How to tell if your boss is a narcissist.
Posts by Naomi Shragai:
Naomi talks about Handling Work with Chloe Brotheridge for her podcast “Calmer You”
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is author of the book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life’
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
‘The Man who Mistook his Job for his Life’, by Naomi Shragai
Naomi Shragai is a psychotherapist whose practice includes a lot of workplace therapy, both inside companies in an official capacity, and in her private practice. Her name may be familiar to FT readers as she has written many articles about the ways in which our unconscious motivations influence our behaviour and relationships, at work and beyond.
Now she’s bringing all her insights together in a fascinating book. The Man who Mistook his Job for his Life is for anyone who is curious about human behaviour — our own, and that of our colleagues and bosses. By learning how our early experiences may be influencing the way we react to tricky situations — chapters include “In fear of conflict — or why there is no such thing as a perfect childhood” — we can take the right action to solve our workplace problems.
The book is much more than a practical guide, though. It is a guide to all human life and there is a fair amount of personal anecdote from Shragai’s own life. We may all claim rationality, but that is rarely evident in our workplaces.
Shragai is not just telling us why we behave as we do (it is because “the pull towards the familiar is strong and it is often powerful enough to overtake our conscious desires”). She shows us how to get past these patterns and find a different way of reacting.
‘Woke, Inc: Inside the Social Justice Scam’, by Vivek Ramaswamy
“Wokeness”, or the idea of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice, is contentiously sitting at the centre of the so-called “culture wars” that dominate much of public politics.
But when “woke” ideas are sponsored by big corporations, Vivek Ramaswamy argues we risk turning democracies into the autocracy of the elite. In Woke, Inc., the founder and former chief executive of biotech group Roivant Sciences examines the ways in which stakeholder capitalism and woke culture have developed over the past decade, and how this evolution has put the legitimacy of democratic processes on the line.
The book was written following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, when Ramaswamy penned an article arguing against the censorship of individual accounts on Twitter and Facebook. The backlash to the piece was such that the author felt compelled to step down as CEO and focus on defending his political ideas.
Ramaswamy argues that stakeholder capitalism has become a means for top level corporations to increase their profit while dictating moral and social values that should rather be voted on by the electorate.
He presents a clear argument filled with entertaining professional and personal anecdotes and claims that wokeness is used as a “hollow excuse” for companies to assume their place in a “moral pantheon”.
In contrast with other forms of lobbying, “woke” moral principles are, he writes, comparable to a religion that is being imposed without the consent of the majority. However, most policies lobbied by large corporations have an equal impact on voters’ day-to-day lives.
While the author’s criticism of the infiltration of politics in the boardroom is valid, he fails to explain who, exactly, is behind the turn to “woke” capitalism.
But as the political cleavages of American (and to a certain extent, British) society become more entrenched in cultural and identity issues, Woke, Inc. is a reminder of the power of overcoming group think centred around identity labels, and facing challenges with a more equanimous mindset.
‘Friday is the New Saturday: How a Four-day Working Week Will Save the Economy’, by Pedro Gomes
The concept of working four days a week started decades ago and has divided opinions.
But as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, the conversation around the idea is gaining force. Pedro Gomes presents a compelling approach to the topic, rooting his arguments in a range of economic theories, history and data — focused on the improvement of society.
The narrative is constructed around the ideas of influential economists John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek. The book is thoroughly researched, providing substantial analysis of both the benefits and drawbacks of changing the status quo of the five-day week.
The book examines arguments from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The first part explains the historical panorama of the four-day working movement, with statistics, facts and initial thoughts on how the economic activities could be reorganised to influence a healthy societal change.
Moving on, the author blends economic theory, opinions of brilliant minds, stories of successful companies, anecdotal evidence and examples based on data to persuade readers from different ideological preferences. He uses eight economic statements to explore different scenarios of what people would do with their extra day off work.
In one of the statements — “Because it will give people more freedom to choose how to spend their time” — Gomes comments that under the four-day week, workers would have more freedom to decide how much and when to work, leveraging productivity and a better work-life balance.
The final part examines the practical details of implementing the four-day working week, in both the private and public sectors, how it could propel innovation and remodel our idea of freedom. After all, Keynes believes “the biggest problem is not to let people accept new ideas, but to let them forget the old ones”.
‘Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business’, by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro
‘Power for All’ is an attempt to reclaim the idea of power as a good thing and explain how to increase it in your life © Little, Brown Book Group
The concept of power is a difficult one. Most people would like more of it in their lives, but we also see the problems caused by those few who have a lot of it. This book is an attempt to reclaim the idea of power as a good thing and explain how to increase the power in your life, while noting that this is only good if society shares power around more. It is a difficult sell but takes the reader through some interesting examples of how to use power and how not to.
The authors — both professors of organisational behaviour — frame their subject in economic terms. Power can manifest itself in various forms: a skill; access to certain people; or an understanding of how to act in certain circumstances. But like other scarce resources, it is only valuable if someone else wants what you have to offer.
Battilana and Casciaro include insightful anecdotes about how power is gained by those we know as powerful. But many of the examples the authors give are purposefully everyday to illustrate both the importance of power for all of us in order to have a good life and how we can all obtain it.
This is a guide to how people can build power over their lives, and those of others. It is also a call to arms. The way to counter the devious enterprises of the powerful is not to turn our back on power, but to understand how we can use our own portion of it to fight unjust hierarchies and to ensure individual rights.
‘Undiversified: The Big Gender Short in Investment Management’, by Ellen Carr and Katrina Dudley
‘Undiversified’ is aimed at those who might be considering a career in investment management or those already in the industry © Columbia University Press
When you think of someone who manages money, do you think of a man or a woman? This is the opening line to Ellen Carr and Katrina Dudley’s deep dive into investment management, its gender problem and how to fix it.
It has a broad appeal in terms of the issues it deals with, but it is aimed at those who might be considering an IM career or those already in the industry. The authors, both successful portfolio managers, highlight the contradiction between the mantra that “diversification is investing 101”, yet why is this not reflected among practitioners?
Split into three parts, the first gives an overview of the industry, the jobs, and the gender imbalance. The second looks at why women are not choosing to go into the industry both at a graduate and MBA level, and identifies the barriers to women’s advancement (80-hour weeks don’t work so well with family life). It also provides insights from other women who have succeeded in developing a successful career and the different paths they have taken.
Part three looks at solutions; how to recruit more women by increasing the visibility of the IM career and how to improve its “image problem”. Less Gordon Gekko and the more troublesome activist investors and more a focus on IMs’ role “as stewards of capital”.
Carr and Dudley also make a case for changing the entry-level recruiting process and improving retention by applying data driven approaches to both promotions and pay. And they ask that readers demand to know who exactly manages their money, as “you will shine a brighter light on our problem”.
Naomi Shragai’s Jewish father survived Auschwitz, he was there at the birth of Israel, then emigrated to live the American dream. So how did he end up dropping out and dressing up as Santa?
They were Hungarian immigrants in Los Angeles and they were nothing like my friends’ parents. Their accents were so thick and their mistakes so extreme. When buying our first car in America, my mother took advice from a friend who suggested she ask for a “strip-down car”, which meant no unnecessary extras. By the time she arrived at the car dealer’s, “strip down” somehow turned into requesting a “drop-dead car”.
It wasn’t only their English that embarrassed me, but their terrible dress sense. It was the 1960s, and clothes had become wild, wonderful and colourful. To see my dad in high-waisted trousers when all the world seemed to be in hip-huggers was too much to bear.
There were advantages, however. Whatever I wanted within reason, as long as I convinced them that it was normal in America, I got. “Every kid in America has a pony,” I insisted. Fred, my father, couldn’t bear the possibility of not fitting in, and so bought me my first pony. I was a Jewish, urban cowgirl in the hills of the San Fernando Valley, far from the Jewish Hungarian lifestyle my parents understood, and it gave me tremendous freedom.
My parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. From an early age, I was aware of the traumas that happened “over there”, even though they were never spoken about. Somehow the experiences penetrated me through some inexplicable osmosis.
My mother suffered constant anxiety; she worried that at any moment she could lose her family as quickly as she had lost her parents when arriving at Auschwitz. That dreaded separation point when those directed to the right went to the gas chambers and those to the left to the camps. Every moment in our lives was another potential separation point. Every morning when my sister and I went to school, and my father to work, my mother found herself back at the “point”. My father, seemingly less damaged by his experiences, responded to her anxiety with anger, and often retreated further into his business.
Our story was similar to many immigrant families in the 60s. We had arrived in New York from Israel with $50 in our pockets. Someone told Fred about the possibilities in Washington DC. After trying and failing there, we headed for LA, where my parents found friends from their home towns in Europe. Families from concentration camps had few extended members, so we often collected together and created our own, with only a similar language and history to bind us.
Fred worked as a lorry driver, studying at night until he became an accountant, and later a real-estate agent. Within no time he had bought a house, installed a swimming pool and joined the ranks of middle-class Jewish life in LA.
My memories of him as I grew up are mainly of watching him reading the paper, listening to the news, and shouting in Hungarian. He and my mother argued a lot, but always in Hungarian, so the meaning of their rows was a mystery to me.
He was relieved to have daughters rather than sons because, in his eyes, this meant he didn’t really have to spend time playing with us. Although he was awkward in the role of a father, I never doubted his love for me, and I often ran to him for comfort, hoping he could put some sense into my mother’s irrational outbursts.
In his business dealings, he had great ambitions, but they often failed. One exception was a mobile-home park he built in Victorville, California. To mark his success, he named the streets after family members. There was Ruth Street, Alice Avenue, Fred Street and Naomi Avenue – our family, for ever remembered, on the road to Las Vegas.
It wasn’t a bad life, until his health started to deteriorate.
Perhaps it was his experience in the Holocaust, the stress of a bad marriage, or just an unhealthy lifestyle. He smoked two to four packs of cigarettes a day, over-ate to the point of obesity, and found that he couldn’t control his mood and temper.
In his 40s, he had a massive heart attack. After quadruple bypass surgery, he gave up smoking and took up exercise, which involved walking around our swimming pool 120 times – he carried a counter to keep track.
But slowly, his weight crept up again; he made some poor business decisions, and went bankrupt. The house with the swimming pool went and with it his American dream. He had another massive heart attack and was told he would not survive unless he checked into a cardiac rehabilitation programme.
Whatever magic happened to him in those six weeks, Fred was never the same again. It took me years to recognise the man who emerged. The high-waisted trousers had been replaced by jeans and an “I Love to Hug” T-shirt. His hair and beard were long and grey. Suddenly, he wanted to embrace everyone; stress was the poison, and hugging was the medicine. Group therapy had changed his life. He didn’t have to follow the American dream and chase the mighty dollar, he could give it all up and live his own dreams.
So Fred announced he was divorcing Mum and became a health guru, a role that was to attract considerable media interest. Time magazine interviewed him for a cover story on cardiac rehabilitation, and he became America’s role model for life after cardiac surgery, giving talks in local universities and on TV shows. We, his family, simply didn’t recognise him.
In his local beach community, someone must have mentioned that with his flowing beard and warm, rounded belly, he would make a good Santa Claus. He leapt at the offer, and was soon fitted out with a costume. Not just one for winter, which didn’t exist in southern California, but a shorts and T-shirt option too, with surfboard accessories to match. He even changed his car licence plate to read “H Santa”, meaning Hungarian Santa.
The rest of the family may have been bewildered by his transformation, but somewhere in all of this, I believe my father really did find himself. The compassion he felt towards children was real and deep, and in his new guise as Santa he was able to visit and entertain deprived children – the homeless, the terminally ill and the abused. He opened his heart to them and brought them moments of real joy.
I, however, still could not forgive him the anguish he had caused my mother. Perhaps I was jealous that these children were getting the love I felt I had missed. But mainly I was confused. How could my father, a Jewish camp survivor who had lost his parents in the Holocaust, who participated in building the state of Israel, suddenly turn into the Christian mythological figure of Santa Claus?
In his often-fabricated accounts of his life, the time from his deportation to Auschwitz to when he was standing next to the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in a military hospital in Tel Aviv, utterly vanished. I was furious.
Then, in the mid 1980s, I moved to London and, with distance, our relationship began to heal. Instead of feeling anger, I began to feel grateful that this extraordinary man was my father, and I wanted to understand the magic he carried.
Sadly, there was little time left. The phone call that children who live abroad from their parents fear the most came. Fred had suffered another heart attack and died.
As all my grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, I had never before experienced a death. As a family, we had no idea even how to plan a funeral. Fred was not a religious man – indeed my sister and I had been brought up to scorn religion – but of course there would be a rabbi. Someone mentioned that he had wished to be cremated, and so that is what we did. It was only afterwards that I realised cremation was against Jewish law and I bitterly regretted turning my father to ashes after his parents had been burned in the gas chambers.
All his friends and followers attended. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they arrived and discovered that Santa Claus was a Jew. They still wanted to remember him as they knew him best – by singing Christmas carols. So the Hungarian Jews and their offspring sailed off on a boat to scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean, off the coastline that brought him so much happiness, while the gentile community remembered Fred as they wanted to – with a good Christmas sing-song on a boat of their own.
Years later, as I found myself desperate for extra income in order to fund my training as a psychotherapist, I became an entertainer at children’s parties, dressed as a clown. Despite years of therapy and self-development, there was no mistaking it – I was becoming my father.
Anna’s attempts to seek help from her manager in dealing with an abusive colleague proved futile. “My boss just told me, ‘He’s an idiot — wait until he screws up’”.
Being relatively new in her job, she lacked allies to give her perspective at the marketing company she had joined. Feeling wretched and alone, she contacted me for psychological coaching to try to find a way to deal with her situation.
Like Anna, many people struggle to find the clarity and confidence required to extract oneself from abusive circumstances at work. Instead, they tend to think, “What have I done wrong?”
In a highly volatile situation, it is all too easy to overestimate your part in what has happened when it may well be a product of the dysfunctional organisation, or simply down to individual behaviour: a bullying boss or a toxic colleague. Often the culprit is successful and charismatic and this only adds to the confusion.
Furthermore, if your impressive work is igniting envy, then attempts to right matters by enhancing your performance may only make things worse. Similarly, if attempts to defend yourself are interpreted as questioning the culprit’s competence, then you are unlikely to get your point across. Expressing your feelings to a co-worker who is making your life miserable is only sensible if they can control their emotions.
Anna, who is an American in her early thirties, feared for her job when the aggressive colleague intruded into her work, attacked her character, complained about her and threatened to get her fired. Matters were made worse because the situation triggered traumatic memories of bullying she experienced as a child.
She explains: “I had a view of how one behaves and he began to call that into question, which made me wonder: ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ And because I didn’t have a sense of where the calibration was, it created a huge degree of fear and constant dread.”
I explained how her colleague’s behaviour was almost certainly designed to make Anna feel bad in order not to feel inadequate himself. It also seemed clear the colleague was not going to depart and that the company was unlikely to take any action. Once Anna could face these realities she was able to let herself off the hook and plan her exit.
She says: “What was useful in our conversations was to unpack the organisation’s culture, its psychology, its DNA — it was clear that the organisation didn’t care. There is a CEO who is very controlling and it views everyone else as utterly replaceable and of zero value.”
Transforming her perspective not only lessened her fears, but her confidence also returned. She no longer allowed herself to be a target for her colleague’s unfair projections. With this insight, she could respond to what was actually happening, rather than reliving childhood traumas.
“I don’t like dealing with the yelling and ‘BS’, but I [now] realise that it is just unpleasant in the way that getting caught in the rain is unpleasant. It doesn’t mean anything about me, it just means I get wet.”
At work, there is rarely the time, expertise or motivation to solve entrenched psychological problems. It is often easier to absorb negative projections from others than accept that your organisation is neither interested in you nor protecting you from harm.
Yet the risk of a serious blow to one’s self-esteem, burnout or depression are high. Such states of mind cloud thinking and diminish concentration, causing one’s self-belief and performance to decline. The optimal aim, therefore, should be to protect oneself. Practise damage limitation by not challenging them where possible, moving to another position in the company or looking for another job.
While the prospect of leaving might be daunting to some, especially if their confidence has plummeted, it is far easier to leave a toxic situation than to recover from its damaging long-term effects.
Michael, 35, a communications officer for a manufacturing company, also initially assumed responsibility for a conflict with his manager. But in reality, his boss was envious of Michael’s exuberant personality and imaginative ideas. When he did well, his boss lashed out.
“I felt deeply demoralised,” Michael says. “There’s a certain madness — I began to think there must be a sort of private language or way of doing things that I hadn’t read and for which none of my skills were relevant.
“I now realise it wasn’t down to me. My manager was deeply insecure and projected his own anxieties on to his team.”
Michael’s psychological make-up was such that he was forever striving to accommodate and work harder when things got tough, but this only aggravated matters. The learning curve for him was recognising that regardless of his commitment, drive and integrity, he was never going to thrive in this particular organisation. Eventually, he was able to walk away knowing the failure was not his.
“For years I assumed work was there to validate you, but there I found that no matter how hard I worked that validation didn’t come. That was a sobering experience, it certainly matured me.”
The realisation that not everything is solvable can be frustrating, but equally it is a relief to know that not everything is down to you.
“I had a significantly overinflated sense of my own ability to shape organisations,” Michael says. “Like an abusive relationship, it is difficult to pluck up the courage to leave — in the end it was the best thing I did.”
If you find yourself demoralised, depressed or burnt out at work because of an abusive relationship or toxic culture, find a trusted person — a former mentor, close colleague or coach with psychological experience — to give you perspective. They may be able to interrupt the self-destructive monologue in your mind and offer more realistic explanations and solutions to consider.
Ask yourself also if the circumstances are just difficult and need working through or if they are symptomatic of a difficult individual or a larger cultural issue that is unlikely to change.
Walking away from a poisonous environment is strengthening and almost always a relief. Making sense of the experience allows you to not only leave the bad job behind, but the bad feelings as well. The ultimate aim is to depart with your self-worth intact.
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life’.
The bitter truth, and one that many people struggle to accept, is that work will never love you back. This can be a harsh blow for those who persistently attempt to meet their emotional needs in the workplace, which I have found to be a recurring theme in my consulting room over the years. The fantasy that you are “special” to your boss because he or she smiles at you or shows appreciation can disguise the reality that work is predominantly a transactional affair.
Once an illusion sets in that the boss cares more for you than he or she actually does, the obsession to retain his/her attention can overtake one’s capacity to think creatively and make sound decisions.
This confusion normally results from people attempting to recreate at work what they experienced from their parents in early life.
Kenneth Eisold, a New York-based psychoanalyst and organisational consultant, says people’s deep longings and fears often surface when faced with authority. Where parents have provided an inadequate sense of security, their offspring may settle into work patterns where they attempt to recreate an alternative relationship that provides, if not actual security, then at least the fleeting feeling of it.
Children need to believe they have good parents to feel safe. They are unlikely to tolerate the truth that their parents are failing them in this regard. “Whatever you’ve done as a child to hold on to the belief that your parents love you gets transferred to other relationships,” he explains. “This often arouses very profound infantile motivations that are still alive. It means you don’t see certain things [about your boss] or you elicit their responsiveness in order to gain the kind of attention and care that you’re craving.”
Focusing on work relationships to the neglect of personal ones may also hamper intimacy with family and friends.
As one former patient said to me: “The risk is that family life disintegrates around you while your professional life heads gracefully forward until you reach a point where it’s too late to recognise what you’ve lost.”
For another ex-patient of mine who worked in education, the obsession to elicit interest and admiration from her headteacher meant that she made herself available 24/7, to the cost of her family. Amid her hard work and dedication, she misconstrued that she was the centre of her boss’s world.
“She had me believe [that] I’m amazingly intelligent and that everyone wants to be with me,” she says. “I had to work so bloody hard to be the golden girl. I even made a separate ringtone so that I would know if she was calling — even at the expense of ruining my children’s bedtime routine because I would leave them with the television when she needed me.”
This patient’s mother had been a single parent whose narcissistic tendencies meant she was often absent, and she gave her boyfriends precedence over her two daughters. When she was home she was often stressed and aggressive.
My patient learned from her mother that the way to connect to a parental figure was to focus on their needs to the exclusion of her own needs, and by extension, those of her children.
To sustain this, she had to ignore the fact that her “special place” was contingent on a certain type of behaviour. When the reality became more apparent in therapy, she reduced her more extreme pleasing behaviour — only for her boss to react aggressively and eventually make her job redundant.
“The end was a disaster because I started to have strong opinions and to see that she wasn’t as great as I thought she was,” my patient says.
For dependent personalities such as this, a demotion or dismissal can feel deeply personal and reignite wounds from the past, making recovery even more difficult.
As her illusions came crashing down she faced the harsh truths of who her boss actually was, and how she herself had colluded in a relationship that harmed her career development and family life.
Narcissistic authority figures can exacerbate this problem.
Mr Eisold says: “With a narcissistic person you can always have some success because, by trying to please them, you capture their attention fleetingly. But that inconsistent responsiveness often establishes the most profound patterns because you keep thinking: ‘If I figure out more accurately what she wants, then she’ll love me.’”
People also turn to colleagues for closeness because they find work an easier emotional terrain to navigate than relationships at home. Work offers prescribed rules and norms about how to behave, and its stream of people, meetings and tasks all limit how close people can be. The emotional intelligence you have learnt in the office, however, may fail you when having to deal with disputes at home. Ultimately work has an “end to the day”, whereas in contrast there is little respite from family life.
Another patient of mine craved emotional security because his mother was often unresponsive and rejecting. He pushed aside thoughts that his chief executive used him for his own gain. As can be the case, a needy boss may wrongly attribute the subordinate’s hard work as evidence of genuine affection.
“Unconsciously I think we had an unholy pact,” he explains. “I know [now] that the reason I wasn’t getting a promotion was that he had me where he needed me to be, and I wasn’t willing to force a difficult conversation and risk the security of knowing that I was not likely to be rejected at work.”
Facing the truth would not have allowed him to sustain the level of hard work his CEO required. Only by separating in his mind his relationship with his mother from that with his boss, as well as learning to rely more on his partner for security, did he have the strength to leave his job after many years and then build his own successful business.
While work can offer satisfaction and rewards, real love and security is best sought from family and close friends. Once you stop seeking these from work relationships, however, you may be left with the bigger challenge of examining your personal life.
Executive Coach & Psychological Business Consultant
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LAST UPDATED : 24 MAY 2018
In an occasional series, a psychotherapist looks at the best strategies for navigating office politics
We have all worked with — or for — over-achievers. It is very difficult for them to change this trait, precisely because their success is so closely linked with their destructive work habits.
Overachievers have many qualities — not least the drive and energy to succeed — but unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others mean they can lose perspective. Constant striving can come with a high psychological cost, while excessive self-centred determination can damage organisations or the teams they lead.
This obsession to achieve is often the result of an underlying desire for admiration, as well as attempts to control events. They worry that if they give up these habits, they will fail. And when overachievers relax, they feel guilty.
One executive came to me for therapy in a bid to understand his obsession with winning. He says: “I like to be better than other people. Ideally, I’d like to be better than everyone, but I have to be realistic. It’s the pursuit more than the destination.”
His compulsion to achieve was triggered in adolescence when he joined a rowing crew and discovered that winning seemed to solve many of his problems.
“I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t do that well in school,” he says. “I knew that my parents were disappointed in me. Then I found something that changed everything — rowing. I had a team and they all became my friends, and my parents were proud of me.”
One overachiever admitted to pushing his staff too hard by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them
Gaining his parents’ admiration was crucial. “I felt I needed to win their love,” he says. But in adulthood he slipped into a cycle of relying on anxiety-fuelled adrenalin to propel him to succeed in business, while simultaneously depending on his achievements to alleviate his fear of failing. Winning became a zero-sum game learnt from rowing for his national team.
If his team won a silver or bronze they would sometimes throw those medals into the water: “Why would you be given a medal for a race you didn’t win?”
As long as he continued to achieve in his career, he could keep unwanted feelings and unresolved internal conflicts at bay. “Part of the reason [to win] is because there are deep dark things I don’t want to face up to — like a Band-Aid on a wound. In my mind I think, ‘why would I try to heal the wound now, it’s not bleeding that badly?’”
Reflecting on retirement only confirmed his narrow vision of the world — he fears that when he stops working he will need to re-learn how to gain gratification from life in other ways. He found it difficult to work with people who did not share his drive, often judging them harshly. “It’s very tough to build a team because not every team member will share your aspirations.”
Another overachiever I saw professionally admitted to pushing his staff too hard, which came at a cost, by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them. “I can see at times I’m demanding, and that’s going to cut across that culture of collegiality [that I want to create].”
Overachievers resent colleagues they perceive as not “pulling their weight”. They also believe that pressure on employees comes from external forces, rather than from their own unrealistic expectations.
Victoria Wall, who specialises in executive coaching, says such individuals often lead their team in a way that may not be aligned with the company’s expectations and strategies. Such leaders can push a business in the wrong direction. For example, if they lead by relying on skills that have made them personally successful in the past, there can be damaging consequences to the overall business performance.
Ms Wall says that overachievers’ early successes often do not translate into good team management. “Their [early] success came from ‘I am going to do better than everyone else out there doing what I do for a living’, and that has worked,” she says. “But as soon as they are in a leadership role, that level of competitive drive is perceived by the team as a huge [self-promoting] agenda. People do not follow leaders if that’s their remit.”
A further danger, she suggests, is that staff will view such a boss as uncaring about their career progression and someone who will not nurture their talents because they are focused on themselves.
Driven by anxiety
Another former client, a 52-year-old trader, defined himself almost entirely by his accomplishments. His drive to achieve was fuelled by an obsessive-compulsive pattern that left him in a state of constant anxiety — needing to succeed so as not to wipe out his previous successes.
A straight-A student throughout school, a first-class degree from Oxbridge, and finishing top of his class in law school left him determined to continue being on top of his game. He says: “With an exam there’s a result. In business those accolades are less tangible; you judge success through the financial result.”
He inherited his mother’s anxious nature, believing that unless he worried, bad things would happen. This turned into a belief that he needed to worry in order for good things to happen.
“Having achieved results to a high degree, it’s almost perpetuated itself,” he says. “I can see I’m getting results because I’m worrying, therefore I need to worry about the next thing to make sure that happens.”
The more he raised his game, however, the more anxious he became. He relied on the “rush of a win” to boost his mood and relieve his anxiety, but then afterwards came the inevitable low.
Such people tend to change only once they experience the harm inflicted on their careers or family life.
Recognising yourself as an overachiever is the first step. Then comes the hard work of facing the consequences, and understanding the origins of one’s strong feelings. A more difficult challenge is learning to tolerate uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings while attempting to lower expectations of yourself and others.
Taking on an executive leadership role for the first time often means discovering the skills that led to your promotion do little to help you meet the challenges of taking charge.
As a business consultant and psychotherapist, I see many people who, while expert in their business, discover they fall short on the emotional skills necessary to lead. Here are my suggestions to help new managers navigate office dynamics:
1 Loosen up
Some of the personality traits that helped your career previously can now work against you. Perfectionism, for example, may have been useful in doing your job well and protecting you from criticism. Now you are a leader, it becomes time consuming.
Similarly, that narcissism that may have helped your promotion should be reined in. Replace grandiosity with empathy.
Micromanaging staff is a common fallback for inexperienced managers, because it alleviates fears that your subordinates’ performance may not be up to scratch — and will reflect badly on you. New challenges and targets may lead to anxiety, that in turn leads you to look for simple solutions. Your need for control must be replaced with a tolerance for uncertainty and complexity.
2 Let go of the credit
With a higher salary and more status come sacrifices. You will lose the pleasure of having close colleagues, for example. And the credit and praise for a job well done now belong to your staff.
Greg Hodder, a former chief executive of Charles Tyrwhitt, the menswear company, says: “What you’re doing a lot is telling the people working for you how well they’re doing, but of course there’s no one doing that for the CEO.”
A 36-year-old newly appointed managing director of a sales company came to me for help in making sense of the tensions in his team. His optimistic nature meant he brushed problems aside, leaving some staff feeling frustrated.
Spending too much time with people he worked closely with created the perception that he had favourites. This divided staff between those for and against him. His determination to keep everyone happy had backfired. The strong feelings directed towards him, both positive and negative, were stronger than he anticipated.
“I underestimated the extent to which comments and actions that I took would be scrutinised and interpreted far more than I would have imagined,” he says. “What I learnt is that you need to be more deliberate and not be too hasty, and that you need to take time to hear all sides of an argument.”
3 Avoid surrounding yourself with yes-people
Those in authority should remember that the people close to them are likely to tell them what they want to hear, says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development and organisational change at Insead business school.
“That means you have to listen extremely carefully to what’s said and what’s not being said,” he explains. “I’ve seen too many executives fall into the trap of living in an echo chamber. For example, you’re in a meeting, and people flatter you and say that was a fantastic meeting. And you like it. [While] people who disagree, subtly or not so subtly, [eventually] can be removed.”
4 Adopt the ‘Columbo approach’
Leaders often avoid conflict for fear that matters may worsen. But disputes do not disappear when they are brushed aside: they re-emerge, become more destructive and are difficult to manage.
Investigate your own response to conflict. Are you an avoider, or do you see disputes as a zero-sum game? Reflecting back on how your family dealt with conflicts when you were a child will provide clues to your current behaviour. Learn to tolerate the strong feelings that arise from division without reacting.
This requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Remember that feelings can be unreliable. If you react strongly to some situations, use a trusted colleague as a sounding-board to gain perspective.
I often suggest the “Columbo approach” — the US television detective who listened carefully and weighed all the clues and characters, and only identified the murderer once the evidence mounted to an inescapable conclusion.
Being too aggressive or disciplinarian can easily destroy trust, Mr Hodder says. “[If] you’ve given someone responsibility you’ve got to be careful not to attack them for failing,” he explains. “It’s as much your fault if you’ve given them responsibility and they haven’t achieved it. It will spread like absolute wildfire if you develop a reputation for attacking people who haven’t performed correctly.”
5 Show you care
Many leaders fail to appreciate that everyone has lives and families outside work.
Prof Kets de Vries says: “For many executives their ideal employee is someone who is just divorced, lives in an empty apartment, takes a sleeping bag and moves into the office to work 24 hours a day.”
Mr Hodder believes that if you demonstrate that you care about people, you will receive loyalty and trust in return. Get to know your staff, and remember they have personal and professional histories that influence their characters.
Beware, though, of becoming too close. A good rule is to be as close as enables you also to be distant. Otherwise the difficult conversations, which are bound to emerge, will feel too personal.
6 Seek advice
Support inside and outside the business is crucial, from a mentor, for example. If you find that you persist with harmful behaviour, then you might need to dig more deeply. A psychotherapist, or a coach with psychological training may be the best option.
Mr Hodder says: “I never do anything without using a sounding board — and almost never did they not improve what I was going to do.”