Business Advice From Sigmund Freud

  1. Freudian motivation theory holds that an individual’s unconscious desires and emotions shape their behavior.
  2. Freud’s theories can make you a better manager.
  3. Freud’s theories can help you better market your services and products.

Ever wonder why your colleague reacts to negative feedback by kicking his desk? Or why your manager seems to approach one-on-ones differently with each employee?

Sigmund Freud may have the answers. As one of the most famous figures in psychology, he is known for theories that have shaped humanity’s understanding of personality, memory and therapy. Thanks to Freud’s work, we can explore the deeper reasons behind why people do what they do. 

Much of this is due to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, where people explore hidden reasons that explain negative behavior by talking about their issues with an impartial analyst. Almost all forms of counseling are rooted in Freud’s notion of the “talking cure.”

While lying on a couch and talking out your problems with your management team may not be conducive for solving business problems, there are plenty of business lessons you can extract from Freud’s work and theories.

Applying Freud’s advice to performance evaluations

Bonnie Oglensky, Ph.D., a professor at City University of New York, uses Freudian theory to diagnose the dynamics of workplace interactions. A manager who does not understand their role in relation to their employees and how they are viewed can run into catastrophic issues, she says.

She provides the example of subordinates who see their manager as a parental figure. Because, according to Freud, humans depend so greatly on their parents for growth, motivation and development as children, many bring that same mentality into the workplace, viewing their managers as taking a pseudo-parental role in their professional development.

Although the goal of growth is independence, Oglensky says, the shift in authority can trigger a renewed sense of dependence on one’s manager.

That could be good or bad, depending on whether the manager understands that they are perceived this way. A manager who is unaware of how they are viewed by their employees is likely to make critical mistakes, such as coming across as overly critical to employees who idealize their manager, or being too distant with employees who need more direct feedback.

This is especially true during performance evaluations, where an employee is told directly what they are doing well and areas that require improvement.

“When you understand the unconscious, the phenomenon of resistance and defenses, and how ineffective interpretations and insight can be, you can start to frame your interventions in ways that the ego can manage,” said Claudia Luiz, Psya.D, a psychoanalyst. “You learn how to help [your] employee perform better without feeling attacked.”

Make a point to put yourself in the employee’s shoes and try to understand the reasons behind why they are feeling the way they are. Try having your employees fill out a self-evaluation before you sit down with them to get a better idea of how they see their work and performance, and build your critique or praise from there. 

Using psychotherapy on your workplace culture

It is not just people that can benefit from a Freudian approach – an organization can have Freudian characteristics. These include a focus on …

  1. Past events and achievements. Companies become fixated on improving existing products or services rather than innovating new ones
  2. A “phallocentric” culture, or a workplace dominated by male hierarchies and masculine stereotypes.
  3. Top-down management and power relationships.

If a close analysis of your organization reveals such Freudian characteristics, the company might need a little therapy, or at least a deep dive into why these characteristics have become part of the culture.

If your business relies on past achievements, revisit your mission and vision statements, and see where your company can establish new goals. Seek to understand why you have a reliance on past achievements and what, if anything, that is doing to help the business now.

If valuable employees are leaving the company because they feel the business doesn’t recognize their contributions, re-examine your management style and promotion policies. How can you better meet the needs of employees? What can you do to make them feel valued? Where are you lacking in motivating your workers?

Take a clear look at the demographics of your company. Is your C-suite or upper management all male? Are female employees given adequate support and advancement opportunities? Consider an anonymous survey to see where you can better support and meet the needs of female employees.

Is there a strong top-down hierarchy at your company? Are your manager-employee relationships based on power? If so, consider a culture adjustment to open communication and help employees feel empowered to speak up.

Implementing Freud’s approach to the psychology of marketing

Of course, where Freudian analysis really comes into play is how your customers feel about your products. Marketing has always played on subconscious desires to get people to buy a product or try a service, and much of this is due to Freud’s theories on what drives human desire.

Freud posits that there are reasons far deeper than “I like this” that drive people to purchase something. Maybe it speaks to the person they want to be, for example, or reminds them of a product from their childhood, or fills a subconscious void.

Understanding these reasons and what drives people to buy your product can take your marketing to the next level. Take, for example, some of the earliest examples of psychology-based marketing from the ’50s and ’60s. Ads portrayed an ideal life consumers could have if they bought the company’s product, whether that was cigarettes, cars or trousers.

Advertisers understood that their customers wanted – and were able to, thanks to the economic boom at the time – improve their lives in every possible way, and they played into that desire.

To understand your consumers more, you can create buyer personas, or a psychological profile of your typical or ideal customer. You can assign things like gender, body type, hobbies, location, age, occupation or anything that helps define who you are selling to. Developing buyer personas can help you narrow your focus and dive into how you develop your marketing psychology.

Being decisive without becoming paralyzed

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to learn from Freud is that, as important as self-reflection and analysis are, sometimes you can go overboard to the point where you’re unable to take appropriate action because you are overthinking, particularly when it comes to work.

“Everyone can relate to wanting to achieve perfection,” said Amy Finlay, web content creator at Edinburgh IFA. “But sometimes, you just have to push forward and ensure you actually follow through and take action.”

While Freud said that a little neurosis can be good, it’s important to know when to rein yourself in and return to the task at hand.

If you’re overthinking to the point where you are unable to complete your task or project, try breaking it down into smaller parts. Write out every aspect of the task, from start to finish, and what you will need to do at every step. Then break up these steps into sections, starting with the first one. Do not allow yourself to worry about any of the following steps – work to keep your focus on the section at hand.

“Often, the little things you worried about so much become irrelevant [as you work through it],” said Finlay.

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