In the current Brexit debate in the UK politicians from the Conservative Party repeat certain words and phrases ad nauseam until the message is drummed home to an exasperated electorate on the expectation that they have a limited attention span: the Conservatives are the party to ‘get Brexit done’ because they want to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’. The latter phrase is often also used in schools and universities about young people to describe the institutions’ plans for them, and is widely deployed in organisations undergoing some kind of transformational project. The idea of potential, a latent ability which has yet to be realised, together with the word ‘unleash’, or to release from constraint, implies enormous energy, like water behind a dam, which is somehow prevented from reaching its full expression. When the UK exits from the EU the whole of the UK’s creativity and energy will suddenly burst free of the constraints currently hemming it in and will flood the world with Britain’s greatness.
The phrase is common to the humanistic and positive psychology movements as well as neoliberal groups suspicious of government regulation or any impediment to what they see as the free functioning of the market. Shared amongst all adherents of unleashing potential is the link with confidence and optimism. And as such the phrase has all the characteristics which should pique the curiosity of critical inquirers into contemporary organisational discourse. It is future-oriented, it is positive and it is simplistic.
Humanistic psychology was a response to what its proponents saw as the limitations and preoccupations of Freud and psychoanalysis. Rather than concerning itself with pathology, themes of repression and the darker side of human nature, the death instinct, aggression, rivalry, humanistic psychology is inclined more towards individuals’ self-actualisation in the belief that humans are inherently good. If we could only rid ourselves of pathological, past-oriented thinking get in touch with our true selves then we could return to a healthy path of human flourishing oriented towards the future. Among its more famous early proponents were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Along with positive psychology, which arises out of humanistic psychology, the principle focus is on an individual’s goals, health, happiness and productivity. Consistent with bodies of theory which concentrate on the individual, is the idea of personal responsibility and individual choosing. Humanistic psychologists support individuals to make choices which help them to be ‘the best versions’ of themselves, and have previously been preoccupied with self-esteem. The focus is predominantly on the individual and their choosing rather than on relationships with others.
Future posts will deal more fully with the emphasis on positivity and individuality in contemporary organisations; there is a lot of thinking to be done about an orientation that pushes the responsibility onto individuals to be positive, resilient and make good choices about their well-being in the face of inequality, shrinking resources and possibly bad management. But for now let’s concentrate on the assumptions underpinning the idea of unleashing potential, which has both naturalistic and redemptive appeal. Our current misery and dysfunction, in our society or in our organisation, can be lifted if we can only burst free from our chains and become the fully realised society/organisation/team we know ourselves to be.
The first assumption is that that the potential self/organisation/society is already there impatient to get out. We are currently constrained by something else, or someone else, and in one bound we can be free. The movement implied seems to be one which relieves us of constraint in relationship to being independent and liberated. This evokes strongly the Freud/Bion perspective on groups, that the course of human independence lies on the path of liberating oneself from dependence on others. To be free implies being an autonomous individual: our principle reference point is our self and the kernel of ‘us-ness’ which is already there fully formed.
The second assumption is that unleashing our potential can only be the potential for the good, and will inevitably lead to our flourishing. This is consistent with bodies of thought preoccupied with positivity on the assumption that inquiring into the good can only lead to more good things happening. This is a strong thread in contemporary political and organisational discourse which matches this kind of magical thinking: to get through difficult circumstances involves believing hard enough and proceeding confidently enough to push through the barriers. This is no time for doomsters and gloomsters, as the UK’s current Prime Minister is wont to say.
I offer two alternative interpretations of how we might understand the idea of unleashing potential. The first is based on the idea of the highly social self: we are who we are because of the groups we belong to and our history of being together. To remake ourselves means to remake our relationships with others: we are fashioned by one set of interdependencies or another. If we find our current sets of relationships constraining then we are obliged either to renegotiate them, or make relationships with others. Since we are often more dependent on others than they are on us, particularly if we need them more than they need us, then if we follow the second course we will simply be constrained in a different way. Our choices are one set of constraints or another – there is no such thing as a completely autonomous life where we ‘hold all the cards’ or get to dictate all the terms.
Secondly, human activity has the potential for both good and bad outcomes depending on who makes the judgement and when the judgement is made. We are capable of being both creative and destructive, which are often two sides of the same coin. If we consider ourselves members of long chains of interdependent people, our power to determine just positive outcomes for changing our behaviour, or our sets of relationships is limited. We can proceed with the best of intentions and with expectations of the good, but the outcome depends upon what others think and do along with unexpected and often unwanted twists of fate. Unleashing our potential may also involve unleashing our potential to do harm to ourselves and to others.
The idea of unleashing our own, or other’s potential is uplifting because it appeals to the idea of a better life and to the concept of human freedom. Who wouldn’t want to unleash their potential for the good? But like all forms of utopianism it paints a world free from constraint, the very constraints which are necessary to make us who we are.