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ARTICLE: Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite


source: hbr.org, Julie Cockburn

Professional growth can get stymied for many reasons, but one of the most important is rarely discussed: contending with ghosts from our past. Fundamental attitudes and behaviors that evolved from the family dynamics of our childhood, teaching us about authority, mastery, and identity, have traveled with us into the present—and into the office. When these dynamics happen at work, it’s easy to revert to childhood patterns. Negotiating with the boss or meeting with peers can suddenly prompt our five-year-old self to shove the adult us aside as we find ourselves behaving and reacting as we so often did in childhood.


These ghosts don’t just lurk in the back of our minds and memories, they actively steer us through the world, coming to life every day through transference—thoughts, feelings, and responses that have been learned in one setting become activated in another. Change can happen when we begin examining patterns that date back to childhood. Until recently, this approach hasn’t been used widely in the business realm, where companies often expect employees to maintain strict boundaries between their professional and private selves and to be rational rather than emotional. Not surprisingly, the role we play in our family tends to be one that we fall into easily at work.


A growing number of scholars and coaches have started to apply family-systems theory (examining our childhood behavioral patterns) in the organizational setting. The suggestion is not therapy but rather self-analysis and reflection that can help leadership development, and many executives have found this approach to be extremely helpful. Guided by the tenets of family-systems theory, six elements of family dynamics that commonly play out in the workplace, when better understood, help us to understand what role each one played in our upbringing, and how they have helped make us who we are in the office.


Six factors of family dynamics that affect behavior in the workplace:

  1. Values and beliefs. Each family has a unique character that’s transmitted to children through a shared framework of values and beliefs. This framework guides individual behavior and defines the core identity of the family as a whole. Easy to identify core values and beliefs incude: Education is the most important thing. (Assumption: It’s what gets you ahead in life.) Be caring and considerate of others. (Assumption: Relationships are more important than other things.) Never let them see you sweat. (Assumption: Being successful means having a stiff upper lip.) Father has all the answers, and you must follow his lead. (Assumption: Your own thinking and reasoning is inferior to his.) You must be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, or you will embarrass the family. (Assumption: Your responsibility is to maintain the family’s standing in the community.) Take a moment to identify your family’s core values and beliefs. What shoulds went along with being a child in your family? Which ones have stayed with you? When have they served you well? When have they gotten in your way? When might the underlying assumptions be wrong?

  2. Roles. All members in a family tend to play a role determined in part by their individual personality and in part by their family system’s need for dynamic equilibrium. Parents might decide that a child is the reincarnation of a certain relative, and as a result reinforce that relative's traits in that child until they stick. A family might label one child a success but another a disappointment, rebel or dud. Twins might divide up the world in order to create separate identities or might become two peas in a pod that others can’t tell apart. A child might take on the role of decision-maker or breadwinner if adults have abdicated responsibility. The possibilities abound. Common roles include the jester, the troublemaker, and the brain. What roles did you play in your family when you were young? What were the roles of others in your family, and how did yours relate to theirs? How does that dynamic relate to the roles you now assume as an adult and a leader? When have your family roles been useful at work, and when have they held you back? As you identify your ghosts, take note of why it might be difficult or scary to leave behind a cherished role or identity, even when you aspire to be different.

  3. Secrets. Most families have secrets. Sometimes, everyone in the family knows them, but they aren’t shared with outsiders. Other times, only certain people know them, and they hide them from the others in the family. Secrets affect how family members communicate and act. They often involve issues difficult to acknowledge and discuss. Consider your family’s secrets growing up. What subjects or people were taboo? Who in your family was privy to the secrets? Which subjects continue to feel off-limits to you today? How do they affect your ability to lead?

  4. Boundaries. Families differ significantly in the way in which they think about structure and boundaries. In some families, anything goes; in other families, rules are rigid and boundaries are never crossed—most families occupy a place somewhere in between. People often feel more comfortable in organizations that have boundaries like those of their families. How would you characterize your family? Was it highly structured, with clear rules, roles, and decision-making authority? Or were things looser and more flexible, even chaotic? Were rules made and enforced only within the family, or did outside influences and ideas play a role? How did it feel to live in such a system, and in what ways might it have affected your leadership style and job choices today?

  5. Triangles. It’s easy to think of family dynamics as a set of one-to-one relationships, but relationship triangles are very important in determining the dynamics of any family system. Parents might never scold or discipline a child when a grandparent is present. Or they might avoid their own conflicts by each complaining about the other to a child. Children are masters at the triangle game, often playing one parent expertly off the other to get what they want. Think about the triangle patterns that characterized your family. Who formed the three sides? What patterns of behavior dominated? Can you see any patterns repeating themselves in your office and leadership behavior? Do they help or hinder you in your work?

  6. Expectations and mastery. All parents have expectations of their children. Some children are loyal lieutenants who work hard to live up to them, and in so doing develop a sense of mastery that helps to define them as adults. Others try but fail to meet family expectations and seek out mastery in other areas. And still others buckle under the weight of expectations and rebel. Seasoned executives can sometimes still be working hard collecting honors at work, trying to meet past family expectations. What were the expectations of your family? Did you meet them? Are you still trying to? If you developed a sense of mastery in response to those expectations, within or outside your family, how did that make you feel? And how does it affect the way you now respond to expectations at work?


Family ghosts are a part of us. But the good news is that they don’t have to define us. Recogizing the dynamics that shaped our early life can help us create a new developmental path. This can be done by identifying our ghosts, setting a goal for change, developing a new version of ourselves—noticing when negative ghosts take over, and the predictable dynamics or triggers that summon them. Experiment with and reflect on new behaviors to imagine the future that we want to create, for our organization and for ourselves.


Read the full article on hbr.org.