How Understanding Your Family Dynamics Can Improve Work


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Managing people means engaging with their psychology. Understanding someone and why they behave the way they do takes a lot of effort, but it can also unlock better ways to work together. The same goes for yourself. Your own psychology, reflecting, developing self-awareness; those take time, but they can bring you to a better place in your job and career.

Today we’re putting a new research based lens on our interactions with others at work, especially when it comes to conflict and difficult relationships. It’s called family systems theory at the high level. It’s the idea that our early lives shape us. And how we interact at work can stem from past behavior patterns that we learned at a young age in our families.

Here to talk about their research on applying family systems theory to management is Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Dennis Perkins, CEO of the Syncretics Group and a former professor at Yale School of Management. They wrote the HBR article, “Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite.” Deborah, thanks for coming on the show.

DEBORAH ANCONA: Thanks for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: And Dennis. Thank you too.

DENNIS PERKINS: My pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: Let me start with you, Dennis. Why is family systems theory something that’s useful for leaders and managers to think about?

DENNIS PERKINS: Well, I think that we know that families have played an important role in our lives. But I think we’re often unaware of just how that plays out every day in the workplace. And for me, I began to understand family systems theory when I went to a talk by a woman named Virginia Satir. And she was a very figure that piqued my interest in the field, and I applied some of the ideas to myself and my career choices. And I realized that by using that framework, I could help other people understand just how their initial experiences and their families played out in the workplace and how that could make them be more effective both personally and in the workplace as well.

DEBORAH ANCONA: People have been writing about family systems for decades, and it comes from more of a psychoanalytic background. But the people who study it, these people believe that the emphasis on just the individual in terms of helping that individual to get better, if there was some psychological problem, could best be done by looking at the whole family and people’s interrelationships and the whole family system, rather than just the individual.

In fact, Minuchin once said that he doesn’t treat youth with anorexia, but rather anorexic families. So really the idea is that we learn so much of our views toward authority, our views toward power, our views toward what’s important from the whole family system. And then those are ideas that managers then have that come out perhaps unexpectedly in a managerial setting. And so we thought it was important to understand the viewpoint of what goes on in those early years.

CURT NICKISCH: So what are some of those common relationships or manifestations that play out then in the workplace?

DEBORAH ANCONA: It’s quite astounding what comes out. People understand some of the things that both enable them to lead and the things that get in the way. So some examples would be, I have students who very strongly believe succeed above all else. That’s the only thing that’s important. Win, win, win. Succeed. Get ahead. Sometimes they feel like that is pushing them in ways that they don’t want to go. And yet there it is.

And they then get to look back and say, Hmm, where did that come from? Well, I was the eldest and I was expected to be the one to succeed. Or my mom really pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed. Or my job was to represent the family in the outside world. And so I have to prove myself every single day. And those people by having that insight are able to then work so that they can relax a little bit and not be compelled to work on succeeding all of the time.

I’ve taught this to MBAs, to executives, to senior level executives. And I do think that it resonates quite well with people who have worked for, I don’t know, 15, 20 plus years, because they’re often open to thinking about change. They’re often at a point where they’re reassessing their careers and their lives and what the future will bring. And so they seem to be very, very receptive to this material and able to use it.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. They’re also kind of maybe in their own new families at that point, too.

DEBORAH ANCONA: Yes, indeed. In fact, a lot, lot of executives comment, oh, I better watch what I’m doing with my own family here because I’m setting those very dynamics into play.

DENNIS PERKINS: I think that the insights from family systems can affect almost anyone. But my experience in coaching very senior executives is that the ripple effect from some behaviors at that level has an impact that is tremendous.

CURT NICKISCH: Now in your work to apply this theory to business settings, you identified six main factors affecting behavior in the workplace. Can we go through them? Maybe we can name them quickly and then talk through some of these factors.

DEBORAH ANCONA: Well, the six factors that we talk about in the article are values and beliefs, roles, secrets, boundaries, triangles, expectations and mastery.

CURT NICKISCH: Can you give an example of how one of these behaviors hurts us at work?

DENNIS PERKINS: I think the values and beliefs that are communicated to us and our families play out, I like to think of it as a sort of family coat of arms. Not the ones that you might see in a history book, but the symbols, keywords, and values that are really imbued in every member of the family. What’s important. Is it education? Is it success? Is it being nice to other people? And that’s one of the examples that I think can be very useful. If people understand and think about the unique character that was developed as a result of those key messages that they received from the very beginning. So that would be one element of the family system that I think is important to reflect on and understand.

DEBORAH ANCONA: Just building on that, when we think about values and beliefs, one of the things that comes out are the shoulds. What you should do. This is the way you should act. And sometimes when executives look at the shoulds that they believe, they come to realize, Hmm, I’m not sure that I still believe that. So an analysis can help them to question or to double down, say, yes, this is really something that I believe and I need to live. But it also helps people to realize that part of the reason they may be having difficulty with another person on the leadership team or in their group is because their shoulds and the other persons shoulds differ from each other. So you are talking too much and I find that to be impolite is an issue for me. But it really doesn’t speak to the fact that person might have really good things to say. And so it’s important to get past how the person says it to what it is the person is saying.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s really interesting to hear about values in workplace settings, because you also have of the organizational value, which is kind of culture, right? So somebody might really be absolutely honest about sick days and somebody else may just take a sick day to take a day off and those are individual decisions. But there’s also the organizational culture that sort of says what’s accepted generally too. And so you have…you’ve got conflicting values. And then you have that in sort of the organizational setting that may lean one way or the other too.

DENNIS PERKINS: What that makes me think of is that some families are very hierarchical and authority is explicit. And some organizations are very flat and much more egalitarian. And so if you’re moving one way or the other, that can really cause people to hesitate about how to fit in and to reconcile those two different cultures or ways of thinking about behavior.

CURT NICKISCH: And maybe carry resentment or negative feelings about that. But there are also some ways that they can help us too, right?

DEBORAH ANCONA: Absolutely. There are many, many good ghosts. Sometimes the literature on family systems moves toward the negative or the people who have of mental illness, but your family system can create lots and lots of good ghosts that help you in many ways.

One of the people that we write about in the article, he was a very, very good task leader. He built his own company and he was very successful. People liked him. People thought that the organization was a great place to work. But then he got feedback that he was too distant and needed to work on his interpersonal skills. And he wanted to get better at relating to others.

But in some sense, his family system created a situation where he was very good at task management. He was very good at sense making, but not so good on the interpersonal side. And that came because his father was an alcoholic and he was often drunk and abusive. And so this manager’s way of dealing with that was to create a wall between himself and other people. So the good ghosts were the ghosts that were the ones he established whereby the way he coped with his environment was to do very well at school and was to create these boundaries. And so he was very good at execution, very good at strategic thinking. He was a great sense maker because he would have to navigate what the situation was when he got home. So those were his good ghosts, the ghosts that enabled him to succeed in those domains of execution and sense making. A family system brings both the good and the bad ghosts. And you have to really understand both to understand what do you want to focus on and build on and what ghosts may be ones that you identify for exorcism.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. How do you start recognizing those ghosts? How do you start recognizing these patterns?

DENNIS PERKINS: What is helpful is to go through a process by which you systematically look at the different elements of your family system. And thinking about what were the values, what were your family coat of arms operationally, the principle values? And what does it mean to be a, whatever your last name is, and to go through systematically the elements. What parts did you play? What was your role in the family? One of the most interesting parts of the analysis process, I think, is looking at the role of family secrets. Were there any taboo topics or things that were difficult to discuss? And are there things in your organization that are taboo or difficult to discuss? And then finally, triangles. Where their communication triangles that existed where people didn’t talk directly with others? And how did all of those six elements shape your attitude and behavior along with the idea of expectations and mastering?

DEBORAH ANCONA: Another way to access your family system is to look at moments when you are triggered by something and have an unusual response, a very strong response. You might want to go back and say, Hmm, what was going on there? Can I understand why this particular thing challenged me in this way? Or to look at times when you are stuck or having a lot of problems or you can’t make a decision and you want to try to understand what’s going on.

That was a situation with the woman who we talk about in the article who was really competent, had been in an HR company for many, many years. She had gone to an EMBA program and was working with some of her colleagues to create a startup in the HR space. And she created the organization. Everything was ready to go. And that was the point where she had to go out and market, basically the company to VCs and to HR companies or HR parts of companies. And she just couldn’t do it every day. She would say, okay, I have to start contacting people. And I know who to contact and I know to contact them. But she was stuck. She couldn’t do it.

And it turned out that part of her issue was that in her family, she was supposed to not step ahead and get in the way of her brother. Because in that family, the brother was the male and he was the one who was supposed to shine, even though in her family, he had a lot of problems. So for her, she was very worried that stepping forward would cause problems with her male colleagues and that would somehow cause them to feel incompetent. And in understanding that, she was able to step ahead and move ahead, and now has a very successful company.

DENNIS PERKINS: That reminds me of an example of one very senior executive I worked with got upset at senior team meetings whenever he saw an unhappy face. And he wanted everyone smiling. And he realized after some discussion that this took him back to his family vacations when it was important that everybody going on vacation have a smiling face as they drove away. And his reaction was to avoid conflict because he wanted those smiling faces. And that insight gave him permission to really escape from the need to make everyone happy and then deal with conflict when necessary and move the firm forward. So it was really liberating.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. We just spent a lot of money on this vacation. You better have a good time.

DENNIS PERKINS: Exactly. Right.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I can see that. Does any of this work, to go back and reflect on yourself, is there a point where you recognize that needs to be done in therapy or can you really do this through self-reflection?

DEBORAH ANCONA: Well, I always think that therapy is a good thing, a good process. And often people who take the course where we go through this opt to go into therapy. The way I see it is that this is not really delving deeply into everything that’s troubling you on a personal basis. It’s really much more targeted did to leadership development and things that might be getting in the way of your own development and you wanting to step forward. So we don’t necessarily take people into a full analysis of the situation, but rather keep to what are the aspects of your family system that might be playing out in this arena where you are trying to improve and you find yourself having difficulties. So it’s very truncated and focused rather than dealing with a larger scale change.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. How might, just for example, being aware of our issues with authority change how we interact at work once you’ve come to that realization through the work you do?

DENNIS PERKINS: In the piece we talk about creating provisional self, another template for how you would like to be once you’ve had the insight. Tor me, the first thing that becomes important is the insight, the awareness that you’re behaving a certain way, for example, in the presence of an authority figure. And once that insight is there through reflection, dialogue, perhaps in therapy, perhaps with an executive coach or others, looking at alternative ways of dealing with authority and dealing with difficult situations. But I think that until you have the insight, then it’s extremely difficult. There’s some expression, the fish is the last one to know the ocean. And I think a lot of people are very unaware that they may be triggered by some authority figure and to operate in dysfunctional ways. So I think once that insight is there, then going forward and looking at alternative ways of behavior can be very effective.

CURT NICKISCH: Deborah, what about identity? Dennis used that concept of the coat of arms for understanding your last name or who you are. How does recognizing that help you improve your work relationships?

DEBORAH ANCONA: Well, I think because once you discover more about who you are and how you came to be that way, you are more open to looking at how that identity plays out in the workplace. So you see more, you notice more. And that’s the first step, as Dennis said, to really being able to change. This analysis through the family systems to my mind helps people to get a much deeper view of who they are as leaders. So it gets them pushed deeper. And therefore they are able to move ahead, getting at some of the core nuggets that are getting in the way of their own identity change. And as Dennis said also, one of the ways to move ahead and changing your identity is through this idea of provisional selves, which Herminia Ibarra has written about quite extensively, in which you try on other identities. And you can’t really do that until you have a good sense of what yours is and what is it that you’re able to change about it.

CURT NICKISCH: Now in the same way that it’s helpful to go back and look at your own family to understand who you became, it’s got to be tempting in a business setting then to look at your coworkers and try to understand them through their family systems. Is that possible?

DENNIS PERKINS: It is certainly possible. You have to be careful about imputing certain kinds of things to your theory of what happened in their family. But to the extent that you can have an honest conversation with someone about their family, and again not in a psychotherapeutic way, but just a, this is what it was like for me. What was it like for you? Then that can certainly facilitate an understanding of different behaviors. And also I think help both people change their behaviors so they become more compatible.

CURT NICKISCH: Sort of in a mutual sense, yeah.

DENNIS PERKINS. Yeah, I think the mutuality is important rather than you’re analyzing them and making unsolicited observations about their behavior. Which never goes quite that well.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, if you’re a boss, is it worth teaching your teams about this way of thinking? Is it something you should suggest HR to try to implement across the organization?

DEBORAH ANCONA: I’m always wary of solutions that get imposed by an organization. I think it’s fine to suggest, as Dennis said. I have gotten a lot out of this framework and you might be interested to see what insights come out of it for you. But my advice would not be to force everybody into an introspective mode because not everybody is ready or wanting or able to move into that direction.

DENNIS PERKINS: Just to…maybe a variation on that. But I have had a couple experiences where it’s a more general part of an educational program where the results have been unexpectedly good.  So I think in the right…presented in the right way as a conceptual framework, it can actually be very effective.

DEBORAH ANCONA: The other way to look at it is not to go through a full analysis, but to ask people to reflect on assumptions that they may have, which often do come from early family experiences, that might be getting in the way of the work that they need to do. And so that you can help them then with a reframe of the assumptions that they have. For example, there are a lot of people who think that networking or selling the work that they’ve done is a negative thing. That an assumption growing up was that you had to be humble and that the work could speak for itself. And it was not appropriate to engage in this kind of thing. In which case you can help people who have that assumption without getting into where the assumption came from or how deep it is to reframe. So it’s not about you marketing or you networking, which can have a negative connotation to some people, but you are helping to bring the business to another level by reaching out and creating connections that will help the business.

So it’s away from you doing something negative to you helping, which is an assumption that is in a frame that is much more palatable to somebody who has that kind of mindset. A different way of reframing is lots assumptions from our childhood are kind of overgeneralized. If I do this, no one will like me. If I do this, I will always fail. And you can push back on that and say, really? Always? How many times have you failed before when you tried something new? If you had to rate zero to a hundred on the real probability, would it be a hundred percent? And then people come to real realize, Hmm, not really. That’s the way I’ve been thinking for all these years, but I actually don’t believe it’s a hundred percent. I don’t think that no one will ever like me because I have friends. And so that’s an erroneous way of seeing the world. So you can combat some of the mindsets and assumptions without going back to the family system that created them.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s the biggest misconception about family systems theory that you want to clear up?

DENNIS PERKINS: That family systems theory is something that can only be used in therapy and may have a deep psychodynamic/psychoanalytic basis that require years and years of therapy to understand. And I see it as a conceptual framework, a paradigm like many others, and that people can use the concepts, understand them and make changes. And that once they understand that family ghosts are part of our lives, they realize that some need to be embraced and celebrated and some need to be banished and left behind. And it’s an exciting journey.

DEBORAH ANCONA: I would also add that a lot of companies believe that we can separate ourselves, that we bring our professional selves to work and leave our private selves at home and certainly our past at home. But it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t make those kinds of divisions. And so understanding that sometimes the private self, sometimes issues of the past, will come into the organizational setting anyway so you might as well understand what they are and use them to propel people forward.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, Deborah and Dennis, I’ve always believed that one of the best gifts you can give anybody is a piece of their identity. And you, through this research and work, have given folks a new tool to do that for themselves. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about it.

DEBORAH ANCONA: Thank you very much.

DENNIS PERKINS: It’s a tremendous pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and Dennis Perkins, CEO of the Syncretics Group. They’re the authors of the HBR article “Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite.” You can find it in the January/February 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Now, if you’d like to turn the tables and apply business practices to your family, we’ve got an episode for you. It’s titled, Can You Manage Your Family? That’s episode 345. This episode is produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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