Does your CEO remind you of your bullying older brother? Or the mother who always refolded your clothes because you didn’t do a good enough job? Or the emotionally distant father who never praised you? Watch out: Chances are your CEO is recreating the very same dynamics that shaped his early family life. The entire executive team, and its mission, may suffer unless the CEO recognizes it and takes conscious steps to change his subconscious behavior.
My work with top executives has shown that deep-seated, sometimes irrational fears can skew their decisions and their ability to execute company strategy. But I’ve found another influence, equally deep-seated, that affects how they deal with others in the C-suite: their earliest interactions with family members and friends.
Research has shown that our early family experiences often re-emerge in our adult life interactions with others, including those in the business world. Families, after all, are our first “enterprise, ” and our parents and siblings are our first “management team.” Early family life affects how leaders respond to pressure and react when team members compete for their attention. It influences whether they have close or distant relationships with the people who report to them, communicate directly or indirectly, micromanage or empower, encourage debates or shut them down.
The late psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall described a “theater of the mind” whose script is written in childhood and reprised subconsciously in other settings as the child grows up. Depending on family dynamics and fate, that script could be written by Frank Capra or Tennessee Williams. Was the family open or guarded? Were emotions encouraged or repressed? Were the parents nurturing or uninvolved? Did the death of a parent, the birth of a disabled sibling, or a reversal of fortune make the family stronger? Or did it cause rifts and recrimination?
Other researchers have proven this link between childhood experiences and adult behavior. Psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth have shown that children’s attachment to their mother affects how close they get to others in adulthood. And researcher and social policy analyst David Utting’s work links poverty to family stress. This, in turn, can derail even the most committed parent and undermine a child’s future ability to deal with stress.
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