projection in teams

Projection in Teams

Why is projection in teams so important?

Projection is one of the defense mechanisms which enables us to survive the constant emotional challenges of life. Others are denial, distortion, splitting, regression etc. Projection is not normally a problem, everyone uses it from time to time, but it can become so entrenched in the behavior of some individuals that it limits their personality development.

Projection can be achieved by provoking another team member into being critical; then sitting back reassured that you are not the one who constantly criticizes others.

Generally, projection operates in the unconscious, which can be manifest at both the individual level and in groups within teams. There are many different ways projective processes manifest themselves in teams. For example, a team member may constantly criticize others, but by provoking another team member into being critical he can keep the shame he feels due to his behaviour hidden from other team members and from himself. He projects his own unacceptable behaviour into someone else.

It is a way of dealing with thoughts and behavior which we wish to deny or distance ourselves from. It involves an attempt to control and manipulate others which is caused by a fear of being controlled, albeit in the unconscious. It is done to deny or distance the individual from his true feelings.

Projection is often used in conjunction with splitting, a Freudian defense mechanism in which an object or idea (or, alternatively, the ego) is separated into two or more parts in order to remove its threatening meaning.1

Dr Roy Lubit identified splitting as a defense mechanism present in all narcissists, stating:2

The defense mechanism that dominates the functioning of [narcissistic] individuals is splitting. They see people and situations in black and white terms, all bad or all good, with no shades of gray.

Good/bad, black/white

Narcissistic individuals see fellow team members as either good (for example as an enabler), or bad, that is a threat to their vulnerable feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness (Note: it doesn't mean that the narcissistic individual is inadequate and worthless, he just feels that way). Their good/bad or black/white images of others lead them either to idealize or to fear and hate them. But they are quite capable of idealizing someone one day and hating them the next. They can easily be thrown into pain and anxiety when they feel threatened by criticism or rejection; memories of failure or shame spark unresolved core issues exacerbating the painful emotional experience.

Thus narcissists constantly use splitting and projection in team situations, primarily because of their need to control the other team members; they can't run the risk of feeling the pain and anxiety associated with criticism or rejection.

It is important that the team leader understands how projection works in teams. Projection is used by everyone from time to time and is not normally a problem, it's a natural defense mechanism for normal, psychological healthy people. But some people, for example narcissists, use projection in team situations such that they prevent meaningful discussion and the effectiveness of the team is diminished.

To understand more about why projection in teams is important, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 Freud, S. (1940), Splitting of the ego in the process of defence, Standard Edition 23:271-278, Hogarth Press, London.
2 Lubit, R (2002), The long-term organizational impact of destructively marcissistic managers, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 16, No. 1, p. 132.