In an excerpt from her new book, Francesca Cardona uses coaching to reconcile people’s personal and professional lives.
The Grey Area: Consulting at the interface between the personal and the professional
The capacity to understand the link between current difficulties at work and our early life experiences can have a transformative effect on our approach to our working lives. In my consultancy practice, I have been struck by the shifts in behaviour and organizational dynamics that such awareness can generate.
I call the zone at the interface between the personal and professional the ‘grey area’, where our individual characteristics and early relationships play out or get expressed in our work role. Addressing the grey area means understanding these connections and bringing them to the surface.
In these examples, the individuals were struggling, partly unconsciously, with unexamined complexities in their personal lives that were having a powerful impact on their work situations.
Needing to belong: the risk of institutionalization
George had a complicated past. His parents divorced when he was very little and his father soon disappeared from his life. Brought up by a controlling and anxious mother, he couldn’t wait to leave home. University ‘saved’ him. He did well and managed to find an interesting position in a large technical company, straight after graduation. The organization became his family.
The capacity to understand the link between current difficulties at work and our early life experiences can have a transformative effect on our approach to our working lives.
George progressed well over the years and became established as a highly organized and very technically competent manager. He came to coaching at a time when he felt quite stuck and unable to progress further. It was difficult for George to look at his role and his organization from an objective perspective – he felt too close.
It came as a great shock to learn a few months later that George’s role had been made redundant. He felt deeply affected and betrayed by the organization as a result. For over twenty years the organization had been his ‘home’.
He couldn’t imagine working in a different place and, even more than this, having his competence recognized somewhere else. George had lost his sense of identity as a ‘separate’ professional with skills transferable to other institutions.
The anger towards his neglectful father and controlling mother was unconsciously shifted onto the organization. His ‘organizational family’ had abandoned him and he felt resentful and profoundly sad. It was as if he didn’t know who he was anymore, having lost his sense of identity with the job.
George’s struggle to cope with a difficult but manageable situation and his excessive dependence on his organization demonstrated the consequence of a disturbed early attachment.
It took time to help him to look at his situation in a more objective way – he hadn’t been fired and there were still other opportunities in the organization – and to relate his extreme reaction to his family background.
Through his work with me, he was able to make some connections between his response to the organizational issue and his need for the reliable and positive attachment that he had never experienced when young. We gradually managed to explore different options, including looking at other organizations and considering retraining.
Feeling entitled: locked in a closed system
Martha, a successful partner in law firm, was accused of harassment by some of her junior and administrative staff.
This came as a complete shock to her. Although very demanding, she felt she took a fair approach to her team. However, the head of human resources strongly recommended that she had some coaching.
Martha clearly had been very upset by the allegations and she became quite tearful during the session. She couldn’t see herself as a bully, but she understood she could intimidate people. Her main focus was providing excellent service to her clients. The team around her was not a priority. She acknowledged she didn’t think much of people who didn’t perform well.
Coming from a family of lawyers, law had been an obvious career choice for her. After a tough training, she expected a lot from herself, but also from other people. And, as a woman, she had had to fight extra hard for respect and authority.
I felt I needed to widen her perspective, helping her to understand the world ‘from the other side’. Her professional excellence wasn’t enough to lead her team successfully; she needed to learn how to connect and understand their difficulties in coping with the challenges of demanding and difficult clients.
I asked her about her family. It appeared that she behaved quite differently at home, being very encouraging of her children and trying hard not to show disappointment in their behaviour. I commented on how she needed to transfer some of the emotional capacity she clearly showed in her family life to the world of work.
Her strict training, where keeping a distance was seen as a positive thing, the influence of her father, an authoritative old school barrister, and her boarding-school background had given her an armour that possibly helped in some aspects of her practice, but had a negative impact on her role as a team leader, making her too critical, demanding and narrowly focussed.
By encouraging Martha to transfer some of her emotional intelligence from the family context to a work setting, I was hoping to lessen this split and to make her realize she was capable of tuning in with the emotional climate of her work environment.
About the author
Work Matters: Consulting to Leaders and Organizations in the Tavistock Tradition by Francesca Cardona is out now, published by Routledge. For more information see www.francescacardona.co.uk.