The Parent Trap: When Employees act like Children they don’t need Supervisors who act like Parents
I am standing in an employee’s office asking for the documentation that the employee completed last week.
The employee says, “I turned it in.”
I know the employee completed it because I reviewed it, made some edits and gave it back to the employee to make the changes.
I say, “It is not in the file.”
The employee says, more defiantly, “Well I turned it in. I don’t know where this stuff goes after I turn it in. Now I’m being accused of not doing it!”
The employee’s desk is strewn with papers, unopened mail, and other detritus. I see the document. A sticky note in the unique color I use, and on which I had highlighted the edits, is peeking out from under some papers at the far corner of the desk.
Suppressing the desire to call-out the employee, I say, “Please look for it again. I’ll be back.”
As I walk away, I am reminded of one of my children who, home for the summer, would continually leave soiled clothing on the bathroom floor rather than in the laundry basket. One day before leaving for the office, I put a note on the bathroom mirror. “Hey. Today, please take all of the clothes out of your bedroom dresser and leave them on the bathroom floor. Thanks. Dad.”
It worked. No more clothes on the floor after that….But don’t try this at the workplace.
Workplace relationships are often as intense as family relationships. Even if people are away from the office during the pandemic, workers and supervisors are still in frequent contact with each other to get work done. Close personal relationships elicit strong feelings, which are colored by feelings from past relationships. For an employee or supervisor who, for whatever reason, had disrupted or unstable past relationships, some unresolved problems from that past can be triggered and acted out in the workplace.
Projective identification, as one example, is a psychological process that can bait both the employee and the supervisor. Person A projects unwanted beliefs or feelings (rather than owning them) on to person B. Person B then begins to behave as if they were really characterized by those things that A projected.
A simple example might be a person who is not willing to acknowledge that they have gained weight. They remark to a friend, “Have you gained weight?” The friend has no weight problem at all but suddenly becomes self-conscious of their weight.
In the workplace an employee may be unable to manage themselves in order to meet work deadlines. Rather than admitting this weakness, it is projected on to the supervisor who is perceived as not being able to manage the employees. The supervisor begins to question their own management abilities to get work done when in fact the employee is the one who is unable to manage the workload.
In situations like this, it is tempting for a supervisor to react in an authoritarian way to make sure the work gets done. This reaction is just what the employee is unconsciously eliciting – it gives the employee an excuse to see the problem as a harsh, insensitive supervisor, rather than the employee’s own failure to self-monitor.
How can you avoid this parent trap?
Be prepared: Being aware of the problem is almost always the first step to rectifying it. Are you having particularly strong feelings about an employee or their behavior, feelings that you cannot shake off? This reaction is a clue that you are responding to other feelings apart from what is going on right now in the workplace.
Reality check: Talk to colleagues who are outside of your relationship with the employee. They can help you sort out the feelings and events. The person in the earlier example might ask another friend, “Do you think I’ve put on weight?” In a difficult work relationship, you can describe the situation and your reaction to your employee and get your colleague’s read on it.
Rules of discipline: Have clear rules for employee feedback and discipline. When such rules are established and known by everyone, they structure the interaction for handling problems and restrain the supervisor from reacting irrationally. Rules depersonalize the interaction. “I’m following the protocol that the company has established for handling this problem (i.e. my behavior is not about you and me)”.
Separate the work from the person: Feeling devalued (in the current and past relationships) is one possible trigger for the employee’s problem behaviors. The supervisor can point out that the work which needs to be done is to everyone’s advantage. It is not a task simply imposed by the supervisor on the employee. Appealing to the larger vision of the work, how this particular project for the employee is important to all can make the employee feel valued and may move them to a more collaborative, mature way of working.
Get professional support: A supervisor is not and should not be a psychotherapist for their employees. Employees and supervisors who find themselves enmeshed in troublesome interpersonal reactions may need help from a mental health practitioner to resolve interpersonal issues that interfere with work. Your HR department, EAP program or other community providers can be resources for you.