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Jennifer Nurick4 min

How Your Childhood Patterns Roll Into Business And Your Leadership

Our early life experiences profoundly impact us, shaping not just who we are as individuals but also how we function in our professional lives, including our approach to business and leadership. It is common to notice parallels between personal relationship interactions and work behaviour. This realisation often surfaces in therapy sessions, where clients might say, ‘I find myself reacting to my boss in the same way I used to respond to my mother’. This statement opens up a discussion about how childhood patterns, developed through years of familial interactions, don’t just stay confined to our personal lives but roll into our professional lives. Understanding this connection can be a key to unlocking more effective, aware and adaptive ways of leading and collaborating in the business world.  

Roles within the system

The family of origin plays a pivotal role in shaping our identities and the roles we tend to adopt in various aspects of our lives, including our professional environments. Each of us assumes a specific role within our family system – be it the achiever, the mediator, or any other archetype – and these roles can deeply influence how we perceive ourselves and interact with others as adults. A seminal work by Biddle (1986) discusses how roles are learned, the expectations attached to roles, and how roles in one system, like the family, can influence behaviour in another system, for example, work (Biddle, 1986).  When we step into the workplace, we naturally gravitate towards these familiar roles, as they offer a sense of identity and belonging. However, challenges arise when our professional setting doesn’t allow us to slip into our accustomed roles easily. For instance, if someone who has always seen themselves as ‘the successful one’ encounters difficulties in achieving success in a new job, it can lead to significant discomfort and dissonance. This could lead to over-work, anxiety, depression and even burnout as you strive to fulfil the role of ‘the successful one’. This discomfort stems from the clash between our ingrained self-perception and the realities of our current situation, highlighting the profound impact of our early family dynamics on our adult lives, including our careers.  

Communication patterns

The communication patterns we learn in our families don’t just vanish as we grow older; instead, they follow us. If you grew up in a family where conflict was either avoided or handled with indirect communication such as passive-aggressive tactics, these patterns can resurface in how you interact with colleagues and superiors. This might manifest as avoiding direct confrontation at all costs, not expressing needs or disagreements openly, or using roundabout ways to convey dissatisfaction. While these strategies might have served as coping mechanisms in the family context, they can lead to misunderstandings, unresolved issues and a lack of clear communication in the workplace. Recognising and addressing these ingrained communication habits can be crucial for personal growth and professional success, highlighting the importance of understanding and sometimes unlearning the lessons of your familial pasts.  

Response to authority – the rebel or the people-pleaser

Your early experiences with authority figures will often shape your workplace reactions to authority, leading you to either rebel against supervisors or seek their approval. Those raised with strict parents may challenge authority at work, while individuals who craved parental approval might overextend themselves to please their bosses. This behaviour can affect job satisfaction and career growth, showing how childhood dynamics can influence your professional life.  

Handling of stress and conflict

How we deal with stress and conflict in the workplace often mirrors the coping strategies learned in childhood. Some might avoid confrontations and stressful situations, reflecting a family environment where issues were swept under the rug. Others may react explosively to conflict, echoing the volatile responses observed or experienced in their early home life. These patterns highlight the lasting impact of our upbringing on our ability to navigate workplace challenges.  

Workplace culture as a family system

Workplace culture often acts as a surrogate family system, complete with its own hierarchy, norms and values. Unconsciously, we are drawn to recreate the family dynamics that we are familiar with in our professional environments. This means we might gravitate towards roles and relationships that mirror those from our upbringing, for better or worse. Whether these dynamics are healthy or dysfunctional, they feel comfortable because they’re what we know, influencing how we fit into and perceive our place within the workplace family.  

Leadership styles 

Leadership styles in the workplace can often reflect the roles we assumed in our family of origin. For instance, the eldest child, accustomed to taking charge and guiding siblings, may naturally step into leadership positions in professional settings. Similarly, those who played the caretaker role in their families might gravitate towards leadership styles emphasising support and nurturing.   

Looking for redemption

Why might a childhood pattern show up at work? It could be because part of you is looking for redemption. For example, if you grew up with a father who was emotionally distant, you might have spent your childhood trying to bridge that gap, seeking approval and affection in any way you could. Fast forward to adulthood, and this pattern can re-emerge in professional settings, where a boss may inadvertently take on the role of the distant father figure.  In this situation, you might find yourself going above and beyond, not just to fulfil job responsibilities but with the underlying hope of finally winning that elusive approval you longed for in childhood. This behaviour stems from a deep-seated belief that becoming a favoured employee will prove that you are worthy of love and care. It’s a replay of past dynamics, where the child within seeks redemption, closure and a sense of being truly valued and accepted. Because the behaviour is being fueled by a younger part seeking healing and redemption, you might not recognise yourself in the behaviour and even feel some shame about it.  

What is the opportunity?

Whenever you notice a present-day ‘trigger’ or something that happens and your emotional response is stronger than you would expect, old pain in your past is being touched and experienced in the present. These triggers can provide valuable information to lead to what is unresolved internally. Exploring and healing these triggers with a therapist who is trauma-informed can totally change the way you show up at work and the role you feel drawn to play in the workplace system.    References: Biddle, B. J. (1986). Recent developments in role theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 12, 67-92.

Jennifer Nurick

Jennifer Nurick, MA is a clinical psychotherapist, counsellor, and energetic healer with over two decades of expertise in the field of healing. She is author of Heal Your Anxious Attachment (Reveal Press), a holistic guide offering a trauma-informed approach grounded in neuroscience, mindfulness and polyvagal theory.