Professional Relationship Blueprints
Excerpt From The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life by Kevin B. Burk
Our professional relationships draw on two sets of relationship blueprints. The Authority Blueprint governs our relationships to authority figures, as well as our relationships to our subordinates when we are in a position of authority. The Sibling Blueprint governs our relationships to our co-workers.
Many companies today try to foster a sense of community (and employee loyalty) by claiming to be one big happy family. The irony is that even without the company’s efforts to create a sense of family in the workplace, we do experience our professional environment as a family. Of course, the family our company resembles is our family, complete with the same dysfunctional dynamics we experienced growing up.
Our Authority Blueprints are based on our relationships with our parents. The Male Authority Blueprint is based on our relationship to our father and applies to our interactions with men in authority. Our Female Authority Blueprint is based on our relationship to our mother, and applies to our interactions with women in authority. When we are in a position of authority, we’re the most influenced by the blueprint of our same-gender parent. The thing is, when we relate to our superiors at work, we are not only influenced by our relationship to our parents—we actually experience it. On an unconscious level, we project our unresolved issues with our parents onto our supervisors. We expect our supervisors to provide us with the kind of love and support that we didn’t receive from our parents.
If we have specific issues with either one of our parents, we will get to work through these issues in our professional relationships to authority figures. If we never felt able to disagree with our father, for example, we may also have trouble disagreeing with our male supervisors. We may not feel entitled to voice our opinions, which means that we rarely get acknowledged for our contributions. This, of course, can have adverse effects on our ability to advance, be recognized, have our validation needs met, and feel safe. If we were able to ignore our mother’s rules and requests as children, we may not completely respect the authority of our female supervisors. We may unconsciously test their authority and see how much we can get away with, because we need them to provide us with the safe and strong boundaries that our mothers didn’t. Of course, this can also have a negative impact on our prospects for career advancement and job security.
When we’re in positions of authority, we unconsciously become our parents. Most often, we identify with our same-gender parent, but we can take on the management styles of both. If we experienced our father as being an irrational, authoritarian jackass, it’s a safe bet that the people we supervise feel the same way about us. If we never had to respect our mother’s requests, then we may find that our employees don’t respect ours.
Now, the good news is that simply becoming aware that we’re projecting our issues with our parents onto our supervisors is often enough to change our behavior and our experiences. On a conscious level we understand how inappropriate it is to expect our supervisors to meet the needs of our parents. It’s obvious that we’re not working for our fathers, for example, and so we can freely express our own opinions with no fear of punishment. When we hear our mothers’ voices coming our of our heads, it’s often enough of a wake-up call to let us alter our management style, and make more effective and elegant choices. The interesting thing is that when we stop relating to our supervisors as our parents and create healthy and supportive relationships to authority, we often find that our relationships to our parents also improve.
If our supervisors are our parents, then our co-workers are our siblings. This means that we experience sibling rivalry in the workplace. We compete against our co-workers for the love and attention of our parents (supervisors). This is the reason that office politics can be so emotionally charged. We’re playing for much higher stakes than we realize. It’s not just about getting ahead in our careers—it’s about winning the approval and attention of our parents. And since we believe that there’s not enough love to go around, we will do anything we can do to stay ahead of the game. If we grew up with siblings, we will unconsciously resort to the strategies we used as children to compete for our parents’ attention. If we didn’t grow up with siblings, we’re at a significant disadvantage in our professional relationships. We’ve never had to fight for our parents’ attention before, while many of our competitors have years of experience.
When we choose to stop relating to our supervisors as our parents, our relationships with our co-workers also improve. We may still compete with our co-workers, of course, but at least now we’re no longer competing for the love of our parents. We’re no longer competing in a high-stakes game. This relieves much of the pressure, and allows us to have more fun playing the game. The competition we experience with our co-workers is now far more healthy.
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