Emotion displacement and transference are two concepts that are present in all of us to differing degrees. In short, they are what we project onto others in terms of expectations, requirements, code of conduct and, in some cases, the actual emotions. If you’ve found yourself unloading anger with someone at somebody else (anger displacement), treating an employee in a special manner because you see them as “a second son”, or similar, you’ve experienced transference or displacement.
By analyzing what you transfer and displace onto others – and what they do onto you – you can become a better leader and better manage talent.
The Role of Transference
Transference can greatly affect your leadership and talent management because of the behaviors it causes. It will embed biases and emotion in your decision-making process and possibly make you an unfair leader, all of which will have an effect in loyalty, talent management, retention and more.
There are three usual components to transference:
- Your wishes, needs or intentions;
- Your expected responses by the other person;
- Your expected responses to the other person;
Your wishes, needs or intentions are what you are projecting, at the end of the day. Maybe you feel lonely, so you are projecting a necessity to connect with the people in your work. Maybe you are feeling excited and optimist, so others must share in your enthusiasm.
Your expected responses by the other person dictate how you expect others to react. Again, if you might be the type of person that feels positive and excited, and you necessarily assume others must share this trait. Or you might assume you are superior and demanding of respect, and you expect everyone to treat you politely and formally. If others don’t behave in the way that you expect, you will feel angry/irritated/disrupted and not even be aware of why.
Your expected responses to others dictate how you will behave. If you feel lonely and need company, it’s likely that will constantly behave in an attention-seeking or validation-seeking way, in order to not threaten the connection with others and not feel left out.
There are multiple ways to diagnose transference in the people that you work with. One of the most basic ones is your code of conduct. When you expect certain behaviors of yourself, it’s natural that you will expect the same behaviors of others. For example, if you are always extremely punctual and you are very concerned with details in everything do, chances are you will necessarily expect that of the people that you lead and/or work with. In fact, the more polarising your perspective, the more you will expect that of others. Someone who is organized might expect that of others, someone who is highly organized will very likely expect that of others.
Another way is to ask yourself how you view others. Are there any substantives that come to mind? What are your direct reports and/or team members to you? Teammates? Family? Children? Enemies? Whatever image you have of others, it’s likely that you will project the associated behaviors. For example, if you see others as children, that might mean that you may care deeply about them and help them evolve, but it may also mean you don’t recognize any autonomy or skill in their work.
Some avenues of transference are useful and positive. For example, in a company culture where organization and systems thinking is praised, transferring your need to be organized onto others might not be a bad thing at all. However, others might not be so positive. It’s important to differentiate which elements of transference are helping you and which are not.
Besides transference, if you can, it can also be immensely useful to determine countertransference – what your direct reports/team members are projecting and expecting of you, what they themselves are transferring. The mechanisms for diagnostic are similar to the ones you can use on yourself. What is this person’s specific code of conduct? What do they expect of themselves and what principles do they live by? There is a high probability they will be transferring that onto you and others.
It’s very easy to displace emotions like stress, anger, irritation and others toward others. Anger displacement is especially frequent. In this case, you’re not transferring expectations, or a code of conduct or any other – you’re displacing emotions originally meant for one situation or person onto a different target.
Diagnosis of emotion displacement is a little different from that of transference. While for transference, you dive deep in introspection and ask yourself what principles are you forcing onto others, for emotion displacement you should take note of your behavior. A little bit of emotional intelligence can go a long way here (more precisely, knowing your reactive emotions and under which situations they occur – your “triggers”), or some cognitive-behavioral practices like journaling emotions can help as well. It’s about discovering which emotions come up and when.
After finding that out, the second step is to resolve them without displacement. If you’re massively angry because one of your reports doesn’t respect you and is constantly breaking the rules, letting that anger out at the family is not the right way to do it. Talking with them person-to-person and letting it out, even if just a polite, reserved version of what you really want to say is the best way to resolve the emotion using its origin, versus keeping it in an unleashing it at somebody else later.
In special situations, such as crises or long-term remote work in isolation, emotions can change, and it’s important to re-assess transference and displacement under these circumstances.
Conclusion: Toward a More Comprehensive View of Transference and Emotion Displacement
Transference, countertransference and emotion displacement (namely anger displacement) are mechanisms which are valuable for any professional to investigate, but even more so for leaders that aim to effectively lead teams without emotional and subjective issues affecting performance. Diagnosis tools can help one easily find out both what behaviors and emotions they are projecting onto others, while resolution stems from approaches like cognitive-behavioral ones (changing thoughts, emotions and behaviors) and behavioral change.