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Mother Always Liked You Best—Dysfunctional Family Patterns In The Workplace

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

If you‘ve ever felt like your managers, co-workers or employees were acting like children, you may be right. For better or worse, many of our habitual patterns of communication and conflict in the workplace come from our families of origin. When people bring these unconscious understandings and roles to work, it is a volatile recipe for conflict, miscommunication, and a negative, poorly functioning organization.

Some of the dysfunctional family roles I’ve observed at workplaces include the following:

  • Mother’s/boss’ little helpers, praising everything the boss does and angelically assisting the parent/ boss with whatever he/she needs. These may be happy, happy “children” in denial about any problems or abuses in the workplace.
  • The problem “children”, writing inflammatory memos, always complaining, happily settling for negative attention and disapproval rather than being ignored.
  • The jealous “siblings”, feeling everyone around them got more love and appreciation, jealous of anyone else’s praise and hyper conscious of any marks of status recognition such as office size or memo name order.
  • The abused “children”, so desperate to please that they never set limits. They may do others’ work for them or put in lots of unpaid overtime, with resentment and martyr energy leaking out sideways
  • The invisible “children” who hide in their office or cubicle and try to avoid notice of any kind.
  • The bullying “children” who, feeling inadequate, try to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. They can’t admit their mistakes, criticize and bully everyone below them in the hierarchy, and never praise anyone’s accomplishments except their own.  This pattern may include temper tantrums if the bullies don’t get their way.

How can understanding these roles help us in the workplace?

Well, we can’t make anyone else change patterns they are not aware of. But, with support, we can learn about our own patterns and then consciously choose not to act them out. When we make different choices in our interactions, we create the possibility of change, even if the other person is still locked into the old behavior. Our awareness can also help us let go of resentments and find a little compassion for frustrating co-workers who are merely following the only patterns they know.

While many workplace problems cannot be solved by individual awareness, a conflict coach, for example, can help clients assess what problems they can work on and what problems need organizational commitment to resolve. The good news is that with awareness and practice, we can all learn to communicate more effectively and to have more realistic expectations of ourselves and others, no matter what age we are–or feel.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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