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Corporate Therapy

Anyone who meets different companies on a regular basis would notice that each corporate entity not only has its own culture, but also its own persona. It is the product from a corporate’s origin and history with its conscious, subconscious, and unconscious minds. As such, it goes beyond the style of a Management team and survives leadership successions. In that context, part of corporate leaders’ management responsibilities can be defined as grasping these complex, intangible features.

The ‘Internal Family Systems model (or ‘IFS model’) was pioneered in the 80’s by Dr. Richard Schwartz. Whilst the psychotherapeutic tool was designed for individuals, this note will suggest that it offers a possible lens to analyze a corporate organization.

At its core, the IFS model postulates that every individual – and by extension, every organization – owns multiple sub-personalities which operate as discrete and autonomous systems. These are defined as ‘parts’ which are to be integrated by its owner. Parts may represent capabilities (e.g. the Innovator, the Controller, the Critic, the Adventurer, the Parent, etc.) or emotions (as illustrated in the Disney movie ‘Inside Out).

When discussing strategic ideas, an external advisor may hear ‘one part of the organization wants to implement this initiative, another part is skeptical about it and a third one opposes it vehemently’. This illustrates the dynamics which may exist amongst various ‘parts’ of an organization, noting that they are not necessarily represented by specific people or functions.

According to the IFS model, parts can be organized along three categories, namely ‘exiles’, ‘managers’ and ‘firefighters’.

Exiles are parts which have experienced trauma and have been isolated since deemed to be damageable to the individual. In the case of a company, it could be the historic failure to launch a product successfully, large losses from the poor execution of a large EPC project, or the inability to integrate an acquired company requiring a turnaround or a software company. Such experiences leave scars in the organization and tend to be suppressed, only mentioned with a soft voice, if at all since potentially carrying an ‘It-Which-Cannot-Be-Named’ stigma à laYou-Know-Who’.

Managers run the day-to-day life and are proactively protecting the individual from negative feelings and experiences, i.e. exiles. They help individuals and corporate stay fit and in control, including through anticipation, the strive for efficiency and effectiveness, the desire to please others (including stakeholders) or risk avoidance. These parts can be represented by the stated corporate culture written on the HQ lobby wall or the related processes in place (including when it comes to M&A) which create some structure, but also some rigidity.

Firefighters play the role of reactive protectors. They do so through distraction or soothing addictions which repel the exiles that regularly come back to the surface. These features could take the shape of bad organizational habits including unnecessary meetings, procrastination, over-optimistic communication to investors, repeated and unnecessary divisional reorganizations, excessive layoffs or, more generally, short-termism.

As for individuals, the IFS model encourages leaders to first identify the parts and acknowledge their existence. And then to build a dialogue and relationship with each part of the organization, including the dysfunctional ones or exiles, instead of instinctively suppressing them. Indeed, when acknowledged and given a voice, disruptive parts align more easily with the whole. Fundamentally, all parts have the overall systems’ best interest at heart and seek to protect the individual or the organization. Therefore, all parts are relevant and welcomed.

Following this perspective, when facilitating the dialogue and integration of all the parts of an organization to define its ‘Self’, corporate leaders are akin to therapists.

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