – from competitive executives who waste time undermining each other’s work to autocratic bosses who squash employees’ initiative.

“People’s ambitions, dreams and egos are all involved at work yet they are supposed to act as if none of this affects their own or their company’s performance,” says Roger Brunswick, a psychiatrist and co-founder of Hayes, Brunswick & Partners, a New York consulting firm. The result is a lot of unacknowledged emotional static that hurts productivity. “Sometimes I’m amazed any work at all gets done,” Dr. Brunswick adds.

Although looking at emotional factors in a workplace is not new, the focus is now on specially trained therapists looking at a broad range of relationships rather than individuals’ problems.

Dr. Brunswick and his business partner, Gary Hayes, a psychologist with a background in international affairs, don’t investigate managers’ marriages, for example, or ask about their parents. “The patient is the company,” Dr. Brunswick says.

Often, a problem for which one manager gets blamed is actually the result of friction between that manager and his boss or his peers. A human-resources executive at one financial-services company had been judged too deferential by his boss, the CEO. Dr. Brunswick learned the executive had plenty of ideas but was frightened to share them.

“We got into this discussion about how enraged he got when the CEO was dismissive of him and how the only way he could deal with his anger was to shut up and become deferential,” he says. Dr. Brunswick suggested the executive try a more direct approach with the CEO.

“We agreed that only in the movies does someone come up with the perfect one-liner at the right time — and it is all right to revisit an upsetting situation, to go back to the CEO after he has been dismissive and say ‘I didn’t like what you said to me,’ ” says Dr. Brunswick.

Initially when the executive did that, the CEO told him he was being too sensitive. But the executive persisted, saying, “Maybe that’s so, but I don’t like to be treated that way in front of my peers,” Dr. Brunswick says. The result: The executive feels a lot less angry and the CEO sees him as a stronger player.

To untangle emotional bottlenecks at work, Dr. Brunswick and Dr. Hayes try to talk to everyone involved and to attend meetings to see the group in action. They did this when working with an executive at a consumer-products company known as technically brilliant but arrogant and autocratic. He had a temper, but his colleagues fueled his anger by never delivering what they promised.

In meetings with the group, Dr. Hayes and Dr. Brunswick observed who made the most promises and excuses and who said nothing at all. Finally, at a meeting where the group was setting goals they asked: “How are you going to actually do this because the last time it didn’t work out?”

After blaming each other, the group finally mobilized as a team. They confronted the executive in a constructive way and began working together toward their goals.

What emotional problems do companies face the most? Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst who also runs the Boswell Group, a consulting business in New York, notes two common problems: unhealthy narcissism, which occurs when leaders become so self-involved they can no longer listen to others, and obsessive styles of management.

At one company, a senior executive was so bogged down in minutiae he never had time to think ahead or set broad strategy. Dr. Sulkowicz encouraged the senior managers who worked with him to stop accommodating him. Rather than call goal-setting meetings, for example, he encouraged them to get together to brainstorm.

By the time Dr. Sulkowicz is hired, many companies are in crisis. At some, senior executives are embroiled in bitter squabbles or are no longer speaking to each other. “Yet they’re surprisingly open to my point of view and very motivated to change,” says Dr. Sulkowicz. They know their careers may depend on it, and they appreciate having someone to talk to.

“The higher you go in business, the lonelier it gets,” he adds.

Top executives also face conflicting challenges in today’s tougher business climate, which adds to their stress, says Dr. Hayes. One of his client is a marketing executive who must meet very tight deadlines while also proving she is a statesmanlike leader. “She’s been alienating colleagues by pushing the deadlines,” he says, “and her only choice in the short run may be taking extra time and working even longer hours to reach out to these people and win their understanding.”

Written by Carol Hymowitz

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