Maybe it’s personal – Real and imagined family dynamics at work

July 31, 2014

Is there someone at work who really drives you nuts? Not just the usual workplace niggles but someone who really gets under your skin? Someone with whom it feels personal? Well maybe it is.

Perhaps it all started with your family. That person may remind you of some you grew up with and you just haven’t noticed.

Many workplaces take on the characteristics of a family – the stern, demanding father, the clucky mother hen, who looks after her brood but takes no nonsense from anyone, the squabbling siblings, the ‘baby’ of the family who gets away with murder and so on and so on. There are many variations on a theme. When some of these characteristics closely match your own family history, it’s very easy to fall into familiar patterns of behaviour, even when they’re not in your best interests.

Pseudo-sibling rivalry

Imagine, for example, you grew up in the shadow of a brilliant older brother, who you never quite lived up to. What happens when you find yourself working alongside some guy who’s been around just a little bit longer than you and is seen as a star performer? It’s very hard not to get locked into competition or resentment. You may attribute all kinds of things to this colleague – “ooh look at him; he’s so arrogant/ patronising/aloof” – that have little to do with the real person and much more to do with how you see your brother. Depending on your colleague’s own personal history, he may compete with you very strongly, play the helpful older brother or barely acknowledge your existence, each of which will bring out different responses in you.

I’ve met people, particularly in sales environments, whose primary motivation at work is to beat certain colleagues. Winning matters, hitting their targets matters, but none of it matters as much as beating that guy. This can lead them to do stuff that’s really not helpful, such as deliberately undermining their rival, when actually they both work for the same organisation whose success is ultimately what keeps them employed.

Father figures

If your peers can become your siblings, then your boss – or maybe your boss’s boss – can easily become your parent. I recall a senior manager in a sizeable organisation fretting about having to admit a problem to his boss: “I don’t know why I’m worrying so much; it’s not as though he’s my dad”, inadvertently revealing a deep truth about his relationship with his manager – and, indeed, with his father. The poor guy was so fearful of a telling off from ‘dad’ that he’d tried to conceal the problem for as long as he possibly could, thereby making the situation much worse.

Don’t get stuck on your default setting

So what do you do when you find yourself stuck in a pattern that belongs in your past? Avoid the path of least resistance. If a pattern has been there since you were a child, it will be your default.Boy in business suit It may feel so normal that you don’t even realise there are other options. But there always are. You just have to tolerate the discomfort required to break the pattern; for example, admitting a mistake and facing the disapproval or anger of your boss without being totally crushed by it. Or losing out to the colleague you compete with and still feeling ok about yourself – and about him. It’s the difference between responding to a situation and simply reacting to it.

This is the process of ‘differentiation’ that I talked about in a previous blog post – the psychological process of developing a solid sense of yourself in relation to others. You want to be able to judge yourself by your own standards not by whether you outperform your surrogate ‘brother’ or gain the approval of your ‘dad’. This can be hard work for any of us, but spare a thought for people in family businesses for whom this isn’t a metaphor. When the boss whose approval you crave actually is your dad (or, indeed, your mum) or the colleagues you compete with are your siblings, then developing your own identity can be twice as difficult.

Mixing family and business

In a family business, people have so much shared history that patterns of relating can get very fixed. Family businessPeople take on roles and identities that go back decades – the flighty one, the responsible one, the peacemaker, the one who gets upset easily, the one we all defer to and so on. These patterns can work perfectly well and there may be nothing wrong. However, they often work better for some members of the family than others and they may not allow enough flexibility for people – and the business – to reach their full potential. It can be difficult, for example, for the ‘baby’ of the family to be taken seriously, but if he or she turns out to be an entrepreneurial genius then the company could be missing out.

There is often a shared investment in maintaining the status quo, even when people don’t like it much, because it is familiar. Some families appear harmonious but never really air differences and leave a lot unsaid. Others bicker constantly but have variations on the same argument. Nothing really changes in either case.

Takes two to tango – and even more to do formation dancing

If you’re stuck in a family business pattern that isn’t working for you, the good news is that you can change it on your own. It takes the unspoken agreement of everyone involved to keep things the same, so if one person changes their behaviour, the whole dynamic of the system changes.

But don’t expect applause. Chances are people will try to pull you back into familiar ways of relating to maintain the status quo. So if you’re in a family that leaves things unsaid in the name of ‘harmony’ and you speak up about something, you can expect the others to try to shut you up. There may be comments about the appropriateness of what you’re saying – “You can’t say that!”. Or you may incur the wrath (or the sulks) of whoever it is who actually makes the decisions and isn’t used to being questioned.

On the other hand, if you’re in a bickering family and you refuse to be drawn in to the usual arguments, people may ‘up the ante’ to try to get you back into the fight so they know where they stand.

You’ll need to be persistent, so people see that you’re serious about change, and well-intentioned. Make sure you’re acting in the best interests of the business and the family, not just yourself. And have compassion – for yourself, as well as the others. Changing entrenched behaviour patterns is rarely easy and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t trip up on the way.

If you’d like to explore ways to change the way you relate to your colleagues, whether you share the same genes or not, I’m just a click away:

Photo credits


Martin Allinger

Dragos Daniel Iliescu

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