How Family Dynamics Play Out at Work
Are you the “workplace parent,” the office “problem child,” or your team’s “golden child”?
According to Bowen Theory, emotional systems affect our social relationships — both at home and at work. Host Morra Aarons-Mele speaks with Kathleen Smith, an associate faculty member at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, about how family systems theory can help us better understand leadership and relationships with coworkers.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they pick themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. Your colleagues at work aren’t just a bunch of individuals acting on their own free will and whim, they’re a family, seriously, a family system, dysfunctional, of course, but they’re yours. Social creatures that we are, humans are constantly reacting to each other. As today’s guest notes, we’re sensitive to each other, we’re allergic to each other, to each other’s passions and enthusiasm, sure, but also to bad habits, acting out, controlling behaviors, and, of course, we’re allergic to each other’s anxiety. If you’ve ever felt like you are the person on the team who does too much, or if you’re managed by a person who does too much, I’d love you to think about the concepts of the over-functioning and under-functioning leader. A classic over-functioner takes care of everything, assumes all the team’s anxiety so they don’t have to feel discomfort, micro manages. Some might say that the over-functioning leader is the parent in the office family, and that’s not necessarily a great place to be, because if someone’s a workplace parent, someone else has to be the child. And who wants that? Or maybe you’ve been in a work relationship that’s difficult. Maybe your whole office decides that someone on the team is a problem child, someone else is the golden child, some people are bad and some people are good, a childish way of thinking, but something we family systems do all the time. Much of mental health is focused on the individual, but today we’re talking family systems theory and how it applies to both leadership and everyday office dynamics. Our guide is Kathleen Smith, PhD, student of Bowen family systems theory, and an associate faculty member of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. So I would love you to start by just telling the what is, should I call it Bowen theory, systems theory? What is it? And why do you do it?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah, so it has many names, Bowen theory, Bowen family systems theory. Some people just use family systems theory, but it was the origins of family psychotherapy. There was a guy who was a psychiatrist, Dr. Marie Bowen, and he wanted to turn human behavior into a science, pretty ambitious, still hasn’t done it, but he was trained in psychoanalysis like most psychiatrists in those times. And he began to observe how families and other groups of people operate as emotional systems, and that there was a way to demystify the human. We like to think of ourselves as very unique in the animal kingdom, and very mysterious, but if you really pay attention to how we operate in the workplace, at home, wherever, we do some pretty predictable things. And the more you can observe those, the better chance you have of acting outside of them, of being a little bit more thoughtful in how you operate in your day-to-day life. And it de-personalizes it, it makes it less about, who’s a villain, who’s a hero? And it’s just humans doing human things. And that helps me out a lot in my day to day life. So I latched onto it and just still learning about it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What does it mean to be in a system, in a family, or in any group of people?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. So much of psychology, mental health is focused on the individual, but Dr. Bowen had this idea that the basic building block is not the individual, it’s the family, or it’s the group of people who’ve come together to do a certain task, or live together. This idea that we are social creatures, and we are all working together to manage stress, to manage anxiety, to overcome challenges. And so we do that, not just as individuals, but as a group, and that there are certain mechanisms, or patterns of behaving that for better or worse, keep things stable. But when you rely on them too much, then the wheels start to fall off the wagon, then you have symptoms and problems and other things that pop up.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: My life changed when I realized that people who I had a lot of conflict within my life triggered me in a way, but I triggered them, and that it wasn’t just their horrible and bad and I’m an angel, which is a very childish way of thinking. But when you’re in a negative relationship, it can be very comforting to think that way.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Absolutely. It’s very stabilizing. And that’s why families, workplaces, communities, you name it, we love to choose who’s the problem and just focus on them.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What personally drew you to this work in your life?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Well, part of it’s just a logistical thing. I was an anxious grad student who needed to find an internship placement and needed to pick a theory that was useful for me in my clinical practice. And I heard about this strange place in Washington, DC, called the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, it used to be a part of Georgetown. And they told me, well, you can come to your internship here, but you have to work on yourself and your family for a year before we’ll let you. And I thought, well, this is very interesting.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What does that mean?
KATHLEEN SMITH: It meant working with somebody who was a family systems coach, reading about the theory, participating in a training program, and meeting with them regularly to think about how my family operated, what was the multi-generational history, and what was my part in it. And I began to see how automatically I operated in my day-to-day life and in my relationships. And I began to see a lot more wiggle room in what I could do, and it made a huge difference. I didn’t calm down right away, things usually get more anxious when you start to change, but it was just a lens of seeing the world and seeing relationships that I didn’t have before. And that was incredibly useful for me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you give an example of an automatic reaction that you noticed?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Oh yeah, sure. So my mom died when I was in college, and I, from that point, began to immediately over-function for my dad. I was giving advice, taking control, being very focused on my dad instead of just letting my father surprise me, and function for himself. And when I began to step back and focus on myself and focus on just the one-to-one relationship, things calmed out. I saw that my father was much more capable than I assumed, and that was really useful for me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Today, I want to focus on three concepts, from the framework of Bowen theory, and I want to apply them specifically to the workplace and to leadership, and really come to the place of understanding what I think you call anxious leadership. But the thing that I think will ring true for so many listeners is the idea of the over-functioning leader. Why don’t we start by defining what over-functioning is? And maybe you could give us some of how people over-function in the workplace.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Absolutely. So this goes back to what we were just chatting about a minute ago, that there are these mechanisms that a system of people, an emotional system, or relationship system, whatever you want to call it, used to manage anxiety to stabilize itself. And these are present in the nuclear family. These are present in other arenas in society, and certainly the workplace as well. And one of these dynamics or mechanisms is for one person to become more responsible and then other people are persons to become less responsible. This is how people, one person or a group of people get identified as the problem, the patient, what needs to be fixed, what needs to change. And they often do worse when we identify them as such. It’s not usually helpful for them. And once [crosstalk 00:09:02].
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So if we expect them to fail, they do?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Not surprising. Right?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.
KATHLEEN SMITH: And the person who is over-functioning, or being over responsible, they tend to do be pretty well. They gain a pseudo strength, or a pseudo maturity by directing or controlling others. And it’s easy to look at a person in leadership who’s over-functioning and think they’re doing wildly well, or see them as really capable, whereas it’s a, like I said, a pseudo strength, that if they aren’t able to direct others, or if others don’t go along with it, all of their capability has a steep decline, a rapid decline, that we are propped up in our own functioning by acting as if other people are an extension of ourselves, by functioning for them. And often, that is what leads to burnout. It’s not necessarily a sustainable position for the long term for a lot of folks, or they find that it definitely has a price when others become less capable, or more frustrating when we over-function for them. And so I think a lot of people in leadership positions took on this role in their families. They tend to be people who are oldest children, maybe only children, or people who functioned as oldest children in their families. They tend to gravitate toward that in the workplace as well, I think.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah, it’s funny. I was reflecting on my own tendency to over-function and thinking about how, when my dad left, and it was my mom and my sister and I, every time we’d take the trash out, and I was a little kid, I would wheel up the giant tote with recycling up our very hilly driveway. And we called me toter woman, even though I might have been nine years old. And I saw that as a metaphor for my lifelong tendency to just dive in and fix things. No one else is going to take out the trash, I can do it, even though I’m nine years old and the recycling bin is bigger than me.
KATHLEEN SMITH: And I think what’s interesting about it is that we often want to focus on the people who are having the hard time, the people who have the “symptoms,” but often it’s harder for the person who is under-functioning to change their position. It is a little bit easier for the person who is taking on more to step back, to think more flexibly about what their responsibility is, what it isn’t. So often those are the people I love to have in the therapy room, in my office, because they have a little bit of wiggle room to think about how they operate in the system. But often it’s the under-functioner, the person with the “problem” that people want to focus on, or send to counseling, or send to the consultant.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And this sounds silly, but an over-functioner needs to have an under-functioner to react with.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yes, exactly. Because if you don’t, it’s just conflict. If both people think the other person needs to change, that’s conflict. But when one person is focused on everyone else and they accept that, then you have the seesaw dynamic.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What if you get two over-functioners on a team?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Oh, this happened at my wedding. Yeah. I think about that. My husband and I asked a lot of our friends and family to help out with tasks and we put two alphas, or two over-functioners at the same task, and you can guess what happened. There was a little bit of conflict, manageable conflict, that’s humorous in hindsight, but I think that does happen a lot in the workplace as well. When you have two people who function in the same position, or way in their family, all of a sudden you’re going to have conflict or one person has to function a little bit differently.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: How do people tend to realize that they’re over-functioning and it’s something that they could actually work on?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Well, that’s a great question. I hope that people I work with realize that when they’re in coaching or therapy, but I think, it goes back to what I was saying earlier, I think it does lead to burnout.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is that why they’re in therapy? I guess the question is, what brings them in your office?
KATHLEEN SMITH: A couple things. I think the people you over-function for tend to become less capable, more symptomatic, or they begin to push back, and then you’re not over-functioning anymore, you’re fighting with them, or they’re often burnt out, or they begin to develop symptoms, physical, mental health symptoms of their own that are more of a challenge when they were before. The idea is that the more you dial up the stress or the anxiety, the more locked in these mechanisms are over and under functioning, but the more quickly they fail us. You can’t get by with doing what you normally do without some problems or symptoms popping up.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, that might lead us to the process of differentiation. Can you talk about what that is, and why it’s important to think about, if you’re hearing yourself in this?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. So when Dr. Bowen was looking at families, or organizations, or even society as a whole, he noticed that there were these two variables that affected how people functioned, or how well the family was doing. And one of them was just the level of chronic anxiety, just the amount of stress and reactivity the family was experiencing. But the second was that people tended, even in the same family, they tended to vary in how well they were doing. How capable they were of thinking and acting for themselves in the midst of great pressure, or great fear of pushback. And the idea was that those individuals had or emerged with a higher level of what he called differentiation of self, the ability to think and act for yourself while in emotional contact with other people. And this is something amazingly that is changeable. It’s fixed to a degree, but I think there’s a lot of room for change in the individual and what we know about how the brain can change over time, even as we age, that you actually are not locked into these mechanisms 100%, if you can begin to observe them, you have an opportunity to step back and ask yourself, is this really what I want to do? When the chips are down, is there a different, more flexible, more creative way of responding to an anxious person, to a challenging colleague, to an impossible family member? And can I play around with that and try that out and see if it makes a difference? And can I put up with the discomfort of not doing what I normally do? And so that’s what it means to work on one’s own differentiation, to operate a little bit outside of the emotional system while still being in the thick of it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you give us an example?
KATHLEEN SMITH: I think for an over-functioner, maybe if you’re thinking about your marriage. If say that your husband is not doing a chore he needs to be doing, like taking out the trash or something, and your automatic response is to either do it for him, to snap at him and direct him and tell him how to do it. Those are the predictable responses, and what does a differentiated response look like that? How do you manage your own reactivity? Does that mean putting up with the, oh, the way he does it differently and just learning to manage yourself? Does that mean being curious about the problem and asking what his thinking is about it? You know what? It’s not a clear solution, it’s just about putting the front part of your brain into the mix and being willing to disengage with how you usually operate.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, it’s mindfulness too.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Absolutely.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Instead of diving into the automatic reaction, which is God damn it, no one does anything around here. I guess I just have to do it myself and take out the trash, and then being in a bad mood and being crummy, which might be a very comfortable reaction because you feel really superior.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Absolutely. And we tend to think of mindfulness as a solo endeavor, but it really isn’t, if you can’t do it in challenging relationships, then what’s the point? Because we’re social creatures, it’s easy to access your thinking maybe when you’re on a meditation retreat, or after a yoga class, but what about when your kid’s screaming in the background, or when your mother’s lecturing you about something, that’s a whole different ballgame.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you share an example from the workplace of someone differentiating themselves?
KATHLEEN SMITH: I think so many people, they fall into this over-functioning position, and they treat their colleagues, their underlings, as an extension of themselves. And so I worked with a lot of people who begin to see how that, I think of as a Venn diagram, it gets in the way. There’s so much togetherness in the workplace. We act as if we know everyone’s thinking, or what everyone should do, or we act as if our thinking isn’t important. So the people who can begin to strive to know the thinking of others, the people who can slow down and let people do things less efficiently than they might, then that’s, like the example I gave with my dad, I think that opens up the space for you to be surprised by other people’s capabilities. And that allows for other people to step up. Those are very, very general examples, but often it is so simple as stopping to ask someone what they think, or what their experience has been, or the willingness to take a stand, or a position on an issue when there might be pushback in learning to manage yourself in the middle of that versus just distancing, or avoiding the challenge altogether. It’s a willingness to shut off that autopilot and respond in a different way.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m thinking about how moods and anxiety is contagious too, and that I think we’ve all had the experience of being in a relationship with someone, whether it’s a workplace, or a personal, and they’re very worried and anxious, and then we pick it up it for them and we carry it for them. And so now we’re both anxious and stewing. And I’m curious if learning to be differentiated can almost inoculate you from absorbing those moods.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. I think to a degree, we’ll never be robots, it’ll always be allergic to a degree, but I work with a lot of clergy people, and they’re some of the most over-functioning people you can find, they’re naturally drawn to helping people, I’d throw therapists into this mix as well. And it is interesting to see how, when people begin to focus on managing themselves in a crisis, self-regulating their own anxiety, that makes them so much more of a resource to their congregation, to their patients or clients, than focusing on calming the flock, calming the person in the room, when your focus is outward. And I think that, that is a variable you actually can control a little bit, everyone else’s intensity, good reactivity, good luck with that. But that’s what we tend to do. We tend to want to calm others in order to manage ourselves. And I think in a leadership position, that’s so easy to fall into.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: One of the things that you talk about in the context of being a leader is thinking about how much discomfort you can tolerate, how many hard feelings you can tolerate in the process of becoming differentiated. How does that work?
KATHLEEN SMITH: They call it the As. I talk about this a little bit in a book. I can’t remember what they all are off the top of my head. It’s something like agreement, approval, attention [crosstalk 00:21:47].
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Assurance, I think.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Assurance, right. And so if you are a leader who’s functioning is propped up by receiving these things, you are incredibly sensitive. One of my clients said this once, he said, exquisitely tuned into changes in the mood or the anxiety of the group. And that really sets you up to chase after everyone and try and manage their anxiety, but if your ability to, if you are able to evaluate yourself, your functioning, not just based on people’s reactions to you, I think that does inoculate you a little bit against the day-to-day changes, and just the level of anxiety in the workplace, or in the office.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You talk about anxious leadership. What does anxious leadership look like? And how do you know if either you are an anxious leader, or you’re being led by one?
KATHLEEN SMITH: All leadership is anxious to a degree, simply because we’re human and we’re anxious creatures.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes.
KATHLEEN SMITH: But I think of anxious leadership as an increased reliance on what Dr. Bowen called the emotional process, but that’s just a fancy term for these mechanisms that we use to calm things down. And so a person who is perhaps less differentiated is going to be more reliant on over-functioning, or distancing, or triangles, these are things I talk about in the book, but to not be so hard on people, it’s not just how differentiated you are. It’s also how much anxiety is just in the room. I think especially in a year like last year, even the most emotionally mature person, if they are not paying attention, they’re going to revert to this anxious style of leadership, these automatic ways of functioning, because it works to a degree. If they’re adaptive, we have evolved to have these ways of behaving in groups, I don’t think of it as dysfunctional, I just think of it as limiting, and because it is automatic and it’s not particularly creative.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What does it look like? What are some ways that it typically manifests that you see in your clients?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. I think it tends to look like becoming over responsible for people. So the over-functioning. I think it can also look like becoming distant, not being willing to develop one-to-one relationships with people. It can look like, these triangles relying on, focusing on other people, or gossiping, or venting to others as a way of, you go home to your spouse, or you go to your therapist, or your supervisor, and venting or complaining to them becomes your way of managing things. And so these are all things that we do as humans, but I think the more anxiety you have, the less person-to-person contact you have, and a pandemic certainly will increase that. You really are working on autopilot.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about pleasing and seeking assurance, because I think that’s also a lot of anxious achievers I know, that’s our love language.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. I’m super guilty on that one. That was my whole mode of operating.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is that also from a lack of a sense of, let’s talk about self actually first. Self in the system’s definition and why those of us who just love praise might want rethink our relationship with ourself.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. So, that’s what is called the functional self. So you can’t look at a person and how they’re doing and see how mature they are. Some of us are really good at appearing more mature than we actually are. And that’s because what a Bowen theory is called the pseudo self, we prop ourselves up with feedback, assurance, approval, praise, attention from other people, and a person with a great encouraging boss, it’s not surprising their functioning is probably going to be better than a boss is who’s a little bit more indifferent or less focused, or is focusing their animosity towards them. And again, it’s not good or bad, but it is useful to think about how have I not learned to evaluate my own functioning because other people have been willing to do it for me. And what is so magical about everyone else’s thinking versus my own. Can I not be too easy on myself, not too hard on myself either? What are my criteria for a good day, a good week, a good life? Can I be honest and objective about how productive I can actually be given the reality of today? These are all wonderful skills to have, but many of us just don’t take the time to work on them because it feels better to hear it from someone else. But I think that, I work in DC and so many people function this way in this city, but then a person loses their job, they get a boss they don’t like, they have a challenging person they’re supervising, there’s just anxiety in the organization. And then all of a sudden their mood and functioning become a rollercoaster. You’re not getting the approval [crosstalk 00:27:20].
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because of outside forces.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. You’re not getting the approval and attention, you become depressed, you become less productive, you become more reactive towards others, more distant from them. And it’s pretty predictable. And so while the highs can feel really great, you do set yourself up to have a lot of variation in your functioning over time.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, one of the things that I felt was so practical that you talked about, and I’m really working on personally, is learning to evaluate your own work on its merits before asking for someone else’s opinion. And that felt so, both counterintuitive to me, but also made a lot of sense.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. There’s so much out there about being self-confidence and how to do that. And I think of it more as just objectivity, and no one can be a hundred percent objective, obviously, but we are capable of asking ourselves what needs work here? What did I do pretty well? What are things I want to keep thinking about and plugging away at? And I think that being able to do that practice daily, weekly, after a big presentation or meeting, before your maybe annual performance review, or something, that really strengthens that muscle of objectivity. And I think that that helps a lot with self-criticism and with sensitivity to criticism from others. It’s less fun, I work for myself, so I don’t have a boss who’s braising me, which I think is really good for me to, because it’s forced me to get real with myself about what I can do and what I can’t, and what needs work, but I think if you are in a workplace, or an environment where people are throwing a lot at you and you do get a lot of feedback, or maybe you wish you had more feedback, I think it’s a great thing to work on.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So how could you get to a place, because also what you’re talking about is I think what you call undeveloped beliefs, where it’s almost that lack of a core of, this is what good work looks like for me, this is what I stand for. This is when I know I’ve put in a good day’s work, even if someone else disagrees, and your beliefs are changeable based on other people’s moods and reactions. I think so many of us can relate to that growing up in a family where we would come home from school in a good mood and someone in the house was in a terrible mood and all of a sudden it was like, oh, well, I shouldn’t be in a good mood. I’m not good. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start to develop that sense of real self and what their definition of good work is, and be less malleable, I guess, but from other people.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah, I think obviously the first thing I would say is, go to therapy, go to coaching.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Think about this with someone else maybe is a help. But also I think just asking yourself, this goes back to the pseudo self, the part of yourself, the beliefs that are negotiable, or that change based on who’s in the room, or how people are reacting to you. And so ask yourself, which of my beliefs have been really negotiable, or tend to fluctuate day-to-day. And I think most people would find that most of our beliefs are pretty negotiable. We like to think we’re all principled people, but we’ll adopt a belief or change pretty quickly if we can sense that somebody we care about, or somebody we like is going to be unhappy with us. So I think for me, I think this goes back to social media as well. I’ll look at, I don’t know, people I went to grad school with, or other strangers on the internet I’ve never even met, and things that they’re working on that are important to them, I’ll go, well, I should be doing that? Why haven’t I been doing that? And yet I’ll know that it’s not actually important to me at all. It’s not a value that I have. It’s not something I want to work on, but just being in the presence of another person changes my thinking about whether that’s important or not. And it’s so easy to just get scooped up into that thinking. And so being able to sit down and ask yourself, well, how do I value, or what do I think a good work looks like? What is important to me? What is not? What do I want to be responsible for? What is not my responsibility? And obviously that thinking will change over time. But if you aren’t able to describe what it is you’re trying to do, then there’s not a lot of hope of actually being able to pull it off.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, that segues perfectly. And the last thing I want to talk about with you, which is about curiosity, and you say that curiosity in many ways is an antidote to anxiety. Why and how?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a willingness to use that front part of your brain, the part that sets goals, that’s naturally interested in things and solves problems, that strives for objectivity. And it is a willingness to, Dr. Bowen described it as being at the top of a stadium, or maybe up in the press box when a football game, or something like that is going on, and being able to see how people function in relationship to each other, because we don’t get that view most of the time when we’re personalizing everything and blaming ourselves, or blaming other people. But a willingness to put your researcher hat on when you go to work, or when you go home for Thanksgiving and say, let’s see how this thing works. Let’s see what’s my part in it. And let me tinker around with that and see if it makes a difference in the short term, in the long term. A willingness to not be so hard on yourself and to see that, at least this idea of the relationship system as the basic unit to cut yourself some slack that we, as humans, we’ve evolved and adapted to have ways of relating to each other and they are good or bad, they’re just limiting when we don’t put our own brains into the mix. And I think people who are curious and interested have a much better chance of, first of all, operating differently, but also not being so hard on themselves.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Kathleen, I’d love to hear an example from real life of someone maybe you’ve worked with who realized that they were working in a chronically anxious system and examined their own role in it.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Yeah. I have a client who’s a pastor, and he, for a long time, liked to think of his congregation as a very mature group of people, there’d be challenges, but it wasn’t, they weren’t like other churches or congregations who tended to squabble all the time, but he began to learn a little bit about Bowen theory. And he realized that, a lot of the people in the church including himself would never really take a stand on anything. If somebody had an idea, or a thought, they just went along with it and let people do whatever they wanted. And I think he realized over the long term that this group of people coming together didn’t really have a clarity of purpose, or was less able to take a stand, a position on important issues. And I think that he also, would admit that he struggled with that himself. And I think that this, this is such a good example. I think this can happen in a lot of workplaces too, that people can seem to be getting along, there’s not a lot of conflict, but there’s also maybe not a lot of progress, or output either. And that is just because people are so focused on not rocking the boat and going, what’s called going along to get along, that they were less effective. And people who are able to work on differentiation to put up with the anxiety of the moment to take a stand on something, to share their thinking when it might not be welcomed, that is a sign of maturity, of differentiation. So I think that just goes with, you can’t just look at how calm a group is and assume that it’s functioning well, that work is getting done, because maybe everybody is just so distant and so walking on eggshells and just going with whatever, maybe because these people operated that way in their families, I don’t know. But a calm group can also be a group that’s just using these mechanisms, but nothing’s really happening. And so just because there’s anxiety doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening. There’s this anxiety that comes with progression, that comes with maturity. And so if you’re thinking about operating differently in a leadership position, or at work, I think you should anticipate that, because you’re doing something differently than you would normally do.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So how do you introduce, how do you gently rock the boat without freaking everyone out?
KATHLEEN SMITH: Well, I think first it’s just getting clear with yourself about what you actually think, we tend to want to just sometimes charge in there and take a stand on something. But it’s often, it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you’re functioning and how you’re behaving differently. You don’t have to announce to the group, you don’t have to announce to your spouse, hey, I’ve decided I’m not going to pick your clothes up on the floor anymore. You can just stop doing it and see how they respond. And so you don’t have to say to a colleague, hey, I’ve been picking up the slack for you too much. I’m going to stop doing that. Sometimes that needs to be a conversation, but often I think it’s much more subtle, it’s readjusting yourself, not trying to teach everyone else how to function, or how to handle you, but just focusing on managing your own anxiety and let other people see what they can do with themselves.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that. Well, Kathleen Smith, thank you so much. This has been great.
KATHLEEN SMITH: Thank you. I always love talking about this stuff. I never get tired of it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe, thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you, our listeners, who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming, please do send me feedback. You can email me. You can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or tweet me at Morra AM. And if you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.