Work is like a family: and that's the problem


What was the first organization you joined? A childhood soccer team? Boy/Girl Scouts? Your first school? Actually, the first organization you joined was your family - a setting where you learned how to act, react and interact with authority figures, peers and outsiders and how to create roles for yourself - all knowledge and skills you would later bring to your world, and to the world of work.

We are children – even as adults
It is widely accepted that the patterns of behavior you learned as a child stay with you throughout your life. Like it or not, you bring your family – your biography and your biology - to your life at work and at home. Many of these roles and patterns are visible; many are invisible, operating on an unconscious level, often as "blind spots" and, as often as not, causing you and others upset, unhappiness and discontent.

Visible roles you learned as a child might include, for example: the athlete, the clown, the big shot, the goddess, the actress, the strong type, the bimbo, etc. The daily news, magazines, TV offerings and even the workplace offer plenty of real-life examples of adults who mastered the roles they identified with as children and now play them out dutifully as adults.

Invisible roles are unconscious and contain certain assumptions and expectations. Such invisible roles include: the smart one, the funny one, the pretty one, the weak one, the good one, the compliant one, etc. Each comes with its expectations and rules to play it out, e.g., be an A student, be popular, make everyone laugh, be a troublemaker, follow the rules, please everyone, etc. It's these unconscious, invisible roles that cause us so much upset and difficulty in our adult lives.

Our relationships remind us of family
All of life is about relationships. Our dealing with others causes us and others the most pain, upset and conflict. Interestingly, it's not about the other person so much as it's about who in our life reminds us of our original family. So at work, we play our roles in the way we learned when we were children.

Consider the following scenarios:

When you experience a conflict at work and someone is loud and angry, do you shout even louder to make your point, or go silent and look away and feel defeated or deflated, or change the subject, or make light of the situation and say something funny?

If there's a meeting to discuss possibilities of future downsizing, do you email your boss or HR with all your ideas of how to handle employees during the process? Do you immediately cancel your family's vacation plans? Do you promise your key employees you'll keep them no matter what? Or do you form a group and head off to management and blame them for their greedy ways that led to the downsizing, or meet with and tell your boss you'll back him/her no matter what and do what she s/he wants you to do?

Because of a previous commitment, your boss wants you to speak at a national meeting in two weeks because she's unavailable. What do you think? Ah, this will allow me to assume more power? Or, I'll feign illness and get out of it. Or, why do I always have to be the one to go? Or, I'm really busy so I'll get someone else to prepare the presentation.

The point is that we don't all react the same way to the same situation. Why? Family history and pattern development.

Pattern development
Each of the responses above reflects an action and/or a thought pattern which will arise again and again in similar situations. Some examples of the learned pattern behaviors that show up in the way we react at work include:

The victim: - the consummate complainer; pessimistic; feels disrespected, inadequate and fearful; quiet and withdrawn; avoids folks they view as highly competent; suppress feelings of incompetence; needs to be rescued; allies with other victims; avoids conflict; feels put upon; dislikes being managed; often gets sick; creates and re-creates unhappy settings;

The clown: extrovert; diverts attention with jokes and loud, witty, often sarcastic, offensive and embarrassing comments and one-liners; trivial experts; always adding their two cents; seen as bozos, jokers, smart-asses, motor-mouths;

The over-achiever: must excel at everything they do-to the point of obnoxiousness; must look picture-perfect; needs the "best" and "latest" of everything; chooses "success" over "happiness"; needs special treatment; self-absorbed; resents criticism in any form; needs to be right and others to be wrong; generally untrustworthy;

The persecutor: a bully; needs to control and micromanage; exhibits verbal contempt for others; puts others down with offhand remarks or harsh criticism; views others as weak; admires other bullies; unfeeling; needs to feel important; needs to dominate and be the center of attention; need to maintain a "most important person" status; sometimes a loudmouth; sometimes quiet and subtle; likes seeing others fail; withholds information;

The pleaser: can't deal with the truth; fearful of their own honest emotions; quiet; avoids conflict at all costs; rarely offer opinions; needs to fit in; self-conscious; afraid of disapproval; always apologizing and saying "I'm sorry," chameleon; talks a good game; plays it safe; results don't match words; likes being micromanaged; can't make decisions; passive aggressive; hidden anger;

These early-learned patterns are often unconsciously and invisibly embedded in our emotional bodies. They give us comfort and a sense of peace when faced with stressful, challenging and difficult times. But they are self-fulfilling prophecies, and unless we have done the work to make the invisible, visible, we'll continue to react the same way over and over again in this job or another job, in this relationship or another relationship, in this or another similar circumstance, often wondering what pushed out buttons or why we reacted the way we did.

Becoming conscious of our patterns
By working to make the unconscious, conscious, can we begin to see our self-limiting and self-sabotaging patterns and work to transform them into healthier and more productive ways of being.

One way to do this exploratory work is to spend reflective time looking at our pasts and our families to identify the experiences which made us who we are today. The expression, "I wasn't born yesterday" is very apt. The decisions we make today, our choices and our reactions to today's people, events and circumstances are not "in the moment", but are replays of experiences we had as children.

While today's events, characters and players are different from our childhood, our inner emotional, and neurological reactions are not. Playing out old patterns is natural and normal, but often self-destructive and self-sabotaging both to us and to our relationships. And only when we consciously choose to explore our past and confront its legacies head-on can we become aware of the recurring patterns which cause us so much upset and unhappiness.

Life themes – what are ours?
A few areas of exploration, and some initial questions that can assist your inquiry are:

Health: What was the health of your family like? How was sickness or illness viewed? What did your family believe about illness? How were sick family members cared for? Was illness denied? Did individuals obsess about sickness or illness? Did sick people feel courageous or like "victims"? Did they persevere or give up? What about addictions?

Money: What role has money played in your family? Did folks misuse money? What was financial security like? Do you talk about money with your spouse or partner? Do you need financial support? Do you support others financially? What's your credit like?

Relationships: Was/is your family close or disengaged from one another? What is your relationship with your family of origin? What beliefs or messages did you hear about men and women as you were growing up? How did your family deal with guilt, fear, denial, and shame? Are there "family secrets" that are still affecting you and your family relationships?

Work: Was accomplishment rewarded and if so, how? Who at work reminds you of your family – either physically, emotionally, or in terms of their roles? Can you see your patterns of success or failure at work? What thoughts and messages did you hear about "work" as you were growing up? Do you view work as fun, creative, or burdensome?

Spirituality: Did you develop a relationship with "the spiritual", be that a higher power, God, religion or spirituality? Was religious practice important as you were growing up? Does religion or spirituality affect your life (your marriage, parenting, self-esteem, sexuality, and familial responsibilities or loyalties)? Was anyone in your family particularly spiritual? How so? What positive or negative messages did you hear/receive about spiritual beliefs and practices?

Other areas to consider include personal environment and organization, health and wellness, friends, personal development, play and recreation, and intimacy.

Workplace/family dynamics


  • How do you deal with conflict at work, at home, and at play?
  • Do folks at work remind you of your family of origin in any way? Do personality conflicts remind you of your parents or siblings?
  • Do you ever play the role and exhibit patterns of the "victim", "clown", "over-achiever", persecutor", "pleaser" - or other roles?
  • Do you generally take things personally? What would your friends and colleagues say?
  • Did you ever look at your history to see why you are who you are? How do you feel when you think about this question?
  • Do you know who your authentic self is? How do you know?

It's not uncommon to witness workplace (or home or "playground") arguments that resemble family arguments, nor to experience dysfunctional relationships in the workplace with in-fighting and back-stabbing behavior that mimic sibling rivalries.

When we choose to undertake personal growth and self-awareness work, we discover how we have come to behave in the ways we do and how we chose to play roles to cover up our feelings of inadequacy, guilt or shame. We discover a "shadow side" of our personalities. But as Jungian analyst Robert Johnson says, "there's gold in the shadow", and that the discovery and mining of this gold is "related to our higher calling" – our true and authentic self - where we can shed these defensive roles and patterns replaced them with the "true and real" me.

When we discover who we truly are, we open to the possibility of emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity - the doorway to the place where the "truth sets you free." We can open to the possibility of being real, where we experience lightness of being and have no need for defensiveness, grandiosity, avoidance, denial or phony self-destructive role behavior.

Sometimes the journey backwards is well worth taking. This is one of those times.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.