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When people close their front door in the morning and think they have left their families behind them for a simpler life at work, they are often mistaken. Our families, particularly our earliest relationships, live inside our minds and find their way into all our subsequent relationships, including those in the workplace.
It is in our earliest relationships that we learn how to form alliances, to survive conflict, resolve arguments and be included in groups and avoid exclusion – all interpersonal skills essential to managing office life. When families have failed in teaching these skills, work relationships – and potentially people’s careers – can suffer.
Even in the absence of such failings, most of us are willing to admit that despite our best efforts, we become more like our parents over time. Yet we fail to consider how we unknowingly recreate our past family dramas in the office.
Ironically, the skills we learn in order to survive our dysfunctional families often become the key to our success. This was the case for a theatrical agent who found that looking after actors and fighting their corner was as natural as breathing. She was the eldest of three siblings in a family where the father was alcoholic and the mother was absent, leaving her responsible for her two younger brothers.
“I actually can’t remember her [my mother],” she says. “I can remember this glamorous woman who would pop in and out occasionally. Our parents were nowhere to be seen and not interested really.
“I got a job as a secretary to an agent when I was 18. The moment I started dealing with these extraordinary people – actors – they were so needy, well, there was no other job in the world for me. Because I completely replicated my family and just looked after them.
“So, the older drunk actor, that would be my dad, and there would be some glamorous woman who would be distant and aloof. What I got known for is looking after very difficult women – I was brilliant with them.”
For many people, however, work colleagues may provoke a range of uncomfortable feelings, including envy, disappointment, resentment and anger – or, conversely, affection. These feelings can become intense when fused with repressed emotions from the past. So when disputes or intense feelings arise people should try to consider which drama they are living in: the office (the present) or the family (the past).
A complicating factor is that alongside our actual family members reside our idealised family members. We often want our work relationships to replicate our idealised view of family relationships. But the disappointment when they do not can be crushing. One’s boss might become an idealised father, for example, or co-workers might trigger the same envious feelings you had towards your siblings.
This was the case for one 54-year-old IT consultant who was conflicted because of the emotional confusion between his father and his managers. His father was a young immigrant to the UK who established a highly successful career and set unrealistically high standards for his children.
He says: “I suffer enormously from lack of approval. Not receiving it from my father, I looked for approval elsewhere – which of course even if you get it, you immediately dismiss it, because it’s coming from the wrong person, it’s his [my father’s] approval I want. Even though he’s dead, it seems to continue.
“Then I end up looking for that approval from my manager, getting into a parent/child thing where I’m putting that person into a fatherly role, and then getting caught up in emotions at work which don’t belong there.”
He explains how he would often seek approval for decisions instead of just making them. He would then find it awkward if such approval was not forthcoming. “Inside, you are fighting a battle between what you know should be a professional response as opposed to charging around like a child being picked on by his dad,” he says. “I feel like I’m emotionally bashing myself up the whole time.”
People are much more likely to act on their imagined realities than the actual ones, and this is often the source of much confusion and friction at work. An example of this is a male civil servant whose fear of authority and the conflicts that ensued left him and his managers exasperated with each other.
He was born the illegitimate son of a working-class mother who subsequently turned her attention to a man she later married and then to their two children. With no father of his own, he always felt himself to be an outsider, without anyone on his side.
In adulthood this meant that he frequently misread situations at work, believing that his managers were against him. “I always felt a bit scared of authority, I tend to be suspicious, I keep myself to myself. When they [my managers] come to me with an open stance, I don’t see it – I think they’re getting at me. I get scared and lash out because my reaction to being scared is to get angry.”
Executives in particular can find themselves on the receiving end of a host of strong feelings that their staff bring to work. Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor in leadership development and organisational change at Insead business school, has written about this extensively. He describes how workers can respond to their leaders as they would have done to their parents or other authority figures while growing up.
“Executives can become a kind of emotional dumping ground for people’s unresolved feelings and desires,” he says. “The reaction they provoke can be both extremely positive or extremely negative, and frequently flips from one to another.”
Although instincts may be useful for spotting irrational behaviour in our fellow workers, it fails us when we are in the grip of our own internal dramas. A good antidote to these confusions is to listen and find out who your colleagues actually are, rather than reacting to who you imagine they are. You may find them to be more reasonable than you realised or, conversely, that you can remove them from the pedestal you had placed them on. Do not be led by your feelings – if they are intense, they may well be misguided. If in doubt, keep it to yourself. The key is self-awareness and a capacity to reflect.
It is an unfortunate fact that we cannot run and hide from our dysfunctional families – but we can learn to keep them out of the office.
Strong feelings: Managers often face the same emotions as therapists
Much like psychotherapists, managers are often on the receiving end of intense emotions from their employees. Part of their job is to find a way to tolerate this and only respond if necessary.
Psychotherapists are trained to use the strong feelings they face from patients – a process that is called “transference” – as part of their therapeutic work. However, executives are not psychotherapists and they may need a confidant or coach to help them make sense of any confusing or seemingly irrational behaviour displayed by an underling.
It is also essential that they have self-awareness in order to separate their own issues from those of their employees.
“Many executives . . . often ask themselves if they can handle the negative feelings directed towards them. Being in the limelight, where people are angry with them, or attacking them – they often feel safer as number two,” says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor in leadership development and organisational change at Insead business school in France.
He says the burden can be heavy. “The decisions they make have an enormous effect on staff. An executive might think to himself: ‘Every day when I come to the office, I can make a decision that can make 2,000 people extremely unhappy’.”
The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience