Woman consoling her colleague

You may have noticed how eerily similar the drama at work can mirror family dynamics at home. If so, you aren’t imagining things. We tend to replicate the kinds of relationships we had when we were younger, especially when we are experiencing stress or conflict. So, you may sometimes feel that your direct reports treat you like a parent, or your peers compete with you like siblings, or the frustrations you have with your own boss are similar to what frustrated you about your parents. Understanding these invisible but powerful dynamics can give you an edge in working through conflict at work and at home, building a higher functioning team and more resilient kids, and getting more of what you need to thrive both at work and at home.

Here are some key dynamics to keep an eye out for and how to navigate them:

Your Relationship with Your Boss

Studies show that the number one reason high quality people leave organizations is that they aren’t getting what they most want and need from their boss. Our relationship with our boss is key to our ability to thrive in any position. We need to know that our boss sees our efforts, has our best interests at heart, will guide us with constructive feedback, advocate for us within the organization, and give us the space or structure that we need to thrive. No boss is perfect, and it’s rare to find that perfect mentoring relationship, but if you find yourself repeatedly frustrated trying to get what you need in order to work effectively, it may be time to sit back and reflect. What is it that you need from your boss but aren’t getting? Are there other people in your life you have needed this same thing from and been disappointed? How is your boss similar to or different from your parents?

Sometimes, without realizing it, we set a high expectation on our boss to provide us with appreciation, respect, support or validation, and we take it personally when we don’t get it. If you are noticing this type of pattern, there is a short term and long-term solution. In the short term, ask yourself the question, “What if my boss never provides me enough of this?” If you can re-adjust your expectations and get your needs met elsewhere, then you may still be able to thrive in this work environment.

I remember one client vented to me angrily that his young boss didn’t have the knowledge or experience to strategize with him, and their one-on-one sessions felt like a complete waste of time. When I said, “It doesn’t sound like that’s where you are going to get your mentoring”, he paused, realizing that he had a high need for mentoring, and at the same time considering the idea that he may be able to get it from other sources. Besides having a coach there were other smart people in his organization he could strategize with. He couldn’t change the boss, but now that he had a different way to get his needs met, the stress in the relationship subsided and he could manage the situation more effectively.

The long-term approach to getting more of your needs met from your boss is to work more deeply on identifying your own unmet needs and changing your beliefs about how to get them met. We all have sore spots that flare up every time someone pushes our buttons in just the right way. Taking a closer look at what’s behind those sore spots gives you the power to feel less triggered and more empowered, which not only improves your relationship with your boss, but with everyone around you.

Your Relationship with Your Peers

The roles you played in the first peer groups you experienced generally set the tone for the roles you continue to play with friends and colleagues in your adult life. First and only children tend to take charge, middle children pave their own path, and younger children flex and adapt. Your birth order doesn’t condemn you to any particular role, but it’s often helpful to pay attention to it so that you understand how your peers experience you. You may notice that those you are closest to on your peer team remind you of siblings you were close to as a child, and those you feel the most competitive with or mistrustful of remind you of siblings you had a tough time with. Sometimes we fall into old patterns without thinking about them, which makes it difficult to work through politics or peer conflicts. If you have career ambitions, part of moving up in an organization requires the willingness of your current peers to accept you as a leader. Here are some questions to reflect on:

1. Where are you slipping into patterns that remind you of patterns earlier in your life?
2. What did your siblings or earliest peer group count on you for?
3. How do you want your peers to experience you that might be different from how your siblings or earliest peer group experienced you?
4. What changes would you have to make to establish the kinds of relationships that would engender your peers to eventually trust you to lead them?

Your Relationship with Your Direct Reports

Especially if you are a parent, you may often find eerie similarities between the challenges you face with your team at work and those you face with your children at home. This is not surprising, because your natural style isn’t going to change much in different environments, and the roles are similar. The biggest blind spot we have when we are in the “power position” in a relationship is not understanding how others experience us. There’s a big gap in our experience of the relationship compared to the experience of our direct reports or children, and the usual ways we have to calibrate how well a relationship is going simply don’t apply when you are in this type of role.

Here’s why: Because you have significant power over the lives and well beings of your direct reports and your children, trust is much more tenuous, and when trust is broken on your side, it’s rare that you will find out. You might have a conversation with your child or direct report that feels great to you. You feel that you are being authentic, and they seemed to also be enjoying themselves, but you’ll never know how hard they are working to make sure you feel good and see them in a good light. Their very survival depends on it. In organizations we often will use 360 assessments to help uncover how a leader is experienced at work, and that can provide a barometer. At home people have less energy to hold up a false front, and you’ll eventually see signs from your children when they struggle. Either way, the best tool you have in these situations is to simply be aware that how you feel is NOT necessarily the same as how they feel, and you’ll need to get intentionally curious to discover what they are truly experiencing and what they most need to thrive.

Studies show that the two most important keys to children thriving are (1) the emotional energy of their parents, and (2) the predictability of the structure of their lives. In simple terms, if the parents are calm, happy, and present most of the time, children pick up on that energy and feel safe themselves. When the parents are stressed and reactive, children’s defenses go up and they do whatever they can to protect themselves from a situation that feels unsafe. When children know what to expect each day, they have something consistent to orient to, and this also helps them feel safe. This doesn’t mean they need to have a high level of structure and order in their lives, it just means that however their lives flow, if they wake up knowing what to expect and what they expect actually happens, the world makes more sense, and they feel safer in it.

At work, studies have shown that the two most important keys that the highest performing teams have in common are (1) psychological safety, and (2) clarity. When employees trust that their boss and team have their back, they feel safe and tend to fully engage in their work. If they don’t trust their boss and peers, they move to self-protection mode, and get more caught up in politics, drama, and risk adverse work styles. When employees have clarity about goals and expectations, they can prioritize and feel at least somewhat confident that what they are choosing to focus on will get them the best results. This makes their world a little safer and a little more predictable, compared to environments where priorities keep changing and the vision and purpose are not clear. Organizations highly value leaders who show up as calm, clear, and confident, because they not only communicate goals and priorities clearly, but they also contribute to the psychological safety of the team with their contagious and calming emotions.

Pulling It All Together

In both the home and the work environment, there are two keys that help us all thrive, regardless of our role:

1. Our clarity about “how things work around here”. Does life or work flow in a predictable enough manner so that I know generally what to expect and what is expected of me?
2. Our feelings of trust. Are the people around me relatively calm and happy and can I expect them to be there for me when I need them?

If the answer to both of these questions is “yes”, then we tend to fully engage with our work and activities, knowing that if we need something we can get it. If the answer to one or both of those questions is “no” then we are pre-occupied with protecting ourselves from the danger that problem imposes on us and don’t fully engage with work or life.

So, in your role as a leader and in your role as a parent, what are the keys to creating a high trust and predictable environment that everyone can thrive in?

1. Increased Self-Awareness about the Roles you Subconsciously fall into with Others: When you notice puzzling dynamics, if you can make connections that help you understand what’s really going on, you can get to the bottom of issues more quickly and resolve them.

2. Increased Personal Stress Management and Mental Fitness: No matter what role you play, your stress is contagious and makes the environment less safe for others. Taking ownership of your needs and figuring out how to get them met so that YOU can thrive, adds to an environment that those around you can also thrive in.

3. Organizational Systems that Support a Predictable Flow of Work and Life: The more organization you can put around the routines and systems that frame your work and life, the more clear and predictable things are for everyone. The more people know what is going on, the more they are able to relax and creatively engage in whatever they are focusing on, whether it is a child learning through play or an adult immersed in a work project.

Never underestimate your role in building a better environment. The boss can’t do it alone, and each member of any group of people influences the overall health of the team. The good news is that the first step in all of this is taking care of yourself. If your needs aren’t met, you will feel some form of stress that will infect those around you. Whether it comes out as frustration, anxiety or withdrawal, it makes a difference. And that means anything you can do to increase your own happiness and decrease your own stress is good for everyone!

If you’d like help thinking through next steps – we’re here for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out!




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