Are your relationships with previous authority figures in your life, affecting your relationship with your boss? 

2 min read

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This topic has come up twice in my work with clients in the past two weeks. It isn’t talked about much but it does shed light on an important topic.  

Psychoanalysts agree that “No relationship is ever really a new relationship”. 

Our parents were our original authority figures. While we may assume that they did the best they could under their circumstances, they nevertheless paint an early picture of how authority figures are and perhaps how they are meant to be. We respond to their behaviour in unique and complex ways but these feelings remain deeply ingrained in us. So, if you feel an urge to rebel when asked to do something by the boss who bears an uncanny likeness to a dictatorial parent or we feel rejected by a boss who reminds us on some level of a dismissive and rejecting authority figure in our personal life, you may react to them with exaggerated hurt, anger, rebelliousness and even aggression.

These feelings are usually mediated by more positive experiences with supportive more recent authority figures such as good teachers, bosses, coaches and counsellors. Self-awareness and self-management are essential too. But, if we know that we are falling into an old trap, can we acknowledge that, soothe ourselves, and manage and adapt our behaviour?  

In stressful situations, we tend to revert to childhood patterns. You may have noted this during the Covid Epidemic and during stressful times for the team. In addition, if there was any specific trauma during your childhood, your default behaviour in a very challenging situation can be governed by the same response, meaning that you respond as if you were the same age as you were when the trauma occurred.  

Of course, as leaders and managers, we need to view this from that perspective too. Is that person in your team who you find challenging to manage transferring their feelings about authority figures onto you?

One of the most difficult aspects of being a leader is accepting that in your role people will do this. Even more difficult is that you may need to adapt your behaviour to resolve the problem. While you may know nothing at all about a team member’s past relationships with authority figures in their lives, you are able to consider what aspects of your behaviour may be eliciting this response. Perhaps a more important question here is, is there a pattern? Do you, for example, often find that you have a couple of people reporting to you who seem angry or passive-aggressive or nervous or attention-seeking? It is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on this. Perhaps you do need to soften the edges of your leadership style. It is worth noting that some individuals may need you to adapt their style so that you may lead them effectively in different circumstances, particularly at challenging times.   

Author: Debbie Dudley