Stop replaying your worst family dynamics at work

Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Whenever a friend complains that her supervisor or colleague reminds her of her manic-depressive mother, or that his direct-report is “exactly like” his overbearing brother, I try not to look alarmed, but it takes effort.

Specifically, the confession calls to mind the experience of watching as a former colleague—someone who had compared our boss to his manipulative mother—fell into a heated argument with said boss over a trivial issue involving a piece of office furniture and was abruptly fired.

Someone else I know spent months finding creative ways to avoid her manager, who was, she said, “essentially the same person” as her psychologically abusive father. “I’ve got to get out,” she’d say almost daily, and often tearfully. After several more months of misery, she did.

This type of situation is probably more common than you think. It’s often challenging for all involved. But psychologists and executive coaches say there are ways to work around, and even with, that monster who reminds you of so-and-so, even when the situation feels like an impasse.

Family happens to everyone

 First, you may need to admit to yourself that this problem doesn’t only belong to the hotheads or to the slightly emotionally unstable people you know (which covers most of us, anyway). To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy workplace is unhappy in its own way,  and everyone is playing out family patterns at work all the time. “I think those who say they don’t have this conflict at work are actually pleasers,” says Sylvia Lafair, founder of Creative Energy Options, an executive coaching company.

Lafair, whose company is based in California and Pennsylvania, believes it takes an intentional focus on family history to figure out exactly what’s happening between colleagues in the present, whether it’s that two people are entangled in psychological warfare, or someone has noticed her boss is unwittingly pressing her buttons, or a whole team has begun to resemble the cast of Arrested Development.

Lafair actually came to executive coaching via a career in family counseling. Twenty years ago, after a pharmaceutical executive saw her give a talk in Philadelphia on teenagers and parents, he approached her and asked if she’d run some therapy sessions with his senior management team. They were, he told her, “fighting.”

At first the psychologist wasn’t sure her insights into families would translate to the corporate group, but she was surprised to find so many of the same rules applicable. The workplace is much like a family, she says. “Instead of parents, we have bosses. Instead of siblings, colleagues. Instead of an allowance, salaries.”

And often in the office, instead of flat-out arguments, we have pettiness and passive-aggressive attacks. Most of us have been on both sides of this.

Counseling that unpacks such situations can, at best, improve the bottom line. At the very least, it promises to make work less of a psychological nightmare and help people break away from behavioral modes they may not be aware of, like playing the martyr.

Lafair, whose clients over the years have included groups at Merck, Avon, Novartis, Microsoft, and Google, recalls working with one manager whose team said he played favorites and could be very caustic.

“One day I said to him ‘Can you tell me a little bit about your father?’” says Lafair, “and he almost threw me out of the office.” Later,  she pressed him. “Just tell me one or two things about your dad.” And she recalls his response: “My father is a son of a bitch. He was a know-it-all and he had to have the last word.”

Later Lafair asked him about the person on his team who was the biggest thorn in his side. He described her to Lafair as “a big mouth who always has to be right.”

The psychologist didn’t say anything then, but she eventually got the man to see the connection between his own behavior and that of his father’s. Meanwhile, the woman accused of having a big mouth told Lafair separately that her own father was always putting her down, adding “and that’s what this guy does.”

“So they were playing this out and as time went on I was able to help each of them see that they had taken that anger and put it on each other, and it was causing chaos in the workplace,” Lafair says.

A little-examined problem

Lafair is not the only coach who looks at family dynamics for clues to a corporate team’s woes. In a most memorable episode of the popular podcast Startup, by Gimlet Media, the famed executive coach Jerry Colonna takes Alex Blumberg, the show’s host and Gimlet’s co-founder and CEO, through a session in which a tearful Blumberg learns how his father’s behavior at home shaped Blumberg’s behavior as a boss.

Blumberg was having a problem seeing himself as the strategic, long-term thinker at the company, the big-picture guy he was supposed to be. He preferred to be in the weeds, working as a hands-on creator of shows, as he had done throughout his career. At one point, Blumberg explains to Colonna that actually acting like a CEO “feels like more responsibility and less fun.”

Colonna asks bluntly: “Was your father free?”

“Um… He was. He was very free. In certain ways. In that he never, I think, took on all the responsibilities of adulthood, you know?” Blumberg responds, adding, “How did you know that, Jerry?”

Anna Urnova, an executive coach in Berlin, has used the framework of grounded theory (an inductive method of research) to look for patterns rooted in family histories within work teams. For her masters thesis for the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD), Urnova interviewed 10 executives from global or national corporations in Russia. Although it was a small sample, her interviews were deep and systematic and the results were intriguing. She claims, for example, that those executives who had more involvement with grandparents also paid more attention to outside stakeholders within the larger business environment.

What’s more, interviewees who were only children were found to be strongly attached to their team leader and saw the rest of the team as the third party in a family triangle. And people who were happy in an executive team described the team leader’s dominant communication style in the same way that they described that of their parents. If you grew up in a family that made decisions through open discussion, for instance, it would be tough to accommodate a boss who didn’t feel the need to explain the reasoning behind his or her requests.

But awareness of any of these connections was low. Only two of her 10 interviewees linked their family psychology to their way of being in the world of work. The other eight, she writes, “never thought of parallels between their family and work team experiences and were completely unaware of some of the deeper patterns of relating they learned in the childhood.”

That lack of insight, she adds, caused most of her interviewees “to fail at least once in their senior executive roles” without understanding what had happened to make them ineffective leaders. Then again, Urnova tells Quartz At Work, it’s also possible that your family pattern is an asset in your job. First you have to become aware of your pattern, she says, and then you can ask yourself: Is it appropriate to the situation? Is the pattern somehow serving you in a professional context?

What’s the bottom line?

So when you encounter the worst family dynamic at work, is it best to cut bait?

According to Lafair, quitting or checking out is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Instead, she encourages her clients, once they observe the dynamic and understand the connection to the relevant relationship with a family member, to go and talk to that sibling or parent about what happened, how they came to fall into their ruts. (She offers template scripts and details in her book, Don’t Bring It To Work: Breaking The Family Patterns That Limit Success.) If the family member is dead or otherwise unreachable, write out what you’d say to them and read it to a friend.

Resolving—or at least attempting to resolve— an outstanding conflict or lingering feelings of resentment toward the family member is a long process that might never truly “end,” but it has the added benefit of shedding light on, and maybe even clearing up, a parallel dynamic you may be experiencing at the office.

After all, what’s true of every other domain in our lives is also true of work: We’re doomed to repeat irrational, self-limiting behaviors unless we deal with the deeper issues that cause them.