Your Boss is Not Your Mother – Leadership Lessons

What if I said there’s something that causes managers and employees needless suffering every day in this world that almost no one talks about?

Would you believe me? Can you handle a two-minute psychology lesson? I promise it’s worth it. (And it is one of the most needed leadership lessons.)

I’m talking about authority projections. In most workplaces, the air is so thick with them you’d think they’d become visible…but they’re not.

So, what is an authority projection and why should you care?

It’s been said that there are four things people are predictably irrational about—religion, sex, money, and power.

Authority projections are about power. For adults, the prevailing power issue in their life is the employee-manager relationship. Complaining about your boss is so common, it’s cliché. It’s as if it’s a given.

Death, taxes, and your boss sucks.

But what if the difficulty you have with your boss or an employee who reports to you is—at least in part—an illusion of your own creation?

Would you want to find out?

The first authorities in our lives are our parents, of course, and for most people, the authority we have as adults is our boss. Because having a boss feels similar to having parents, the relationship elicits feelings we had about our parents. This includes the good and the bad, and it mostly happens unconsciously.

An authority projection is when we transfer a past stored reaction to a parent to a present reaction to the current authority in our lives.

What does this look like?

It shows up in myriad ways, but the themes for employees tend to include a sense of oppression and victimhood. The expression working for the man is pure authority projection. The us versus them feeling in a work culture between rungs of an org chart is a direct result of authority projection.

Managers have their contribution as well to the problem, too. For example, with any sentence that begins using the words “you need to…” (Which, when you think about it, is quite an oppressive way to direct someone. How can any single human authoritatively tell another what they need?)

The cycle of authority projections—and you can begin it anywhere you like—is generically this:

  1. An employee behaves immaturely.
  2. In response, the manager treats the employee like a child.
  3. Return to step two with more intensity and possibly a semi-adult version of a toddler temper tantrum.

As said, you can reverse one and two in some scenarios. This is where a relatively mature employee, treated like a child and so rewarded for immaturity, behaves more and more so. Both parties create what is called a negative feedback loop. (Kind of like that old stock language of the chicken and the egg, if you prefer.)

The result?

Employees feel unsupported, powerless, and misunderstood. Managers feel like they have to constantly supervise their employees and are exhausted and overwhelmed.

How’s that working for you?

In case you were interested to know, this is what we talked about in week two of the How to Manage and Be Managed. We’re unraveling this dynamic in this course by empowering each member to discover and end their contribution to the snowballing cycle. The signup date for this live session is long over. But there will be a self-paced version available soon.

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