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Family Dynamics

5 Causes of Sibling Rivalry at Home and on the Job

High sibling rivalry is often a symptom of a host of other problems.

Carl, Jess, and Sophie seem to be always at each other about something—who took whose toy, who wouldn’t let them play the game. Car trips are the worst—whose legs crossed over the other’s “line” and touched whose arm.

Do you think it's any different for adults in the workplace? Think again. If you watch any sitcom on TV about work, it’s easy to see how it is like a typical dysfunctional family: The drill-sergeant boss, the clueless second in command, the favorite son, the acting out little sister. Sibling rivalry flares up—who is left out, who is the scapegoat, who is always complaining about…everything.

While some sibling rivalry is to be expected, it can all too easily go way out of bounds: Physical fighting in the home; ongoing tension, gossiping, poor morale among staff. When such rivalry gets into these ranges, it’s a good sign that there are other problems afoot.

Here are some of the common causes of intense sibling rivalry both in the family and on the job:

#1. Lack of structure

Everyone benefits from a certain amount of structure. Structure here means clear rules, routines, expectations, consequences.

In the home:

When there is a lack of or not enough structure in the home, children don’t feel safe, they feel anxious. They don’t know what to expect, don’t have that steady routine to ground them. The anxiety can fuel irritability and sibling rivalry; in the absence of clear structure, they may constantly be pushing and testing in order to find out where the boundaries are. Once the boundaries get set, they settle, a clear sign that this was the problem.

In the workplace:

The same can happen here because workplaces replicate that hierarchical structure and stir up each person’s own past experiences with family life. Without a clear structure, staff can test limits, act out—showing up to work late, not making deadlines, complaining. Or walk on eggshells. This is particularly dysfunctional in those workplaces where there is one emotional boss running the show. The staff is constantly on edge because the structure they have often rides up and down on the boss’ emotional state.

This is very much like living in an alcoholic or chaotic family. The parents are unreliable, undependable, and often scary. Everyone becomes hyperalert, and the staff either bond together for support, or fall into their separate silos with every-man-for-himself.

The solution for both is obviously creating a consistent and clear structure.

#2. Tension from above

Here there are problems in the hierarchy—parents, those further up the organizational chain—that create tension and anxiety down below.

In the home:

One of the core ideas of family therapy is that intense sibling rivalry usually reflects intense marital issues. What happens here is the children are either replicating what the parents are already doing—namely, battling with each other—or are picking up on the tension and acting out in a behavioral way what the parents are doing more subtly yet emotionally.

In the workplace:

The problem is anxiety. In the workplace, when staff members sense tension from the higher-ups, they not only worry about their jobs, but the tension trickles down. The challenge for supervisors is to provide information, but remain calm and clear and not bring the problems from above and dump them on staff.

The solution for both is keeping a strong hierarchy. Reassuring the kids and staff letting them know the grown-ups above will work it out.

#3. No hierarchy among children and staff

The parents and bosses need to be one-up on children and staff for they are the ones to set the structure and maintain it, and by doing so create a feeling of safety. But there is also a need to create hierarchy among the children and staff.

In the home:

Even though Carl, Jess, and Sophie are different ages, if they all go to bed at the same time or get no privileges for being older and more competent, sibling rivalry will increase. Why? Because each child needs to have his own place in the family system; he needs to know that as he gets older and more responsible there are changes and benefits that come with it. When this isn’t there, there is nothing to aspire to, no path to utilize the increased skills and maturity that the child has attained.

When there are aren’t these distinctions, the children become competitive with each other, each jockeying for the same small piece of uniqueness and attention.

In the workplace:

There was a period in the ’60s and '70s when some organizations moved towards a flat, egalitarian workforce; some continue to do so. As with children, when there is little difference between having two years of experience and 20, when hard-earned skills are not recognized, there is little incentive to continue moving forward and your colleagues are too easily seen as the competition, rather than sources of support.

This is made all the worse when in the home or job what little hierarchy there is seems tied to favoritism: Sam seems to get to special treatment not because of his skill but because of some subjective, not controllable sense of being a favored child. This leads to resentment that contaminates the work (and home) environment.

The solution is having not showing favoritism; having a clear hierarchy.

#4. Negative attention (or no attention)

Everyone needs positive attention. In its absence, children and adults will shoot for negative attention. The worst is no attention at all.

In the home:

Here is where all the children are jockeying for some parental attention; often the home environment is either abusive or neglectful. Unfortunately, many children have a high tolerance for negative attention. When attention is short, when there is little to go around, generally one or two children will begin to act out to get what attention they can, becoming the “bad kid” who is always in trouble. One way to pull in this bad-kid attention is to act out through sibling rivalry.

But when there is little or no attention, such as in extremely dysfunctional families where there are serious mental health issues or addiction, children will take what they get, and often bond together creating a modified peer support group, with the oldest generally in charge, to weather life on their own as a group.

In the workplace:

The same dynamics can take place with acting out, high drama. When that doesn’t work, when the staff feel abandoned and parent-less, they will often, like the children, huddle together. Sibling rivalry can erupt in the initial stages as the staff jockey to create their own hierarchical structure.

The solution is here is providing positive attention, building on each individual’s unique talents and skills.

#5. Lack of problem-solving

If Carl constantly feels that his parents ignore his complaints about his sibs messing with his stuff, Carl is apt to either give up and get depressed, or take matters into his own hands, intensifying sibling rivalry. Problems need to be put to rest to keep them from constantly becoming a source of conflict.

But often the larger concern is that if problems are not addressed, the child feels ignored, that he is not important, that he has no voice.

In the workplace:

The same happens here. Without problems being put to rest, they remain. Staff are always disgruntled about mileage rates or work schedules or deadlines. The problems stack up, the actual functioning of the workplace deteriorates, morale goes down; staff tension increases leading to sibling rivalry; staff turnover increases.

The solution is that those in charge, be it parents or supervisors, need to step up, hear children and staff complaints, not dismiss them, and take decisive action to solve the problems.

How does this translate into everyday life? If you are a parent or supervisor, sibling rivalry is a built-in indicator of problems in the environment you help create. Use it as information to assess and fix one or several of the above problems. Don’t dismiss or minimize what is going on around you.

And if you are an adult in such a work environment? The tension and anxiety you feel are real. Do your best to advocate for what you need without taking it out on your work colleagues. If the culture is too difficult to change, consider leaving. If that is not possible for whatever reason, realize you can only change what you can change which is usually you. Work on changing your attitude, your expectations of your job, the place of work in your overall life.

Don’t be a victim.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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