Take Away Line
The image of the genie is sometimes used to convey the idea of the vast potential for growth latent within all of us, growth, which Jungians hold, is our natural desire for individuation. But can this urge, essentially something usually seen as a matter for the individual to accomplish alone, also be a fruitful arena for development within the workplace context? And can work organisations support not only the growth of their members to do this, but also foster, at the same time, their own growth, their own (collective) vast, as yet not conscious, potential? This article not only suggests they can, but that – with some care – they must.
In the Disney film version of Aladdin, the recently deceased Robin Williams, who played the voice of the genie, said, after Aladdin had caused him to re-emerge from the lamp, that he had ‘PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS, and teeny bitty living space’. For the psycho-dynamically inclined person, the image of the genie in fable is often felt to represent the potential of the unconscious. For Jung (and he was not alone on this one), personal growth came from an encounter with the unconscious, that huge store of future growth and energy (with a ‘teeny, bitty living space’ inside of us). Releasing the genie is to open up the possibility of future growth.
But, then, the ‘phenomenal cosmic powers’ part comes in. Beware!
As Murray Stein points out in Psyche at Work, organisations have unconscious potential too. Consultants know this and are often hired to play the Aladdin-to-genie role, drawing out the genie, examining potential, creating options, working up proposals, disturbing the smooth waters with the possibilities that can come from change – releasing the immense potential that organisations have within their lamps. But, exciting though it can feel, it can be too much to handle without care.
Personal growth in an organisational setting?
At this point a paradox emerges. Personal growth is often felt to be a solitary thing. For Jung, this was the path one trod alone, examining potential, sifting and using our internal resources of discernment in order to grow. It could hardly be a social matter, let alone one related to work organisations. By contrast, organisational growth is clearly a social process, as its members consider the options for future growth, or, put another way, choosing a more conscious way of working in the future….
We typically bring to traditionally configured work organisations the internal understandings and assumptions about how groups work, which we first learned from our families. On some deep but not very conscious level, the employing organisation is akin to the mother: it nourishes us, rewards us, can punish us and ensures that we behave well. In the Jungian idea of it, work organisations evoke in us the Great Mother archetype. But what can nourish can also devour: the nourishing mother has her own dark side, her shadow. She can draw you in, consume you, or neglect you, or fail to protect. And with our culture of hyper work, those lucky to be in traditional employment can all too easily be swallowed up in this devouring work vortex. Rather than a place of enrichment, psycho-spiritual as well as material growth, the work organisation becomes the hungry monster that can never be satisfied. So, we go under – or we flee.
Stein: ‘This is especially true in a materialistic, non- or anti-spiritual culture such as ours. Beyond rational considerations, it is felt that the organization controls life and death. To be banished from one of them is to starve and collapse into an abandonment depression. The base of support for the ego’s existence in the world is threatened. So tied into organizational life can the individual become that the self seems at stake, the core of the personality at risk. Promotion comes to mean self-esteem and life; demotion, abandonment and death’ (page 4).
Supporting individual and organisational change – a role for leaders
Of course many organisations are able to put in place proper boundaries to ensure they have both value today from their employees and value sustainably too, by ensuring the pressure to devour is constrained. But many do not. What’s to be done to avoid the two undesirable outcome options: succumbing or flight?
I can think of four coaching clients recently who’ve spoken about their organisations in such terms and, from one standpoint, their challenges are the same: how can I honour both my workplace and myself. This is not, it must be said, the ‘have-it-all supermum’ idea of the red top newspapers, but the reasonable demand of skilled and experienced professionals who want to maintain proper work boundaries, grow and live sustainably.
I deliberately used the term ‘traditionally configured work organisations’ earlier on to put up an idea that is in fact now dying. ‘Traditionally configured work organisations’ are falling out of fashion, at least in the UK-North American model of capitalism. The protections and containment provided by a work organisation is reducing in terms of things like security of employment, pensions, career development paths and so on. Oddly, this accounts to some extent for the growth in executive coaching, to supplement for the role that managers were once felt to take, but are now forsaking.
The stepping stones of the journey
And there are patterns to the kinds of coaching journeys I’ve just referred to. This not to say that each person is the same or that there is any inevitability about all of this, but I’ve observed this:
- Alone (in the cave): something’s not working, perhaps there’s a crisis, a loss, a disappointment, a sense of not coping, of wanting things to change/feel very different. Clients can feel angry, depressed, ill or sad.
- Rubbing the lamp: Still the same but now we’re recognising the challenge, talking about it perhaps, in a coaching journey, examining the cause of the challenges, wrestling with ideas, feelings, options
- Genie’s out: a release, a letting go to potential, but overwhelmed by the difficulties and the possibilities, perhaps at one moment elated and the next deflated, resistance at play here
- Making three wishes: a sense of free-floating, or I can’t manage this any more, perhaps a sense of resignation but not the same as before, but it’s more contained; new more realistic ideas may be emerging in the empty space
- Life is changed: it’s different now, there’s a sense of renewal and change, a freshness or lightness, with new possibilities ahead
It’s something like this, I think. Funnily enough, such an arc is not so different from observations of how changes take place in midlife – and how the mystics have seen spiritual growth. For example:
Abba Antony said:
Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from the three wars: those of hearing, speaking, and seeing.
Then there is only one war left in which to fight, and that is the battle for your own heart.
Make it your study to acquire a long perspective on your many thoughts.
(Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers)
Equipping leaders to support individuation
For some, Jung among them, the events that can take place in mid-life, often tumultuous, and the resulting desire to change our lives, is a search for ‘individuation’. But this natural psychological process is no different from the spiritual journey, the interface between the individual and the specific on the one hand and the universal or eternal on the other. The ways of working to understand and bring about the changes we seek are also the same for both. The trick is ‘to contain the spirit of the unconscious without losing track of it or repressing it’.
But, Stein goes on to argue: ‘Through an intense engagement with organisational life, one may find the opportunity to be twice-born, and the organization may also grow and change.’ So, here’s the link: our work challenges can give us the impetus and the base material with which to engage both in our own internal search, but also, it just so happens, helping, ultimately, the organisation evolve itself.
The trouble is, if the management arrangements don’t expect this and prepare their people to support colleagues in a skillful way, the organisation as well as the individual, risks losing out on the new energy and ideas that such changes can bring in their wake. Coaching is of course a way of filling this gap, but so too are programmes to support managers learn the skills that harvesting the hidden resources of their people.
As the genie said, again, as voiced by Robin Williams: ‘Keep your hands and arms inside the carpet. We’re out of here!’
- If your genie were to be released, what would your three (personal development) wishes be?
- If your organisation’s genie were to be released, what hidden potential do you think may be available to the organisation that it does not yet understand or harness?
 Psyche at Work – Workplace Applications of Jungian Analytical Psychology, edited by Murray Stein & John Hollwitz (Chiron Publications, 1992)
 Ibid, Ch 1
 from The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and other early Christian Contemplatives, translated and edited by JA McGuckin (Shambhala, 2003)