I'm A Bad Boss? Blame My Dad

More execs are studying their family pasts to root out workplace dysfunction

For Peter Tilton, the office revelation came last February. He was sitting in a conference room at company headquarters, meeting with the group he managed, when an "incompetent" colleague began needling him about his own progress on a project. Tilton felt the trip wire go off, the raw rush that made him feel as if he were slipping into a state of adolescent siege.

Within seconds, he was banging his fist on the whiteboard and "yelling his face off." Even at a place like Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ), where Tilton says co-workers routinely blast each others' ideas as "stupid," this wasn't exactly behavior becoming a director-level executive. The emotional outburst, Tilton now realizes, was eerily similar to one he had back in seventh grade, when his parents -- "chronic misunderstanders" -- forbade him to wear his jeans with the holey knees to school. It was 1967, and he was heavy into his hippie protest phase. "And they wanted me to wear slacks," Tilton says.

For Bert Whitehead, CEO of Cambridge Connection, a financial-planning company in Franklin Village, Mich., the epiphany came when, after announcing he would be away on a business trip, he noticed a stealthy rejoicing rippling through his offices. Today, he knows why. "Nobody was ever quite good enough," says Whitehead, who refers to himself as a moody stress-generator. "I had a mother I could never get approval from, and I had unknowingly really adopted that into my management style."

That these highly rational, utterly left-brained executives are delving into their pasts illustrates a new strain of organizational therapy coursing through the inner sanctums of corporate power. The basic concept: that people tend to recreate their family dynamics at the office. The idea is being fanned by organizational experts, who say that corporate strivers can at times behave a bit like thumb-suckers in knee pants, yearning for pats on the back from boss "daddies and mommies" and wishing those scene-stealing co-worker "siblings" would, well, die. Boardroom arguments can parallel spats at the family dinner table. Office politics can take on the dimensions of Icarus blowing off his Dad -- or Hamlet offing Uncle Claudius.

Buttressed by new research in workplace dynamics, more high-profile coaches and consultants are applying family- systems therapy to business organizations, to grapple with what has come to be seen as a new frontier in productivity: emotional inefficiency, which includes all that bickering, back-stabbing, and ridiculous playing for approval that are a mark of the modern workplace. A two-year study by Seattle psychologist Brian DesRoches found that such dramas routinely waste 20% to 50% of workers' time. The theory is also gaining more resonance as corporations become ever more cognizant that talented employees quit bosses, not companies, and that CEOs often get hired for their skills -- and fired for their personalities.

Looking backward to move forward makes sense, say group dynamic researchers, considering that the first organization people ever belong to is their families, with parents the first bosses and siblings the first colleagues. "Our original notions of an institution, of an authority structure, of power and influence are all forged in the family," says Warren Bennis, management guru and professor of business at the University of Southern California. Adds Dr. Scott C. Stacy, clinical program director of the Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, Kan.: "This is a huge piece of understanding how businesses everywhere work."

HERO, SCAPEGOAT, MARTYR. This may seem like so much EST-era drivel, but by performing psychological X-rays on clients' pasts, coaches have helped executives at companies as diverse as the Los Angeles Times, State Farm Insurance, and American Express (AXP ) understand their own and others' dysfunctional behavior. They learn how to recognize the shadowy emotional subtext that drives many encounters, deconstructing how they may be subconsciously sabotaging themselves, shying from authority figures, or engaging in hypercritical judgments of subordinates. Or why they may unwittingly play the role of the hero, scapegoat, or martyr. "I'm not suggesting that our employees are our kids," says Kenneth Sole, a consulting social psychologist who has worked with Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ) and the U.N. "But the psychology is parallel."

Indeed, brain research over the past decade has shown that during stress -- when people's need to feel included, competent, and liked is thwarted -- their minds are hardwired to default to defensive family scripts. "We project onto others the conflicts we experienced growing up," says Robert Pasick, president of LeadersConnect in Ann Arbor, Mich. He teaches a course at the University of Michigan Business School on how family dynamics affect teams.

Such corporate headshrinking is gaining more ground in part because of how much interdependence companies face on the global stage. In the manual economy, work was a regimented, militaristic affair in which it was easier to subsume personality differences. Today, success hinges on teams performing as seamlessly as the flawless machinery in a showcase Six Sigma plant. And corporations hire workers whose families are more likely to resemble The Osbournes than Ozzie and Harriet. Personalities, emotions, behavioral tics -- all have started to take on a bigger dimension in an era in which businesses increasingly sell the ideas that come from employees' heads, not just the products from their machines.

Moreover, as scandals have heightened the need for transparency, disclosure, and ethics, many execs have begun to see the importance of matching the corporate culture with employees' personal cultures, given that most people get their ethical foundations from their families. That's why a number of financial, utility, and manufacturing clients are lobbing interview questions about families at job candidates in the hope of yielding unvarnished responses, says Neil Lebovits, president of Ajilon Finance in Saddle Brook, N.J. Anything to avoid hiring the next Jeffrey K. Skilling.

Of course, plenty of leaders and their consultants object to therapy invading the office. "The workplace is not the place to explore psychological foibles," says Richard A. Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago employee-assistance firm. "It can open up a can of worms." Chaifetz approves of this kind of inquiry only if it's done off-site, one-on-one, and with a trained professional. And many work dynamics can't be analyzed solely through a family filter. More likely, say critics, work teams carry traits that are characteristic of all group dynamics. Pairing off, for example, usually happens any time people gather. So does complaining.

HISTORIC HYSTERICS. Still, someone's familial past can certainly seep into the office scene. It's most recognizable, say experts, when a co-worker or supervisor has highly emotional, intense reactions: When it's hysterical, it's historical. Other symptoms -- an inability to maintain a reflective distance, repeated outbursts of anger, and having the same battles with the same people over and over.

In Tilton's case, the Microsoft exec had disdained therapy "ever since my parents tried to send me to a pipe-smoking guy in seventh grade." But in the months he has been working with an executive coach, he only wishes he could have cracked through his denial sooner. Like many, he realizes that being analytically savvy isn't enough. Being emotionally competent is now part of the job, too.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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