Dysfunctional Workplaces: Acting Out Childhood Stuff

Are dysfunctional workplaces commonplace? And, are they basically just like dysfunctional families?

In essence, probably yes and yes.

Dysfunctional workplaces and dysfunctional families may have one significant factor in common, in fact, according to clinical psychologist and author Albert J. Bernstein. He explains in Medscape that both have secret rules. How this applies to your place of employment? “To function in such an environment, people adopt coping strategies such as passive aggression, backstabbing, and one-upmanship that further undermine the team.”

The opinion of organizational psychologist Ben Dattner, Psychology Todayis that dysfunctional family dynamics get replicated at work because of a type of transference. Some of the ways this happens:

  • Treating a boss like a parent–replaying issues of authority and power, good or bad
  • As a boss, treating staff as though they’re your children
  • As a boss, treating staff the way your parents treated you
  • Treating peers like siblings–“a delicate balance between cooperation and competition”
  • Perceiving a performance review as a report card
  • Perceiving shared resources as the symbolic “last piece of cake”

Similarly, adds Dattner, childhood experiences within the family—having to do with such issues as birth order of siblings, how one got along with siblings, equality versus favoritism, how parents dealt with conflict, disciplinary routines, values related to achievement, family status in the community, whether and how often the family was uprooted, and more—can significantly affect workplace activities and interactions.

Therapist and organizational expert Sylvia Lafair‘s Don’t Bring It to Work (2009) addresses how both employers and employees can learn to recognize the ways they subconsciously recreate roles and behaviors and patterns that have come from their families of origin.

An excerpt from the book (received as a freebie for getting on Lafair’s newsletter list) that introduces how potential readers can benefit:

Once you learn how your past family life and your work behavior connect at a core level you will know where poor performance originates and conflict starts. Then you gain the skills to do something about it. The reason most organizational programs abort is because they fail to deal with our childhood memories and that is at the foundation of work place anxiety, tension and conflict.

Although I don’t have access to her definitions and thus am unable to share them, apparently Lafair identifies a number of types most of us are familiar with at work, one or more of which we may of course embody ourselves: Super Achiever, Rebel, Persecutor, Victim, Rescuer, Clown, Martyr, Splitter, Procrastinator, Drama Queen or King, Pleaser, Denier, and Avoider.

(Being self-employed, I suppose I have to do all of them myself?) (More specifically, being a self-employed therapist, I should now diagnose which ones I just acted out by saying that? Okay. I’ll go with Victim, maybe Martyr, with a touch of Super Achiever, Drama Queen, and Clown.)

One thought on “Dysfunctional Workplaces: Acting Out Childhood Stuff

  1. Thanks for the post. As a long-time government employee (State/federal), I am constantly frustrated by the organizational dysfunction and the poor workplace environment, and its impact on employees’ ability to do our jobs. Management training usually focuses on dealing with difficult employees through personnel actions, and rarely on understanding personalities in the workplace (including your own). Sounds like another excellent book to put on my reading list.

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