- By Ian Bradley
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In my work as an executive coach who sees professionals in many different capacities, it has struck me that each professional has its own competitive angle.
I remember counseling several mathematicians who explained to me that if you weren’t a genius, or perceived as one, you were by default mediocre. For litigation lawyers, it’s their ferocity of their attack; doctors their diagnostic acumen. Medicine can excuse bad bedside manners but not missing a crucial diagnosis. Every profession has their key point of competitive evaluation.
For psychologists, it’s not genius, ferocity or diagnostic ability but insight.
Don’t ask me what “insight” means since it’s vague; that’s one of the reasons the competition among psychologists is so enduring. Each psychologist can define in his or her way, undoubtedly with rather self-serving results.
For some, insight is the ability or fantasy to see underlying problems for whatever complaint the patient first brings to the clinic. A good example involves a client who arrives with a fear of open spaces -a variant of agoraphobia where the client avoids large public places especially those with crowds. The treatment typically involves some form of relaxation training to cope with the panic symptoms that drive the avoidance combined with some graduated exposure to the situations that are avoided. Simple right? But not to one or two more discerning psychologists who might use the opportunity to expose the deeper or more underlying fear – the fear of freedom of choice. Now, I really don’t know if the patient who avoids shopping malls due to panic is really expressing an overwhelming consumer paralysis due to over abundant choice or not. Hopefully I would hear the whiff of such a theme in my conversations with the patient, but to many a psychologist, the more obscure the underlying problem, the more insightful the comments.
A second use of the term “insightful” reflects the ability to empathize with the client. Competition among psychologists often is a subtle competition as to who is more understanding, emotionally supportive or unconditionally accepting. One doesn’t come right on a say it… it would rather defeat the purpose to say “I’m more empathetic than you” but the message is invariably delivered.
What does all this mean when you’re managing people? First, competition is inherent in all groups. Secondly, it’s stronger but only indirectly expressed in groups where objective metrics of success are minimal. For example, in banking, there are clear stratified layers of managerial accomplishment from branch manager to district manager to associate VP through to regional VP all the way to chairman. In a Psychology Department, there is a Chief and then everyone else. There are few if any tangible perks of success such as corner offices and certainly no quarterly bonus. As a result, we compete over insight. Leaders of mental health groups need to be aware of this competition and channel it.
One method that I used as a department director to channel the communication was to allow each professional develop his or her own intellectual territory. I couldn’t promote, but I could segment the domain of clinical work and allow people to develop islands of expertise that were recognized and respected. We had experts in areas of attention deficit disorder, sexual dysfunctions, OCD, social skills training etc. Assigning psychologists to areas of interests not only unleashed their own inherent motivation but also it reduced unproductive competition of people for recognition from the same work or same intervention. Competition will always exist but it is the role of managers to unsure that remains within limits.