Companies & Industries

The Baggage We Bring to Work Each Day


Without realizing it, we sometimes infect our workplace with personal biases or memories from our past, points out Ben Dattner

Henry Ford reportedly once complained that all he wanted from a worker was a pair of hands, but that he had to deal with the whole person instead. Each of us brings our whole self to work each day, regardless of whether we have a chance to express and actualize ourselves in our jobs.

As much as we might like to believe we can adapt our personality or our style as needed at work, to an outside observer, we are likely to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses in the workplace that we have outside of it. Whether we suffer at home or at work from a lack of assertiveness or from too much confidence, whether we are accommodating peacemakers or contentious resisters, or whether we are supportive and empathic or businesslike and formal, who we are in our personal lives is inextricably linked to who we are in the workplace. And who we are in our personal lives and in our professional lives is always a function, at least in part, of our early life experience.

As an executive coach, one of my most important roles is to help my clients understand what they are bringing to work each day. I often find that people use language to describe bosses or co-workers that sounds as if they are describing parents or siblings. For example, bosses can be "supportive" or ""critical" and peers can be "competitive" or "favored." There are times when someone's early life experience is clearly affecting his or her interactions and causing relationship difficulties in the workplace.

Confusing Underlings With Siblings

For example, consider the story of a successful finance professional who was having difficulty managing his team. A brilliant technical expert, he did not enjoy supervising others and was widely resented by those who reported directly to him for his curt and brusque answers to their questions. In the course of our work together, he realized his direct reports were bringing back to him childhood memories of having been distracted and discouraged by his siblings, who lacked his academic talent and usually bothered him with requests for assistance with their homework.

By realizing that he was having a kind of flashback and was viewing his present direct reports through the prism of his past experience, this finance guy developed greater patience with his staff. Although he never fully embraced the role of manager, he was able to foster a sense of loyalty and cohesion on his team.

It's not only sibling relationships that provide an unconscious framework within which workplace relationships and interactions are evaluated. I've also worked with many clients for whom parental relationships provide a template for boss-subordinate relationships. Much of our identity and sense of self can be either helped or hindered by our bosses, in a manner strikingly similar to how our parents either encouraged or discouraged us as children.

Whether or not we like to admit it, our self-esteem can be profoundly affected by the positive or negative regard of our superiors in the workplace, and they can confirm our hopes or our fears about ourselves every day. One client described how much more important it was that his boss viewed him as competent and valued than it was to get a salary increase.

Opposite Problem

Despite having seen many examples of people who have the same issues at home and at work, I have also come across clients who have quite different issues at home and at work; sometimes it even seems that they are opposite issues. An attorney who may be energetically contentious in the courtroom can be calm and friendly with her friends. An overachieving research scientist can forget to balance his checkbook at the end of every month.

However, I find that even in situations where someone has opposite issues at home and in the workplace, the fundamental character issues are related. In fact, the expression of opposite attributes at home and in the workplace makes a kind of sense—things that are overused in one area of life may be underused in another, or in order to compensate for a lack of opportunities to express part of your character at home, you might express it in the workplace.

Whether you are the same person at work and at home, or whether you experience and express different aspects of yourself in your personal life than you do in your professional life, you should consider how your early life experiences provide a prism from the past through which you are evaluating situations in the present.

Ben Dattner is the founder of Dattner Consulting, an executive coaching and organizational effectiveness consulting firm in New York, and is an adjunct professor of industrial and organizational psychology at New York University.

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