Dr Annette Clancy’s doctoral research explores the role of disappointment in organisations. I talked to her about the political significance of her work on May 15 2018.
Paul Walsh: How might your work apply to
politics? I'm thinking of Brexit as a disappointment time bomb in particular.
Annette Clancy: Brexit is a glorious example of the folly of fantasy. It was entirely conducted along the lines of a fantasy Britain. A fantasy Britain that never existed. I don't know when this honeymoon period people talk about in Britain that we're trying to get back to was; there’s certainly a degree of fantasy on the side of the Brexiters. Where disappointment comes in is that if we don't talk about our fantasies and try to uncover what they are...they're a cover story for something. Fantasy is a cover story. If we simply try and fulfil our fantasies we will always be disappointed. We simply will.
It's not possible to deliver the Brexit dream—because it is a fantasy. It was set up for disappointment as soon as it was articulated. And you know, the conversation that I believe should have happened is: What is this fantasy of a ‘white Britain’ or an ‘everybody-at-work Britain’ telling us about how Britain is constructed today? Do we actually have to have a conversation about immigration? Do we have to realise that there are swathes of people who are living in poverty and don't have jobs? They are the conversations that drove the fantasy and yet it's rare you see them being taken out and really articulated in a way that's meaningful for people.
The other thing about politics and disappointment is that we’re always going to be perpetually disappointed in politicians as we hold them to a higher standard. I think this is the joy of Donald Trump, who is doing exactly what he said he would do, which most politicians don't when they get elected. We have this fantasy idea of how politicians should behave, unlike how normal human beings behave. The real work goes on behind the scenes and we don't see it. If politicians were to be honest about the work, they might not get re-elected. We want the fantasy of the ideal leader, the ideal politician.
PW: Considering the recent UK council election results and ongoing accusations of anti-Semitism, what advice would you give to Jeremy Corbyn on dealing with disappointment?
AC: If political parties are not being disappointing, and being disappointed, then they and their followers are living in a fantasy. It isn’t real. And if political parties are not expecting and planning for disappointment—that is, reality—then they are not adequately planning for a real future.
On the other issue, why wouldn’t there be anti-Semitism in the Labour party if there’s anti-Semitism in the wider population? It’s only a controversy if we carry the fantasy that the Labour party is the good party and the Conservatives the bad party. My research on disappointment suggests we’re all good/bad at the same time. We’re all satisfying and disappointing at the same time. Rather than be shocked by this, what would it mean to say that this exists? The Labour party is representative of wider society and not a sanitised or polarized place in which everybody does the right thing all of the time.
PW: What might we learn from disappointment?
AC: We might learn what really matters to people. Are the tasks we're asking people to do—are they the right tasks? Are they do-able? One person I interviewed talked about exceeding their quota in a call centre by twenty per cent last year. This year the new normal is last year plus twenty per cent. Something about what we're asking people to do and the resources they have to do it with is contested by disappointment.
Can we learn from emotion instead of being terrified it's going to derail everything? What might happen if we were to simply listen and think about disappointment and other feelings we denigrate as negative? What might happen if we treated emotion as data? We could learn a lot about how organisations really work.
One of the things I learned when I started to talk to people is that everybody has an experience of disappointment. Yet there's very little written about it. That to me suggests there's a fear of what might happen if we were to talk about how disappointed we all are.
The more we talk about disappointment as failure—my failure to live up to your expectation of me, your failure to live up to mine—we're stuck in this blame/shame dynamic. We’re trying to work out whose fault it is and it kills and dampens down any possibility of doing something different. My research suggests that if you think about disappointment as loss, we have to mourn the idea.
I call it 'mourning the future'. As a woman you’re in your late 30s you think to yourself Do I have a child or not? It's not just a biological decision—it's a decision about how I imagined my life would be. And if we can actually mourn that future it means we can make different decisions about what that future looks like. If we can't mourn it then we're stuck.
With my clients I began to work with them around the loss, around this piece of grieving. What does it mean for you that you’re not the person you imagined yourself to be? What does it mean that you are never going to be the manager of that organisation? Or that you've tried for a job three times in this organisation and they don't want you. Move into that space and I discovered it really transformed people's working relationships. If we can move into the loss it’s a much more human place to be.