Greed in the Business World

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Fall 2014

The business world hasn’t cornered the market on greed. Those who aren’t intimately familiar with that world – including most psychoanalysts – often assume that business is an inherently greedy endeavor. After all, business is about making money, and isn’t the overt quest for money inherently greedy? This is in contrast to more seemingly noble work, like helping patients or conducting research, for which one certainly expects to be fairly paid, but is rarely thought of as an expression of avarice.

Calling someone greedy is never a compliment. It is pejorative and moralistic, yet descriptive of an intense and selfish desire for wealth or power. Analysts understand that these powerful urges often arise as compensation for unconscious feelings of emotional deprivation or loss, and are dynamically connected with feelings of envy, as well. My purpose in this brief piece is not to rehash well-trodden psychoanalytic formulations about greed, but to examine its place in the business world, and to explore how our (mis)perceptions of greed may reflect back on our own profession.

As a psychoanalyst who works in the business world, I serve as a confidant to CEOs, advising them on their constantly evolving and ambiguous challenges, including managing the dynamics of their board and management team, as well as handling their own emotional experiences in their roles as leaders. I’m often as close as some of these people will ever get to speaking with a psychoanalyst. While all businesspeople want to make money, and generally believe that more is better, to assume they are all greedy would be an unfair projection of our own fantasies onto them. We sometimes equate work – in which the end result is profit, or in which unimaginably large sums of money are regularly transacted – with greed, as though there are no other motivations for pursuing a life in business.

This is a curious phenomenon, as most psychoanalysts that I know are open-minded and non-judgmental about many other things. Yet the business world tends to remain rather opaque to us, despite the fact that many psychoanalytic patients are in business (thus enabling them to afford full fees), and most people work inside some kind of organization. Analysts tend to be individualists and work in solo practice, which leaves them rather baffled about what it is really like to work inside a large organization, which we also assume are unfeeling, stifling bureaucracies. And we also tend to overlook the existence in the business world of what Alexis de Tocqueville captured when he wrote of “enlightened self interest” – the idea of doing well by doing good – which more accurately describes the motivations of many of my CEO clients. True, there is undoubtedly an element of self-selection involved in my consulting practice, as the more narcissistic and therefore greedy or sociopathic ones would never seek the services of a psychoanalyst, either as a consultant or a therapist.

The depiction of greed in Martin Scorsese’s recent film “The Wolf of Wall Street” conjures a prevalent caricature of business in popular culture, one that psychoanalysts may be particularly vulnerable to believing. Psychoanalytic work at its best is profoundly generous, open-minded and helpful. But from the fundamental position of peering into the private lives of others, the clinical encounter is a setup for the experience of envy, and for the distorting effects of hearing about business exclusively through the narrow lens of an individual patient’s experience, without the benefit of direct immersion into the complex group dynamic system in which that patient functions every day.

Those few analysts who spend their time consulting to business leaders are often tarred with the same brush as the businesspeople themselves. When I gave a talk to a psychoanalytic society some years ago about my work in the business world, one analyst denounced the idea that this could possibly be a form of applied psychoanalysis, and asserted instead that my work was akin to consorting with the Devil, or worse, similar to the human experimentation conducted by Nazi doctors! My sense is that this sort of criticism of psychoanalysts who consult to business has much less to do with envy of perceived income inequality, and much more to do with envy of the freedom to take a psychoanalytic perspective and apply it in some line of work outside the confines of the traditional consulting room. It also stems from a basic misunderstanding of what an applied psychoanalyst really does, and the lack of training in family systems theory, which is an essential tool in organizational consulting.

In any event, lest this sound like an unvarnished defense of the business world, I can assure you that I don’t see that world as free of greed and its close relative, corruption. Clearly that is not the case. Organizations are always greater than the sum of their parts, and when corrupt individuals lead companies, corporate cultures develop that are at least tacitly permissive of greed, if not actively encouraging of downright unethical and illegal behavior. Corporate cultures are the group-scale analog of individual personality, an elusive yet highly useful concept that describes the consistent experience of being inside of, and interacting with, a particular organization.

Enron became one of the paradigmatic examples of such a pernicious, greedy corporate culture, and there have been countless others in which otherwise ethical individuals lose the ability to resist the unconscious pull to identify with corrupt authority figures. But those same organizations also have within them other people who have the emotional freedom and independence of mind (otherwise known as strength of character) to either speak truth to power as whistleblowers, or to protect themselves by leaving. And psychoanalysts may be uniquely qualified to understand what leads some to succumb to such intense group dynamic pressures, while allowing others to resist this magnetic attraction.

Another aspect of the business world that is important for analysts to understand, and enhance our empathy for those who live in it, is that success in business, by definition, is measured by creating something of value. Many of the best and most successful, business leaders are entrepreneurs who are passionately driven to create products or services that change the way we live or work, and the wealth this creates for themselves and others is actually viewed as a secondary byproduct of their labors. Executives and employees deeper inside organizations are constantly being evaluated and measured for their performance, and part of the recognition they receive for their good work is financial. But what matters to most of them, even more than money, is recognition from their bosses, and the feeling of belonging to a company of people they can identify with and be proud of. The best businesses aren’t driven by greed, but by values.

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, negative public perceptions of “business” in general have largely been colored by perceptions about Wall Street in particular, despite the fact that most businesses in the world are not part of the financial industry, even if they are dependent on it. Yet another misunderstanding among analysts about business people is that the philanthropy of wealthy business executives can be reduced to reaction formations against their guilt over their aggressive greediness. While this formulation may apply to some, in my experience many successful CEOs are far more emotionally dedicated to doing good than they ever were to the businesses that made them wealthy in the first place.

In Oliver Stone’s 1987 film classic, “Wall Street”, Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko declares that “greed is good.” Greed isn’t good. But in emotional terms its development is an understandable response to certain early life experiences. It also turns out to be exceedingly difficult to treat. Our awareness of the psychological underpinnings of greed, though, provide valuable insights at a group level that may allow us to have a greater impact on organizations and society at large than in our work with those few greedy individuals who are fortunate enough to make their way to our consulting rooms.