Are family dynamics holding you back at work?

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Our relationship with our parents can have an impact on how we treat superiors and subordinates. Image: REUTERS/Catherine Benson

Emma Luxton
Senior Writer , Forum Agenda
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Ever remind yourself of your mother when you’re talking to your employees, or see your father in how you react to your staff? If so, you may be relieved to hear you’re not alone.

The way we absorb the family dynamics we experience growing up and recreate them within the workplace is something psychologists have been researching for many years.

Meet the team

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Roger Jones, Chief Executive of Vantage Hill Partners, discusses how his work with top executives shows the connection between early family experiences and work.

“Our early family experiences often re-emerge in our adult life interactions with others,” Jones notes, “including those in the business world.”

Family life is most people’s first introduction to working as part of a team. Jones notes how our experiences as children influence how we respond to pressure and react to situations as an adult in a work environment.

Ben Dattner, an Executive Coach and Organizational Development Consultant, has also studied how family life can impact our workplace behaviour. From whether we were the first or last born child, to how our family managed conflict.

Power play

He also says that our relationship with our parents can have an impact on how we treat superiors and subordinates.

“Just like parent-child relationships, superior-subordinate relationships can have self-fulfilling dynamics, either positive or negative.”

This re-enactment of behaviours we picked up as children is called “transference”, a flashback to emotions and perceptions from our early life.

Michael Maccoby, an expert on leadership, notes that transference can have positive effects, for example if an employee believes their boss cares about them in a parental way they might make more efforts to please them, therefore increasing productivity and motivation.

Sibling rivalry

However, not all experiences will be positive. Whether it’s feeling let down by your boss in the same way you felt let down by your father, or arguing with co-workers like you would with siblings.

A major problem with mirroring emotions and experiences of younger years is that many executives aren’t aware this is what they are doing. The process is primarily subconscious, and therefore not easy to address.

Jones believes that raising awareness and communicating about transference and its effect on both leaders and followers is important for improving team performance.

Addressing the problem

To help work through any issues Jones has identified 3 areas to look at.

Firstly he suggests thinking back to early family events that shaped you, asking yourself questions on how your family responded, whether emotions were shared and what role you played.

Secondly he notes that leaders should think about how they communicate with their team, and look at whether any of these mirror behaviours experienced through childhood.

Finally he encourages leaders to make a change, adapting their behaviour to one that fits the work environment and encourages and inspires team members to work hard.

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