How Your Parents Are Affecting Your Career

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 11:12 AM EDT

You're a grown adult with a professional job, serious responsibilities and hard won expertise, so most likely it's been a fairly long time since you thought about how your parents were affecting your life. Back in high school their attitude towards studying or dating might have had a big impact on your day-to-day existence, but now that you're independent they have little influence on the reality of your working life, right?

Not so fast, veteran executive coach Maggie Craddock told Entry-Level Rebel in an interview. In her latest book Power Genes: Understanding Your Power Persona--and How to Wield It at Work, Craddock argues that our experiences with our parents or caregivers leave footprints in how we influence others and handle those with authority. Rather than being an airy fairy concern fit only for family therapists, understanding their earliest relationships with power and the instincts and behaviors they've left you with can help hard-nosed business people succeed in their careers.

Craddock sorts business people into four main "power styles," which she outlined on the HBR blog:

  • The Pleaser -- Due to outside stressors, Pleasers often didn't get the attention they craved from their caretakers early in life. Pleasers often grow up hungry for validation and are hardwired to take care of others. Pleasers often wield power by attempting to connect with others at a personal level.
  • The Charmer -- Charmers were often required to soothe an emotionally needy parent early in life. As a result, they sometimes have little respect for formal authority and may manipulate others in order to get their needs met. The Charmer power style is exemplified by people with an intensity of focus that both intimidates and seduces others into compliance.
  • The Commander -- Often, a Commander has grown up in a family system devoted to sports, religion, the military, or any larger system that reinforces discipline and a strict code of conduct. Commanders operate with a results orientation and tend to foster a sense of urgency in others.
  • The Inspirer -- The family systems that foster Inspirers often value self-expression over conformity, and the caregivers in such systems are often willing to make personal sacrifices to achieve excellence in areas such as artistic expression or scientific inquiry. Inspirers tend to be innovative thinkers and operate with a consistent commitment to the greater good.
How do these styles work in real life? Craddock offered an illustrative anecdote from her decade of experience as an executive coach:
One gentleman I worked with was a very powerful executive in the communications industry. He had a tendency to talk over people and take over. This guy was the middle of three brothers and his older brother had started an internet company at the right time and sold it at the right time. His younger brother had had some issues with substance abuse. And he was the man in middle. Growing up he was constantly negotiating communication between his parents and the older brother who could do no wrong and the younger brother who could do no right. He was driven by a need to feel heard and he needed to be heard so badly that when he would get in creative meetings with his team, he would talk over people and not let people get a word in edgewise. He began to have that a-ha moment and open up how the dynamics in his family system were impacting the ways that he was reacting before he even had time to think. His progress was so swift.
So how can knowing these sorts of knee-jerk emotional responses to power help professionals -- especially young professionals -- in their careers? Craddock outlined several advantages to understanding how early life has programmed you to deal with power:
  • Understanding your style makes you mindful of your interior conversation. "Many of the most important conversations [people] are ever going to have professionally are the conversations they're having with themselves," Craddock explained. What you tell yourself about power "predicates your attitude, your tone, your body language, whether you choose to respond or not to respond," so understanding these underlying attitudes and emotions can help you refine your behavior to be more effective.
  • Understanding your style flips the focus. Understanding your relationship to authority helps you understand the effect you have on others. "You don't just want to focus on how you're coming across, you want to focus on how other people feel about themselves in your presence," says Craddock. "Do they walk away feeling supported or do they walk away feeling a little on edge?" This is important because it is often these impressions rather than qualifications alone that get you the job or land you the business. "I talk to tons of people that are well qualified for jobs and lose them because they were inadvertently intimidating or they came across as self-referential."
  • Understanding your style keeps you agile. Career newbies often start out enthusiastic and hopeful only to get sucked into dysfunctional office politics and unhelpful behavior patterns over time. Knowing your underlying attitudes and responses to power can help you keep your thinking clear and flexible. "There's a lot more hope and a lot more nimbleness early in the game, so it's incredibly exciting for people to start thinking about some of these things as early as possible. It not only keeps their power style agile, but it keeps the way that they're looking at their overall careers agile," says Craddock.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these power styles?

Read more on BNET:

(Image courtesy of Flickr user FreeWine, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.