Release the family baggage

Release Family Baggage: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

This month’s story around how family upbringing affects leadership and conflict management explores how Ryan found the gifts of resilience, empathy, and improvisation and uses them to his – and others’ – advantage. He leverages his history to create productive conflict strategies.

Ryan tells the story of his upbringing below and then we examine a few of the productive conflict strategies he employs for career success today. Finally, we take a look at some key characteristics of resilience to help you consider how you can apply them to your own life and career challenges.

Ryan’s Story: An Outsider within the Family Unit

My parents grew up during the hard times of the depression and lead-up to World War II. They were both reserved, only children with natural tendencies to neither demonstrate much affection nor to address problems openly. I remember only one time my parents fought, and the issue was never talked about again that I recall.

I would describe my mom, dad, brother, and sister as the family unit, and I was this other person sort of floating off in space on the side. Prior to my brother’s birth, when I was seven years old, I felt a sense of belonging with my family. I remember doing things with my parents and getting lots of attention. But once he was born – and my sister, two years later – doing things with my parents came to stop.

At the same time, I knew I was loved, even though my parents never said or showed it. I sincerely believe my parents weren’t aware of how much more attention they gave to my siblings. I understand now how overwhelmed they were, working to make ends meet. From their perspective, they didn’t have to worry about me because I became self-sufficient after my siblings were born.

Family Conflict Was Avoided

My parents didn’t address conflict directly, which I suspect was common during that time era. As I mentioned, I became very independent once my siblings were born because they were younger and had more needs than I did. From a young age, I remember keeping very much to myself.

For example, if I was upset about something, I would take it out on inanimate objects. I’d punch something rather than talk about what was upsetting me. Other times I might use humor to ease the hurt and then move on. I remember a few times my feelings were hurt when a sibling would break something of mine and my parents wouldn’t discipline them or acknowledge my hurt. Looking back, that lack of acknowledgment probably reinforced my reasons for not talking about my feelings. And nothing was ever replaced as money was always really tight.

The same dynamic continued as I became a teenager. I didn’t spend a lot of time at home, and my parents let me come and go as I pleased, unsupervised. For example, I often broke the driving curfew, and my parents never said anything about it. When I had a traffic accident or two, they seemed more concerned about where they’d get the money for repairs than they were about my wellbeing. That’s yet another example of why I learned not to expect any emotional support from my parents. At the same time, I understood from their vantage point. Money was a legitimate concern.  

Though I wish things would have been different for me growing up I don’t hold any grudges, it was just the way it was. We’re all are a product of our environment and times. I’m a product of mine.

Ryan: How Does My Family Show Up in the Office?

In my first professional job, I started two weeks after a large group was hired and formally trained together. When I came in by myself, I was given the learning materials but no formal training. I had to figure it out for myself. Then, I bounced from one work group to another and ended up with nine different supervisors in less than five years.

When your boss changes that rapidly, there’s no connection. As a result, none of my supervisors helped me to develop. My coworkers of similar tenure got promoted, but I didn’t because there wasn’t anyone to be my champion.

I was unattached just like I was in my family. It was a continuation of my life up to that point.  

Just like in my family, when I was overlooked, I learned to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going. The circumstances in my family upbringing taught me how to have an inner drive and to be resilient. However, I always had lingering negativity in my perspective, despite my perseverance.

What Helped Ryan Change the Negative Mindset

A comment a start-up co-founder made about me became a key turning point in overcoming the negative mindset. He said, “Ryan, you’re always so negative.”

It was like somebody took a 2×4 and – bam – hit me upside the head with it. I realized I did tend to be negative and my negativity was working against me. I decided right then and there to change my outlook.

Underneath, I’ve always believed in me, and I’ve dedicated myself to constantly be evolving. Awareness is half the battle. Once I’m aware, I do whatever it takes to change. That moment of awareness was the first catalyst to slay the dragon of pessimism,

The second catalyst for changing my negative mindset was a key phrase from the 60s, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” I’ve always taken that phrase to heart, both with my family and anybody else in the world. I try to see things from others’ point of view:

What got you to where you are right now?

What have you dealt with in your life, in your family life, your work life?

What demons have you had to slay? (Because we’ve all got them!)

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Thinking about walking a mile in someone’s shoes makes me pause. It was eye-opening to have empathy for my own internal journey. I realized: What got me to where I am is what I went through. My negativity stemmed from feeling overlooked in my family.

Now, I try to use that lens in dealing with others in the workplace.  How each of us reacts to things like conflict is a product of our experiences. We’ve all dealt with difficulties, no matter our financial status, the color of our skin, religious background, and so on. And people don’t always know how to work through those past challenges. We internalize our struggles and lash out at others.

Despite what happened in my upbringing, I chose to change the pattern of negativity to positivity. We all have that choice.

Ryan’s Productive Conflict Strategies

Here are just a few of the productive conflict strategies Ryan leverages for success in his career. You’ll recognize their connection to his family upbringing.

  • Walk a Mile in Their Shoes Your parent’s behavior likely impacted you in some negative, as well as positive, ways. Regardless of what happened, make a conscious choice to view your circumstances from your parent’s point of view. Apply his same mindset to leadership and try to understand others. When differences occur, it often stems from what’s come behind them. It’s not to take people off the hook, rather to have empathy for the choices people make out of their history.
  • Work on Yourself Throughout your Life – Choose to grow, as Ryan did. It began with his resilience in childhood and progressed organically to making a conscious effort to turning around his negative mindset. Be resilient and keep growing!
  • People Are Not Stone – Change is possible! Children evolve and so can parents. As an adult, Ryan was able to develop a relationship with his mother before her untimely death when she was in her early 50s. His relationship with his father didn’t evolve as much, but it did also improve due to Ryan’s efforts. Though people may not change the way you would like, change is possible through your influence.

Reflection on Resilience

In recent years the word “resilience” has emerged as a buzzword, but it’s not for Ryan. He’s lived it since a young age.

In Diane Coutu’s article in the Harvard Business Review called “How Resilience Works,” she describes the three characteristics of resilience below. Here’s how Ryan exhibited those characteristics without even realizing it.

Accept Reality

Resilient people see a situation for what it is to prepare and train themselves to act in ways to survive.

Ryan recognized his parent’s behavior resulted from what they knew from their own upbringing (e.g., lack of affection) and life events (e.g., the depression). Though he wanted more attention from his parents, he recognized his parents had limited time and energy due to their jobs and responsibilities to their younger children. He learned at a young age how to be self-sufficient.

Create Meaning

Resilient people look for opportunities to grow and take the perspective that challenges have purpose.

The phrase “Walk a mile in my shoes” allowed Ryan to have empathy for others. It allowed him to be curious about others’ experiences and to take into account the story behind people’s behavior and choices.

It also gave him empathy for himself by making the connection between his negativity and his feeling overlooked as a child. He views his childhood challenges as catalysts that got him where he is today. And he recognizes the importance of understanding others’ stories – that it’s what’s come behind them that prompts rude or hurtful comments and actions.

Uncanny Ability to Improvise

Resilient people think creatively about possible solutions to a challenge – even when they have few resources.

Ryan developed skills to interact with a variety of people. Once he received feedback about his negative attitude, he made a concerted effort to become positive. He recognized that change is possible for himself and others.

Ryan had been forced to train himself at a new job. He used the ability to improvise throughout his career as an entrepreneur.

Productive Conflict, Resilience, and You

No matter the specifics of our family upbringing, we can all learn to leverage what we learned growing up to our best advantage like Ryan has. How have you developed productive conflict strategies and resilience from your upbringing? If you’d like help in finding the strengths in your story, we can help! Contact me to set up a complimentary strategy session.  

This blog is an excerpt of the forthcoming book How Did My Family Get into My Office? a compilation of real-life stories of how leaders changed their family conflict pattern and leveraged their leadership success.

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