One of the most amusing statements I hear people say is how different they are when they’re at work than when they’re at home.
“I just don’t understand why my coworker bugs me so much.”
“I work in an office with so much drama. UGH. I hate it!”
“I’m a completely different person when I’m at the office.”
The truth is, we’re the same everywhere. Chances are if you’re bothered by certain types of people, or if you fall into the drama triangle at work, you’ve probably seen the same patterns at home. Like it or not, pleasing your boss and getting along with your coworkers often mirrors the dynamics you experience with your family.
In fact, we spend much of our time at work. So, it’s natural we would build strong relationships. After years at work, many people find they’ve recreated their family relationships and dynamics at the office. That hard-to-please mother? She’s your boss. Your easy-going relationship with your dad? You might see the same dynamic at play with your favorite manager. That coworker who pisses you off? He has the same traits as your brother (and probably gets under your skin for the same reasons).
We automatically recreate our expectations of the world and our relationships right there in our office from 9-5. So, if you want to start getting along with your coworkers, it’s important to remember—the dynamics are all relative!
The Hierarchy of Authority at the Office
Within most workplaces, there is a hierarchy of authority. Well, guess what—growing up we also experienced a hierarchy of authority. For most of us, the authority came from our parents, but no matter how your family was structured, there was a power dynamic at play. In most households, Mom and Dad were the first authority figures in your life. Your relationship with them is reflected in your relationship with and feelings toward authority figures throughout your life (whether you like it or not).
Let’s say you had authoritarian parents who were very demanding. Mom and Dad only wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care what you wanted, or you didn’t get a say in what you wanted. Well, you probably learned to resist them. Possibly, you learned to passive-aggressively resist them by not really doing exactly what they wanted. Or you learned to openly get mad and fight them and resist them. Welcome to your authority issues today.
If you were competitive or in conflict with your parents, you’re probably going to struggle at the office when you feel bossed around (which is, as we all know, a natural part of work).
If your parents were inconsistent and the hierarchy and the power balance between you was hard to figure out, you’ll often see this same scenario play out again as authority issues at work. You may face a tough time figuring out your boss. You may feel the need to question your manager or balk at orders and instructions. Or you may put on an air of agreeability but bemoan the orders the moment your manager is out the door.
All these reactions speak volumes about the way you view authority today, as well as the authority you were raised with when you were growing up. Eventually, you’ll face similar feelings in the workplace to those you experienced in your childhood and felt toward your parents. It’s a natural, normal part of human behavior.
A lot of people realize they have authority issues, but identify the problem as, “my boss is a jerk.” When we pin the problem entirely on the personality of our boss, we fail to recognize these issues stem from and exist within us. Don’t like your situation at work? You have the power to explore and change your relationship with authority.
You were born in your family issues—long before you had any say in the matter. But recognizing this truth will help empower you. Even if your boss or coworkers are vastly different from your parents, you will eventually create and experience the same patterns over and over again that you played out during your childhood, so it’s important to explore these dynamics and their origin.
Another family pattern that’s become especially common these days is what I refer to as the super enmeshed family. This is where the family is overly involved in a person’s life and they fail to separate once they reach adulthood. The enmeshment stems from parents who are extremely focused on the happiness of their kids. While wanting your kids to be happy is positive, it’s possible to pin your identity and focus entirely on your children. What ends up happening with super enmeshed parents is their kids don’t know if they’re living for their own happiness or their parents’ happiness. We’re seeing this type of dynamic more and more in the age of the “helicopter parent.”
What happens to those who grew up in super enmeshed families? We see people who grow into middle age without ever really becoming adults. They never truly disconnect from their parents and learn to function as whole, adult human beings. This plays out in relationships at work and even within romantic relationships. This over-parenting leads to a lack of independence, confidence, and ability to make decisions.
So, what does this mean for you? Do you want to break free from the patterns? Do you believe they don’t affect you? Well, first of all, tough luck.
You take your family everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid recreating the dynamics because it’s an integral part of your programming. You will find your parents’ traits in others throughout your life. If you can’t find the traits of your parents right away within the people you meet, then you’ll recreate those relationship dynamics as your connection develops.
No matter what your relationship with your parents was like (and there are no perfect parents out there, so if you think your parents were “saints” think again), you will see this play out in your relationships later. We call this your unfinished business.
Understanding Unfinished Business
The realization we’re carrying around our familial issues is tough to take. In fact, most of us don’t love the idea. It may even make us feel angry. The good news in all of this is your work relationships create a great opportunity to explore your unfinished business and apply personal growth lessons in the real world.
If we’re interested in learning, growing, and becoming more complete human beings, then our work relationships provide us with an excellent chance to really explore our dynamics with others. At work, you have a perfect laboratory of sorts to look at how your relationships play out; to think about how getting along with your coworkers or not getting along with coworkers mirrors your connections with your family members.
In an ideal setting, you are the authority in your own life. You embrace the power within you and consequentially, you fully acknowledge the authority of those over you, such as in a work setting, without resentment. In fact, in an ideal situation you, empower those authorities without undue competitiveness or anger.
But of course, most of us still have growing to do. We have unfinished business to address!
Getting Along with Your Coworkers, Means Exploring Yourself
I had a fantastic experience working with a group of executives recently. These execs reported to a few CEOs who they described as erratic egomaniacs. Since they reported to the jerk bosses, they were able to justify all kinds of rebellious, underhanded behavior. Working for challenging bosses gave them carte blanche to “match” the behavior with equally deceptive and nefarious actions.
When the execs and I began our work together, I immediately put a stop to this mentality. I told them, “No! You’re going to start living the values espoused by your company!” (Even if they weren’t being displayed at the C-level.) “You aren’t going to use them as an excuse for breaking the golden rule, treating your underlings poorly, or pushing them too far. If you want your team to excel, you need to support them fully. You need to live the company mission, and if you want your team to do the same, then you support them as they go forward. You aren’t going to just accept that the head of the company is a jerk you answer to and use that to justify passing those traits down.”
To understand the dynamics at play with their bosses, these execs had to roll up their sleeves and start to explore their own unfinished business. To figure out how to become better leaders, they had to examine their upbringing and their relationships with their parents.
One of the executives I was working with had a parent who was irresponsible and often absent. It became his job to take on the role of the adult in his family growing up. Sure enough, when he was discussing his CEO, suddenly he said, “Well, I don’t want to be the adult for this jerk!”
I told him, “You don’t need to be the adult for him, but it’s your role to help him win.”
Another executive I had, grew up with a father who was a nice guy, but largely distant. His mother was erratic and enmeshed. He was reporting to the CEO of an international company who was an egomaniacal fool. At an event with 10,000 people, the CEO took the opportunity to humiliate him.
This particular executive had never confronted his mother for her behavior, and he was struggling with how to cope with addressing the embarrassment from his boss. The moment when it all clicked for him was when he was able to confront his mother about the unfinished business he was carrying around with him. As he begrudgingly examined the issues with his mother, he realized his CEO had filled that role and taken on the same dynamic. He had projected his business onto his boss.
Once this was addressed, he was able to reshape the dynamic with his boss and eventually became his righthand man. He realized he’d gone from the verge of getting fired to a position of confidence and trust. Within his role, he was able to temper his boss’s reactions and advise him as well. The miracle at hand wasn’t due to a change of heart from his boss, but a change of heart within himself. He confronted his unfinished business.
Like these executives, we all face a challenge to become whole and complete human beings. It’s incumbent on each of us to address our unfinished business, so we become more honest and straightforward communicators. It’s not about simply “tolerating” or getting along with your coworkers, but rather digging in and understanding why you click (or why you don’t click).
One of the best steps we can take to improve and understand our work life is to understand that our dynamics at work are relative—a direct reflection of our family of origin.
Work gives us a great sandbox to experiment with these dynamics and explore our connections. So, look around at the people you like a lot at work. Who do those people remind you of in your family? Then take a look at the people who get under your skin. Who do they remind you of? Push yourself to explore the lesson at hand. What immaturity and unfinished business are you bringing to the office?
For more on building your relationships and power at work, visit the Wright Foundation website. Join us for an upcoming networking event where you will connect with others and learn more about yourself. We also want to announce the availability of many of our courses for download. Don’t miss out on the special introductory price for many of our courses and lectures.
About the Author
Dr. Bob Wright is an internationally recognized visionary, educator, program developer, leadership and sales executive, best-selling author and speaker. He is a co-founder of Wright and the Wright Graduate University.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.