Posted On January 16, 2018
Posted by at 8:55 am

INTRODUCTION: it is important that managers reflect on what they do and how they do it. This is a key to both their successes and failures. However, the tools for self-examination are, often, of questionable value. This article explores how family dynamics — relationships to father, mother, brothers, and sisters – create “leftovers” that are central to understanding what you think and feel and how you react as an employee and as a manager.

THE CENTRAL FALLACY: what gets in the way of clear thinking is a central fallacy — that employee behavior is determined by the culture of the organization. The field of organization behavior is dominated by social psychologists whose central belief is that the group or the organization creates a culture that members adapt to. The hidden assumption is that organizational members come into the company as blank slates, see and experience what is around them, and then adapt their behavior to fit the culture and get approval of the group. So, we say, “Bob is not a good cultural fit,” or “Sally is really our kind of person.” Further, it is the job of senior management to create and manage that culture.

Certainly, there is some validity to these ideas, but the emphasis is on SOME. Anyone who has visited different companies knows just by walking in the door the difference – warm, friendly, open or formal, bureaucratic, hierarchical. For example: one Bay Area company has an elevator reserved for senior executives, who are not seen until the Christmas party – which sends a message about the company culture.


However, the truthfulness of the social psychological paradigm does not explain all that we see in organizations:

  • Sarah is friendly and warm and a joy to be around.
  • Thomas is aloof, distant, and preoccupied.
  • Beatrice is highly competitive and power hungry.
  • Jack is a great team player and motivator.
  • Mary tends to overplay her contributions and downplay those of others.
  • Sam tries to be the center of attention at all times, highly annoying others.

Yet, they all work for the same company, with the same culture.
How to explain these differences is the focus of the remainder of this article.

THE FAMILY: where do we learn who we are and how to act? In our families! We are surrounded by love and warmth or by distance and coldness. We are accepted for who we are or demanded to live up to some standard. We have a father who sends messages about how we will be accepted, and a mother who does the same. Our brothers and sisters teach us to be cooperative or, on the contrary, highly competitive. We learn trust or its opposite, distrust. We learn to compete or be cooperative. We learn what we are good at or what we have to do to earn love. Our self-identity forms as we interact with those around us – for better or worse. And we carry these “leftover” into our schooling and work life.

SECONDARY FALLACY: while understanding family dynamics is of interest, a secondary fallacy suggest that what happens in the family is limited solely to the family, or, perhaps, to the family we go on to create as adults. We learn how to be a wife from our mother, or to be a husband from our father. And it stops there! But what if it does not stop there – what if it carries over to how we act in grade school, high school, college and, YES, even the workplace.

  • Sarah is friendly and warm and a joy to be around. Sarah comes from a closely-knit family with supportive parents and great relations with her brothers and sisters. What she learned from them makes her the employee she is today.
  • Thomas is aloof, distant, and preoccupied. Thomas is an only child with parents who were not close to each other or to him. He learned early to rely upon himself and, under stress, turn inward.
  • Beatrice is highly competitive and power hungry. In Bea’s family, there was little love and affection and the siblings fought constantly with each other to get their parent’s attention. Bea now views those she works with in the same way and competes to get noticed.
  • Jack is a great team player and motivator. Jack comes from a family of sports enthusiasts, surrounded by friendly siblings, in addition, Jack was good at sports and excelled in team sports in college. This is where he learned to be a team player and it carries over to today.
  • Mary tends to overplay her contributions and downplay those of others. Mary’s family did not want her to get a “big head,” therefore there was little praise or support – thus Mary constantly tries to remind us of what she contributes, at the same times, downplays the accomplishments of others.
  • Sam tries to be the center of attention at all times, highly annoying others. In Sam’s family, the focus was on the adults, the parents, the relatives — the children received little attention. Sam compensated for this by going to school and becoming a loud mouth, a showoff, an attention seeker – he will do anything to get others to pay attention to him.

IF SO, SO WHAT: If we learn how to act in our families, and then carry it over to the workplace, so what?

First, for a manager or supervisor, this insight holds promise in understanding our subordinates and colleagues and what they are seeking. As well as the conflict between my view of the world and yours.

HOW YOU REWARD AN EMPLOYEE: Every manager has ways he rewards his subordinates. The family dynamics framework suggests, however, that different employees seek different types of rewards. For example:

  • Sarah is friendly and warm and a joy to be around. She is rewarded by noticing her presence and warmth and friendliness…….often. But no conflict.
  • Thomas is aloof, distant, and preoccupied. Short conversation, once a year, brief, in his office, not over lunch.
  • Beatrice is highly competitive and power hungry. A simple question suffices: “Beatrice, why don’t you tell me how I can be a better manager OR how can we make the department better. And listen. And thank.
  • Jack is a great team player and motivator. This is one to take to dinner with others in the department and praise the team and praise Jack and make sure he is always on teams and never works as a solo performer. Always keep in a people performing mode.
  • Mary tends to overplay her contributions and downplay those of others. Tricky because you do not want to encourage criticism of the team but you can ask “Mary, what do you think you are doing well?” as well as give positive feedback often.
  • Sam tries to be the center of attention at all times, highly annoying others. Sticky cuz Sam speaks up at meetings with irrelevant comments so he needs a lot of attention of a positive nature negative feedback does not register.

THE CENTRAL UNDERSTANDING: In the middle ages the Catholic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas said: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, which means, whatever is received is received in the manner of the receiver. If more managers understood this then many difficulties would be avoided. Employees hear the boss according to their wants and needs, not the boss’s rationale. Therefore, it is helpful for managers to analyze their staff’s and to think about two things:

  • How I like to be approached, addressed and rewarded VESUS
  • How ________likes to be approached, addressed and rewarded.

Too often, we talk to others as we would like to be addressed – alas, not so.

You do not have to be a therapist to understand this, simply, look at the employee and how he acts.

One experienced change consultant drove this home when he said – “there are 9 questions to change.” which are:

  • What is going to happen to me?
  • What is going to happen to me?
  • What is going to happen to me?
  • When?
  • When?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • Why?
  • Why?

The answers to these questions are difficult to arrive at – it is not a true/false or multiple choice test. They require a lengthy self-analysis.

And, perhaps, some career coaching, such as the type my website provides: bossesbossingbeingbossed.com

For, often, it takes another for us to see ourselves clearly.

For me, these are the right questions to ask, and the right place to search. It is by understanding who we were then and how we were rewarded or punished that we truly understand our present role as manager/supervisor.

Future blogs will address the dynamics and rationale of this, and how to reduce.