Emotional Baggage at Work

“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.” Anthony Brandt

We all bring it – we all have it. It is a matter of degree – and awareness.

In every interaction we have at work, we bring the dynamics of our families, culture, generation and gender with us. 

The first problem is that most of us don’t even realize it.

Workplace dynamics are part of a system.  We’ll define a system here as– a set of interconnected things or parts that form a complex whole.

The second problem is that the modern workplace doesn’t operate as a whole. 

Most organizations and institutions think in parts – still functioning from a 17th century fragmentation model.  According to Sylvia LaFair, Author of Don’t Bring it to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success, Most business leaders aren’t trained to think systematically, but rather in dichotomies or dualities. When problems occur, they resort to a predictable analytic response: sort and judge, sort and judge and sort and judge.”  The highly trained left-brained executives are responding to today’s complex and unrelenting pressures with a very small and outdated toolkit – let’s isolate the problem (even if the “problem” is human complexity) and fix it.  Too many leaders still think understanding and using psychology in business is  akin to “doing therapy” and that factoring feelings into the equation is “soft.”  

No One’s on Top of the Mountain

Let’s face it – most of us have plenty of unfinished emotional business. Because of our collective conditioning and the old memes that govern work, we don’t like to admit it.  In fact, some of us are downright embarrassed about it.  The reality is that with the exception of those of us that  grew up with the mythic world of the Norman Rockwell family image  – growing up left many of us with emotional scars.  Most of us drag our unresolved family hurt with us to relationships with peers and significant others, through schooling and into the workplace.  Once in the workplace many of us tend to view workplace relationships primarily through the prism of our past experience.

A boss becomes a Dad or Mom. A co-worker becomes the competitive sibling. We become the long-suffering son or daughter yearning for recognition.  The “incompetents” at work replace the kids that let us down. The raise we don’t get becomes the rejection from team sports.  The childish bully ways of some ripen into more sophisticated power maneuverings. 

It’s an emotional stew that is mixed with the real adult demands to work effectively and productively in diverse cultures with people we often barely know who have different backgrounds, styles, preferences and mindsets.  Place that stew within competitive workplace cultures filled with super-achievers and technological tools that often impede personal communication and you’ve got a potentially volatile mix.

The question of how family dynamics thwart or enhance the current structuring of teams in the workplace is fascinating.  Logically, the success of teams depends on effective communication, trust and transparency and a real willingness to collaborate with others. Yet, too many team members still function like sole proprietors.  Too many well-intended books and consultants develop language and refer to different behaviors and temperaments in the workplaces as –   the hero, the martyr, the scapegoat, the victim and the persecutor.  This labeling does nothing to help us to understand the competing and often, unrecognized needs that reside underneath unresolved emotional baggage.

“When it’s Hysterical, It’s Historical.” Michele Conlin

Because working with emotional intelligence is such an important part of our work, we’ve witnessed some incredible emotional tangles in workplaces. Often, these “problems” are disguised as garden-variety conflicts, personality issues and stylistic differences. But when you get down there in the weeds to unravel these often, intractable, problems, the real issues emerge.  Sometimes the presenting problem seems new.  New employee A, doesn’t get along with older employee B.  Employee A is young, new to the ways of organizational expectations and dynamics. But to the more seasoned employee B, A can’t do anything right.

Upon further inspection, it seems that employee B, hasn’t liked anyone that’s been hired for A’s position. They’re all lazy, incompetent and insincere.  While lacking in people skills, B’s got some clout because he is talented in his area of expertise. He resents that management keeps hiring these inexperienced loafers and isn’t shy about sharing his feelings.  Given the opportunity and the right set of questions, Employee B reveals that he had the “same problem with my spoiled, precocious younger brother.”

Bottom line, we could talk about new hires and qualifications and team spirit until the cows come home!  Employee B’s big aha moment only comes when he realizes his “transference” onto Employee A is inappropriate and misplaced.

The Role of the Brain

Author David Rock’s SCARF Model offers a blueprint to help us to understand the true drivers of human social behavior.   If we accept the premise that early childhood learning imprints our psycho-social development and sets us up for how we relate to others – inside and outside of work – the latest findings from neuroscience can illuminate how we can work with these dynamics.  Although all of the domains within the SCARF model are relevant for this discussion (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) the role of status provides a compelling glimpse into the family dynamics of the workplace. According to Rock, status is about relative importance, “pecking ordering” and seniority.  One researcher points out that status is the most significant marker in human health and life span.  Another study showed that an increase of status (our relative importance) was similar in strength to a financial windfall. 

The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response. According to Rock, one of the primary themes emerging from neuroscience is that much of the motivation that drives social behavior is governed by an “overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.” Competition, which still underpins the structure of systems and management practices in most organizations, can set these early childhood dynamics in motion.  Certain forms of real or perceived competition (of any type) can act as emotional triggers that activate the fight or flight response.  The brain perceives threat and acts to protect the organism.

This is not woo-woo touchy-feely stuff – it’s well established science.

Yes, We Know – Managers Can’t Be Therapists

Conversations about the role of family dynamics in the workplace often end with the statement, “Well this may all be true, but we’re not here to do therapy.”   No one’s suggesting that managers become therapists – or that the workplaces hold  counseling sessions.  However, if we continue to operate our organizations as if human dynamics don’t exist, well continue to have the same problems.

The revolution in the business mindset will come when we acknowledge the full spectrum of the human experience and stop acting as if work was simply an economic transaction! Because so many organizations and leaders are averse to discussing emotions, we continue to work in systems that try to compartmentalize human experience.  Many organizations and managers are understandably afraid to open up a “can of worms” by allowing feelings to be acknowledged.  Rather than seeking out appropriate and creative ways to address emotional issues at work, they continue to sweep them under the proverbial carpet. 

 These are short-term strategies because these patterns are unlikely to resolve themselves.  In fact, many experts on bully behavior in the workplace cite lingering childhood issues as the chief causal factors driving this growing problem.  Some experts estimate that 20 to 50% of workers’ time is wasted in unproductive workplace dramas. Every organizational leader needs to understand that you cannot expect optimal performance, high levels of creativity and participation, trust and team cooperation in an atmosphere where people are still playing out their unconscious childhood traumas.  That’s simply counterintuitive.

We have much to learn about ourselves and others.  Without question, we all bear responsibility for our own behavior. But there is a whole new world of knowledge available to us that can give us the tools to understand the old, unexamined patterns that drive us. From a purely business standpoint, it is simply inefficient not to equip workers with information that could free them from habituated and unproductive behaviors.  Workplace relationships are the lifeblood of business.  The health, strength and resiliency of those relationships are a powerful economic engine. And those relationships, so often characterized as exhausting, frustrating and draining can be transformed to offer support, community and inspiration.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, captures the new mind of work perfectly, The future belongs to a very different kind of person – with a very different kind of mindset – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.”

If we accept that we operate at work unconsciously as dysfunctional family systems – can we imagine learning to recognize those patterns differently and transforming them into healthy life-affirming patterns?

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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