How we re-create our families in the workplace
Mental health is generally considered a very personal thing. However, aspects of our mental health sometimes collide with our very public work selves. Much more than just depression or anxiety, the mental health umbrella also covers the underlying causes of why we communicate the way we do with one another. Most of the time, our families of origin are the biggest influences in how we communicate.
How our mothers and fathers express anger is the foundation for how we express anger. Sure, as we grow and develop we also learn from teachers, friends, coaches, or even television and other media. But our foundations come from our caregivers. I interact with you the way my family of origin taught me to interact with others; you interact with me the way your family of origin taught you to interact. In this way, we are all carrying around family baggage.
This notion extends to bullying behaviors. If I come from a family that manifests its expressions of anger as bullying, then those behaviors will likely seem normal or natural to me.
Have you ever said something to someone at work and been perplexed because he or she flew off the handle? It can be hard for people who have experienced bullying not to take things personally. People with a history of being bullied may, through no fault of their own, be emotionally fragile. They may get their feelings hurt relatively easily, and in turn they may shut down and become passive or lash out in an aggressive manner. Being bullied is awful, and this possible byproduct is just one of the reasons.
When someone with an aggressive communication style gets his or her first job, coworkers may not initially like the person. This might seem puzzling to the new employee, since he or she isn’t doing or saying anything out of the ordinary. The person may struggle to stay employed or get promoted and not understand why.
Dysfunctional communication styles damage workplace morale and may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I am sensitive to criticism, I may interpret comments as harsher than they were intended to be. If I react emotionally, my coworkers may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around me and may even choose to avoid me. If I notice people avoiding me, it might trigger my sensitivities and cause further alienation.
In my experience working with people who have family-of-origin issues, not only do they often have difficulty fitting in and making friends in the workplace, they typically do not understand why, which only adds to their feelings of frustration, shame, and worthlessness.
According to researchers at King’s College in London, people who experienced bullying in their formative years often drift from job to job, never quite fitting in. Such individuals typically work for less pay, take fewer risks, and apply for fewer promotions. They do not understand that they, personally, are not the problem; their communication styles are the issue, and communication styles can be refined and improved with observation, practice, determination, and perhaps therapy.
Businesses may benefit from periodically consulting with a therapist or conflict coach who provides lunchtime or after-work workshops on topics such as assertive communication, stress management, and team building. Such workshops could lead to improved productivity, reduced workplace burnout, and higher employee retention.
Takizawa, R., Maughan, B., and Arseneault, L. (2014). Adult Health Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimization: Evidence from a Five-Decade Longitudinal British Birth Cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(7), 777-784. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13101401