All in the Office ‘Family’

Los Angeles Times  5/18/98

Employees and bosses sometimes reenact childhood family dynamics on the job. Is your workplace dysfunctional? Read up on these relating styles and find out.


The successful executive in psychiatrist Mark Levy’s office was complaining of deja vu. “He had a critical father he couldn’t please, who’d told him he was little and inconsequential,” recalled the San Francisco-based psychoanalyst. “And now he found himself with a superior who was belittling him just as his father had. In response, he was becoming submissive and enraged, just like in childhood.”

West Los Angeles-based psychologist Marion Solomon was consulted by a real estate firm president whose subordinates seemed ready to mutiny. “He didn’t understand why everybody was complaining about him,” she said.

“In fact, he felt under appreciated.”

The entrepreneur had grown up in a chaotic household where he was forced to take care of his family’s needs. “Now he was trying to ‘parent’ his employees too,” Solomon said. “But he was coming across as terribly controlling.”

Reenacting childhood family dynamics in the workplace is not unusual, according to many human behavioral behavior experts. “We learn how to connect to people from our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers,” Solomon said. “And we develop certain patterns of relating, based on these early interactions. Unless something comes along that makes us question our behaviors, we tend to replay the dynamics over and over.”

“Workplace families,” like nuclear families, can be rife with sibling rivalry, mom-vs.-dad power struggles, tyrannical over-parenting and adolescent rebellion. Or they can be Ozzie-and-Harriet havens, where personnel interact peacefully. Stress, agreed Solomon and Levy, is the single most influential factor that may provoke regressive behaviors in employed adults.

Most people are not aware that they’re acting out old scripts with new players, Levy said. “It’s a universal phenomenon that occurs over and over in the workplace and in other group functions.”

How can workers tell when they are regressing into familial patterns?

“When you find yourself in a situation that’s evoking more emotion than what’s reasonable, that’s a giveaway,” Solomon said. “Break away and ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on here?’ You may be caught in an old story . . . or if someone else is reacting strongly to you, it could be that you’re in their old story.”

Solomon recalled a female client — “this very strong powerhouse attorney” — who experienced deja vu during an annual review. She had sought counseling after she burst into tears in front of her firm’s senior partner. “She had been widely perceived as capable, tough and extremely ambitious,” Solomon said. “But when the partner expressed just a little doubt about her and told her to do something better, she began to cry.”

It was a scene from her long-ago past. Decades before, the attorney-to-be had been sharply upbraided by her father about her perceived shortcomings. “He’d yell at her until she was in tears,” Solomon said. “So it’s not a surprise that the child from long ago reemerged when she was criticized by a superior.”

Sigmund Freud believed that family relationships influenced individuals’ character development. In the late 1940s, British psychiatrist John Bowlby further explored this theory in his exhaustive treatise, “Attachment and Loss,” which examined the effects of the early infant-mother bond upon the developing child.

Some children who had difficult relationships with their caretakers experienced similar problems relating to others, according to Bowlby. But mental health professionals today stress that a rough childhood is not an automatic sentence for an unhappy adulthood. “People can transcend disappointing childhood by forging healthy relationships with other caring adults through marriage, friendship and, in some cases, psychotherapy,” Levy said.

Nonetheless, some dysfunctional office “family” behavior may be the vestige of long-ingrained relating styles. Solomon illustrates a few of these:

* ‘Avoidant’ Style

This employee may be a skilled, dedicated worker who is intimidated by others. He prefers to work alone, has few or no friends, and often becomes frustrated when he can’t ask for what he needs. He gravitates toward occupations that offer him independence and solitude.

The avoidant-style boss seems unapproachable. He is likely to appoint an assistant to interact with others on his behalf.

“In the avoidant person’s childhood,” Solomon said, “he may have felt that his caretaker wasn’t available, so he stopped trusting people. Now he may feel that it’s safer to keep a shell around himself.”

* Ambivalent Style

This worker wants to be close to her co-workers and boss but can’t. She may first idealize them, then later feel betrayed by them because they’ve disappointed her in some way. An ambivalent-style employee may obsess about perceived grievances. She is likely to blame others for her difficulties.

The ambivalent-style boss may have a revolving door for incoming and outgoing employees. At first, she may rave about her subordinates’ work, but then will notice “glaring shortcomings.” Sometimes this boss surrounds herself with non-threatening, less competent staff because she worries that those who are skilled and ambitious may compete for her job.

“This person may have been very close and loving with a parent, but then something happened that caused her to lose trust — maybe the parent died or there was a divorce,” Solomon said. “So she’s unable to trust in relationships because she fears she’ll be hurt again.”

* Abusive Style

The abusive-style employee gets into lots of trouble at work. He argues with co-workers, ignores corporate policy and may be insubordinate.

The abusive-style boss requires very little provocation in order to lose his temper. He may bully subordinates into doing what he wants and punish them for perceived wrongdoings.

“A person who behaves in these ways may have felt abused in childhood,” Solomon said. “He could have been told there was something wrong with him, or witnessed or been victim to physical abuse. Some who have this history become victims themselves, and act out passive-aggressively in their workplaces. They may complain, create conflict between co-workers and be covertly abusive to those whom they don’t like.”

If a business “family’s” dynamics are dysfunctional, its “members” should examine their own behaviors to determine if they’re reenacting familial conflicts.

“If a person repeats a scenario over and over — such as progressing so far in a firm, then quitting or getting fired — it’s not a flashing yellow light but a flashing red light to seek help,” Levy said. “You may not understand why this is happening, and not fully remember its origin, but you’ll be aware that your difficulties keep reoccurring.

“The problem,” Levy said, “is that in all but the most enlightened firms, nobody asks for help until there’s already a three-alarm fire — a senior partner gets so abusive that a woman files a sexual harassment suit or a worker is so stressed that he’s throwing paperweights through a wall.”

If one employee is disrupting interactions in the company, Levy recommends that management encourage the worker to seek professional help. But if a company’s “extended family” seems to be relating in a dysfunctional manner, Levy suggests that the people in charge look closely at their “managing/parenting” styles.

“Leadership styles tend to define organizational styles,” he said. “So if a manager is paranoid, everyone in the office probably will be looking behind their backs. And if the manager is schizoid and has discomfort with interpersonal relationships, information won’t be shared.”

Like healthy families, functional corporate families should stress values such as honesty, open communication, security, teamwork and loyalty. “A synergy occurs in the workplace when people are interdependent,” Solomon said. “They know people are there for them, and this helps them do their jobs better.”

Copyright (c) 1998 Times Mirror Company

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