Colleagues know how to push our buttons just like family does

We all know about work spouses, the extra close co-workers who can finish our sentences, empathize when we’re having a bad day, and share the best and worst part of our office experience, but sometimes the work dynamic can start to mimic other elements of a family dynamic — and not always in a good way.

Carolyn Thompson, Managing Principal of the Merito Group, puts it this way: “The bossy sibling will always be the bossy one. The martyr who relishes publicly sacrificing themselves on behalf of others will always do that and expect to be recognized for doing it. The people we grew up as are still with us in the workplace.”

If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the infuriatingly oblivious attitude of the office brat, or wondered how you’ve suddenly been designated the office mom, it might be time to take a closer look at the potentially unwelcome family dynamic of your professional life.

A few years back, Anna Urnova, a student in an executive coaching and consulting program, wrote her master’s thesis based on the premise that our family dynamics may affect our future group dynamics, specifically in the workplace.

While Arnova’s control group was hardly scientific – she asked 10 executives to tell her about their most memorable work team experiences and childhood family story — she looked for “parallels and themes in the data” which showed the ways family system dynamics influenced the way these individuals then related to others in work teams.

Family archetypes in the office

But it isn’t just theory. Even just by looking around, it’s easy to see how colleagues take on — or are assigned — family roles like the patriarch, the mother, the sibling rivals, and the black sheep

In 2014, Sonya Rhodes, PhD, and Susan Schneider, authors of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match, wrote about the ways work relationships sometimes mimic family relationships: “A colleague may bring out old feelings you had about your siblings.” If you’re an older child who is dutiful and has a notable opposition to colleagues who slack off like your younger siblings: this is why. 

Many women in positions of authority, no matter their age or stage, can somehow almost be forced into the category of work mother — whether they want to fill that role or not. It’s strange that grown adults with free will will see any woman in authority as a mother, but it’s also a testament to the power of those patterns formed in childhood. 

In their article Rhodes and Schneider explained it as the psychological theory of transference where, without realizing it, “the female boss relates to her subordinates as the older sister, or mother.” The reverse is very much true as well: employees will project their feelings toward their mothers — whether they were nurturing or competitive — onto the most senior female in the office.

The ‘father figure’ in the office

Similarly, men in the office are seen as fathers — and anyone with “daddy issues,” in the words of Forbes writer Jenna Goudreau — is likely to try to work them out on colleagues. As Goudreau writes:

“More often, however, the behavior is subtle and insidious. Weliky says her clients first notice their own negative emotional reactions. Many report feeling patronized by a manager’s tone of voice (“like a pat on the head”), noticeably cower in the boss’s presence or consistently worry they will ‘get in trouble.'”

And this will ring familiar to many who have been baffled by office power dynamics:

“Weliky believes women are especially vulnerable to the father-daughter dynamic at work because of the way they were socialized and (still-present) gender stereotyping. More likely to be “pleasers” who seek approval from an authority figure, they may apologize too much, avoid eye contact, allow condescension or not verbally assert themselves. Two men, she says, are more likely to become buddies or lock horns in a power struggle.”

It’s one thing if that’s your choice, but what do you do when a family type role has been forced on you in the workplace — and you’d like to break free of that unwelcome dynamic?

One of Goudreau’s sources says knowledge is power: “Here’s the way out: Once you observe the patterns, they begin to loosen. Understand where they started. Then transform them.”

But there’s a lot more to it.

Getting out of your office role: draw boundaries

Amy Baxter M.D.  a former emergency pediatrician and pain researcher, segued into the entrepreneurial life when she created Buzzy, a palm size pain blocker meant to numb the pain of a needle, especially for children.

Dr. Baxter uses the work style she developed while working in the E.R. in her business life as well: “Keeping a clear work friendship barrier is really important” is one of the ways she keeps things clear and professional at work.

She expands by saying, “you want to have a culture where you feel comfortable hanging out with each other outside the office, but not a web so you feel responsible for catching each other’s out of the office drama.”

Dr. Baxter says as a woman in business, she’s learned one particular lesson that’s always stayed with her: “Never keep a jar of candy on your desk. You’re not there to feed them. You’re not there to give them treats when they’re feeling bad.”

Dr. Baxter explains that “it’s a natural female thing to nurture, but there’s a pleasure in keeping things professional and productive.”  (Part of that pleasure is not having to field emotional crises all the time). 

Dr. Baxter admits “I think that because my leadership style in the company is similar in a trauma bay, I don’t exude the warm, fuzzy, let’s chat about it vibe.”

She explains that the only person she ever had to fire was someone who among other things, sought relationship advice which “was out of the scope of a boss subject.”

When working with family, watch the dynamics

Sometimes the family dynamic works though. Stephanie McTigue, the owner of CoFi Leathers, creates high fashion handbags and boots and keeps things all in the family. McTigue consults with her husband, in the guise of a financial advisor, her father (and former partner) as a leather consultant, her mother as a sales professional and her sister as a copywriter.

McTigue uses her family rules as business rules. One struggle for McTigue was the idea of keeping emotions out of the boardroom: “When working with family members, everyone knows each other’s hot buttons,” she said. “We were all trying to have an equal say in the direction of the business and how to make it grow.”

For that reason, McTigue found it crucial for both family members and employees to define their individual roles.

As to the notion of becoming the work mom, mother of two McTigue doesn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. “I aim to help my kids identify their strengths in life. I support them in being independent, talking openly to me about issues, approaching me with their wants/desires in a constructive way, and implementing their strengths to tackle what they are good at. I hope that I foster these same characteristics in my employees.”  

She also provides positive feedback on a job well done and encourages her team to have a work/life balance.

Employees are different, but they’re not children — even if some behave that way

Thompson explains that even among adults in an office environment, “some employees actually need more ‘mothering’ and hand-holding, and some need less,” but of course it depends on how hard they’re leaning on you to provide something that might not interest you.

For women in the office, Forbes points out that if someone flips out over small, standard corrections or other day-to-day work that others take in stride, it’s worth examining whether parental patterns and the fear of earning love is shaping the employee’s behavior: “First, notice if your reactions are overblown. If you get very upset, panicky or teary over a boss’s offhand comment, there may be real issues with your own father that need to be worked through outside of the office. Weliky says that women who experienced absent or distant fathers may continue to seek approval from men or have lower levels of confidence later in life.”

She also says sibling rivalries and work ethics are visible in the office: “Some (employees) expect an award for coming to work every day on time and others are striving to win the sales contest. Every employee and every manager is different.”

And sometimes that means that even the reluctant office mom might need some cheering one “Managers and executives need recognition, too.  Just because they are the leaders doesn’t mean they don’t need a ‘thank you’ or an ‘attaboy’ once in a while.”

The key feature for managers and employees alike, however, is that it’s about finding your own balance and comfort zone. Remember that the office isn’t family if only because everyone is there not out of love, but because they are getting paid to be there. 

It’s especially important to make sure that people don’t use managers as an emotional garbage can to unload all their frustrations constantly. That can wear down managers’ energy and time, and, after all, that kind of venting is what real family and friends are for. While it’s okay to mentor your employees, Dr. Baxter admits “that’s a different thing than being a constant listening ear to make someone feel better — ain’t got no time for that.”