Re-enacting Family Dynamics in the Workplace
How family dynamics can get re-enacted in the workplace.
Posted April 24, 2008
In my consulting work as an organizational psychologist, I often find that people use language to describe bosses or co-workers that sounds like they are describing parents or siblings. For example, bosses can be "supportive" or "critical", and peers can be "competitive" or "favored".
It seems that everyone comes to work each day with a set of assumptions, associations and frames that are substantially influenced by early life experiences in general, and family of origin experiences in particular. There was an interesting article in Business Week a few years ago on this topic.
There is a psychoanalytic notion of "projective identification" that is often observable in the workplace. Essentially, this occurs when two people in a relationship "project" thoughts and feelings on one another, and then "identify" in turn. For example, a positive dynamic would be a subordinate who "projects" kindness on a boss, and sees him or her as benevolent. The boss in turn "identifies" with this view that the subordinate has. The boss may then view the subordinate as loyal and competent, also confirming the subordinate's hopes about him or herself.
Unfortunately, projective identification can also operate in the other direction, and people can confirm one another's fears about who they each are, rather than their hopes.
In either case, "transference" of earlier life experiences is influencing both parties, both in terms of reciprocal projections and identifications, and often, this is how family dynamics or other early life experiences get re-enacted in the workplace.
For more detail about projective identification, here's an interesting article about how it can play out in supervisor-subordinate relationships.