In some of my earliest memories, I can remember my parents quarreling while the kids were presumably asleep — in our younger years, my brother and I were sent off to bed at our nightly prescribed time: 8pm. This was no problem for my brother who was always off to bed early and up at first light, but I was a restless child, and, in these early evenings, I had a hard time falling asleep; so I always seemed to be the one to hear the “mommy and daddy fights,” as we kids referred to them.
Perhaps, as a result of this, I quickly fell into a role in our Family System of being the mediator, and trying, as a child, to talk my parents off the ledge as they consistently threatened to leave each other.
As you might imagine, later on in my life I have become something of a turnaround specialist, and sometimes I feel a little out of my element when there isn’t something that’s broken that’s being handed to me to turnaround.
I suppose my role in my particular Family System has stuck with me in an almost inescapable way.
The Family Systems That Aren’t Addressed in Your Business Plan
In their January–February 2022 article Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite (Harvard Business Review Magazine), Deborah Ancona and Dennis N.T. Perkins argue that:
Professional growth can get stymied for all sorts of reasons. But one of the most important is rarely discussed: You’re contending with ghosts from your past. Fundamental attitudes and behaviors that evolved from the family dynamics of your childhood have traveled with you into the present—and into the office.
So what we are dealing with is that old Family System in which we unwittingly took on a role in our family, and it shaped who we became.
As Ancona and Perkins put it, the ghosts of your Family System past “…don’t just lurk at the bottom of a sea of memories.” Indeed, you bring these ghosts back to life “through what psychologists call ‘transference,’ a process during which thoughts, feelings, and responses that have been learned in one setting become activated in another.”
Ancona and Perkins put together a list of six areas where your Family System history tends to come up most prominently. Their assertion is that if you can become more knowledgeable about how you are influenced by your Family System in each of these areas, you may be able to better understand what to do next if you want to make changes in the way you function at work. The idea, as Ancona and Perkins further elaborate, is that:
your family ghosts are a part of you. But the good news is that they don’t have to define you. If you can recognize the dynamics that shaped your early life, you can create a new developmental path for yourself.
Six Key Family System Components:
- Values and Beliefs. Every family has a unique code or what Ancona and Perkins call a “shared framework of values and beliefs” that determine the “shoulds” governing individual behavior and defining the family’s “core identity.” For most of us these take the form of baseline standards or assumptions that families always seem to hold dear. For example, my father was an ivy league educated professor, so in my family system, it was assumed that we would all value education. My wife’s father on the hand, is a brick mason from Liverpool, England who has worked all of his 80+ years beginning when he was a young teenager; so, in my wife’s case, it was assumed that you would always be working, no matter what.
- Roles. Whether we like it or not, all family members take on a role. This might be out of necessity, or possibly some of the personality dynamics of the individuals in our families. Often these roles are established very early on in our life. As noted in my own personal story, above, due to some seemingly random circumstances, I became the fixer / intermediary / peace-maker kid in my family.
- Secrets. It is not surprising that most families have their secrets. What is more surprising is how much this shapes individual behavior. Ancona and Perkins give an almost archetypal example of the “unacknowledged secret” of a sibling not doing well: “In the narrative her family presented to the world—and to itself—every member was accomplished and successful. When Sarah’s brother acted out or lost friends, the family treated it as a one-time aberration— so consistently, in fact, that for years Sarah didn’t recognize the abiding nature of her brother’s problems.” Of course, for Sarah this translated into her later work life where she “often found herself keeping secrets,” with the behavior “she had developed in dealing with her brother” cropping up “when she dealt with problematic colleagues.”
- Boundaries. In my family of origin, boundaries were not a significant consideration with the largely permissive style of my parents. I know in some of the families of my friends things were quite a bit more rigid. This, of course, can impact the kind of organizational structure and culture that you are most comfortable in at work.
- Triangles. The triangles that make up the relationship dynamics of your Family System are one of the most important factors you dealt with in growing up. For example, you may have found yourself in a triangle where your particular traits or actions were compared and contrasted or, in some way, part of a power struggle between one of your parents and one of your siblings. If this is the case, this certainly will play a part in the types of triangles that you are part of in your workplace teams.
- Expectations and Mastery. Like Family Values and Beliefs, Every family has spoken and unspoken expectations of their children. The question for you is how did you respond to these expectations. Did you attempt to master them or did you rebel against them? Ancona and Perkins give an example of one CEO who “kept collecting honors to please his parents even though they had been dead for years.”
So, yes, these Family System Components stick with us.
Suggestions for Exorcising Your Family Ghosts
Who you Gonna Call?
Ancona and Perkins address the topic of exorcising your ghost (Sorry I can’t resist, we must queue up the Ghostbusters theme song here) by advising us first to “identify” our ghosts. They suggest considering the six Family System components, above, and then putting together “a summary of your family dynamics.” They reflect that when they’ve done this exercise with executives:
…many of them experience an aha moment: They finally understand how important pieces of their complex personality puzzle fit together. Some feel relieved in this moment, and others feel ashamed, but in having the epiphany, they open themselves up to the possibility of change.
I think part of the consideration here is how significantly you feel your Family System has impacted your professional life in unintended or negative ways. If that take-charge-of-everything spirit that you now realize has been with you since childhood is working just fine for you, and you don’t see a reason to change it, maybe you keep your ghosts.
Most of us, however, will find things in our almost automatic Family System patterns that we’ll want to change.
So how do we change patterns that are as firmly rooted in us as our childhood memories?
Ancona and Perkins give examples of various executives who have tackled this challenge, and suggest that any work to make these changes should be done with a sense of creating something new:
Neuroscience has taught us that the most effective way to change behavior is by creating new neural pathways rather than trying to get rid of old ones, so be sure to phrase your goal as an aspiration. It’s better to tell yourself, “Listen and encourage others to participate” rather than “Don’t hog all the attention,” because the first statement focuses on instilling a new behavior.
What we all know is that this is kind of change will be no easy feat, but the idea is to further investigate and research new role models who inspire you — Ancona and Perkins note that you should “identify role models who are successful at doing what you want to do. It doesn’t matter if you know these people or not. Analyze everything you can about their behavior….” The point here is to embark on a journey that you know your ghosts might try and sabotage, but that this can become a process where you learn what new approaches might work for you.
Ancona and Perkins suggest how to proceed with this evolutionary process:
…gather clues about how your ghosts work. When do the negative ones take over? Are there predictable dynamics or triggers that summon them? When this happens, how does it affect the way you feel, think, and act? What scares you about change? With a better understanding of when and why negative ghosts take over and how they impede your development, you’ll open up some space for self-reflection and change.
It sounds challenging, I know, but I am already thinking about how I’ll proceed, because, as the saying goes (again, queue up your Ghostbusters): I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
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