The Knowledge

The Coach: Don’t Take Your Dad To Work Today

MR PORTER’s resident therapist Mr David Waters explains how our parents are reflected in our bosses

Henry was in his early twenties and seeking help to reduce the anxiety he felt when he was around his new boss, Steve. Henry was convinced Steve didn’t like him.

“I was late for work last Friday,” he said at our first session. He was clasping his hands so tightly in front of him that his knuckles had turned white. “It’s embarrassing, but I was late because I was tired and hungover. A bunch of us from the office had been out celebrating a birthday. I was convinced Steve would fire me the moment I turned up late and dishevelled. As I walked into my office, I saw Steve and I suddenly felt 10 years old again.”

In saying that, Henry revealed more about where his feelings towards Steve were really coming from. I asked him if his parents would get angry if he came home late when he was a kid. He wasn’t sure, but he could remember his dad hitting the roof if he brought home a school report that was less than glowing.

“If that happened, I’d be sent to bed early,” he said. “Once, Dad was so angry he tore up my school report and threw all the bits around the living room like confetti as I was sent upstairs to my room. I remember blinking back the tears looking at the mess he’d made. It was just horrible.”

This memory was clearly upsetting for Henry. He looked as if he were about to start blinking back the tears again all these years later.

Feelings about our fathers – who they are or were – are always in the back of our minds, but they can bubble up to the surface when our boss is a man. The relationship we had with our dads will often determine how we feel about our male colleagues, especially if they have power over us. Similarly, how you got on with your brothers and sisters growing up will likely be mirrored in how you relate to your colleagues.

The father of psychoanalysis, Dr Sigmund Freud, had a word for such strange repetitions: transference. He believed we transfer our early relationships with our parents onto other important people in our lives when we grow up, especially authority figures. The problem is we just don’t see when we’re doing it.

Henry’s story reminded me of my own tricky relationship with my dad. My father felt like a stranger to me and I sensed that one day he would leave me, my older brother and my mum. My prediction was right. Dad left us when I was 15 to start his life anew with someone else. Up until the day he left, his moods were unpredictable. He was particularly frightening when he got angry, even more so if he’d been drinking.

My training in psychotherapy helped me to become more self-aware, but before that, a bit like Henry, male bosses put me on edge. I would fear losing my job if I did anything wrong. If I made a small mistake, I would expect a heavy punishment. I even had dreams where I’d be shamed in front of my colleagues just as I was sometimes humiliated by my dad in front of my brother and my mum.

I explained to Henry that his feelings of panic were probably to do with his father and his childhood, and not just his new boss. He looked both puzzled and relieved. He stopped looking anxious and began to smile.

In the year we worked together, Henry would often worry that he’d upset me or that I was angry with him if he were late for a session. A client’s relationship with their therapist can provoke the same kinds of transference we feel towards a boss. Therapists are authority figures, too. Each time this happened, I’d remind Henry that he was seeing me through the prism of his father, which at times made him laugh.

Henry’s boss didn’t sack him when he came in late that morning. “Steve turned to look at me when I walked in,” said Henry. “A smile broke out across his face and he said, ‘You’ve made it in! None of the other reprobates are here yet. Go and grab yourself a coffee. You look like you need a shot of caffeine.’” Precisely what Henry’s dad would never have said.