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unrelenting pressures with a very small and outdated toolkit – let’s isolate the problem (even if the “problem” is human complexity) and fix it.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.

Go Team!

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

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

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. 

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.

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. 

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.

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

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

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 mean 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?

What do you think?

As always, I love to hear your comments and questions.  What do you believe about work, life and work-life balance?  

Your readership, subscriptions, tweets and shares are much appreciated.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners

Link to original post

Leave a Reply