People who come to see me for work therapy are usually troubled by behaviour they know is damaging their career or business, but are unable to stop. 

When well-meaning advice from coaches or colleagues fails to help, digging more deeply to understand our underlying motivations can be the most effective solution. Since the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, psychotherapists have known that our early childhood experiences have a significant effect on our perceptions and character traits, which we then bring into our working lives.

Compulsions such as perfectionism, workaholism, controlling behaviour and even people pleasing, habits which can undermine our careers, can be understood best by examining our past.

Our earliest relationships reside deep in our minds and, consciously or not, create a template for how we relate to others, respond to conflict and deal with authority. These relationships, beginning with our parents or caregivers, set the tone for how we perceive all subsequent relationships, including and especially those in the workplace.

For example, if in our formative years our parents responded to us with nurturing care and interest, we are more likely to believe that authority figures later will treat us with the same regard. However, if we were let down routinely or harmed in any way, we are likely to anticipate that other people we depend on will fail us or even be against us.

While we might grudgingly accept that our unreasonable behaviour in our personal lives is a reaction to early family experiences, we rarely consider how work tensions might originate from the same source. At work we are generally convinced that problems and threats we experience come from others — manipulative colleagues, bullying bosses or demanding clients. 

The danger, however, is that we may be misinterpreting matters — overestimating the external threats (from bosses, clients, colleagues or even underlings) and underestimating the internal ones (from unresolved past conflicts). Such confusion can mean we misread situations — for example, believing our manager’s intrusions into our work mean he or she is planning to fire us rather than attempting to help. 

Misreading situations

One 48-year-old man in advertising nearly had a breakdown because he felt persistently manipulated by a succession of female bosses. He always thought he was on the verge of being sacked or criticised and so became highly conscientious and perfectionistic in his work.

This is how he described his first boss: “She would land me with her outlandish ideas and would then leave me to deal with them. We would have these long conversations which felt very intimate. I wanted her to stop feeding me these stupid ideas that weren’t going to work. It felt like my mother trying to get inside my head and manipulate me.”

In his youth his mother’s intrusive and persistent questioning about details of his life left him feeling suffocated. “As a teenager I was miserable and wanted my mother to back off, but she always wanted to know who I was friendly with and who said what to whom — she always wanted to drag more out of me.”

Resisting her questioning had consequences for him. “I always feared she would lose her rag. She could get very unpleasant if I crossed her.”

Once his career had begun, he transferred that same confusion and mistrust of women to his female managers. Consequently, he tended to misread their intentions as malicious rather than supportive. 

And ironically, rather than avoid criticism, he unknowingly encouraged it. He gave an example: “One boss came up with a bizarre idea and I concluded that this was ridiculously stupid. The first thing I did was panic and put it on the back burner. The end result was that I annoyed her. I later realised that the idea was a good one but at the time I thought that she was dumping this on me to make me look bad.”

As long as such internal threats reside in our unconscious we have little or no control over our reactions. But bringing such processes to conscious awareness gives us the clarity to respond appropriately rather than irrationally.

Another case of the past playing out in the present came from a recently promoted chief executive of a consultancy company. 

His fear of offending people meant that he was unable to give his clients the harsh truths they were paying him for. Instead, he was bending over backwards to make them feel good. Not only was he undermining his career, but the company was at risk of losing clients. 

Through our discussions, I discovered that the first person he upset seriously was his mother. Initially he was her “golden child”, but when he was bullied at school he lost his spark and humour, and his mother withdrew, wrongly interpreting his low mood as criticism of her rather than a plea for help. This left him feeling depressed and alone. 

In his teens he discovered that by pleasing others he could escape loneliness and he later brought this same approach to his professional life to protect him from imagined threats of rejection. That came with consequences, as he now realises: “[People pleasing] is inhibiting because the decisions you make are layered in lots of considerations about how the other person might feel and react, how they might speak against you or recruit others against you. By trying not to offend them and diluting what you say means you’re less efficient, less productive.”

Paradoxically, this made it more likely that his clients would be frustrated and walk away, leaving him with the very feelings he was fleeing from.

Why the past plays out in the present

The most common question I am asked is why would anyone knowingly repeat behaviour that undermines their career? 

Simply, the determination to resolve tensions from our early years is often strong enough to sabotage our ambitions. Unconsciously, we repeat past scenarios to try to resolve them, but sadly it often results in repeated failure rather than resolution. Furthermore, returning to the past is compelling and there are few surprises, whereas change is uncomfortable and confusing.

Not only are unresolved conflicts re-enacted in the workplace, attempts to fulfil deeper longings are too. Perhaps you lacked sufficient attention or reassurance from a parent, love was scarce at best and security inconsistent. At work these longings can be ignited so that praise and validation from the boss means much more than simply that you are doing a good job — it becomes your way to try to satisfy needs that were inadequately met in childhood. 

What to do next

If we believe that people at work are against us, we need to consider whether our suspicions are based in reality or emanate from our early lives. Separating our personal past from our professional present is crucial to read situations accurately and respond appropriately. 

If your feelings are strong and reactions irrational, you may be responding more to historical than present events. Find someone you trust to help you gain perspective. Get to know who your bosses, colleagues and underlings actually are, rather than who you imagine them to be. You might discover that they are reasonable and not against you at all. 

It is no wonder that work relationships touch deep wounds from our past. Issues around dependency, authority and closeness in the workplace can reignite our earliest experiences of them. Furthermore, there is rarely the time or interest to find out who colleagues are, and instead we judge them quickly, putting them into various pigeonholes that we are rarely inclined to reassess. But if our view of them is based on our misguided perceptions, misunderstandings are inevitable. 

Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is acting out their childhood experiences in the workplace and this is what makes office politics such a minefield. If you want to understand your colleagues’ irrational behaviour, begin by understanding your own.