Is your mother in your executive team meetings?

No, I am sure that she isn't physically present in those meetings but does her invisible influence affect your behaviour and the team dynamic?

Do you sometimes play out your childhood sibling rivalries with your peers today?

Have you noticed how some of your colleagues can easily develop strong relationships while others seem to keep their distance?

We are products of our upbringing and those experiences shape our perceptions, communication styles and relationships. These processes and dynamics are largely unconscious, which makes them even more influential. They become the lens through which we see the world, subtle but powerful influences that escape conscious attention, and hover in what the American psychologist William James called "the fringe of consciousness."

If we aware of these influences and the characteristic behaviors that they derive at all, we tend to think of them as personality traits and dismiss them as "that's just the way I am." However, I have found in my coaching of executive teams and their leaders, that raising awareness of communication and relationship styles that typically have their roots in family experience can be incredibly helpful. Awareness is the precursor of change and often the recognition that the team leader and even other team members are acting out family dynamics can lead to significant change and improved team function and performance.

The primal group is the family, so that in any group situation the chances are good that team members will draw subconsciously on their family experiences to drive their behavior. How many times have you heard members of a sports team describe themselves as a family? The metaphor is as ubiquitous as it is obvious.

So what aspects of team members' behavior are influenced by upbringing in the family?

It is a reasonable expectation that the roles that you played in your family significantly influence how you relate to people outside the family. If you were the "odd man/woman out" in your family, you will have been raised in that role and are likely to reproduce that in any group or interpersonal setting. Similarly if you were the scapegoat, that is how you will approach others, especially intra-group relationships. There are many different family roles -- caregiver, superstar, victim, to name just a few - and they typically fashion our behavior because we have been trained not just to assume these roles but to be them.

Researchers and thinkers have emphasized and categorized this fundamental dynamic in different ways. John Bowlby pioneered work on attachment theory and subsequent followers, like Mary Ainsworth, focused on the different types of maternal attachment and how they manifested in interpersonal behavior. A secure attachment was the cornerstone of the child's ability to form close relationships. Trust and nurturing characterized this attachment style leading to a lack of anxiety that enabled the child, and later the adult, to be open and accepting. A second style, the anxious-ambivalent style characterized a parent who was inconsistent, leading to uncertainty, wariness and even fear of abandonment in the child who later would take this uncertainty and mistrust into all relationships. The avoidant attachment style is so punishing to the child that he or she will try to avoid commitment and closeness both for the pain and anxiety that it might elicit.

Another classification is provided by David Kantor, as described in his book Reading the Room. He looks at the dominant channel of the communication and describes three main styles. The affect style is characterized by an emphasis on emotion, caring and nurturance. The meaning style focuses on thinking, understanding and information and the powerstyle is about accountability, results and action. The styles are not mutually exclusive and indeed a leader who can be flexible enough to use all three at the appropriate time is likely to be highly effective.

Lester Luborsky derived the notion of the Core Conflictual Relationship Theme (CCRT) which suggested that each of us has a dominant, repetitive relationship pattern formed in our early life that determines the response we get from others and how we react to that response. Ideally, influencers would have flexible relationship patterns that could be adapted to different situations. That would, however, require an understanding of dominant styles and how and when to adapt them to different circumstances.

There has also been some work looking at the relationships between size of nuclear family and subsequent behavior in a group situation. In her research , Anna Urnova interviewed ten executives about their family and executive team experiences. She found that many of the subjects seemed to have a preference for working in groups that replicated their family experiences. For example, only children tended to create triads within the group, whereas those from larger families were open to being more inclusive. It certainly makes sense that if you were raised in a large family you are likely to have both knowledge of the dynamics of a larger group as well as the commensurate experience and comfort. Urnova also found that team members projected on to leaders their own perceptions of parents derived from their own childhood experience.

By now you will have appreciated that it's not just the leader who brings his nuclear family into the team meeting, everyone does. However, it is critical that the leader understand the presence and potential power of the family dynamic, not just in his or her own leadership style but in the functioning of the team as a whole.

Gaining insight into these dynamics requires exploration of family roles, themes, styles and experiences and determining how they have influenced you throughout the years.  Changing these influences doesn't happen without conscious attention and focus. However, once these dynamics can be brought out of the "fringe of consciousness "and into the light, change is possible. In my work I have discovered that executives find this work extremely enlightening and valuable.


Ainsworth, M.D.S, and Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341

Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-child attachment and health human development. New York. Basic Books.

Kantor, D. (2012) Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Luborsky L. (1984) Principles of Psychoanalytic Therapy. New York. Basic books.

Urnova, A. (2011)  Childhood Story as a Key to Individual Patterns of Team Behavior. INSEAD Master's Thesis.