Employee Experience in the Family-Like Work Environment
Since people working together tend to replicate family structures and dynamics, employers should be aware that employees will place a family lens on their interactions with others. The most common version of this is how employees will see supervisors as parent figures and colleagues as siblings.
One branch of psychology, Transactional Analysis, captures how people relate to one another, especially when the relationship has a power differential. From the transactional perspective, people can relate from one of three positions: parent, child, or adult. Generally, two equal people interact on an adult to adult basis. And this is what you want in the work environment. But when there is a supervisor-supervisee relationship, which has a power/hierarchical differential, the interaction can turn parent to child.
Parent/child interactions between two adults at work are prone to occur, and they are problematic. The child position is one down, demeaning, and less productive. The parent position puts needless responsibility on the supervision to control and monitor the child-like employee. This kind of relationship does not foster autonomy and mastery of the employee and stifles creativity.
One example of this occurred while I was consulting to several teams in an organization. One team had its leader leave and another promoted from within the group. The team seemed to suddenly freeze up, become less productive, and begin reacting to one another.
Through discussion, some team members could voice their jealousy that a peer had been promoted. Others could feel the resentment that a colleague was “now telling me what to do.” There were other comments, like “why does she suddenly know more than me?” The new supervisor leader at first was dumbfounded; after all, she had done nothing wrong.
With a little work the group identified its envy and fear of control by a (former) sibling. It became an opportunity for the team to reaffirm its adult to adult collegial working preference. The new supervisor was able to reach out, support everyone’s importance to the mission, and defuse the negative family projection.
The tendency for employees to see the work environment through a family lens is not a problem. It just needs to be understood and utilized for employee satisfaction and productivity.
Tom DeMaio, PhD