FIVE YEARS AGO when a Minneapolis bank vice president was promoted to her first management position, she fould herself taking on a maternal role. She defended her employees excessively. She was oversolicitous and overinvolved in their successes and failures.
"I had a problem with separation," she remembers. Today she is so embarrassed about her earlier behavior that she prefers to remain anonymous.
While office families may provide a measure of comfort, support, and even stability that may be lacking in one's private life, failure to analyze office interaction may well block career success. For the office son or daughter who cannot separate from the office father or mother (or vice versa), or the office siblings who substitute temper tantrums for adult behavior, may find themselves trapped in these unsatisfactory dynamics.
Assuming family roles at the office is common, says Samuel Squires, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and president of Interactive Testing& Training Systems, Inc. in Larchmont, New York. In fact, he believes such behavior occurs more frequently in banking because the industry is conservative. Dr. Squires defines conservatism as being "almost synonymous with traditionalism, rather paternalistic and authoritarian."
"There isn't one way of behaving, one type of management," says Dr. Squires. He suggests managers ask themselves what type of behavior would be most productive for those being managed. A good manager is flexible and may employ more than one management style.
It soon became clear to the Minneapolis manager that the results of her behavior tended to be detrimental. "The employees didn't develop the kind of independence they needed to withstand criticism from others," she says. "It also made peer group relationships difficult for me because I was so involved with my little chicks." Yet the consequences were not all negative.
"There was a large group that reacted very positively," she recalls. Their careers thrived, and when some moved to other banks, she was still able to maintain very close relationships with them. And interestingly, the men under her wing tended to respond better than the women.
Nevertheless, after assessing the results of her maternal management style, she decided it caused more harm than good. Moreover, it was inappropriate. But before she changed her style, it helped to uncover the roots of her behavior.
Her last manager had been a disappointment. She never defended her employees, resented their successes, and even berated them in front of others. The Minneapolis manager began her own management career by thinking of what her old boss would do, then doing the exact opposite. This example of "behavior modeling," Dr. Squires notes, illustrates that negative role models may have as great an influence as positive ones.
Unfinished Maternal Business
However, there was more behind her maternal management style. At 30, she wanted children terribly. Her maternal urge, stymied in her personal life, came unbidden at the office. And her own unfinished business with her mother expressed itself in her acting as she would have liked her own mother to have acted.
"One's past history is always one's basis for responding," both at the office and outside of it, affirms Dr. Squires. While many professionals would like to believe that they can separate personal life from professional life at alltimes, the wish is unrealistic.
A good manager should ask himself or herself, "What is it that I need that this position satisfies?" Is it recognition or a substitute family? Is it the personal satisfaction of solving problems or nurturing othes? Or is it some combination of all of these? Understanding one's personal career goals is critical in finding the appropriate and most effective management style.
Parent-child tpe interaction is the most common kind of family behavior at the office because parental influence tends to be strongest. Many professionals have "incomplete" relationships with their parents, Dr. Squires observes, and use the office to try to work out these situations.
Sometimes individuals don't perceive family problems as having an influence; they continue with their accustomed family roles no matter what the setting. In a survey of 5,000 working women by Lori B. Andrews (reported in the November 1983 issue of Parents magazine), more than 25% reported that they took on the role of office mother. Yet many may do so involuntarily.
A Los Angeles special projects bank manager was struck by a subordinate's behavior: The junior worker repeatedly attempted to play her against a male supervisor at the bank. For example, he complained to her that the male supervisor would not have permitted him to attend a conference for which she had already given permission.
The subordinate's behavior was so like that of the special projects manager's three-year-old son that she was stunned. She realized her subordinate often used her as a go-between, seeking nurturance and encouragement, before turning to the male supervisor. The male supervisor, she realized, was tougher in his management style and rather traditionally paternalistic. Confronted with his high expectations, the junior employee sought out his "mother's blessing" before approaching his office father.
"If I weren't a parent, I don't know if I'd have noticed it," the Los Angeles manager observes. "This is much more subtle than with my son." She didn't confront the subordinate, 10 to 12 years younger, for fear of embarrassing him and herself. Nevertheless, she realized something had to be done. So she discussed the situation with her counterpart, the male supervisor, and they agreed to present a united front.
Frequently participants in family dynamics at the office are not as aware of the chidlhood issues being replayed. An example: When a Charlottesville, Virginia bank vice president noted her boss' secretary had changed her behavior, she was initially dumbfounded.
The vice president had considered the secretary a friend, but abruptly the secretary began acting very possessive about the boss. She began to speak in "we" statements, such as "We got you this nice office," and "We arranged for you to get this furniture." In return for such ordinary office tasks the secretary would demand a familial kind of loyalty and gratitude.
When the vice president realized that the secretary and her boss were having an affair, some of the mystery was solved. Yet she still felt patronized and became concerned about being caught in a "domestic" conflict. Eventually the secretary transferred to another bank.
Dr. Squires explains that the secretary may have been responding to previous hurt stemming from her lesser power. By her growing personal involvement with the boss, she perceived herself as having greater power and used it. She may not have realized she was trying to play "mother and father" at the office. And the male boss, by not seeking a resolution to the conflict between the secretary and vice president, didn't help the situation. A confrontation would have helped.
Dr. Squires suggests that, since the vice president and the secretary had been friends, she should have expressed her feelings calmly, as in, "I'm hurt. I feel angry and jealous," and then asked the secretary what her feelings were. In that way, according to Dr. Squires, they might then have been able to arrive at a solution.
Other family issues may affect office dynamics. In a classic example of sibling rivalry at tthe office, two Washington, D.C. loan officers found themselves at loggerheads more often than not. Yet simple personality conflict was not the culprit. One was four years older and had more seniority. He didn't take his colleague as seriously as she wanted to be taken, which reminded her of her relationship with her older brother (also four years older).
As the female loan officer groped for an explanation of their continual conflicts, she asked her coworker if he was the oldest in his family. His answer: "Sort of." Pressed further he amended, "I'm the oldest son." That answer crystallized what the loan officer had suspected, that he didn't take women very seriously in general.
Although the male loan officer knew that he and his colleague didn't relate well at the office, he attributed it to her immaturity. And because he considered their disputes her problem, he did nothing.
Matters came to a head when the female laon officer found herself "reverting to some primitive part of me, to my five-year-old self." Their office was out of pencils, and she bought herself a new box. Then, totally out of character, she left all the pencils lying on her desk. Her office nemesis always had a neatly arranged collection of new, sharpened pencils on his desk, and she knew he would be envious. "I did it to irk him, to make him jealous," she admits in embarrassment.
After lunch, she discovered that half of the pencils were missing. "Did you take them?" she asked. "Yes, "he admitted. "Those were my pencils," she retorted. "Oh," he replied calmly. When she realized she was about to pound on his desk, screaming, "They were MY pencils!" she left the room, recognizing that the situation was silly.
It was time for her to treat him not as a brother, but as a colleague. She also realized that confronting her real brother about his continued failure to take her seriously was in order. And she did so.
Dr. Squires believes that establishing an equal adult-to-adult relationship with one's relatives facilities pofessional relationships at the office. Awareness of inappropriate behavior and its origins is 90% of the solution. Changing the behavior is the remainder.
Career advancement demands both awareness and action. And personal happiness may well require that family problems be dealt with in the appropriate realm...with the family members themselves rather than with standins.…