Displacement: A Powerful Leadership Tool

“Displacement” is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind redirects affects from an object felt to be dangerous or unacceptable to an object felt to be safe or acceptable. ~Sigmund Freud

“Displacement” actually has a variety of definitions. Our use of the term is similar to this one “the displacing in space of one mass by another” only we mean it metaphorically. It came from our work and observation of how non-productive thoughts and related behaviors recede into the background in the presence of Vision-Focused Leadership and how quickly they return when the vision collapses. The phenomenon we witness is much like when water has been displaced by a boat. The water doesn’t go away, but the boat takes up the space where water used to be. While it is coincidental that we arrived at a term used in a different field, it is interesting to discover that Freud’s views of brain function actually seem to validate our observations. The difference is he was seeing subconscious avoidance behaviors and we are observing a conscious shift to displace non-productive thoughts and behaviors.

A powerful shared vision will “displace” much of what people gossip and complain about in an organization. Statements like “we have a really dysfunctional company” are seldom heard and motivating people isn’t a major issue, as the shared vision unleashes passion, commitment, and focused action.  The focus on vision displaces much of the friction and waste that go on when people’s day-to-day experience at work looks much more like a soap opera.

It’s important to note that the soap opera components have not gone away. People have not magically “gotten better” or “fixed themselves.” (This is why we say “displacement” instead of “replacement.”)  Friction and waste have been displaced, for the time being, much as water has been displaced by a boat. The water didn’t go away either. The boat hull, like a shared vision, allows air, boat components, fuel, and passengers to fill the space of the displaced water.

The same experience applies in our own individual lives and work. I often hear clients trying to fix themselves and making relatively useless statements like “I’ve got to stop doing that,” or “I’m going to stop thinking that way.” I have observed very few instances where anyone, including me, ever delivered on such a statement. I have observed many times where I and others have displaced the noise in our heads with powerful, productive thoughts and actions after we have declared and owned a new vision.

I stumbled into Freud’s notion about displacement in Wikipedia when I was getting ready to write this post. It’s interesting to note that it got very little attention in the psychology world and certainly hasn’t crept into any of our business lexicon. I suspect that part of the issue, in addition to the academic nature of the discussion at the time, has been his focus on understanding “broken people” and how they avoid “reality.” (Leading from a belief that “my people are broken and they need to be fixed” doesn’t work either.)

Do you have a clear purpose or vision for yourself and/or your organization that you can articulate simply? Does your team or family have a powerful, shared vision? What thoughts and behaviors might be displaced if you get busy consciously leading from a place of vision?

Category : Leadership

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About the Author: Dwight Frindt

“What does it require from a leader to create team member focus, collaboration, and effective action particularly in times of externalities that create tremendous stress?” Such questions have driven Dwi

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  1. Terry

    November 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm


    It’s great to read an article that provides a unique insight into how a ‘vision’ works to inspire and lead people.  It makes a real change. Most articles focus on how visions inpsire people this is the first time I’ve read about visions displacing negative thoughts adn emotions.  Great insight, thank you.


  2. Terry,
    Glad you found the post valuable. Thank you for taking the time to comment here. We have found  that “displacement” is a powerful way to think about how vision works.


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