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Jerk at Work? Why Our Childhood Experiences Might be the Key to Bad Office Behavior

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Got a bad boss or a colleague you just can’t stand? Do they display aggressive or negative behavior, persecuting you or your co-workers, shouting down ideas, or avoiding mention of awkward situations and workplace problems? If you do, there’s good news and bad news: it might be a result of how they were raised.

We’ll get to why that fits both the good and bad definitions in a second, but first let’s look at the claim, which comes via The Wall Street Journal. According to the article, bad behaviors from colleagues “often persist beyond reason because they are so deep-rooted, having been learned in the families of people’s childhoods. Amid a growing focus on workplace quality, some managers and coaches are now using new techniques to identify the childhood origins of harmful behavior at work and then rout out those patterns through training or outright bans on bad behavior.”

Having read that, let’s play a matching game. Here are each of the five different negative personality types identified in the article:

1. Persecutors

2. Deniers

3. Avoiders

4. Super-Achievers

5. Martyrs

And here are is the family background that allegedly spawned the behaviors, also taken from the article. Read both and try to match them up. (Answers at the bottom of the post)

A. “[O]ften grew up in judgmental families with weak emotional ties”

B. “They were often called on in childhood to make up for family shame and tragedy”

C. “[T]his person may have grown up in a family where everyone feared facing unpleasant emotions.”

D. “This person often grew up with abuse or neglect”

E. “[O]ften had parents who gave up their dreams for the child, triggering a repeat of the pattern”

Now the reason why this is good news if you have a problem colleague: it’s always good to have an idea of someone’s motivations and the things that make them tick—even in a negative way. And recognizing the root cause of someone’s behavior is often the first step to getting them to change it.

The bad news: let’s suppose for a moment that you do have an abusive colleague that makes your life a misery. Let’s further suppose that you even know enough about that person to be certain that their childhood has rendered them that way. Even with all that knowledge, how are you going to bring it up—especially if that person is senior to you?

Of course, there is another, more serious aspect to all of this, and it’s important not to overlook it. Perhaps, in reading the definitions, you recognize your own workplace behaviors and/or familial background. If it’s the former, regardless of whether you recognize the family side of things or not, it may be worth considering some of the coaching/counseling services mentioned in the Journal piece. Because you can be sure that if you recognize negative behaviors in yourself, others will too, and leaving them unaddressed could seriously handicap your career progression.

If, on the other hand, you recognize some of the familial traits in your own background, but not the workplace behaviors, it’s entirely possible that you’re displaying some of the behaviors without even realizing it—as was the case with one of the subjects profiled in the article. (And bear in mind: we’re not talking massive childhood trauma here—the subject in question left colleagues cold in meetings because he spoke too loudly and aggressively in meetings, “a pattern he acquired at the family dinner table.”)

If you do recognize any of these traits in yourself or a colleague, the Journal piece has lots of good advice—and a few suggestions for resources—that can you help you on your way to dealing with it. If , on the other hand, you don’t recognize any of these traits in the people around you, be sure to drop us a line from the peaceful Zen garden you inhabit and tell us how you found it!

Answers: 1D 2C 3A 4B 5E

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