Trust at work

Trust at work

Trust at work

Experiential knowing is the basis for all forms of trust. Systems psychodynamics enables a systemic understanding of the conditions that lead to or inhibit trusting relations.

Trust at work

Contemporary workplaces tend to be flatter, more collaborative and more distributed and, as such, require leaders and managers to develop trusting relationships with staff and stakeholders. But how do we define trust? This article draws upon different models of trust at work, to develop an understanding of trust from a systems psychodynamics perspective.

How do we define trust?

Schein (2009), in his analysis of the social and psychological dynamics of helping relationships, proposes that people develop trust by helping each other, in turn increasing organisational effectiveness. Ancona and Bresnan (2007), drawing on years of research that examined teams across many industries, suggest the best way for a team to develop trust is to work together on a shared task. This is supported by research from Plotnick et al. (2009) who identified three dimensions of trust; personal, process and expertise, where personal trust is linked to experiential knowing and process trust relies on presentational knowing.

Personal trust


A form of trust linked to experiential knowing (learnt from direct lived experience) and based on the experience of other team members. 

Process trust


This form of trust relies on presentational knowing (the words, images and metaphors used to articulate experiential knowing, shaping it into a coherent, communicable form) and is based on inferences made from the experience of working with other team members

Expertise trust


This form of trust is based on a trustor’s judgement of the trustee’s experience

What does it mean to know?

To further investigate what it means to trust requires an exploration into ways of knowing. Heron and Reason (2007) advise that presentational knowing is underpinned by experiential knowing which, in turn, is the platform for all other forms of knowing. Rajagopalan and Midgely (2015), in their research on extending ways of knowing, develop this further and claim that formal and reflective thinking are inadequate on their own. They developed a four-part framework that describes ways of knowing, adding practical knowing to the three forms of knowing identified by Heron and Reason. The framework, comprising experiential, presentational, propositional and practical ways of knowing, is summarised below. 

Personal trust


Experiential knowing

A form knowing through participative, empathic resonance with an ‘other’, so that the knower is both attuned and distinct from the other

Process trust


Presentational knowing

A form of knowing that emerges from and is grounded in experiential knowing and reveals the underlying nature of things

Expertise trust


Propositional knowing



Practical knowing

A form of knowing carried by representational forms, expressed in statements and theories, and grounded in experiential knowing


A form of knowing how to do something, demonstrated in a skill or competence. It presupposes a conceptual grasp of theory, evident in presentational form and grounded in experiential knowing

Based on the work of Rajagopalan and Midgely (2015), I argue that experiential knowing is the basis for all forms of trust. As such, it can be explored through object relations theory (Klein, 1985) to understand relations between self and other. Further, in systems psychodynamics, the additional attention to group processes, system structure, processes and boundaries, and contextual elements enables a systemic understanding of the conditions that lead to or inhibit trusting relations.

Experiential knowing and the development of trust

A thesis by Harding (2006) proposes that, from a systems psychodynamic perspective, mutual relations are reliant on ‘good enough’ management of projective processes, as a pre or synchronistic condition. In mutual recognition, each person has a need for recognition and has the capacity to recognise the other in return. ‘The subject declares “I am, I do” and then waits for the response, “You are, you have done” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 21). Mutual recognition involves simultaneous connection and separation, creating a tension between recognising the other and asserting the self. Inherent in intersubjectivity is a fundamental paradox. Benjamin (1990) expresses it in this way:

In the very moment of realising our own independent will, we are dependent on another to recognise it. At the very moment we come to understanding the meaning of I, myself, we are forced to see the limitation of that self. At the moment when we understand that separate minds can share similar feelings, we begin to find out that these minds can also disagree (p. 39)

It is the now moment of ‘knowing and being known’ that brings coherence of wholeness to the system, increasing its capacity for complexity. Sander (2002) writes that the complementary structure of intersubjectivity and the subsequent move to mutual understanding results in power being dissolved rather than transferred back and forth in an endless cycle, and thus supports trust between self and others. This is in line with Sievers (2003), who writes that trust cannot be engineered, and instead, attention must be paid to the undercurrents of organisational life, such as uncertainty, hopelessness and despair.

Given that no two people ever see an event in the same way, Sievers argues that ‘the challenge is to learn new ways of creating trust between partners who do not necessarily share the same goals and values’ (p. 32). This is reliant on the creation of a reflective space (Krantz, 2013) to explore the group’s culture and unconscious dynamics, leading to mutual recognition and paving the way for trusting relations.

Systems psychodynamics provides a framework for understanding how trust is developed, however, the only way to ‘know’ the theory is to experience it. NIODA provides academic programs, workshops and group relations conferences which are designed to provide experiences which enable an exploration of the dynamics of trust.

Dr Nuala Dent
Academic Staff Member, NIODA

17 October 2019

Trust at work

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about the dynamics of trust at work? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.


Ancona D and Bresnan H. (2007) X-Teams: How to Build Team That Lead, Innovate and Succeed, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Benjamin J. (1988) The First Bond. The bonds of love: psychoanalysis, feminism, and the problem of domination. New York: Pantheon Book, p 11-50.

Benjamin J. (1990) An Outline of Intersubjectivity: The Development of Recognition. Psychoanalytic Psychology 7 (Supplement): 33-46.

Harding W. (2006) Intersubjectivity and Large Groups: A Systems Psychodynamic Perspective. Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship. Melbourne: Swinburne University of Technology.

Heron J and Reason P. (2007) Extending Epistemology within a Co-operative Inquiry. In: Reason P and Bradbury-Huang H (eds) The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and practice. ProQuest Ebook Central, SAGE Publications.

Klein M. (1985) Our adult world and its roots in infancy. In: Colam AD and Geller MH (eds) Group Relations Reader 2. Washington DC: A. K. Rice Institute.

Krantz J. (2013) Work Culture analysis and reflective space. In: Long S (ed) Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems. London, UK: Karnac Books, 23-44.

Plotnick L, Hiltz SR and Ocker R. (2009) Trust in Partially Distributed Teams. 30th International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS). Phoenix, AZ.

Rajagopalan R and Midgely G. (2015) Knowing Differently in Systemic Intervention. Systems Research and Behavioural Science 32: 546-561.

Sander LW. (2002) Thinking Differently Principles of Process in Living Systems and the Specificity of Being Known. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 12: 11-42.

Schein E. (2009) Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Sievers B. (2003) Against All Reason: Trusting in Trust. Organisational & Social Dynamics 3: pp 19-39.

Reflexivity: Learning to Reflect in-action

Reflexivity: Learning to Reflect in-action

Reflexivity: Learning to Reflect in-action

The time to reflect is now, in-action; not in some despairingly imagined future respite. And, the form of reflection we need in-action is more than just personal introspection, it is a mode of social inquiry.

Reflexivity: Learning to Reflect in-action

The idea of reflecting on our experience is often associated with having the luxury of time to spend in quiet contemplation, looking back and ruminating on what was and what might have been; recollecting the forks in our road and identifying the choices that have shaped our current state of being. It may involve a summing up of achievements and disappointments; a revelation of patterns in our behaviour and emotional dispositions, of ‘confidences exchanged and trusts maintained’ (to use the words of the poet Seamus Heaney). In mythology, reflection is often associated with relaxing beside a body of water: the sea, a river or stream which conveys the ebb and flow of life along with the metaphoric attraction of a mirroring surface covering hidden depths and currents.

Ah, yes a sea change is what I need!

Unfortunately modern life tends to make a myth of such notions of reflection. We find ourselves yearning for the space to collect our thoughts and recalibrate what is central and peripheral in our lives because in reality we are stressed out by the deadlines, options, choices, demands and
commitments of a recursive, 24/7 world of work.


Paradoxically, the time to reflect is now, in-action; not in some despairingly imagined future respite. And, the form of reflection we need in-action is more than just personal introspection, it is a mode of social inquiry. A pause from action (a form of inaction) to consider together our experiences in-action.

The more pressure we are under to think fast the more we need to be able to create the space to be able to think about how we are thinking (or not thinking, just reacting). But we won’t create this space until we learn to value it. And in organisational life we won’t learn to value it unless we can
learn to reflect with our colleagues about our collective experience. Such social reflection is called reflexivity. It is about noticing and thinking together about the nature of our involvement in our participation with each other as we strive to collaborate in pursuit of common aims. It is about noticing our avoidance of and resistance to sharing our feelings about our experience of participating and having the courage to present that as data to colleagues.

Reflexivity is the process of making sense together of the connections between past and future, of personal trade-offs and political compromises, persuasions accomplished and views relinquished, values held and practical judgements made in the pursuit of the common good. It reflects the personal as an aspect of the collective. Encouraging reflexivity is a key component of contemporary leadership and developing that leadership capacity is a key component of NIODA’s Master of Leadership and Management in Organisation Dynamics. We all live with the unconscious tension of wanting both to be a part of, and apart from, the groups we need to work with. Learning how to quietly inquire about and manage that tension in-action is a critical skill for leaders today. It takes courage but it is not necessarily heroic. As Henry Mintzberg put it: “Quiet management is about thoughtfulness rooted in experience.”

John NewtonProf John Newton
Founding director of Master (Org. Behav.) Swinburne 1987
& current Chair, Academic Board of Governance, NIODA

7 October 2019

Reflexivity: Learning to Reflect in-action

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about reflexivity and learning to reflect in-action? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.

Master’s Information Session

Master’s Information Session

Master's Information Session

This information session aims to illuminate what you can gain from the master’s course.  It is also an opportunity for prospective students to meet others who might study with them.

Master's Information Session

Monday 18 November in Melbourne

Tuesday 19 November in Sydney

Dr Wendy Harding, Director of Academic Programs at NIODA, is offering an information session for those who want to learn more about what can be gained by studying a Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics).  It is also an opportunity for prospective students to meet others who might study with them. 

Participants will have questions answered such as:
What are the foundational ideas of the course?
How can the learning assist me in my workplace challenges?
What are the time and other commitments required?
What are the administrative details of application and enrolment?

Current students/alumni will be available to talk through their experience of the course and how it has helped them in their professional lives.

Masters Information Session








Master’s Information Session

5.30 – 6.30 pm Monday 18 November at Level 7, 341 Queen Street, Melbourne

5.30 – 6.30 pm Tuesday 19 November at Level 13, 60 Margaret Street, Sydney

When & Where

Master’s Information Session


Monday 18 November 2019 Melbourne

Tuesday 19 November 2019 Sydney


5.30 – 6.30 pm


Level 7, 341 Queen Street, Melbourne

Level 13, 60 Margaret Street, Sydney


The National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) offers internationally renowned post-graduate education and research, and decades of experience consulting with Australian organisations. 

The study of organisation dynamics brings together socio-technical and psychoanalytic disciplines to explore the unconscious dynamics that exist in every group, team or organisation. Learning more about these theories, and reflecting on the experience of them, can support leaders and managers to unlock great potential in their organisations; tackling issues through a whole new light.


Get In Touch

14 + 14 =

PO box 287, Collins Street West  Melbourne  8007  Australia
+61 414 529 867

Beneath the lotus flower: discovering organisational cultures

Beneath the lotus flower: discovering organisational cultures

Beneath the lotus flower: discovering organisational cultures

Together with the concepts of ‘leadership’ and ‘strategy’, ‘organisational culture’ must surely be one of the most fascinating and infuriating objects of study in organisational life.

Beneath the lotus flower: discovering organisational cultures

On 13 September 2019, NIODA will hold its third symposium in Melbourne. This year’s theme is ‘building healthy and ethical organisational culture’. We will look now beneath the lotus flower: discovering organisational cultures.

Together with the concepts of ‘leadership’ and ‘strategy’, ‘organisational culture’ must surely be one of the most fascinating and infuriating objects of study in organisational life. Fascinating because, for most of us, it is difficult to describe, and yet we go to great lengths to do so. We often rely on metaphors to help us conceptualise it: for example, the behaviour that is hidden in the murky depths beneath the waterline, above which the obvious, exquisite lotus flower blooms.

Culture is infuriating because in our instrumentally-rational world we want something that we can lasso and send off to boot camp or give a makeover to. But ‘culture’, as we know (and I suspect, often to our disappointment) cannot be so easily nipped and tucked. Logically speaking, our attempts at measuring it are always only a real-time estimation and our actions always ultimately experimental. This is because we cannot ever escape the fact that culture is me, you and us (and also ‘them’), beings who are in a continual jostling with one other. We can never gain a complete picture of it, although we can often sense it when we walk into an office or a factory.

Dynamics in organisations can be perverse and destructive. They can also be amazingly creative and generative. We know the power of culture to drag an organisation down or help it rise. In recent times, many of us have been stupefied (and, perhaps, not surprised) at the systemic misconduct, wilful blindness and perversity in our banking, aged care and sporting domains. What is it that is so strongly out of our awareness, or to which we wish to remain blind that hinders our organisations so? How do we truly notice what is going on and discover how to strengthen that which serves an organisation well, and that which pulls it back?

Ultimately, the question is how we act to create the environments that best help an organisation achieve its purpose in accordance with the tenor of what we deem is important in its life – its values.

At the symposium next month, nine speakers will give papers and seminars in three streams throughout the day. In their own way, each will explore elements of organisational cultures. There will also be four keynote speakers and a facilitated reflective session. An optional dinner the evening before provides another opportunity for communing with like-minded people.

NIODA’s symposia are unique because they offer a space to truly think, reflect and share insights. This will be an opportunity to further your curiosity about what others are thinking when they work in, research or consult on the theme of culture in organisational life.

I hope to see you there.

Kristina Karlsson

discovering organisational cultures
NIODA 2019 Symposium committee ‘Building healthy and ethical organisational culture’
Authority – a short enquiry

Authority – a short enquiry

Authority - a short enquiry

Authority is the legitimate use of power.

But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Authority – a short enquiry

The NIODA Group Relations Working Conference in November 2019 (Identity, Gender, Authority and Community at Work) has a focus on how difference and identity influence the ways we take up authority and leadership. Authority is the legitimate use of power. But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Perhaps it means legitimate given the laws of the group, community or organisation, however formed and even when those laws may appear to be unfair or unethical? The idea of the ‘divine right’ of a monarch is seen as bestowing legitimate power from a deity, for example; or the power of a dictator may be legitimate in the sense of their power being supported in the law even when that law is despotic. There is an underlying assumption here that authority is linked to charisma – a term derived from the Greek ‘gift of grace’. Although now meaning a special power to influence others, its origins in divine conferral are clear.

Or, legitimacy may mean when the law and authority is endorsed by a majority, such as we believe occurs in a democracy – even if that majority may be persuaded by ‘false consciousness’ or misinformation, or even when there is awareness of the influence of ideological thinking (Zizek 1989 – The Sublime Object of Ideology) but with a blind trust in figures of authority.

Authority and its legitimacy, from a psychoanalytic perspective, stems from primary authority figures – parents, other family figures and teachers. The unconscious picture of authority is formed in early experience and then projected onto new figures of authority. The legitimacy here lies at both somatic and psychological levels and strong emotions of love, fear, anger and dependency are attached. Consequently, legitimacy in social settings may be achieved insofar as authorities mirror or resonate with unconscious images.

And, what of authority in those organisations that operate in a capitalist system? Authority lies in the structure of governance. First, company boards confer authority to senior staff. And boards, if they are vigilant and driven by organisational purpose, will attend to markets. In this sense, the authority invested in the board is market influenced, if not market-driven. The process is similar in family-owned or individually owned businesses. Except that there may or may not be a board in the governance structure. In the not-for-profit sector, most often a board drawn from the community and specialist professions is in place.

Such organisational systems are quite different to a democratic country government. In democratically elected government organisations, the legitimacy of authority is ultimately in the hands of ministers who delegate to public servants (even if the public servants have other powers of their own). Whereas the authority of the minister is endorsed by election from the group who vote, in companies and other organisations authority is bestowed from a few in specialised roles.

All this indicates that there may be good or bad authority as well as good or bad leaders who wield authority. As authority makes decisions on behalf of the group/community, so good authority makes decisions that fit laws that benefit the group as a whole and its individual members as much as possible. Any political system may become corrupt and no longer benefit the group, so it is important to find the safeguards that work against corruption: some of which might be in the ways we construct the nature of authority. So, the question of authority crosses the paths of group psychology/dynamics and political analysis.

How we conceive of authority is influenced by the way we recognise the source of its legitimacy: who confers what on whom. Put this way, it is apparent that identities are at play. Our creation of, and then perceptions and experiences of different identity groupings are critical because such distinctions so often endow the different groupings with differential charisma, power, capabilities, emotions, opinions and worth on the basis of unconscious assumptions, defensive dynamics and rivalrous intentions.

This group relations conference gives members the opportunity to look at how gender, identity and our understanding of community, in our work organisations in particular, affect the nature of authority and leadership. The conference uses experiential methods so that conference participants can learn from their own experience of gender and other identities in the different groups that the conference offers. The conference is a learning community structured as a temporary organisation.

The staff of the conference have been chosen to work alongside conference members in this exploration and has developed a program for this purpose.  Please visit for a description and for online registration.

Susan Long

legitimate authority
Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference
Trump’s style of executive functioning

Trump’s style of executive functioning

Trump’s style of executive functioning


In assessing Donald Trump as a president, it is common enough to evaluate his character in psychodynamic terms, for example, to highlight his apparent narcissism, grandiosity or impulsiveness. There is nothing wrong per se with this point of departure. But in doing so we deprive ourselves of learning about the specific features of his executive functioning that shed light on how he makes decisions, how his thinking shapes his sense of options, how his relatedness with others influences his role-taking, and how he projects his character to create such a wide appeal. We could call these features some aspects of his leadership style as opposed to his psychodynamic character. This approach gets us out of the box of seeing Trump as sui-generis, one result of demonizing him. It helps us see Trump in the context of the larger question of how executives of major institutions take up their roles according to their talents, interests and styles of thought. As a writer and thinker interested in the dynamics of leadership, these questions interest me greatly. Thus, my point of departure for this post is to delve into the dynamics of executive decision making, using the very public record that Trump as president provides us. In this sense the post is about executive functioning with Trump as the example. Trump’s executive functioning.  The reader can judge whether this frame of reference deepens our understanding of the leadership process in general, while also providing insight into how Trump leads.


Bob Woodward describes the difficulty Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor, had in convincing him that the meaning he ascribed to the U.S. trade deficit was too narrow. The deficit, as Cohn argued, did not represent bad deals, but in fact conferred decisive advantages. For example, low prices on imported manufactured goods freed up spending on consumer and business services, and the latter, not manufacturing jobs, were the major sources of job growth in the economy. In addition, Trump’s focus on particular trade deals, for example with Mexico and South Korea, precluded considering their larger role in United States’ geopolitical positioning. When Trump threatened to withdraw from the bilateral trade deal with South Korea and demanded that it pay more for the stationing of U.S. troops on the peninsula, Cohn fretted that Trump did not consider the essential role that South Korea played in ensuring U.S. security. The U.S. troop presence enabled it to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds, giving the U.S. time to shoot it down. “Cohn could not believe that President Trump would risk losing vital intelligence assets crucial to U.S. national security. This all stemmed from Trump’s fury that the United States had an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and was spending $3.5 billion a year to keep U.S. troops there.” More broadly, the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency providing U.S. consumers with great benefits. Any country with a trade surplus with the U.S. is in effect saving on behalf of U.S. consumers. The country accumulates dollars, which are in effect loans without term limits, while the American consumer accumulate goods and services.
The failure to consider trade policy “in the round,” to see beyond the immediate transaction to the embedded relationships that surround a trading relationship, represents a failure of abstraction. We might presume that this failure to think abstractly is a signal of impaired cognition.  For example, much has been made of Trump’s probable cognitive decline when comparing his current verbal fluency and sentence construction to the way he spoke 30 years ago. But a 1987 video interview with the TV personality Larry King reveals both great verbal fluency alongside the same preoccupation with bilateral trade deficits, only then with Japan rather than China or Mexico. Instead, this valency for concrete thinking represents a personality characteristic. Its correlate is thinking practically and in down-to-earth terms, with an accompanying disinterest in the arts or sciences and a preference for routine over novelty. Such a practical mindset is useful in sales, and in doing deals that do not require considering too many stakeholders and multiple issues. This skill, when finely honed, could very well lead to success in any number of commercial undertakings, buying and selling real estate among them. Psychologists who study the “big 5” personality characteristics describe this practical mindedness as the obverse of what they term “openness to experience,” which privileges novelty and abstraction. I think we can say that Trump, with his penchant for buying and selling, for direct dealing with people rather than issues- think of his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea– and his wish to come home quickly and sleep in his own bed, fits these characteristics to a tee. There is nothing psychopathological about this stance. God knows the world needs practical people. They turn the wheels of the marketplace. The only question is the fit between such a person and the work he is called upon to do.

Decision Making

A concrete thinker can overcome some of the limitations associated with complex decisions in two ways; by reference to instinctive feelings, which are emotionally toned cognitive schema, and by the way he or she uses others to work through problems. There is little doubt that Trump is an extrovert. He loves being the center of attention, draws energy from crowds of supporters, and exercises dominance– a drive central to his character– through his continuous and public brawls with opponents. His extraversion means that he also thinks through others, though without relying on a systematic process in which, for example, people write issues papers, debate the pros and cons as he listens, and come to a consensus, or present him with options. Trump simply cannot abide such a policy process. Instead, he prefers spontaneous conversations with people who compete for his attention. Through a process of trial and error thinking, he comes to his own decisions. The latter are shaped by his personal connection with those who want to influence him, and by the emotionally toned schemas that shape his world view, for example “deficits are bad,” or “foreign wars waste blood and treasure.” What counts in this process are his likes and dislikes for his advisers, and by the feelings that a particular course of action triggers within him. In this he combines extraversion with what the Rorschach test describes as an extratensive decision making style, relying on emotions as they are triggered by relationships, rather than inwardly working through his own ideas.

His decision to not bomb an Iranian missile site in response to their downing of an unmanned U.S. drone certainly had some of these features. While the details of his decision making are not entirely clear, he relied less on memos and meetings and according to the New York Times “trusted his instincts over institutions while defying the counsel of a roomful of his appointed advisers.” The Thursday of the day the drone was shot down, John Bolton, a senior foreign policy advisor, assembled a group to consider possible military responses. They met with Trump in the late morning to consider options. Trump however did not abide by this formal process, but instead sought the counsel of both Senator Lindsay Graham and Tucker Carlson, the Fox-news newscaster. The former argued for the bombing while the latter, in an argument that proved decisive, argued that Trump had stood as a candidate against wasteful and un-winnable wars in the Middle-East. Should hostilities break out, Carlson argued, he would risk his re-election. Nonetheless, by Friday at 7 pm Trump gave the go-ahead for a missile strike to begin between 9 and 10 pm that evening. Yet, as the Times reports, lawyers, who estimated that 150 people might be killed in a strike, circumvented the acting Defense Secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of (military) Staff and reached Trump through White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone. Based on their estimates, Trump scrubbed the missile strike. Most likely, Trump felt that a strike which killed 150 people seemed disproportionate to the trigger event, the downing of an unmanned drone. This disproportion raised the prospects of a widening conflict and Tucker’s counsel, that he ran against wars in the Middle-East, proved decisive.

Two features of this decision process are of interest here, the subversion of a formal decision-making process and Trump’s last-minute change of mind. The two are connected. As a trial and error thinker who feels his way through a situation by relating with others, Trump seeks and invites ongoing influence until he can find his own emotional center for a decision. This looks impulsive but it is not. Rather it is a method for securing the information that is sufficient and requisite to trigger an instinct, or a schema that has high emotional salience, for example, that foreign wars are a dead end for the country and for him. It’s the latter, the emotional salience, that is decisive for a decision. This is also why a succession of chiefs of staff have been unable to regulate his subordinates’ access to the oval office. Trump needs the serendipity of unplanned encounters.

There is little doubt that this decision-making style both thrives on and can create chaos. It also assures that Trump remains at the center of any important decision. But it can also lead to any number of aborted decision processes and create a sense of fruitlessness among his subordinates. Consider the following. As Woodward reports, in April of 2017, Trump wanted an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, announcing, “I want it on my desk by Friday.” His chief of staff, Rob Porter, was appalled, knowing full well that a withdrawal violated the rules requiring a 180-day notice while Congress would have to approve a renegotiated treaty. Several influential advisers weighed in to deter Trump. H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense, said it would rattle allies, Homeland Security Chief, John Kelly, thought its result would be catastrophic, and Sonny Perdue, Agricultural Secretary, noted that NAFTA had been a big boon to U.S. agricultural interests, adding that people who made their living from the farm economy had voted for him. Trump decided to “amp up the rhetoric but not actually send the 180-day notice.” But then Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top trade advisors, “Slipped into the Oval Office for an ad hoc unscheduled meeting with the president complaining that Trump had done little on trade except for withdrawing from Obama’s carefully constructed Trans Pacific Partnership.” Trump changed his mind and demanded that Porter draft the 180-day notification of withdrawal. Porter complied. But worried that this would create a foreign relations crisis, he sought Gary Cohn’s help. At a fortuitous moment Cohn, assuming that Trump would forget his order if there were no document in front of him to remind him of it, simply removed it from Trump’s desk. The order to withdraw was forgotten though Trump did ultimately renegotiate aspects of NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. The cost to Trump of this seemingly minor kerfuffle is that his own subordinates would likely feel contempt for his inconstancy and seeming lack of focus. We might call this decision-making style impulsive, but since no decision was in fact taken, it is better characterized as the outcome of distraction. The latter in turn is engendered when Trump experiences no emotional drive to actually decide something, as he did in the decision to strike, or not, Iran with missiles.

(Mis)understanding Institutions

One significant limitation of Trump’s concreteness when combined with his extraversion is that he really does not understand institutions, particularly the way in which people take up issues influenced by their institutional roles, rather than by their own personal preferences and proclivities. He does not appear to understand how a role, which is an institutional manifestation, shapes the consciousness of the role holder. His world view is far too personalistic, a view that has been reinforced for decades as the owner of a family business where roles and people are frequently one and the same. For example, his continued outrage at Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General, for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign, was based on the idea that Sessions should be loyal to him rather than to the obligations inherent in his role. Sessions, a great and early Trump supporter admitted, after earlier denying it to a Senate committee, that he had in fact met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. He announced that consequently he would not oversee any investigation into the issue of Russian meddling. He based his stance on a Department of Justice regulation which said that no employee of the department, “may participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, or who would be directly affected by the outcome.” We cannot know for sure what combination of factors ultimately led Sessions to recuse himself. Possibly, having denied that he had had contacts with the Russians he felt embarrassed in front of his once Senate colleagues. But it also seems that he found the fortitude to anger his boss greatly by reference to his role as a department employee. Trump simply could not understand this, insisting that Sessions’ personal loyalty to him should govern his conduct.

Indeed, Trump’s failure to understand institutions triggered the entire Mueller probe into the conduct of his campaign. To recall, Trump fired the head of the FBI, James Comey, most likely because Comey according to his own account would “not let go” of potential charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor.  Steve Bannon, a central Trump advisor at the time, and a man of considerable political acuity, told Trump that you cannot, “fire the FBI” without triggering major political fallout. He proved right. Moreover, Bannon’s reference to “firing the FBI” rather than “firing Comey” reflected his understanding that the FBI with its mission, resources, ties to people in Congress, and other divisions of the Justice Department could and would defend its prerogatives. Indeed, at one point, when under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was close to being an independent branch of government by virtue of the secrets it had amassed as an investigative bureau.

When Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General under Sessions, became an acting Attorney General after Sessions recused himself, he had already established himself as an institutionalist through his own critique of James Comey’s behavior just before election day in November, 2016.  In a scathing letter, Rosenstein wrote that James Comey was wrong to have taken it upon himself to announce that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, “should be closed without persecution.” Rosenstein argued that only the Attorney General, not the FBI director, was authorized to make such a pronouncement. As he wrote, “The FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department.” In addition, Rosenstein held Comey to task for announcing, at the close of the investigation, that Clinton had been “extremely careless,” a derogatory comment which Rosenstein believed exceeded Comey’s authorization. As he wrote, “Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

In other words, Rosenstein was supremely tuned to the dynamics of institutional authorization, and it was within this frame of reference that he appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director with an outstanding reputation for probity, impartiality and for always acting within role, to head the probe into the Trump-campaign’s ties to Russia. I interpret this sequence of events as evidence that Trump’s careless attempts to replace institutions with personal ties engendered countervailing responses by any number of individuals who believed in and defended the sanctity of institutions as a framework for assuring reliable and legitimate governance. Trump’s personalism really undermined him.

The Democrat’s Misunderstanding

The Democrats’ failure to understand this personalism led them to vastly overestimate the meaning of the Trump-campaign’s various contacts with Russians in the run up to the presidential election. It is no surprise that personalism would lead to an under-organized campaign in which various officials sought personal advantage from their positions. For example, Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s presidential campaign chair from June to August of 2016, saw his role as a vehicle for securing his business prospects in the Ukraine. He had extensive ties with pro-Russian politicians in that country, helping one, Victor Yanukovych win the presidency. He made a great deal of money as a political advisor to the pro-Russian political party, The Party of Regions. But by 2015 he owed at least $17 million to “interests favorable to Putin and Yanukovych.” Manafort also had close ties to Konstantin V. Kilimnik.  The latter’s political role and positioning are somewhat murky. He worked closely with Manafort while living in Kiev, and appeared to be running Manafort’s office there. The Mueller report proposes Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence.

Manafort showed Kilimnik some of the Trump-campaign’s internal polling data. Why would he do this? One reasonable hypothesis was that he was trying to spread the word of his new found influence in the Trump-campaign to win relief from his debts, particularly to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close to ties to Vladimir Putin. As the Mueller report notes, on April 11, 2016, Manafort asked Kilimnik If he “had shown “our friends” the media coverage of his new role” in the Presidential campaign. Kilimnik responded, “absolutely, every article,” leading Manafort to ask, “ How do we use (this coverage) to get whole,” in other words to reduce or eliminate his indebtedness. He then added, “Has Deripaska (the billionaire) seen?,” to which Kilimnik responded, “Yes, I have been sending everything to Victor (Deripaska’s deputy), who has been forwarding the coverage directly to OVD (Deripaska). Indeed, Richard Gates, Manafort’s deputy, told the Mueller investigative team that if Trump had won the presidency Manafort intended to stay outside the administration but monetize his relationship to it.

It is apparent as well that George Papadopoulus, who figured prominently in the Mueller investigation exaggerated his standing, knowledge and connections. He had been hired by the campaign after the media criticized it for lacking experts in foreign affairs. Noting that Trump was interested in his relationships to Russians- most likely because of his ongoing negotiation to build a Trump Tower in Moscow- Papadopoulus did what he could on his own authority to build some connections to them. When Joseph Misfud, a Maltese academic, introduced him to Olga Polanskayi, he told Papadopoulus she was Vladimir Putin’s niece when in fact she worked for a Russian wine import company, did not speak English and according to her brother had absolutely no interests in politics. “It’s totally ridiculous,” he said. “She’s not interested in politics. She can barely tell the difference between Lenin and Stalin.” Polanskayi met Papadopoulus while applying for an internship with Misfud. Papadopoulus believed that Misfud himself had extensive connections with Russians, but Misfud later claimed that he is simply an academic and does not even speak Russian. The Mueller report says that Misfud told Papadopoulus that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, an obvious fabrication and the same lie that Natalia Veselnitskaya used to get a meeting with Donald Trump Junior and Jared Kushner in the Trump Tower, in the June before the election.

How to make sense of this hall of mirrors? If you have a conspiratorial mind set, you will try to square the circle of all this contradictory information with reference to further hidden facts or motives. But I vote for Occam’s razor here and say that these are all examples of low-level officials and individuals hustling for advantage, trading on supposed secrets and hoping that one last encounter will actually yield some information of value that enables them to make good on their pretensions and improve their positioning. This is garden variety venality and one result of a loosely organized campaign in which the central figure, Donald Trump, could only lead through the exercise of personal force, and not through plans and ideas. This is a far cry from the Nixon of Watergate, the exemplar of presidential conspiracy, whose understanding of institutions set in motion his attempt to undermine them. If Nixon was a thief in the night exercising deceit, then Trump was a bull in the china shop, creating havoc. Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. I vote for the farce.

The problem of ideas

Analysts have commented on the high level of turnover in the Trump administration. The Brookings institute reports that 61% of Trump’s A-team of administrators have voluntarily resigned or resigned under pressure, while more cabinet officials have resigned in Trump’s first three years than did in Reagan’s, Clinton’s, the two Bushes’ and Obama’s first four years.

One explanation is Trump’s general disagreeableness and his penchant for turning hot and cold toward others. But another and more systemic explanation is linked to the role that basic ideas play in linking executives to the chief and to each other. In this way of thinking the chief executive creates a coalition of other executives, each with a particular power base, who together can implement the chief’s plans and strategies. The ties among coalition members and the chief are paradoxically impersonal, but their objectivity, based on a few core ideas, enables each executive to find his or her role in moving an institution forward. The chief, who might under certain circumstances be wary of a subordinate who has an independent power base, tolerates it if the subordinate can mobilize her base to implement the chief’s ideas. Absent ideas, the normal vicissitudes of relatedness that weaken the personal connections between people, mismatches of character, personal disappointments, competition for status, and backbiting, will lead to resignations or firings. It is peculiar that in much of the literature on leadership, writers reference all sorts of personality characteristics and behaviors while neglecting the basic role that a few good ideas play in executive success. The Chinese idea of the “New Silk Road” is one example of such a good big idea at a national scale. It resonates with the Chinese mercantilist temperament, it has wide scope, it references an historical memory, it depends on the coordination of many Chinese institutions, and it has many and different manifestations on the ground.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, the president of the U.S. during the Great Depression, was the quintessential president in marrying ideas to an entourage of highly talented executives. His “four freedoms” promise (freedom of speech, of worship, and from want and fear), was instantiated in a wide range of programs lead by such luminaries, as Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, Thurman Arnold, the Assistant Attorney General, Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Administration, Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce and Lewis W. Douglas, the Budget Director. At the same time, Roosevelt kept himself at the center of all final decision-making by often authorizing duplicate initiatives for launching programs and advancing legislation. This kept all of his talented subordinates on their toes and slightly off balance, ensuring that no single executive could develop a power base in a manner inconsistent with Roosevelt’s overall goals.

One central dilemma of the Trump administration is the paucity of ideas to guide it. Trump was poorly prepared for governing and his matter-of-fact intelligence, means that he comes into the presidency without ideas for how to govern or lead a legislative process. He surely touched a deep nerve with his slogan, “Make American Great Again, showing an emotional attunement to the people who love him. The slogan spoke to people’s felt anger at being labeled racist, sexist and backwards, the “deplorables” in Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate appellation. He proposed that their self-respect and patriotism had a rightful place in the sun. But the link between these feelings and legislating and governing is a weak one. As we have seen, if “Make America Great Again” means recovering the smokestack economy by reversing trade deficits, it is a losing proposition. Any serious program for economic rejuvenation would surely address the central problems of workforce education and physical infrastructure. Indeed, Trump had a taste for the latter, he offered it as an idea, but has shown no interest in making it priority. Moreover, he has proved incapable of building a political coalition to address the asylum crisis at the southern border. A partisan could blame the Democrats for this failure. But surely it falls on the president to ultimately resolve, through creative political means, what may at first appear to be an intractable problem. That is what we voters “hired” him to do. And to acknowledge the pun, his focus on building a (concrete) wall to stem the flow of asylum seekers at the southern border, is another example of his concrete thinking. He envisions a physical barrier rather than an institutional policy.

To be sure, he has successfully executed ideas he inherited from the centrist Republican platform, namely lowering taxes and deregulating industry, and from his evangelical base, appointing conservative federal judges. But these are not his own ideas. Rather they are conveniences he leans on to secure his presidency and re-election. I propose that this is the underlying reason for the high turnover in his administration.

Trump as Twin

Freud famously proposed that people in groups are inked together by their shared identification with the leader. This identification takes the form of “introjection” in which the image of the leader comes to occupy a place of privilege in the minds of followers. These are the conditions for example when people may willingly forgo their good judgment and even moral impulses because the image of the leader as the new “superego” object of the mind, the new conscience, displaces earlier internal representations of parents, teachers and mentors. For example, when people close to President Richard Nixon conspired with him to cover up the dirty tricks of his re-election campaign, what we now call the Watergate crisis, they were likely awed by the Office of the President and thus the man who occupied it. As a result, they subordinated to his impulses and needs rather than to their own. But introjection need not only be destructive. When people introjected Martin Luther King their moral sense was elevated, while some of its punitive derivatives -the “thou shalt nots-” were eliminated. King as a parental figure helped people find their moral selves based on an experience of an expanded love encompassing the human community at its best. This faith in the loving intentions of the other, was one basis for non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights movement.

I don’t think it is quite right to say that Trump is this kind of father figure. While he has charisma, he lacks gravitas. This is why people around him in the White House and in the executive branch such as Jeff Sessions, James Comey and Don McGahn, his personal counselor, did not carry out those of his requests that smacked of obstructing justice. For example, Trump asked the latter, to tell Rod Rosenstein, the acting Attorney General, to fire Robert Mueller, the special investigator. McGahn simply ignored him.

Instead, I think supporters experience a kind of “twin-ship” with Trump. He is one of them, not above them, but freer, and more vital. When you watch Trump at a rally of supporters he is spontaneous and completely unrehearsed. If you wrote down what he said it will appear incoherent in many parts, but the center of gravity is not the thoughts themselves but the emotional spontaneity, and evident comfort and delight, with which they are delivered. The crowd identifies with this freedom and with the sense of inclusion he creates for those who love him. Just as twins do with another, Trump creates a vivid “in-group” experience, free of constraining “parental” supervision, with Trump himself, as its most vital member. The risk of this kind of in-group is the emotional insularity and self-referencing it breeds. This is one reason Trump’s strong supporters can discount the evidence of his significant limitations.

Freud describes the id as the place in the mind where impulses hold sway, and were it not for the executive functions of the ego and superego, the id would create unregulated conduct. There is undoubtedly something “id like” in Trump’s performances; his freedom to say outrageous things, to lie with alacrity and without shame, to disparage an enemy’s intelligence or appearance, and to pick fights with them in the spirit of a barroom brawler. This is partly why the evidence of his infidelity and his womanizing were inconsequential. As my colleague Eli Zaretsky argues, his behavior exemplifies his ability to act unburdened by constraint. By twinning with Trump, his followers experience vicariously his freedom. This is an important emotional basis for the coalition of voters who elected him, his greatest source of strength as a political leader, and the basis for the practice of his demagoguery.

Political Correctness

But is there a specific content to his supporters’ attraction to this lack of constraint? Or can it be chalked up to a general underlying wish we all have, and sometimes make good on, to escape the strictures of social convention and even the law, for example by cheating on our spouses or taxes. After all, at any given moment, millions of people feel unfairly burdened. I think we have to take Trump and his supporters at their word here, that they feel burdened, disrespected and mistreated in particular by what is called political correctness (PC). From their point of view PC represents a new kind of superego, an elite and punishing authority system that is on the prowl throughout the culture. According to this point of view, PC regulates speech, suspects patriotism, identifies new victimizers who don’t feel powerful themselves, creates an expanding category of victims with peremptory needs, considers competence suspect, favors equality over merit, undermines the sexual relationship between men and women, and overextends the definition of male predatory behavior. I cannot parse the truth value of these claims in this blog post. But anyone who wants to understand the deep emotional bonds Trump evokes among his base would be surely amiss if she did not consider the wider impacts of what is called political correctness.

In Sum

Trump was surely unprepared to be a president. He does not have the education and experience to govern the executive branch or command the legislative process. His strength are nonetheless significant. With his comfortable extraversion and desire to dominate, he is at everyone’s center of attention. The word “Trump” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Drawing on his often intense relationships with advisers, colleagues and family members he can make instinctive decisions based on his emotional convictions rather than his intellect. This gives him the confidence to decide without ambivalence and regret. Yet his concrete thinking style means that he cannot readily envision complex issues in the round. It also limits his ability to understand how institutions create power bases that are independent of the people who embody them. Institutions after all are a kind of abstraction. They exist only by convention and live in our minds, not “on the ground.” This institutional naivete undermines his ability to command the legislative process and execute policy.

Trump could overcome the limits of concrete thinking if he had a few big ideas, held with emotional conviction, that oriented him to his wider environment and shaped his options and choices. To go from the mundane to the sublime, think of General Charles De Gaulle’s idea of France as a leader of a resurgent Europe post World War Two, freed from the burdens of its imperial past, most notably in Algeria, linked to a demilitarized Germany, and with a military that was independent of NATO, a U.S. dominated alliance. This was a grand vision, based on De Gaulle’s identification with French history and culture, and a pragmatic understanding of Europe’s prospects, squeezed at the time between the U.S and the Soviet Union. Inheriting strong conservative and Catholic traditions he was nonetheless a great modernizer, understanding that this was only the sure way to restore France’s grandeur after its ignominious defeat in World War Two. He was arrogant, argumentative, disagreeable and capable of furious outbursts. But unlike Trump he used his person with its many dimensions to advance this complex idea of France. He was the vehicle, but an idealized France was the destination. Trump lacks this quality of cultural and historical rootedness, the only sure way to a conviction about the U.S. role in the world and the methods for achieving it. As a result, he uses his considerable talents and charisma to advance mostly himself. He is the destination. This is why he could take over the Republican party, making it “his” party, but without a vision of how to use it to accomplish great ends. This is why he is a much better at campaigning than governing. But whatever his limitations, one should not underestimate him.

Larry Hirschhorn


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