Jeremiah could feel the stress building. For months I’d been listening to my boss’s ranting about some production issue that hadn’t gone as planned. I felt responsible as a leader and was genuinely trying to do a good job. I wanted to defend myself and explain my attempt to solve the problem.
Suddenly, I realized that this is how my mother reacted when she couldn’t control something and lashed out in anger. Her parenting style was command and control. There was no reasoning with her. It was her way or the highway. As I made this realization, I thought ‘I’m not talking to my mother. My boss doesn’t have the cords to pull with me emotionally’. From that moment on, I took back my power.
Can you relate? Have you ever been in conversation with a boss where no matter what you did, it wasn’t right? Or maybe with a co-worker who’s unreasonable and unwilling to work through differences? Then, like Jeremiah, it hits you. Inside you feel the same angst, irritation, and tension as you did growing up?
Work is an extension of life history
Believe it or not, relationships at work are an extension of your life history. It doesn’t matter what age you are, unless you’ve gained self-awareness about patterns learned in your upbringing, those patterns could affect how you communicate, deal with conflict, and lead today.
It’s Not about Blame
This article is not intended to:
- Blame, shame, or throw parents under the bus.
- Build a case for being a victim and avoid responsibility for one’s behavior.
- Give license to unhealthy behaviors that negatively impact others by saying “it’s how I was raised.”
Rather, looking at our upbringing helps us understand. It’s a way to make sense of relationship patterns that were modeled to you, especially around conflict. Unknowingly, we carry patterns learned in childhood with us and we tend to apply those same patterns in family, friend, and work relationships.
“I was often put in charge of my six younger siblings when my parents were working. I even attended my sibling’s parent/teacher conferences when my parents couldn’t make it. I was used to being in charge.
My parents fought constantly. Mom was very controlling and always giving orders. Dad was more of a consensus builder and didn’t like conflict. Mom would tell me how I felt; dad would ask how I felt. They divorced when I was in my late teens.
When I started working and managing people, I thought the way to be an effective leader was a command and control approach like my mother. I thought that was a sign of strength to take charge, tell people what to do like I did with my siblings. After 15 years of that, I was stressed out. Everybody looked to me for answers because I told them what to do instead of inviting their participation,” Jeremiah said.
The Pivotal Turning Point
“In my 30’s, my dad and I had pivotal conversations that led to changes in my leadership and conflict style.
They started as my dad’s attempt to resolve his own inner conflict about the breakup with my mom. Those conversations helped me release resentment about the responsibility that was put on me at a young age. Through our talks, that resentment turned to gratitude for the life lessons I learned young. My dad apologized to me and validated my feelings, which was extremely powerful.
Mom still has a command and control approach and I’ve realized that’s because of the way she grew up. She had a demanding father and developed defenses to protect herself. We’ve never talked about anything emotional and I’ve accepted her. While I’m closer with my dad, I’m still in contact with both of my parents and have good relationships with them,” Jeremiah said.
How to Keep Your Power During Conflict
“The first 15-20 years of my life, I led like my mother through command and control. It was through conversations with my dad and personal growth that I realized I needed help from others. l also learned my relationship patterns from my upbringing, and I could make the choice to change those patterns in my life and leadership style.
Most of all, I learned to hold my power when talking with my leaders.
I now stay grounded, ask questions, and try to get to the root issue rather than react to the perceived power struggle I carry with me from my past experiences. We all have our experiences from growing up. When we’re in stressful situations, we tend to lean back on our reactive tendencies from when we were kids. I’ve learned how to notice when that’s happening. I’ve replaced my authoritarian, command and control leadership with responding from a place of calm objectivity,” Jeremiah said.
Change your Family Conflict Pattern
In the book, Dare to Care – Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership, George Kohlrieser and his colleagues interviewed more than 1,000 executive global leaders. They discovered characteristics that shape how leaders view themselves. Many carry influences from past relationships, events, or experiences that unknowingly affect their leadership.
- Are there messages you received growing up that may be limiting your leadership?
- Are there past experiences that linger through either conflict avoidance or a “command and control” leadership style?
3 Unconventional Ways Leaders Change Conflict Pattern:
1. Gain self-awareness – Like Jeremiah, take an honest look at what communication and conflict patterns were modeled to you from your upbringing. Remember, it’s not about blame, it’s about understanding.
2. Have conversations with parents/family members – If a parent is deceased or not emotionally capable of having a conversation, who else in your family could you talk with? The intent of the conversation is to discuss experiences/events to gain perspective. While Jeremiah was able to talk with his dad, he knew his mom wouldn’t be as receptive and the conversation would be more destructive than productive. Use your best judgment.
3. Find Support – Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with someone not involved to make sense of the past. Find a person who will be objective and provide you with resources to move forward with peace and, if needed, forgiveness. Always remember the goal in looking back is to resolve past experiences so they stop interfering with your life and leadership.
You can choose to keep your power during conflict and you can choose to change your family conflict pattern for the better.
Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture. Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.