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Surveys show that most people who are unhappy at work attribute their distress to their relationships with coworkers. Often these people are unknowingly replicating problems they had with parents, siblings, or others in childhood. Although most of us understand that childhood wounds can affect intimate relationships, we’re caught off guard when they affect workplace interactions.
Author, columnist, speaker and media consultant Debra Mandel, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience. She regularly appears on national television and radio as a guest expert. In the following excerpt, abridged from her new book Your Boss Is Not Your Mother: Eight Steps to Eliminating Office Drama and Creating Positive Relationships at Work,she attacks office relationship problems at their roots, demonstrating how readers can learn how to respond with a clear head to their supervisors, employees and coworkers.
Caroline, a 35-year-old account executive, rarely felt satisfied at her job. No matter how hard she worked, she couldn’t achieve her goals. She lacked motivation and enthusiasm and was always very critical of her own efforts. Oddly, despite her negative self-image, her boss held her in high regard and gave her frequent accolades. But because Caroline wasn’t living up to her own rigid standards, she still feared she would one day be fired.
Luanne, a 48-year-old engineer, could not get along with her coworkers. She perceived her peers to be hostile and out to get her and, fearing rejection and disapproval, couldn’t trust any of them, even those who went out of their way to befriend her. Yet rather than try to please others by acting nicely, she unknowingly set up situations where she was sure to be disliked. She started arguments by insulting people. She even provoked those who were basically docile. While on a deeper level she desperately craved meaningful social interaction, she couldn’t accept this need and instead sabotaged any hope for positive relationships. Why? Because deep down, she didn’t believe she deserved respect.
Katie, a 30-year-old sales manager, had an unusually high staff turnover even though she went out of her way to create appealing working conditions for her subordinates. She offered flex-time, bonuses, and many other positive incentives. She rewarded hard work and gave her staff extra time off when they met sales quotas. Yet despite her efforts to impress them, her employees were dissatisfied. Unknown to Katie, her employees couldn’t tolerate her personality. She judged others harshly and often came to work irritable and grumpy. Katie expected her employees to take care of her emotional needs. She would ask them for inappropriate favors, such as to take her clothes to the dry cleaners. Katie often brought her personal relationship problems to the work setting and showed little regard for professional boundaries.
Sean, a 42-year-old teacher, had such deep longings to be admired and approved of by his peers that he constantly went out of his way to do unasked-for favors and tasks in hopes of receiving validation. As though his teaching job weren’t demanding enough, he added to his burden by trying desperately to win the affection of his fellow teachers and his pupils. Whenever someone failed to recognize his achievements, he became depressed and felt unworthy.
At every level of society, millions of women and men suffer from unhealed emotional bruises that get played out in unnecessary drama and conflict in their adult relationships. These old sore spots don’t have to be traced to major violations like child abuse, neglect or abandonment. Nor need they have been intentionally inflicted. Most often, the emotional bruising we suffer developed through relationships with loving caregivers (such as family members, teachers or babysitters) who unintentionally missed the boat on how to fulfill our developmental needs. Yet the aftermath of these old remnants causes us to misperceive other people’s intentions and feel criticized, betrayed or dismissed. We develop expectations of others that simply can’t be met. We search for validation in all the wrong places, from all the wrong people. We want our boss or coworker to make up for the things that our mommy, daddy or sis never provided for us.
People play out their old stuff in a multitude of ways in the workplace, but most commonly people do the following: sabotage their own success; expect less than they deserve; anticipate special, often unreasonable favors from people; settle for dead-end careers; avoid shining in the presence of others; need to be the best in order to experience self-worth; desire fulfilling work relationships but can’t set them in motion; get stuck in survival mode, unable to thrive; allow others to make decisions for them; focus on work relationships to compensate for the absence of satisfying intimate relationships; undervalue their own importance; spend too much time appeasing authority figures; try to get people who don’t really matter in their lives to like them; or feel powerless.
If you see yourself in any of these examples, don’t despair. Consider it a signal that it’s time to commit to a new approach, a new way to live and work.
Though there are many types of job relationships, for our purposes I have divided them into three main roles—the boss, the subordinate or employee, and the coworker.
Although the requirements of being a competent boss (especially when it comes to creating a positive atmosphere) will differ across companies and professions, there are some basic characteristics applicable to all. Bosses should at a minimum provide employees with the following: 1) a clear description outlining very specifically the tasks expected to be performed, as well as how they are to be completed; 2) descriptions of each position in the team, department, or company (depending on the organization’s size) so that everyone has a clear picture of what each person’s responsibilities are; 3) timelines for each task or project; 4) clear policies regarding dress code, consequences for tardiness, vacation and personal time, and office comportment; 5) policies regarding social/personal relationships and harassment between subordinates and superiors, or among coworkers; and 6) policies regarding compensation, including overtime compensation.
In addition to providing appropriate job descriptions and workplace policies, employers should be respectful of their employees’ time. Responsible employers don’t exploit their employees. They do not expect more from them than they have outlined in their written description, at least not without proper compensation. They treat all employees fairly and they do not have inappropriate relationships with subordinates. They understand the realm of their power and never abuse it. For example, they do not take advantage of those who admire or look up to them as mentors.
While many bosses love having overzealous employees who are always willing to go the extra mile and expect nothing in return but a pat on the back, the healthy bosses make sure to compensate these individuals with either more money, extra time off, or other appropriate rewards. Of course, it’s always best for employees to take responsibility for caring for themselves, and make sure that they don’t let a boss take advantage of them. But it’s also the employer’s responsibility to make sure not to cross any boundaries.
Peter, the CEO of a large company, took great pride in the fact that the bulk of his employees didn’t take all of their vacation time, and many of them would spend several hours a week beyond their salary compensation to get a very large workload completed. Unbeknownst to Peter, many of his employees were in competition with each other to be seen as the most-prized employee. Because Peter believed that a worker who would dedicate his or her whole life to the job was the most valuable worker, he paid little attention or respect to those employees who did a good job but who also had interests outside the workplace. What Peter didn’t realize was that his employees were actually afraid of him.
Peter had been solely valued for his achievements as a child. His parents were constantly on the go, never stopping to smell the roses and enjoy life. Hence, Peter never learned the value of play and leisure time.
Peter’s employees feared they might be fired if they were to actually ask for any much-needed time off to rejuvenate and to be able to give their best efforts to the job. But once Peter learned that he was continuing to re-create his old vulnerabilities in the workplace, imposing the unrealistic expectation his parents had of him onto his employees, he was able to create an environment in which people truly wanted to come to work.
Peter began offering flex-time to employees who were new parents. He made sure everyone took their earned vacation time, and he no longer held in highest regard those employees who had no life other than work. Rather, he encouraged everyone at the company to maintain a balanced existence. Lo and behold, the company’s productivity increased! Of course, we can’t all expect our bosses to have the kind of epiphany Peter experienced, but it’s still important to strive to situate ourselves in workplace environments that support our growth and offer us respect.
Just as it is important for supervisors and managers not to exploit others, it’s equally important that staff and employees not take advantage of their bosses. Many bosses also have old emotional baggage. They can be just as afraid of disapproval or of not being liked as are the people who work for them. These bosses fail to set appropriate boundaries and their employees constantly take advantage of them. While it’s great for bosses to be compassionate and understanding of their employees’ needs, it’s not a boss’s job to be a parent, a spouse or even a friend. In order for workplace relationships to be healthy, both the bosses and the employees need to get their personal needs met elsewhere..…Continued in ABILITY MagazineExcerpted with permission from
Your Boss Is Not Your Mother: Eight Steps to Eliminating Office Drama and Creating Positive Relationships at Work,
copyright 2006 by Agate Publishing.
For more information, visit www.drdebraonline.com
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