Does your boss remind you of your dad? It might be time to seek independence.
By Jenna Goudreau
Most of us assume that we are considered capable grown-ups by our colleagues. Yet just below the surface, you'll find that many manager-employee relationships closely resemble that of a parent and child. In fact, all social roles seem to have roots in the family, and several are magnified at work: A supportive coworker becomes the office mom, competing associates begin to act out sibling rivalries, and a leader may play the part of workplace patriarch.
More..."We have set business up to be like the family," says Sylvia Lafair, author of Don't Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success. Much like the family structure, workplaces assemble groups of people with established hierarchies and identified skills.
"We bring a lot of baggage to work," agrees organizational psychologist Ben Dattner, principal of Dattner Consulting in New York. "Our family becomes a template for the world. We learn how to deal with power relationships, feedback and the allocation of chores."In Pictures: 10 Family Roles Played Out At Work
The roles and relationships that become familiar to us in childhood, then, are often unconsciously repeated in the workplace. For decades, psychologists have referred to the phenomenon as "institutional transference," but most employees are ignorant to the patterns.
Many family roles assumed in the workplace-the office comedian who resembles goofy Uncle Dave-rarely become problematic. However, for professional women in particular, the parental dynamics can be dangerous.
"My clients often say their bosses remind them of their fathers," says Allison Weliky, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Boulder, Col., who guesses that 90% of these complaints come from women. "They often feel like the child, regardless of their actual age. It can happen when they are in their 20s or 50s."
Weliky says this workplace dynamic can be the most damaging because it infantilizes the female subordinate. The boss doesn't need to be a man to assume the role of big daddy, either. Female leaders may also take on masculine traits to succeed and can be equally patronizing, Weliky notes.
Sometimes the signals that you've been assigned the role of daughter are clear. Women report being scolded, shushed, called "kid" and feeling punished for mistakes by their dad-like bosses. 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."
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.In Pictures: 10 Family Roles Played Out At Work
Srini Pillay, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of executive coaching company NeuroBusiness Group, believes this parental dynamic may be a leading barrier to women achieving senior leadership roles. "Part of the aftereffects of the father-daughter role involves the glass ceiling," he says. "The women can't get beyond a certain level of power."
This relational inferiority may follow a worker throughout her career, sabotaging chances of true organizational power. But is the role assigned by the boss or elicited by the employee? "You're put in the role, and then you shape it," Lafair says. "Relationships are a two-way street."
According to Lafair, it's important to define what you want out of the relationship and how it feels. The dynamic is not always negative. For those looking for a mentor, it could be beneficial that a superior views you like a daughter and wants to help shape your career. Furthermore, the father-daughter dynamic may be a safer, more comfortable default for a male-female work relationship. Viewing the colleague like a family member may ease potential sexual tension, Lafair says. It becomes problematic when you begin to feel undermined.
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, which affects their ability to assert themselves in the office.
After you've examined your personal history, take steps to negotiate the dynamics of the relationship. Subtle changes like eye contact and talking in a more authoritative tone will begin shifting the way you're perceived. Pillay suggests turning your manager's "autocratic style" into a "communicative style" in order to gain power and help him understand his behavior. For example, if you are passed over for a promotion, calmly ask why the other person received it, if there is anything you could do to secure the next one and if you are viewed as more of a helper rather than a leader in the office.Click here to read the full story.
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