Sometimes, workplace emotions and behavior, whether our own or others', seem hard to understand. A confident and decisive executive may lose her nerve when her boss comes to a meeting, two co-workers may get caught up in what seems to everyone to be analogous to sibling rivalry, and everyone might have disproportionate dread of their annual performance review. Psychologists use a term called "transference" to help explain why sometimes it seems like we are re-enacting a psychodrama from the past, rather than seeing the current situation for what it is in the present. Transference is when we have a kind of flashback in our adult life, to emotions and perceptions from our early life.
Here are some of the ways that transference can play out in the office...
Reenacting family dynamics in the workplace/seeing the present through the lens of the past:
Treating a boss like a parent
Authority and power relationships in the workplace share some important psychological commonalities with parent-child relationships.
When playing out positively, there is a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle in which bosses help their employees develop and grow while employees reciprocate with achievements and contributions. Negative self-fulfilling cycles can occur when boss and employee expect and provide failure and criticism.
Treating peers like siblings
Sibling relationships, in which there is a delicate balance between cooperation and competition, can serve as a model for one's relationships and interactions with one's peers.
Co-workers can feel a positive sense of common identity and destiny, but at times, interactions on teams can take on a negative sibling rivalry-like quality.
Seeing a performance review as a report card
Getting a performance review in the workplace may remind some people of getting report cards in school.
Depending on whether the review is good or bad, the employee might be happy about the rating, angry or upset, or might challenge the validity of the ratings he or she got.
Seeing shared resources as the symbolic "last piece of cake"
People learn about basic concepts of fairness, equity and resource allocation in their families, and these are crucial issues in the workplace.
Like in families, allocation of scarce resources and rewards can be based on equity, equality, need, status, favoritism, Hobbesian free-for-alls, or the "you cut, I pick" Solomonic rule.
The impact of early life experience on workplace behavior:
Number and relative ages of siblings
Birth order is an important influence on personality. First born siblings may be more comfortable in hierarchical organizations and later born siblings may prefer situations where innovation and change are required.
Quality of sibling relationships
Sibling relationships can serve as a model for one's relationships and interactions with one's peers. While co-workers can feel a positive sense of common identity and destiny, at times, interactions on teams can take on a negative sibling rivalry-like quality.
Resource allocation aka "The last piece of cake"
How a family divides up the last piece of cake may reflect more general principles about the family's ideas about resource allocation- i.e.: whether the cake is divided according to equity, equality, need, status, or favoritism. Some families have parental adjudication, some have Hobbesian free-for-alls, others have the "you cut, I pick" Solomonic rule. People learn about basic concepts of fairness, equity and resource allocation in their families, and these are crucial issues in the workplace.
Conflict management style
Families teach children how to handle conflict- what are acceptable and unacceptable responses, how candid and open to be, etc. The conflict management style one develops in one's family can serve as a template for workplace conflicts, for better or for worse.
Relationships with parents
Relationships with parents can serve as a model for interactions with one's superiors and mentors, as well as for interactions with one's subordinates. Just like parent-child relationships, superior-subordinate relationships can have self-fulfilling dynamics, either positive or negative.
Discipline, reward and punishment
People learn in their families about what rules are and how they get enforced. Family rules get internalized to become part of one's internal values and motivations, and may also get repeated in the way one endeavors to reward, punish or discipline others in the workplace.
Emphasis on achievement
Families socialize children about what is important versus unimportant, and what is good versus bad. Families therefore have a big influence on what kinds of achievements a person will strive for, and whether certain talents will get developed.
Family status in community
Feeling like one has grown up "on the wrong side of the tracks" can be a powerful motivator for leaders in general and business leaders in particular. Depending on other factors, this can be a positive impetus for achievement, or a can lead to destructive competitiveness.
Family moving around
Business leaders who moved around a lot as children may feel more comfortable with rapid change as well as in international assignments.
For more about how "nurture" impacts workplace psychology, see Chapter 2, "The Nurture of Credit and Blame" which is on page 49 of the free Google Books preview of my book: The Blame Game.