Let’s consider the term splitting. As used in psychology, the term refers to a set of defenses used by some individuals unable to grasp that not only do they, but others as well, contain characteristics of humanity that are both good and bad. They go from one relationship to the next, first idealizing the other, then devaluing him or her, in an emotionally violent roller coaster that some refer to as “drama,” or “high maintenance.”
Splitting perpetuates the predominant view of the self as devoid of worth, which leads those engaged in it to a persistent search for the ideal other, which, when found is subsequently devalued. The simplistic view of “good” and “bad” is thus preserved.
This type of thinking results in such oversimplifications as, ”men” are nothing more than sexual predators, “women” are greedy manipulators who use sex to control their partners. You’ve got to be careful “out there” because it’s a shark tank. In this world, relationships are dangerous and fundamentally unstable, setting the stage for predators to put on their sheepskins and pretend to be heroically different. Think of the lawyer who has a ghastly, tumultuous personal life but is widely seen as a heroic advocate for the downtrodden.
Leaders use splitting, too. Those drawn to leadership, particularly at higher levels such as CEO or managing partner, are usually people who have a specific personality type that allows them to take on the job and compartmentalize the enormous possibility, even likelihood, of failure. And, within that group of high level leaders, there is a significant representation of narcissists. Narcissists use splitting too, but not the same way outlined above.
The splitting used by narcissist leaders happens when, in a private meeting, or in a gathering of confidants, he points a finger at anyone not in attendance and says, in effect, “There’s the enemy.” Or, when taking the podium in public, he defines some other group of outsiders as the problem. Susceptible individuals in such a setting would wholeheartedly agree and melt with gratitude at the speaker having sided them with himself. The wiser ones would tell themselves “maybe yes, maybe no, let’s wait and see and in the meantime not get manipulated into taking a stance”
The narcissist leader uses splitting to enhance and cement his position within the group, inviting the organization to see him as the reason why it succeeds and that maintaining his status is necessary to preserving success.
When the narcissist leader does something to enhance his own position, either in power and control or materially, he does so under the conceit that it is for the good of the company/practice/organization. I once advised the incoming CEO of a large corporation in which the sitting CEO sought sell the company to a buyer in order to cash out his stock shares. A totally unilateral move undertaken For the good of the company …
The reader might read that and give an indifferent shrug, as it is a form of conduct we are so familiar with in today’s world.
When a leader conflates his/her personal goals and objectives with those of the organization she leads, she is engaging in a fundamental miscarriage of what the job is all about, which is to put aside those very things in the interest of the organization.
Lawyers would do well to grasp the process of splitting, because law practice is based on it. It is so thoroughly ingrained in the legal mindset that it becomes habitual, and is applied to all problems, not just those in legal work. The client, defendant or plaintiff, is given an automatic pardon while the other side is the repository of all that is evil in humanity. Lawyers do not write briefs or complaints in which both sides are held accountable. It is a binary world, requiring compartmentalization and a strong distaste for shades of gray.
In order to be an advocate, one must have opponent. If one isn’t readily available, then one can be manufactured out of “them,” whoever they are. Law firms are frequently rife with splitting, with various groups pitted against one another, the “good” vs. the “bad.” Narcissistic leaders capitalize on this, currying the favor of whichever group suits their needs best, fueling discord against the other side.
What to do? You can start by getting familiar with the process of splitting and learning to recognize it. Know that it is the very logical outgrowth of the binary thinking of law practice. Understand that in real life, we are all joined together in this flawed, beautiful thing called human nature, and to bring a “maybe yes, maybe no, wait and see” mindset to any invitation to identify the enemy.
Jim Dolan has worked as a psychotherapist and executive coach in Dallas for 40 years. His clients are adults and older teens struggling with anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties. He has also worked extensively with executives and lawyers dealing with personal problems, business development challenges, and leadership and peer relation difficulties. Website www.therapistjamesdolan.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org