Psychoanalyzing the Opposition, in Sports and Business

Last Updated Mar 10, 2010 9:10 AM EST

I couldn't resist the Wall Street Journal's recent piece on "The NFL's Indestructible Man" -- a profile of New York Jets running back Thomas James, who at the time of the article had carried the ball 1,438 times without a serious injury.

What caught my eye was the sub-headline, which said he had achieved this feat with the help of "ice baths and psychology." I got even more intrigued when the article's author, Reed Albergotti, revealed that Mr. Jones had not only gotten his degree in psychology, but "spends hours in the film room trying to psychoanalyze his opponents." Now we're talking! Says Jones: "When you understand how people think, then you're more prepared for situations -- and I think people underestimate that."

Bingo. While what Jones is doing isn't exactly psychoanalysis, I applaud his use of the term, as it gets misunderstood in the popular press. More importantly, he's spot on. Understanding how other people think is always useful, whether on the football field or in the board room. Jones does it by studying films and playing "mind games" with the rushers to help soften the inevitable blows and protect his body. At 31, Jones is what some of us in the business world still consider quite young, but he's an aging and wise warrior by pro football standards. Ice baths and psychology won't keep him indestructible forever, but they sure help.

There are many business analogies to these tactics. Getting into the mind of one's colleagues, direct reports, board members and other key stakeholders can be tremendously helpful when it comes time to change their behavior or inspire them to follow you. And "psychoanalyzing" a negotiating target can give you a real edge in deal situations. One of the most important things to try to understand is the source of another person's motivation. What really drives this person to work so hard? Why do they want to do what they're doing? What matters most to them?

I talk with my CEO clients about this sort of thing frequently. One began a series of conversations with another CEO on a golf course -- a relationship that eventually led to his acquiring the other's company. My client found it useful to recount fragments of his golfing conversations to me, in considerable screenplay-like detail, because they enabled us to cobble together a psychological profile of his "target." He paid close attention to whether his golf opponent played fair (he did) and to how much risk he took with his more challenging shots. And he listened to the other leader's candor about his marital troubles not only with a genuinely sympathetic ear, but also as a clue to how this man handled complicated close relationships. My client, in turn, was able to better tailor his negotiating tactics, making his acquisition overtures less threatening and more appealing. One of the keys to successful negotiation is to lower the target's resistance to moving forward, and having an intuitive handle on their psychology allows you to do that more deliberately.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.