Relationships between bosses and employees are often fraught with tensions and misunderstandings, and not only because of the intrinsic power imbalance.
Workers expect their managers to be empathetic, while having the authority to lead and look after the staff’s interests. Team leaders, on the other hand, expect underlings to be self-motivated while doing what is asked.
To add to the complexity, we all have hidden motivations we bring to the workplace as we unconsciously seek to resolve early conflicts with authority figures in childhood through our relationship with managers.
So how can leaders find the right balance between exerting enough authority to help people feel well led, while allowing enough autonomy to obtain the best from people? Understanding the basic dynamics between those in authority and their employees is a start.
We all carry an internal authority figure — someone we relied on in early life, usually our parents, and then project these on to unsuspecting figures at work. Our current experience of dependency evokes feelings of the original one. The imagined is then combined with the real, to create a reality of sorts that can at best boost one’s career and the success of one’s company, but at worst can undermine both if situations are misinterpreted and confused with the past.
Mark C Crowley, author of Lead From the Heart, was in his thirties when he was confronted by a critical and erratic boss who evoked painful memories of his abusive father. Although Crowley was doing precisely what was asked of him, his boss criticised him endlessly. He says: “The charge was profoundly painful. I was re-experiencing the same ‘what the hell is going on here?’ [as with his father]. When your father finds fault with you, and says so in malicious ways, it directly affects your heart and soul. Many days, I would go to work with tears in my eyes.”
Crowley found that his colleagues found the boss just as volatile as he did but none had experienced the same emotional charge. “If you didn’t have my upbringing and you were working for an unpredictable person you might say, ‘that’s just how it is’, right? I was simply unable to do that. I suddenly faced the father I [had] felt I was entirely free of.”
A common tendency among workers is to believe that leaders are omniscient. It relieves our dread of uncertainty and catastrophe. It makes us feel protected, fortunate and optimistic. Being close to them makes us feel great by association.
Yet such idealisation distorts what a leader is actually capable of. Their failings, or even misconduct, can be conveniently ignored. It can be a mutual dance with distortions on both sides — a leader’s demand for excessive admiration, and followers who have an unreasonable need to see people with power over them as perfect.
As children, seeing our parents as perfect helps to cushion us against life’s blows. As we mature, however, we need to face reality, acknowledge that everyone is imperfect — and take responsibility for ourselves.
But for those who experienced neglect, chaos or abuse in their early years, shedding these fantasies exposes the truth that their parents have harmed them. The unconscious holds repressed memories of the actual parent, while the imagined “perfect” one is projected on to the boss.
Ironically, the idealised leader can have similar psychological injuries from early neglect and/or abuse. Both worker and boss attempt to distance themselves from painful memories differently — one by believing they are perfectly protected and the other by ensuring a continuous flow of admiration towards them.
Those who experienced only fleeting love in their early years are often left craving more. The desire to capture the boss’s attention in order to attain that lost love can be compelling. And, more worryingly, it can make one an easy target for a narcissistic boss who will make you feel special — as long as you follow their every whim.
Paradoxically, having loving parents can sometimes leave one longing for more. One woman working in a London hedge fund was disappointed to discover that no boss would be as interested in her success as her mother had been. The woman’s craving for her boss’s validation was all-consuming, but ultimately she saw that it was infantilising.
“You want it so much that you become too rigid,” she says. “It prevents me thinking that I should go for something else, rather than pleasing my boss.”
This woman’s parents were from eastern Europe and survived extreme economic hardship during the communist era. They stressed the value of becoming financially secure. The mother structured her daughter’s time and ensured she was successful in school. As a result, the woman came to rely on praise from her family as an expression of love.
“There was pride in how my parents spoke about me to their acquaintances and our relatives. It [then] became exceptionally important for me to have my boss’s approval, that they see me as their right hand. I feel intense professional jealousy towards other people occupying the second-in-command position.”
Understanding how she attempts to recapture her mother’s love through her boss, and inhibiting her tendency to please, has helped this woman move forward.
With the balance of authority tilting away from managers to employees post-Covid, some managers I see in my practice have expressed their confusion about how to assert their authority.
One important aspect of leadership is managing people’s anxieties — too much control and people feel infantilised, but if you do not project enough authority, they become anxious.
So how should bosses respond to the longings, fears and fantasies that employees project on to them?
Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and Insead business school professor, agrees that leaders can become emotional dumping grounds for people’s unresolved feelings towards their parents, both positive and negative, and often flipping between both. He suggests bosses should listen with empathy to staff, and avoid knee-jerk reactions if they think they are being maligned.
He says: “If you strongly believe in something, keep saying it — repetition is important. Even when things are bad, it is important to see some light in the tunnel.”
Leaders need to remember how special they can be to people and that what they say sticks.
As for employees who struggle with confused feelings towards authority, perhaps the best advice is to remember that at work, you want a good boss, not a good parent.