How should we navigate difficult relationships at work?
Could applying a psychological framework to your work relationships help you to navigate difficult dynamics? Our expert columnist Andy Gill dives into common workplace woes
We spend about a third of our lives at work, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was a positive experience? Sadly, this is not always the case, and I meet many clients for whom work is a source of stress, anxiety, and unhappiness.
The quality of the working relationship with a manager has a huge impact on your experience. A good manager helps you feel secure, supported, and looked after – but a poor experience with a boss might leave you feeling insecure, threatened, and undermined. When the latter happens, we often lack the experience and knowledge to know how to respond.
We aren’t taught how to manage relationships with authority in the workplace. For many of us, our only experience of dealing with leaders comes from our school days. When things get difficult, and we feel under pressure, we can find ourselves snapping into younger, less mature parts of ourselves. When we react from this place, it is easy to take things personally and feel victimised.
The clients I have worked with have often found themselves in the role of victim – a place where they feel powerless and stuck, and are caught up in blaming their manager. I help them understand that they have a part to play in resolving the problem. Any working relationship is made up of two parts; I help my clients understand they have the power and capability to look after their half, and approach the challenge in a more mature way.
I use the transactional analysis (TA) framework to help my clients better understand the relationship dynamics of the problem, and how their own behaviour might be perpetuating the issue. In TA, a ‘transaction’ is used to refer to the interaction taking place between people, as they relate to each other, while the ‘analysis’ relates to the nature of the transaction.
TA tells us that our personality is formed of three different ego states that we move in and out of as we relate to people. These are parent, adult, and child. There are positive and negative aspects to the parent and child ego states, and in the kind of relational issues we are discussing here, people are likely to be playing the negative aspects of a parent or child ego state. As the figure of authority and power, a manager often ends up playing a critical parent (persecutor) role, and their report as a victim plays the negative aspect of the child.
With the use of the TA framework, I can help my clients understand their manager’s behaviour and motivations, and see that they might just be a person struggling to do the best they can. This enables them to see their situation more objectively. At this point, I encourage clients to try to respond to their manager from the third ego state, the adult. TA tells us that if I act from an adult place it encourages an adult response. In transactions between adults, mature intelligent communication can take place.
At some point, we all encounter relational challenges at work. The TA framework can help us to become aware of the relational dynamics at play, and show us how we can shift them into a more mature adult dynamic – from which we can respond in more appropriate and constructive ways. If you’re struggling with a difficult work relationship then working with a coach who uses TA can be really helpful.