Struggling With The Demon: Perspectives On Individual And Organizational Irrationality (Book Review)

Author:  De Vries, Manfred F.R. Kets
Publisher: Psychosocial Press, 2001
Reviewed By: Susan E. Barbour, Spring 2003, pp. 39-41

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries opens the acknowledgements that preface his 2001 book, Struggling with the Demon: Perspectives on Individual and Organizational Irrationality, with a delightful boyhood recollection. He is fourteen years old and returns to a youth camp in the Netherlands. He and his brother propagate the myth that newcomers to the camp have to pass through an initiation rite that involves a dunk in a tub of icy cold water. Sixty boys “obediently” line up and immerse themselves, one-by-one. Thus, the “tremendous determination” and “powers of persuasion” of two small boys bring to bear what Kets de Vries describes as his “first important lesson in leadership and group psychology” (p. ix).

This whimsical snippet aroused in me a sense of the magic of leadership. We’ve all been in groups, not the least of which is our family, and we resonate with descriptive experiences about them. Kets de Vries’s discussion of the inspirational and potentially exploitative role of leadership sets in motion a thoroughly readable discussion of the complexities of organizational life. As the Raoul de Vitry D’Avaucourt Chair of Human Resource Management at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, he has five times received INSEAD’s distinguished teacher award and is program director of INSEAD’s management program: “The Challenge of Leadership: Developing your Emotional Intelligence.” He is an economist, student of management, and a psychoanalyst member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association. This volume of discrete papers forms a collection of ideas and perspectives on the ways that the inner lives of leaders play out in the workplace. Kets de Vries explores the interface between underlying organizational dynamics and human resource management. He invites readers to make two journeys: one into his or her inner self, and another into the “organizational underworld” (p.14). He lifts classical psychoanalytic theory out of the bedroom and explores how through the repetition compulsion, the boardroom becomes the outer theater for the complex motivational systems of the “inner theater” (p.4) as our scripts are projected into and influence organizational life.

Just as every neurotic has a history, so has every organizational act. The repetition of certain phenomena in the workplace suggests the existence of specific motivational configurations. Just as symptoms and dreams can be viewed as signs with meaning, so can specific acts, statements and decisions (p. 5).

Kets de Vries believes that leaders make a difference, a notion contrary to many management theorists who either view leaders as a cog in the organizational wheel, or as influential only through the most rational of mechanisms. The title of this volume comes from a comment that Freud made to the novelist Stefan Zweig. He said that all his life he had “struggled with the demon” of irrationality (p.15). Through projection and projective identification “all of us have a tendency to externalize the scripts in our inner theater and act these out on a public stage” (p.11). Thus, when management students might be apt to overlook some of the dynamics that occur between people in organizations, Kets de Vries writes to convey that with increased self-awareness and tolerance for ambiguity, leaders can create organizational communities that bring pleasure and meaning. He asks at the outset, “Is what you see what you get? Is the manifest behavior of people the only dimension that counts” (p.1). And, so, he embarks on an exposition of dynamics based solidly in psychoanalytic theory, but one that is explained in a personable and practical way.

His discussion of individual--and the sometimes-parallel organizational--forces leads seamlessly to tangible suggestions of the kind I would comfortably recommend to non-analytic colleagues. His book is as practical as a self-help volume, without the kitch. For instance, Kets de Vries encourages leaders to talk with staff “using simple language” in order to best engage them in the process of organizational change. Making complicated intra- and interpersonal forces understandable to a breadth of readership beyond those studied in psychoanalysis is an admirable skill. For example, in his sixth chapter, Kets de Vries describes rain forest pygmies and how their culture illustrates an ideal organizational team. He spent some time living with the pygmies in the rain forest and can, as a result, define some of the qualities inherent in pygmy cooperation. He explores the fundamental need for trust, negotiation of problems, common goals and values, open communication, respect, and support. Survival in the rainforest meant managing together in light of daily threats to safety, and he explores how the pygmies were bound together rather than splintered by the danger and anxiety these threats raised. I was struck with the commonsense, yet foreign (in my experience in workgroups), necessity that individuals put the needs of the group before their own.

The first three chapters of Struggling with the Demon focus on the individual and how the “emotional style of senior executives influences the prevailing climate of the workplace” (p. 57). First, through the psychoanalysis of an entrepreneur, Kets de Vries describes how a leader’s denial of inner life and later his gradual recognition and working through of personal issues effects the morale of the organization. Second, he discusses the affective spectrum from the charisma of the hypomanic leader on one hand, to the alexithymic (“no word for emotions”- p. 88) whose affect is like that of “dead fish,” on the other. Lastly, he explores how physiologic and social changes of the leader in mid-life frequently spawn a “paucity of inner life” (p.106) and what Kets de Vries calls the phenomena of “organizational sleepwalkers.” Summarized here in the most cursory fashion, these topics are discussed thoroughly and conceptualize how motere (emotion), which means “to move” (p. x), is the vehicle of inspiration or disenchantment between leader and employees.

Collusive pairs can taint organizational culture. Kets de Vries defines projective identification and explores how past, out-of-awareness and repetitive patterns become mutually shared enactments to master anxiety in the present (p.127). He illustrates the “equilibrium” of the roles played (p.123) by considering Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Walt Disney Studios, and Michael Eisner, the Chairman of Disney. They were initially a highly creative and profitable pair, and he explores the “glue” (p.124) that, for a time, held them together. The initial “contract” between two individuals is formed at several levels: verbal, unarticulated, and unconscious (pp. 128-129). He describes and categorizes some of the predominate types of collusion gleaned from interviews of executives participating in his leadership seminars: narcissistic, controlling, paranoid, and sadomasochistic. Kets de Vries provides sample “scripts” illustrating these collusions, brief dialogues we will find familiar.

While his description of these collusive character types help us to better understand how enacted patterns occur, I had the sense that Kets de Vries was viewing the potentially wide expanse of a room through the keyhole. Do these collusions initiate or potentially express workgroup anxiety. If it is the latter, how do the forces of projective identification come to settle on a “pair”? I think a broader consideration might begin with Wilfred Bion (1961) and the dynamics of the “group-as-a-whole” posited by Wells (1985). The group-as-a-whole is a perspective of the sum total of the forces occurring between individual co-actors in a group and their intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics. The life of the group-as-a-whole is different, but related to, the dynamics of the individual co-actors (Wells, 1985).

Groups operate on two levels, according to Bion (1961): (1) the workgroup, which is reality-oriented and carries out the task, and (2) the basic assumption group or group mentality (Turquet, pp.74-84; Stokes, J., 1994, pp. 19-27). Both levels have survival as their objective, but that survival means different things. “The internal world of a group is made up then, first of the contributions of its members to its purpose and, second, of the feeling and attitudes the members develop about each other and about the group, both internally and in relation to its environment” (Miller & Rice, 1975 pp. 55-56). Members may pair with each other as they resonate with unconscious needs, values, and more conscious convictions, the leader included. These collusions may play out through the mechanisms of dependence, pairing, and fight-flight (Bion, 1961), in splitting, scapegoating and by marginalizing some members of the group.

Kets de Vries considers pairings, or collusions, and the leader’s valence for the role. Perhaps it is only an incremental step for the self-aware leader to understand that the group-as-a-whole is moving him and to know how to address the more pervasive underlying tide operative in the workgroup. Kets de Vries does note Bion’s work from 1959 but, if I understand him accurately, and I may not, he concludes that the basic assumption group does not typically intrude in the normative workplace, e.g., “hidden agendas do not routinely set the tone” (p.150). Margaret Rioch (1970), who was initially instrumental in the A.K. Rice Institute Group Relations Training in this country, understands Bion differently and differs. She comments that the idea that rational forces dominant in a group is “rare and perhaps even non-existent in pure culture” (p.58). She goes on to comment that a large part of Bion’s theory is precisely that groups don’t behave in sensible ways. This irrationality is, of course, Kets de Vies thesis, and one he has noted through the “fair number” of collusive relationships in his interviews (p.150-151). But, he seems to distinguish pairing from what Bion calls, “group mentality”.

The task group, which functions in a rational way in order to accomplish its goal, can be likened to the ego in the individual. To function productively, the basic assumption group “must be subservient to and used in the service of the work task” (Rioch, p. 64). However, in actuality, groups, like individuals, struggle with more or less well-articulated and meaningful goal-oriented behavior and are similarly, more or less, impeded or incapacitated by underlying anxiety. From a broader perspective then, the leader helps the group define its primary task, modulate the boundary that reinforces the group structure and use self to understand the group’s anxiety. I like Heifetz and Linsky’s conceptualization of the holding environment to contain anxiety:

When you exercise leadership, you need a holding environment to contain and adjust the heat that is being generated by addressing difficult issues or wide value differences. A holding environment is a space formed by a network of relationships within which people can tackle tough, sometimes divisive questions without flying apart. Creating a holding environment enables you to direct creative energy toward working the conflicts and containing passions that could easily boil over (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002 , p.102).

Kets De Vries explores several other topics in addition to the areas I’ve summarized above, including envy, change and downsizing. A discussion of envy follows naturally upon a discussion of projective identification and collusive relationships. Kets de Vries takes up this topic, which is not frequently discussed in management literature (p. 158). He describes the origins of envy, destructive and constructive ways of dealing with it in the workplace, and he concludes that vindictiveness can be constructively worked through and replaced by reparation. He also discusses the “relatively invariant” (p.24) principles of the change process and typical resistance to it. He notes “the only person who likes change is a wet baby” (p.215).

One major kind of change today is downsizing, and Kets de Vries tackles this subject in a useful chapter. He defines downsizing and its repercussions on “victims, survivors and executioners (those responsible for the implementation of downsizing)” (p, 249). Soured by the effects of downsizing on those who have lost jobs, and towns that have lost major corporate employers, I found my perspective shifting with his definition. Although Kets de Vries is the first to admit that downsizing will inevitably cause harm and leave wounds (p.282), it is best implemented as part of a corporate “renewal” which is interwoven into a philosophical change and ultimately effects the “values and attitudes of the company’s culture” (p.254) rather than leading to a reduction of numbers to ease the bottom line.

Kets de Vries’s emphasis in Struggling with the Demon is on the role of leadership and the leader’s willingness to know self. He writes that many of the executives he has known are stuck, “governed by the past” and locked in a “psychic prison.” (p.8) Without a fuller range of seeing things, and, thus, feeling they have more choice, “these executives are like the simple mussel, which has to make only one major existential decision in life: where to settle down. After that decision is made, the mollusk spends the rest of its life with its head cemented against a rock” (p.8). The metaphor will likely prompt a chuckle for you, as it did for me, in light of leaders we have known; it is sad, but true. Sad because we believe that there are ways to see our world and ourselves differently, and yet we know how difficult it is to find the wiggle room to explore oneself and to allow for a wider breadth of experience and options. “After all, mental health is really about making choices” (p.8), writes Kets de Vries. I think Kets de Vries is trying to increase the likelihood that a leader’s reflective curiosity will have positive effects on organizational life.


Bion, W.R. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock.
Halton, W. (1994). Some unconscious aspects of organization life. Obholzer, A and Roberts, V.Z. (1994). The unconscious at work: Individual and organizational stress in the human services. pp. 11-18. London: Routledge.
Heifetz, R. & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA.
Miller, E.J. & Rice, A.K. (1975). Selections from: Systems of Organization. In Colman, A.D., and Bexton, W.H. (Eds). Group relations:Reader 1. pp. 13-68. Washington, D.C.: A.K. Rice Institute.
Rioch, M.J. (1970). The work of Wilfred Bion in groups. Psychiatry. V. 33. pgs. 56-66.
Stokes, J. (1994). The unconscious at work in groups and teams. Obholzer, A and Roberts, V.Z. The unconscious at work: Individual and organizational stress in the human services. Pp. 19-27. London: Routledge.
Turquet, P. Leadership: The individual and the group. In Colman, A.D. & Geller, M.H. (Eds) Group relations: Reader 2. pp. 71-87. Washington, D.C.: A.K. Rice Institute.
Wells, L. (1985). The group as a whole perspective and its theoretical roots. In Colman, A.D. & Geller, M.H. (Eds) Group relations: Reader 2. pp. 109-126. Washington, D.C.: A.K. Rice Institute.

Reviewer Note

Susan E. Barbour is a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and director of the University Employee Assistance Program. She holds an advanced certificate in object relations theory and technique from the International Institute of Object Relations, Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Barbour has a private practice in Appleton, Wisconsin.


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