Millennial business coach and content marketer Ryan Robinson noticed that neither his old boss nor his dad were "quick to dish out praise"-- even when he did great work. Their approval was, in consequence, "very meaningful" to Robinson.
Ulyses Osuna, the 19-year-old founder of CartoonPhotos.com, felt that both his dad and ex-bosses valued his efforts but disregarded him as a person. "There was no bond."
I've encountered countless comparable tales. Yet many employees view the uncanny resemblance between their relationships with their bosses and those with their parents as coincidental. Psychotherapist Naomi Shragai explained, "People have a way of convincing themselves that work is a less emotionally loaded affair than the messiness of family life."
In truth, work and life inevitably overlap.
Sometimes we even confuse them. Your mother ignored you, so now you feel unheard at the office; or you distrust your CEO because he smiles like your adulterous dad. Psychoanalysis calls these reincarnated dynamics "transferences", meaning that "no relationship is a new relationship," summed psychoanalyst and Insead Business School professor Manfred Kets de Vries.
Ben Michaelis, author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy, has witnessed work transferences firsthand as a clinical psychologist. To Michaelis, it's easy to see why work relationships so often mirror parental relationships: "Your parents are the first authority figures you ever meet." Patterns initially developed with them have far-reaching--though often unconscious--consequences.
Indeed, modern psychology research reveals that our early relationships later shape our careers. During childhood, "we develop fairly stable patterns of attachment styles with others that carry into adulthood," said Laura Little, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business. Her research suggests that children with consistent, attentive caregivers exhibit more vigor at work. Other research shows that secure children subsequently tend to earn higher incomes than children with anxious and/or erratic parenting. Children raised in stable households are also more likely to become effective leaders.
Unfortunately, 40% of us grow up without these secure attachments. If your parents weren't perfect and you're experiencing déjà vu at work, try this:
Acknowledge your bias
Workplace transferences occasionally "override reality," said Michael Shulman, a psychoanalyst and psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In other words, your perception of your boss may be misguided.
To determine what's real and what's projected, examine your emotions. "A main signifier that transference reactions are at work is when feelings and reactions are inappropriate to the situation," Kets de Vries noted. Another indicator that you're reacting to past--rather than current--relationships is if your feelings seem to "hijack you even when evidence is building that your perceptions are wrong," Shragai said. For example, Ulyses Osuna recalled feeling constantly ignored by his old bosses. Eventually he realized that his unstable home situation--not anything his bosses actually did--had made him feel personally rejected.
Notice if you react strongly to random triggers, such as your boss's mannerisms, tone of voice, smell or style. These are clues that your feelings are based more in displaced memory than reality. If you can't tell whether your reactions are overblown, tell confidants what made you upset. Explain that you don't want their sympathy or mutual outrage; you want their honesty. Was your response reasonable?
Remember that feelings aren't facts. "Just because you are feeling hurt or angry does not necessarily mean that your perceptions are accurate," said Shragai. Instead, "let your mind guide you rather than your feelings," she suggested.
Revise your expectations
Once you know the source of your work dynamics, you can rationally alter your expectations. Michaelis recommends considering "how you may be contributing to this dynamic: are you expecting too much from [your boss]?" For example, employees sometimes expect female bosses to be empathetic, tender and maternal. But "usually a boss's approval is more contingent, as it should be, on an employee's performance than on warm feelings," wrote psychoanalyst and renowned leadership expert Michael Maccoby for Harvard Business Review.
On the flipside, you may prematurely anticipate your boss letting you down based on your parents' actions. For instance, "Persons raised by single parent mothers can be less likely to trust the authority of male bosses," Shulman said. If your dad left your mom, why should you trust your boss?
Or perhaps you too-hastily conclude that your boss doesn't think you're good enough. One study found that adults with anxious or ambivalent attachment styles (typically a result of anxious or ambivalent parenting) may enter organizations "expecting leaders to devalue their performance."
Review what a good boss realistically should do versus what yours currently does. As you revise your expectations, remember that "[h]aving a good boss does not mean having a stress free relationship, just like having a good parent does not mean having a stress free relationship," said Michaelis.
Cut your losses
But if you've done everything you can to improve your supervisor relationship, the conflict could be out of your hands. Everyone brings deeply-rooted but disguised behaviors to work--including your boss, who could be dealing with his own transferences.
Or he could just be a jerk. If someone is manipulating or verbally or emotionally abusing you, it doesn't matter why. Your boss doesn't need to mother you, but she does need to treat you like a human being. According to Michaelis, "Your boss's job is to push you to get the best from you, just like a parent can do." The key differentiator between a good and bad boss is how: if your boss is "belittling, sets arbitrary rules, is demanding at inappropriate times... is disrespectful of your time or talks down to you, it's probably time to look elsewhere for a job."
Unhealthy work relationships distract from our goals and disrupt our success. Studies show that anxious, depressed or irrational management behavior impairs employee performance and self-esteem. In fact, research indicates that a bad mentoring experience has a more negative influence on mentees' wellbeing than a good mentoring experience has a positive influence; negative relationships are, in a word, stronger. This effect may explain why people with poor supervisor relationships later do worse work--even with a new supervisor!
Whatever your circumstance, don't get sucked into blaming life on your boss. If you experience tension at work, examine its source and objectively determine who and what is responsible. Whether you decide to change your relationship or leave it, the next step is yours.
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