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Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Deborah Ancona and Dennis N.T. Perkins for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Julie Cockburn

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The roles you played growing up can help and hinder you at work. Here’s how to maximize the positive.

The theory goes like this: If you want to become a better leader, you have to seek out feedback and engage in self-reflection. Do that, and you’ll come to understand your strengths and weaknesses, which in turn will allow you to embark on a program of self-improvement.

In practice, it’s not that simple. Even if you know exactly how you want to change at work, you often find you can’t. And it’s not clear why.

Professional growth can get stymied for all sorts of reasons. But one of the most important is rarely discussed: You’re contending with ghosts from your past. Fundamental attitudes and behaviors that evolved from the family dynamics of your childhood have traveled with you into the present—and into the office. Those dynamics taught you a lot about authority, mastery, and identity. So when similar ones assert themselves in the office, it’s easy to revert to childhood patterns. There you are, negotiating with your boss, when suddenly your five-year-old self shoves the adult you aside and reacts. Or, when meeting with your peers, you find yourself behaving as you so often did in sibling free-for-alls.

These ghosts don’t just lurk at the bottom of a sea of memories. They create hungers that you have to feed, and they actively steer you through the world. You bring them to life every day through what psychologists call “transference,” a process during which thoughts, feelings, and responses that have been learned in one setting become activated in another.

The Family System

A system is a set of dynamically connected elements. If you do something to any one of those elements, the others are also affected. Families are systems, and their members are dynamically connected too: What any one person in the family does affects everybody else.

In clinical psychology, practitioners of family-systems theory (among them Murray Bowen, David M. Kaplan, Salvador Minuchin, and Virginia Satir) encourage clients to examine patterns that date back to childhood to enable change in themselves. This approach is well established when it comes to personal behaviors and relationships, but until recently it hasn’t been used widely in the business realm, where companies often expect employees to maintain strict boundaries between their professional and private selves and to be rational rather than emotional. Some executive coaches prefer that they and their clients focus on the present and leave an analysis of the past to therapists.

Not surprisingly, the role you play in your family tends to be one that you fall into easily at work. Common roles include the jester, the troublemaker, and the brain.

Things are changing, however. A growing number of scholars and coaches, including us, have started to apply family-systems theory in the organizational setting. What we’re suggesting is not therapy but a mode of self-analysis and reflection that can help you develop as a leader. Many of the executives we’ve worked with have found this approach to be extremely helpful, but we urge caution: Any deep exploration of the past can expose sensitive and difficult issues.

Guided by the tenets of family-systems theory and by our own work, we’ve identified six elements of family dynamics that commonly play out in the workplace. To understand yourself better in the office, you need to understand what they are, what role each one played in your upbringing, and how they have helped make you who you are.

Consider the case of one of our students, whom we’ll call Sarah. When we first met her, Sarah had been in the HR department of a large company for 17 years but had plans to strike out on her own. Creative and tech savvy, she had been working for two years with classmates from an executive MBA program on a start-up—a company that, using an algorithm she helped design, would match employers with prospective employees. The algorithm was tested and ready, and the next step was for the team to line up venture capital and clients.

Sarah was a natural for those tasks. She was a confident manager, believed passionately in the new company, and had terrific connections in the VC and HR worlds. She enthusiastically prepared PowerPoint presentations and a contacts list, but when it came time to actually schedule meetings, she found herself stuck. She began each day intending to get going but was constantly diverted. Soon her inability to act was causing her such stress that she worried about her health.

Sarah was confounded by her own behavior. Admittedly, this was a new role, one in which she was often the only woman in all-male settings, and a lot was riding on her work—but she’d dealt with those things before. So what was going on? As Sarah reflected, she began to recognize deep connections to the dynamics of her childhood. She came from a family in which education and success were very important. Wanting to please her parents, she had excelled at school, and her parents had been thrilled. They had been less pleased with her older brother, who, try as he might, was never able to excel in the way that Sarah did. They pushed him hard until he rebelled and eventually became estranged from the family. Sarah was devastated. She felt proud of her accomplishments and craved her parents’ praise but worried that her success had pushed her brother away. As she considered her role in his estrangement, guilt replaced pride.

Julie Cockburn alters and embroiders found vintage photographs, reimagining and layering their forgotten histories.

Those dynamics, Sarah realized, were at play in the paralysis she was feeling. She was poised to succeed, but unconsciously she feared that in moving into the limelight she would undercut her peers and make them angry. She worried, too, that in making her board happy she might alienate her team. The ghosts of her parents, her brother, and her younger self were right there with her in the executive suite.

With Sarah’s story in mind, let’s explore the factors that affect behavior in the workplace.

[Here are the first two.]

1. Values and beliefs.

Each family has a unique character that’s transmitted to children through a shared framework of values and beliefs. This framework, which determines the shoulds in a family, guides individual behavior and defines the core identity of the family as a whole.Executives we’ve worked with find it relatively easy to identify core values and beliefs. Among those we’ve heard are these: Education is the most important thing. (Assumption: It’s what gets you ahead in life.) Be caring and considerate of others. (Assumption: Relationships are more important than other things.) Never let them see you sweat. (Assumption: Being successful means having a stiff upper lip.) Father has all the answers, and you must follow his lead. (Assumption: Your own thinking and reasoning is inferior to his.) You must be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, or you will embarrass the family. (Assumption: Your responsibility is to maintain the family’s standing in the community.)

Take a moment to identify your family’s core values and beliefs. What shoulds went along with being a child in your family? Which ones have stayed with you? When have they served you well? When have they gotten in your way? When might the underlying assumptions be wrong?

It wasn’t hard for Sarah to identify her family’s values and beliefs. Most important were working hard, doing well in school, making the family proud, and succeeding as a professional. Sarah did all these things. But her success was at odds with another core family belief: that the son in the family should be the star. A daughter could—and should—be a top performer, but her success would always be secondary.

Given this set of values and beliefs, it’s no wonder that Sarah was paralyzed by the idea that in promoting the company she would also be promoting herself above her colleagues.

2. Roles.

All members in a family tend to play a role determined in part by their individual personality and in part by their family system’s need for dynamic equilibrium. Parents might decide that a child is the reincarnation of, say, Uncle Martin or Aunt Nina, and as a result will reinforce certain Martin-like or Nina-like traits in that child until they stick. A family might label one child a success but another a disappointment or a rebel or a dud. Twins might divide up the world in order to create separate identities: one the introverted artist, the other the extroverted athlete. Or they might become two peas in a pod that others can’t tell apart. A child might take on the role of decision-maker or breadwinner if adults have abdicated responsibility. The possibilities abound. Common roles include the jester, the troublemaker, and the brain.

Not surprisingly, the role you play in your family tends to be one that you fall into easily at work. Think about how this applies to you. What roles did you play in your family when you were young? What were the roles of others in your family, and how did yours relate to theirs? How does that dynamic relate to the roles you now assume as an adult and a leader? When have your family roles been useful at work, and when have they held you back?

Sarah could easily identify the roles she played as a child. She was the creative doer—the successful child—while her brother was the troublemaker and rebel. As fighting between her brother and her parents escalated, Sarah also took on the role of the peacemaker and supporter, always trying to soothe feelings and calm the storm.

As you identify your ghosts, take note of why it might be difficult or scary to leave behind a cherished role or identity, even when you aspire to be different.

Some of her ghosts were a positive force. As a creative doer, Sarah knew how to identify and meet the expectations of those around her. As a peacemaker and supporter, she excelled at bringing opposing parties together and encouraging her team. But those roles also roused her negative ghosts. When her colleagues failed, she felt guilty, even though it wasn’t her fault. She wasted a lot of time trying to manage others’ conflicts, sometimes becoming exhausted and overwhelmed as she tried to meet high expectations in her own work while also attending to others’ concerns.

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Ultimately, leadership is about imagining the future that you want to create, for your organization and for yourself. The steps we’ve described involve making short-term changes, all of which are important, but you can also follow the same steps as you develop a long-term vision for your new self.

To reach your full potential at work, ask yourself these questions: What kind of leader and colleague do I want to be 10 years from now? Can I find or create a place that will be hospitable and nurturing to the person I hope to become? Which family ghosts should I embrace and celebrate—and which should I finally leave behind?

A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the founder of the MIT Leadership Center.
Dennis N.T. Perkins is the CEO of the Syncretics Group and a former faculty member of the Yale School of Management and Yale’s Department of Psychology.


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