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The Psychology of Engagement

The Psychology of Engagement

Do you love and hate your job?

It's a simple question. Not either/or. Both/and.

If you answer the latter, you are ambivalent. Not indifferent. Ambivalent. No, it's not the same thing.

Ambi = both. Valent = strength. You have contradictory strong feelings and/or thoughts about work.

Why am I asking this question? Because employee engagement is about how we manage these contradictory feelings. The more love we feel, the more we engage with work. The more hate we feel, the more we disengage. The fundamental claims of the engagement movement.

Somehow, we've becomes stuck in a belief system that sees us as being either/or. Not both/and. Despite nearly all of us identifying with the latter.

How and why did we get to this state of affairs? Develop a system of measurement for feelings and thoughts that doesn't relate to how we actually feel and think. And does this mismatch result in unnecessary emotional and psychological stress?

It's a complex story. It's dramatic. Full of blind ambition. Ethically dodgy practices. Backstabbing politics. Sex and violence. And death.

With all good stories, the best place to start is the beginning.

Sigmund Freud's Viennese Circle, Austria, 1911

Sigmund Freud leaned back in his chair, his gazed fixed on the two men in front of him. Two men who had helped him achieve his lifelong ambition of getting psychoanalysis taken seriously by the scientific community. Two men who were now challenging his achievements. Expressing doubt about his ideas. Showing disloyalty to the cause.

Freud took loyalty seriously. It was a central theme of his work. One that his followers were supposed to take equally seriously. They were supposed to prove themselves loyal. If they showed enough commitment to the cause, Freud would embrace them as a "follower".

You couldn't be a semi-follower or a marginal member. Or a loyalist with independent thoughts. It was all or nothing. You were in. Or you were out. No half measures.

Either/or. Not both/and.

Eugen Bleuler

Freud contemplated the first of the men sitting in front of him. Eugen Bleuler was a preeminent psychiatrist, most known for his research on schizophrenia. Which was a term Bleuler had recently invented. Freud had come to Bleuler's attention thanks to his work on ambivalence. Bleuler was sure unlocking unconscious desires could help understand and alleviate the worst symptoms of schizophrenia.

Freud had jumped at Blueler's request for help. He hadn't been able to get anybody in the psychiatric community to take psychotherapy seriously. Bleuler offered a way in.

Freud's work had been very helpful to Bleuler. Freud's analysis and understanding of psychological defences against ambivalence had helped Bleuler better comprehend the development of schizophrenia. Identify warning signs. And begin to develop ways to alleviate the symptoms.

But Bleuler had become troubled by Freud's insistence that the ultimate solution was total loyalty. An all or nothing approach that divided people into "healthy" or "diseased". In which even the mildest symptom was example of psychological repression to be corrected as soon as possible.

Bleuler had told Freud that

this 'all or nothing' is in my opinion necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties...but for science I consider it harmful.

Not either/or. But both/and.

Wilhelm Stekel

In the other chair sat Wilhelm Stekel. He had been one of Freud's earliest followers, was perhaps his most distinguished pupil, and was a co-founder of Freud's Viennese circle. His work had hugely influenced Freud's dream analysis.

But tensions had surfaced. He felt Freud was wrong about sexual behaviours, regarding masturbation as healthy psycho-emotional release rather than harmful fetish. Perhaps more seriously, Stekel had accused Freud of stealing his theory of bipolarity and rebranding it as ambivalence.

Stekel also believed Freud's insistence on 'all or nothing' was problematic. For Stekel, no matter how positive you were, the negative always reasserted itself. Instead of being static and stable, people existed in a state of permanent oscillation, sometimes swinging wildly to love and other times wildly to hate. But usually somewhere inbetween. Not either/or. But both/and. As Stekel put it,

We are all ultra loyalists and radical anarchists.

The Schism

This meeting is fictional. But the feelings and ideas are real. Bleuler resigned from Freud's psychoanalytical group in 1911. Stekel the year after.

While Bleuler continued to reject Freud's 'all or nothing' model, he vigorously supported Freud's work on unconscious psychological defences. He heartily supported Freud's nomination for the Nobel Prize. This continued support from a respected member of the psychiatric community helped Freud in getting traction for his theories. It also ensured these defences became a fundamental element of serious psychology.

Stekel attempted to build a position for himself both inside and outside the psychoanalytical community. He wanted to be taken seriously as a psychotherapist while developing original thought that challenged Freudian orthodoxy. Resisting any modifications of his work, Freud never allowed Stekel to rejoin the community, despite his many attempts to do so. Eventually, ill and in constant pain, Stekel committed suicide.

Reflections of an Open Mind

Reflection 1: Freud's split with Bleular happened the same year that Frederick Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management. The either/or framework informed management's interpretation of workers' behaviour, formally becoming part of managerial theory in the 1930s through Elton Mayo.

Reflection 2: Freud's ambitions and political ability ensured that Bleuler's and Stekel's fluid and complex interpretations of bipolarity and ambivalence became marginal.

Reflection 3: Freud's work on loyalty and 'followship' became a core component of political manipulation thanks to Edward L. Bernays' (Freud's nephew) work on propaganda.

Reflection 4: Bleuler's critique of Freud's work informing cult-like behaviours was mirrored in the critical reaction to the rise of Strong Culture Theory in the 1980s. This worry is still alive and well today.

Reflection 5: The only purely psychological thinker referenced in Kahn's foundational paper on employee engagement is Sigmund Freud. The engagement/disengagement polarities are eerily similar to Freud's 'all or nothing' model.

Reflection 6: The other works referenced in Kahn's model of engagement are from sociological or social psychological thinkers who would fundamentally disagree with Freud's static model and embrace Bleuler's and Stekel's fluid and complex models.

Reflection 7: Niel Smelser, in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, argued that Freud's work on ambivalence was his most important contribution to modern psychosocial thought. Smelser is no small fry - he developed the theory of value-added behaviour.


  • Has organisational psychology become too attached to this static 'all or nothing, either/or' model?
  • Do we see disengagement as evidence that the person displaying it is somehow flawed and needs correcting?
  • Is the increased interest in positive psychology evidence of this 'all or nothing', either/or model still being the dominant one?
  • Are the awful figures about engagement (only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged) related to the above?
  • Is this demand for either/or commitment and loyalty actively causing the type of psychological problems that Freud was trying to solve?
  • Can we create a both/and mindset and organisational structure to support it?


The answers are complex. But let's start by refusing to point fingures. Some people will be hugely committed to this 'all or nothing, either/or model'. I'm sure a few of you reading this will be ticking off names in your head. Others will be more nuanced and understanding of the complexities of engagement. The reason - whether the system they work in is either/or or both/and. Not because of who they are.

I think the figure of 13% engagement reflects something being hugely wrong. And I think Freudian thought and its influence on positive/negative dualities in psychology is the likely culprit.

Why do I think that?

Because I've pretty high-level knowledge of the other psychosocial theories that influence engagement (Mead & Goffman's symbolic interactionism, Merton's role theory, and Lewin's group dynamics), and I can't recognise them in 90% of the stuff I read about engagement. Whereas I see Freud everywhere.

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Saturday, 04 July 2020

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