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Workplace psychology: The dynamics of our 'workplace family'

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Our Workplace Family? Our Workplace Family? Pexels, Fauxels

More and more people have heard about the dynamics of our 'family of origin' and its effect on the relationships in our daily lives. Our need to please, inability to say no, automatic reactions, and false beliefs about ourselves formed when we were young. But, these kinds of old family dynamics also affect the way we interact with people at work. Here, Dr. Niloo Dardashti, a psychologist and coach on Manhattan's Upper West Side, talks to us about how awareness of the dynamics of our 'workplace family' and have someone trained to help with that, can not only help improve our relationships at work, but also improve our results and our work satisfaction.


Dr. Niloo, what is going on in our workplace and what is missing

We almost all spend nearly half our lives with our 'second family,' which is our workplace family. And if we put so much of our time into making our lives at home harmonious, I think the same principle should be applied at work.

In other words, I work with patients across the board; a lot of executives, a lot of people who work for executives, and there are always issues at work that create stumbling blocks for people. There are problems with other people, difficulty talking about things, and a lot of uncertainty about expectations and about what other people are thinking about us.

There are feedback sessions in companies, though in my opinion there are not enough of them, as most people I talk to don’t know how they come across to other people. So many are uncertain about one thing or another, which is affecting their ability to work most efficiently.

Do we not already have such a thing in place in our workplace?

There are leadership coaches and sessions, that are those helping with planning and structure of an organisation, with time management, and there are people at hand to help leaders become better leaders.

But there is not much that has a focus on relationships between people at work. Which is a huge part of our daily functioning. It is how we relate to other people, how others relate to us, how we perceive things, how we might have faulty perceptions of what goes on. Isn’t that what (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) CBT is all about?

People are going to therapy every day to deal with things like; how are my thoughts affecting my feelings and my behaviour? Well, how is the same thing happening at work? Because it is. A lot. And to have someone who is trained in understanding those dynamics can be very beneficial.

This is different to an Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) programme. That’s more a case of having someone on the staff that people can go and see privately. That is not someone there who is there to help mediate and resolve conflict and problems with people; who deals with all the day-to-day things that may come up, the minutiae.

We get triggered by things, we have perceptions, and no feeling is wrong. It is the thoughts that created that feeling that may be faulty. So helping with identifying faulty perceptions, misunderstandings and miscommunications, that happen on subtle and not so subtle levels, have powerful impacts on dynamics, on flow.

It’s integral, in my opinion. 

What does being triggered really mean and how does this play out in the workplace

So you have your family of origin, through which, unless you are organised in some very different way than most human beings, you create the perspective from which you start to see people from when you are young. It is how you perceive interactions, perceive the world, how you see the world, how you see yourself in the world, what you feel about yourself, what you imagine other people feel or think about you.

This is the essence of what leads to being triggered; to being reactive. Sometimes that is reactive explicitly and sometimes reactive implicitly. If it is explicit it is more of an aggressive behaviour, this is what people come for to seek anger management. If it is more implicit, it’s often passive aggressive, it is still coming out in aggressive ways, but passively. For instance, you might have a boss as this authoritative father or mother figure that you need to please. All of these things are happening all the time; consciously, unconsciously.

When people then start getting feedback; that their behaviour is abrasive, or that their emails are not respectful; a few things are happening. First of all, things can get lost in translation over email and text. We’re depending on these tools for nearly all of our communications. Secondly, it is very possible that we filter something that is happening through our own lens of how we perceive the world. So if we project onto the people that are close to us in our lives, based on our family of origin, there is no way we are not doing that at work. And yet there is not a lot of focus on that.

It all starts with a feeling and then, with the right help, you start to look into that feeling: What is the thought behind it. There are always beliefs and thoughts behind it, it is never just a feeling that has come out of nowhere. This is especially the case when we are talking about a feeling with another person, in a relationship dynamic.

Ideally, someone has already been in therapy. In New York for example most people have, and it is much less stigmatised. Here it is often seen as something positive that people do for self awareness, growth and transformation, rather than something that is used to deal with a mental illness or issue. But that is quite unique, not everyone in the world is used to it as we are here.

But if you have been in any kind of therapy, you have probably talked a little bit about "behavioural patterns," and your family of origin. And about how that affects your current family or situation when trying to find a partner. So now we bring that into the workplace. We are constantly projecting onto people, that is just the way we are made up. So the question is not; are we doing it? The question is how are we doing it, and can we use our awareness of it to make a shift?

For example, when we have a particular feeling, we can have someone help us sort us through that, and find out what is really going on. The other person we are dealing with may have their pattern, so what is our reaction to it and how is that based on our own pattern? Can we sort through those two differentiations, and create a plan for how to deal with it? And also, at what point do you assert a boundary with someone?

Some of this may be to challenge our thoughts, thoughts that are not true. Some of it may be about tolerating, accepting. Which is why all of this requires a lot of mindfulness.

So we start to wonder: There is that thing that that person does that makes me feel this way. And it reminds me of how it made me feel when this or that happened. Ok, I am going to let this feeling come, and let it go. And I am not going to write an email right away impulsively, if that is what I normally do, I am going to sit with the feeling for a while, understand where it is coming from, and then respond.

How can we integrate such support into the workplace?

As mentioned, there are all sorts of workplace psychologists, coaches, and Industrial Organisational (IO) psychologists. But I think that having on hand someone trained in not just stress management but also family systems and behavioural relationship dynamics, personality issues, and anxiety − there are so many people suffering with anxiety at work − and having that particularly in the workplace can only benefit everyone.

Companies have budgets for all sorts of wellness-related programmes, so I don’t see why this is not more common. Should you have someone coming into the workplace to go through these deep-rooted issues, in the middle of your work day? It should not have to be that intense.

But there are ways for someone who is trained in this way, to observe these interactions and notice when something that is going on is more than just what it seems. So, helping to cultivate a sense of; ‘it’s ok to be uncomfortable,’ because when that person gets the feedback it can help them find out what is going on. Together you can start to wonder: Why do you think people are seeing you in this way?

It should be a lot more accelerated than, say, going into psychotherapy where you are spending a considerable amount of time analysing the past and how it affects the future. And we don’t have to dwell on the past, we can use it to understand everything, to help us create an awareness of how we are not optimally engaging in life.

Take an annual review. An annual review of performance is OK, but I think a more frequent dialogue, pertaining to feedback, how people are coming across, is not as common in the workplace as it should be.

There are some workplaces that do offer more now, but when we talk about company culture, and work satisfaction, a lot of it can be improved by having more explicit dialogue around things that happened or didn’t happen to someone’s expectations.

Couples go into therapy to better their relationship, so why not have a scenario where employees and execs alike have more opportunity to work through all the little minutiae that all adds up to a stunt in flow? I have seen there be so much satisfaction and flow when this was the case.

You could say, how about Human Resources (HR)? HR departments are there to keep checks and balances on all of these things, but not the ins and outs that we are talking about, that we go to psychologists for. How about introducing that into the company culture, into the wellness budgets that companies have.

Was there any particular inspiration that made you go into this way of thinking?

It started with me about 15 years ago with a reality show. It was one of the first of its kind and it was called The Restaurant. There was a chef, there was an investor and they were trying to start this business, but they kept butting heads. They were just not hearing each other. And I see this a lot with any kind of start up.

And then one day they happened to have a family therapist in the restaurant. They were talking with her and together they were starting to get into these issues. Then this therapist started to mediate, and help them understand what was coming from what.

And guess what? I believe they hired her. She was that integral in helping them get past these issues.

What if she would not have been there!? How long would it have taken them to keep butting heads, and seeing things from their own perspective? Before they would break it down and see things in an objective, reality-based way, by asking themselves: Ok so this is my expectation but is it realistic, how can we go forward?

All of this applies to people in any business, whether it is old, or just starting out.

My desire is about helping people to feel more alive, less on automatic mode, and to help them feel more excited about their work. And one huge way of doing that, is to have someone in the workplace who can be there to help with the cohesiveness and the integrity of the relationships of everyone at work.

Dr. Dardashti

Dr. Niloo Dardashti

Dr. Niloo Dardashti is the co-owner of the Manhattan Psychology Group PC. Trained in more traditional forms of psychological therapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as well as in mindfulness in addition to other Eastern modalities, Dr. Dardashti helps relationships thrive. She is also active in the areas of workplace conflict resolution and mediation as well as anger and stress management, and she helps companies, organisations and professionals create optimal workplace 'family connectedness.' This way, she can help them further productivity, efficiency and overall job and career satisfaction. She is passionate about helping to stimulate, cultivate and train people on how to tap into more empathy at work, in an effort to connect with their workplace family and have less strife. In addition, Dr. Dardashti has written books, produced a documentary and is often cited in the media.

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