Like Parent, Like Boss

What to do when your employees turn out to be a dysfunctional family--and look to you to solve their problems

The fact is that work is our home away from home. And people raised in dysfunctional families-in which parents covered for their children when they did something wrong, let their chores slide without consequences, gave in to their tantrums-tend to recreate the same types of relationships at work.
July 1996

Like Parent,Like Boss

What to do when your employees turn out to be a dysfunctional family-and look to you to solve their problems.

By Marcela Kogan


t one point or another during their careers, most federal managers have felt like baby-sitters, spoon-feeding their employees ideas, reproaching them for not playing nice with their colleagues and holding their hands as they move from one project to another. Do any of the following statements sound familiar?

  • "I have to pick up after them like they are my kids," gripes a manager who constantly nags his employees for not filing their paperwork.
  • "Stop acting like a bunch of jealous siblings," a manager tells a team in which members are bickering and vying for the "coach's" attention.
  • "I wish they'd act like adults and come up with some ideas," a supervisor complains after an unsuccessful brainstorming meeting with his branch.

"If a person comes to work with an unresolved conflict they will tap into the dynamics of the workplace to try to work it out," says Rodney L. Lowman, psychologist and author of Counseling and Psychotherapy of Work Dysfunctions (American Psychological Association, 1993). "For people who have problems with authority and peer relationships, the workplace gives them another opportunity" to recreate their family relationships.

The last thing people raised in dysfunctional families need-and the thing they want most-is a rescuer: someone who will solve their problems and let them off the hook when they are too distraught to work. Yet many employees who work in hierarchical institutions find just such saviors in their supervisors.

"The paternalistic model of 'I want to take care of you' reigns in government," says Cynthia Scott, a partner in Changeworks Solutions, a San Francisco-based organizational development firm. "It absolves the person from blame and self-accountability. People enter these systems, they work for government and buy into the mythology that someone will take care of you.

"And if they don't do it perfectly," she adds, "you can blame them for ruining your life. People will say, 'My boss didn't give me the right courses so I didn't get the promotion,' instead of thinking, 'I failed to anticipate the skill sets and failed to prepare myself.' "

Such attitudes create work dysfunctions. The signs: drops in productivity and increased animosity.

But managers can play a crucial role in creating a healthy work environment by learning communications techniques to help employees confront their problems and offering them training courses that will teach them to become more independent and reliable.

Many managers become the "good" parents, adds Lowman. "There are a lot of similarities in the role of a good parent and good manager. The good parent attends to the needs of the children while helping them move in the direction they need to move. They don't give in to their every wish and they help them deal with problems.

"Managers do the same thing," adds Lowman. "If they have good working knowledge of their people, are attuned to their needs, know their strengths and weaknesses, they can try to help them become something better than themselves . . . . Often you get into sibling dynamics: This one thinks the other is better; this one resents the other because he has more resources."

Managers shouldn't diminish these quibbles and ignore them. They should recognize sibling rivalry for what it is. "It's like kids squabbling over candy," he adds. "The issue may seem petty, but from the perspective of a child it isn't. It's real and intense. A good parent can accept it as real and help to resolve it."

Taking Action

What makes many offices dysfunctional is that managers don't handle problems as they arise. Just as some parents ignore their children's behavior problems in school because they feel helpless or ashamed, some managers overlook employees who repeatedly come in late, miss deadlines, argue with co-workers and act withdrawn.

The reason: It's tough to confront people.

Many managers don't know what to say. They may feel responsible for their employee's poor performance or worry that confronting the employee will make matters worse. Plus, many managers rise up the ranks because of their technical expertise, not their people skills, says Kerry M. Joels of the Office of Human Resources at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Nobody likes to deal with people who are upset," says Joels, who trains HHS managers on interpersonal skills. "Everyone agrees to put it off until performance problems erupt and then you are dealing in a crisis mode. That's when you file grievances or take job action. That's also when there is the potential for violence in the workplace."

By doing nothing, managers contribute to office dysfunctions.

A contracting officer in one agency was taken off a case because of complaints about her incompetence, but she was never told that the case was assigned to someone else. Instead, everyone-including the nonprofit organization that held the contract-was asked to pretend she still had the case. "People in government didn't tell her this wasn't her job anymore," said an official from the nonprofit organization.

"People kept talking to us about how they don't want to hurt her feelings," she adds. "Nobody wanted to confront her. What we were told was, 'Thank you for being understanding. She is no longer a contact, but please keep talking to her. I know this is hard on everyone' . . . . Nobody would take responsibility."

What should have happened: The manager should have asked the contracting officer why she couldn't perform the job and offered appropriate training if the problem was lack of skills. If the issue was personal, the manager could have referred the employee to a counselor.

Repeatedly skirting confrontation could ultimately result in violence, especially if the troubled employee has severe psychological problems. Take, for instance, an incident involving an employee who was chronically late for work but was never reprimanded. When a new manager took over and insisted everyone be on time, the employee became suicidal.

"If the managers had dealt with him more effectively and continued holding him to work standards," says Lowman, "this may not have happened." By letting him slide, managers were in fact "enabling" him-helping him escape from his problems.

Such "enabling" behavior has wreaked havoc in many families as individuals choose to ignore the consequences of dad's drinking, mom's depression or a child's increasing carelessness.

Don't Diagnose

To help managers identify and deal with troubled employees, many Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) now offer supervisor training courses. Such programs are in high demand as managers grapple with stressed federal employees who fear they'll lose their jobs as a result of downsizing or just can't handle changes brought about by restructuring.

Originally, EAPs were established to provide rehabilitation for employees who had drug and alcohol problems. Now their mission has been broadened to cover emotional and other personal challenges facing employees and their supervisors.

About 37 percent of all clients who participate in the federal EAP in New York City, for instance, seek counseling for mental health concerns; 26 percent of them have family or marital problems, 20 percent have job-related problems, and only 7 percent are in substance-abuse situations. The remaining 21 percent are seen for child-care, financial and other problems.

EAPs stress that managers shouldn't diagnose employees-or try to cover up their problems.

The supervisor's main concern should be the employee's performance and conduct, says Elizabeth Burke, a clinician with Business Health Services, an EAP that provides services to the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies. "Once you start digging into personal reasons for why they are having problems," says Burke, "you blur the line of the supervisor's role. It makes it harder when the supervisor gets sucked into helping the employee with personal problems.

"A lot of supervisors get into enabling situations where they are assigning a person's work to someone else to let them off the hook," she says. "That enables the person to never face their problem and to continue not functioning. That can hurt the morale of the whole office. Everyone loses."

Supervisors should be aware that employees often battle with managers the way they did with mom and dad. Sometimes they don't even know they are recreating family dynamics at work and may be frightened by their own behavior.

An HHS social worker raised by an alcoholic father trembled every time she went in to make a proposal to her boss. "It was so easy for me to get hooked into a father-daughter situation with an authority male figure," she says. "The least negative criticism or question and I'd immediately be defensive . . . awaiting the constant litany of put-downs."

During an evaluation, her boss-also a social worker-praised her achievements but insinuated she seemed defensive whenever her work was questioned. "He said to me, 'I have a feeling that you are not talking to me when that happens.' . . . That started me on the path to look at those issues. He took a hell of a chance. As a manager, I'm not sure I'd take that chance. The employee is vulnerable."

Her boss was trained as a psychologist, she says, so he knew he was treading on dangerous ground. But she advises other managers not to pry into employees' personal histories. Supervisors who feel they are falling into diagnosing their subordinates should seek counseling.

Glenn Sutton, OPM's deputy chief of information technology, sought advice from an EAP when he found himself personally drawn into the problems of an employee. "The EAP helped me see what was going on," he said. "They walked me through so I could extract myself and get back to the role of the person who expects the employee to be here on time and not the person who expects to solve the employee's problems."

Where to Draw The Line

Dave Edmiston, Supervisory Training Instructor with the U.S. Army Signal Center in Ft. Gordon, Ga., refuses to play the role of father protector. When he notices something fishy going on with an employee, he deals with it immediately. Just recently, he referred an employee to drug and alcohol counseling after noticing she was chronically late.

"She was wearing sunglasses inside the building," he said. "So I called her into my office and said, 'I'm not getting good vibes. Your attendance is bad. I feel you are abusing sick leave policy.' Then in conversation I asked her to take her sunglasses off. Her eyes were bloodshot. You could tell alcohol was part of her lifestyle."

Edmiston resisted the temptation to confront the employee with his diagnosis. "I circumvented saying, 'You have a drinking problem.' But I did ask her why she had such a high absentee rate. I said, 'I know you are diabetic, but is there anything else that may be contributing?' She said she liked vodka." He suggested she go to counseling and volunteered to make the call for her. She agreed to go, sensing her job was on the line.

In another instance, when a department store called him about an employee's credit problems, Edmiston took the person for a walk through his building's hallway and said: "'I realize this isn't my concern, but [the store] called me . . . . I suggest you go to the credit union or bank for a personal loan. It could affect your career if the problem persists."

This employee's parents may have let him off the hook in the past, but Edmiston wasn't about to continue the dysfunctional pattern. At work, there are consequences to one's actions. And the employee was responsible.

Managers who have to pass out pink slips are particularly vulnerable to crossing professional lines because they feel guilty bearing bad news. To diminish the pain, managers may make promises they can't keep or join with employees in agency bashing-which simply makes problems of low morale and distrust among the remaining employees worse.

Many agencies are taking such problems into consideration as they downsize their operations in connection with recent budget cuts. The Office of Personnel Management, for instance, involved an EAP specialist as a senior member of the design team that developed career transition programs for employees who were about to be laid off. "Sometimes the supervisor is in worse shape than the employee," says Michael Grant, OPM's director of agency initiatives. "We'd let the EAP counselor know that and we'd hold management stress [workshops] for supervisors."

Sutton, the OPM information technology chief, felt more emotionally prepared to pass out layoff notices-and less vulnerable to being manipulated-after taking one of the training courses. "A fear supervisors have," he says, "is what am I going to do if this person flies off the handle? We learned to say, 'I understand you are angry. If I were in the same situation I'd feel the same way. But the decision has been made.' "

What if the employee just shuts down and says nothing? Give them all the information they need and come back to talk to them a few days later. "Don't linger on with two people silently in the room," warns Sutton, adding that he felt reassured to know that on the day that the layoffs came at his agency, EAP counselors were roaming the halls ready to help.

When It's the System

Between 10 percent and 15 percent of all employees who appear dysfunctional may need the services of an EAP counselor, speculates Scott of Changeworks Solutions. But most of the time, she says, federal employees lose spirit and slack off not because something is wrong with them but because something is wrong with the system.

"A dysfunctional workplace is a place with no sense of mission, vision, purpose," said Scott, who got out of the EAP business, preferring to work on improving systems instead. "You sit with people in a coffee room and ask, what are you doing here? They say, 'I don't know.' They have nothing to keep them going.

"In a dysfunctional workplace," she adds, "managers will say, 'You'll be held accountable for twice the sales volume, but you figure out how to get that.' A better approach would be to say, 'We need to raise sales, but here are the tools, this is how we'll train you and how we'll get you up to speed.' "

Scott said many agencies would rather look at employees as "dysfunctional nuts" than examine issues of leadership and management. What ends up happening is that troubled employees go to an EAP and then return to a disorganized workplace where no one feels inspired to work hard.

Studies have shown, says Scott, that in some cases, an employee's dysfunctional relationship with his or her boss can even lead to physical pain. Many employees with back pain, she says, are simply "mad and tired of being beaten down and their back hurts. These employees go through physical therapy to heal their backs-but as soon as they go back to work they are re-injured.

"Let's treat the place where we put the back to work," she said.

Marilynne Black, executive director of the Federal Systems Division at Zenger Miller, which offers training programs and services to individuals and organizations, says research shows that 85 percent of an organization's problems stem from the system rather than the employees. "One thing our company works with federal agencies on is changing the system that people are caught in and enlisting the help of employees in changing them so they can perform better."

The company also holds training sessions to help employees and supervisors deal with changes in the workplace. Throwing people into teams without training them how to work in this new setting, for instance, is a recipe for work dysfunction. A Zenger Miller study revealed that working in teams is stressful because members grapple with staying focused and reaching decisions.

Brenda Paulin, who conducts training seminars for Social Security Administration employees, says learning to coach teams helped her fight the instinct to solve her employees' problems and avoid perpetuating the dependency employees have on supervisors to take care of all their needs.

When two people are bickering at a meeting, Paulin expresses how uncomfortable that makes her feel then invites other members of the group to share their thoughts about the incident. If someone is dominating the discussion, she may say, "I appreciate your feedback; now let's hear from the others."

"The training took me away from the old school of planning, directing and controlling and helped me realize that . . . I'm not expected to sit in the ivory tower. My role happens to be a manager, but I'm part of this group. . . . The training made me more comfortable in what I do. I could communicate with my staff and request feedback."

Many agencies fail to adequately train their managers. In a 1992 report, Federal First-Line Supervisors: How Good Are They? the Merit Systems Protection Board concluded that "supervisory training is an area that has not received the attention it warrants in many federal organizations."

Just as a family may forgo therapy because money is short, government agencies tend to cut training when fiscal constraints come down. Managers often get little help in dealing with a stressed-out workforce in a radically changed government structure. But they shouldn't despair.

Despite the similarities between family and work dysfunctions, says Lowman, there is one glaring difference that benefits supervisors. "If you do something bad in your family, it's hard to get rid of you. In the workplace, there is greater control over an employee's behavior."

Marc Frankel, a senior partner with the Leadership Innovation Association, a consulting firm that trains managers, urges executives to seize the moments in which they can influence their employees to change their behavior-and avoid repeating patterns from the person's childhood.

"The defining moment," said Frankel, "is the point at which the manager's expectations are not met. . . . Managers should communicate this. I'm not going to let you go through five wake-up calls anymore. So you better take the first one seriously."

Stop treating employees like children, says Frankel, and they may start acting like adults.

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