Family Filters

How do you relate to your boss? How do you relate to those below you in your organization? Our behavior is driven by our perspective about what is appropriate to a particular situation. You probably like to believe that your perspectives, the ones that you use to decide how to relate to bosses and subordinates, are based on rational thought and good judgment. That is probably somewhat true.

However, have you ever found yourself behaving in ways that, in retrospect, didn’t fit the situation? “What was I thinking?” Beyond that, do you sometimes find yourself reacting more emotionally than you can justify? Maybe you get more fearful of your boss than you can understand. Maybe you get more impatient with subordinates than they merit. In the dark of night, do you ask yourself “Where did THAT come from?”

Our perspectives are shaped by our experiences and the conclusions that we draw from them. We are most aware of our current experiences. When we explain our behavior to ourselves, we tend to rely on rational explanations that arise from our current circumstances. Such “rational” explanations are often unsatisfying in explaining our irrational behavior and feelings. When that is the case, we need to look deeper.

Whether convenient or comfortable, the fact is that many of our perspectives are born in our past. Our family had patterns of behavior that led us to draw conclusions about what is appropriate and “normal.” On the basis of our experiences with parents, for example, we have usually developed some assumptions about what leaders and our relationship with leaders will be like. Such assumptions fade from conscious awareness, but they don’t go away. They often guide our behavior.

Assumptions can be convenient. We have to make some assumptions just to get through the day. But, when we find ourselves behaving or feeling irrationally, or sub-optimally, it is time to question our assumptions.

Today, executive coaches have helped many leaders discover and question assumptions that had fallen out of their awareness. (Warning: Only some coaches have the training and background to competently guide people on such a path. Other coaches have other areas of expertise.) These leaders have discovered that current patterns of behavior and beliefs are rooted in their early experiences. Once they become aware of their assumptions, born in their families of origins, they can make choices about whether to continue to be guided by them.

One successful man I know was tyrannical with his direct reports. His father had been tyrannical with him. Once he made the connection, he could develop alternatives. He began to listen more. He found that his subordinates were smarter than he had realized. He had picked them well. Now that he listened to them, he became more successful than he could be on his own. This is normal. Leaders, as they rise in the ranks, do much less of the actual work themselves and rely more and more on others. As he learned to draw out their talents, he and his reports became a team.

Everyone enjoyed more success.

Your family, like all families, was a mixture of useful and irrational lessons. As adults, we all have the responsibility to figure out which lessons are useful and which ones are irrational. As we sort out the useful from the irrational, we gain incredible power to grow our own skills and results.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies solve problems and build skills. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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