Driven to Protect Ourselves
The issues of toxic leadership are not new. Karen Horney (1937) in her classic work, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, discusses her perspectives on the internal factors that influence our behavioural patterns. She sees ‘protecting ourselves from anxiety’ (1937, p. 102) as a major internal driver.
While we are all different, we all share basic desires to feel safe, secure, valued, respected and loved in some way. If we think that any of these things are unlikely to continue, we may feel anxious and then make choices or adopt thinking patterns designed to protect us from that anxiety.
Horney describes four ways of protecting ourselves from anxiety:
- we may go to any length to be loved or approved by others;
- we may become overly compliant, not risking potential conflict through non-assertive behaviour;
- we may strive for prestige, power or possessions to assure feelings of security and worth; and/or
- we may emphasise personal independence and shut ourselves off from other people.
Horney believed these elements may be present in various combinations in all of us and not indicate any form of neurosis. However, when they take on a protective function, they bring a new significance. She illustrates this with an analogy:
“We may climb a tree because we wish to test our strength and skill and see the view from the top, or we may climb it because we are pursued by a wild animal. In both cases we climb the tree, but the motives for our climbing are different. In the first case we do it for the sake of pleasure, in the other case we are driven by fear and have to do it out of a need for safety. In the first case we are free to climb or not, in the other we are compelled to climb by a stringent necessity. In the first case we can look for the tree which is best suited to our purpose, in the other case we have no choice but must take the first tree within reach, and it need not necessarily be a tree; it may be a flag pole or house if only it serves the purpose of protection.” (Horney, 1937, p. 102)
Being driven requires constant energy. It is exhausting. It diminishes the feelings of pleasure that are attainable because they not so much satisfying as reassuring. It relieves anxiety but does not produce joy. The relief from tension is pleasant, but it is not satisfying in the same way as choosing a behaviour based on free choice.
In many situations where there are scarce resources and competition for the resources that exist, some have focused on building their own independent fiefdoms. They can control information. They can control the story that is shared about them. They can take control and ensure that no one can tell me what to do and thus minimise the threats of destitution and diminish the anxiety around losing income (Horney, 1937, p. 162).
Thus, striving for power is reassurance against helplessness; striving for prestige is reassurance against humiliation; and striving for possessions is reassurance against destitution.
It Will Not Go Away,
It Will Only Get Worse.
The Colloquium Group has helped many organisations have challenging conversations about shifting from a toxic to a healthy culture. Organisations get stuck and are unsure how to change things that have become entrenched in the psyche of the group. It all starts with dialogue and commitment to surfacing the challenges that most people already know are a problem. Enough is enough. Boards and executives are responsible for allowing toxic personalities to survive and thrive. It is time to boldly build cultures that do not allow toxicity.
As George Orwell put it, “A people that select corrupt leaders… are not victims… but accomplices.”
Reference: Horney, Karen (1937). The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.