When people close their front door in the morning and think they have left their families behind them for a simpler life at work, they are often mistaken. Our families, particularly our earliest relationships, live inside our minds and find their way into all our subsequent relationships, including those in the workplace.
It is in our earliest relationships that we learn how to form alliances, to survive conflict, resolve arguments and be included in groups and avoid exclusion – all interpersonal skills essential to managing office life. When families have failed in teaching these skills, work relationships – and potentially people’s careers – can suffer.
Even in the absence of such failings, most of us are willing to admit that despite our best efforts, we become more like our parents over time. Yet we fail to consider how we unknowingly recreate our past family dramas in the office.
Ironically, the skills we learn in order to survive our dysfunctional families often become the key to our success. This was the case for a theatrical agent who found that looking after actors and fighting their corner was as natural as breathing. She was the eldest of three siblings in a family where the father was alcoholic and the mother was absent, leaving her responsible for her two younger brothers.
“I actually can’t remember her [my mother],” she says. “I can remember this glamorous woman who would pop in and out occasionally. Our parents were nowhere to be seen and not interested really.
“I got a job as a secretary to an agent when I was 18. The moment I started dealing with these extraordinary people – actors – they were so needy, well, there was no other job in the world for me. Because I completely replicated my family and just looked after them.
“So, the older drunk actor, that would be my dad, and there would be some glamorous woman who would be distant and aloof. What I got known for is looking after very difficult women – I was brilliant with them.”