Q&A: One Big, Not-So-Happy Family

Research reveals employees’ personal lives can affect a company’s harmony.

By Adam Van Brimmer October 1, 2013

Businesses often brag about the "family atmosphere" that permeates their organization. A hierarchy exists; disagreements occur. But love and a common cause always rule the day, just like in a family.

The biggest threat to the harmony of a corporate family, however, can often be the employees’ real families. A study published in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Psychological Issues in

Organizational Culture
explored the impact of family dynamics on the workplace. Based on a survey of 567 participants in a variety of occupations, the study focused on differentiation, or a person’s ability to function professionally without being emotionally affected by his or her upbringing or home life.

Alan Cavaiola, one of the paper’s co-authors, suggests that managers take a proactive approach to addressing issues related to employees who struggle to separate their personal lives from their professional ones. Cavaiola is a Monmouth University professor who specializes in psychological counseling and researches personality disorders in work settings. He co-authored Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job (New Harbinger Publications, 2000).

What elements of one’s personal life are most often carried over into the workplace?

Workers bring many issues with them to the office or the plant, from what happened last night to something that dates back to childhood. This manifests itself in distractions that interfere with their ability to do their job. Conversely, work can take over one’s life. Society rewards devotion to professionalism, so it is easy to lose perspective on friendships, love relationships, leisure activities and other personal pursuits.

Which personal issues have the potential to cause the most conflict in the workplace?

Issues involving love relationships tend to spill into the workplace most often. If the person is having a conflict with a spouse or a partner, it can become so all-consuming that it’s very difficult for him or her to let go of it. Maybe the person is going through a breakup or a divorce; maybe there’s been an infidelity. Many times he or she will feel like they are in it alone. The worker gets distracted and angry and frustrated and projects those struggles and desperations onto others.

The study showed this is more pronounced in women. Women are often more emotionally attuned than men, and perhaps that’s why they tend to have more difficulty separating personal relationships from professional ones.

Can a lack of differentiation actually strengthen workplace relationships in some instances?

Sure. Some employees who are not well-differentiated look to the boss as a parent figure and work hard to please that person. They identify with the company or organization in a positive sense, and they want to do their best. Their lack of differentiation can be a motivator. The drawback is most employers think of good employees as those who show initiative. A person who becomes overly dependent on a relationship with a supervisor or co-worker can become frozen at times and lost if the supervisor or co-worker gets a promotion or moves on to another job.

How should managers best deal with differentiation issues that lead to dissatisfaction and conflict?

The best approach is to work with the person individually. Managers need to identify what employees might need to feel more satisfied. Too many managers look

at disgruntled employees and choose to avoid them. They’d rather work with the high-achiever than spend time on the dissatisfied worker. But it is better to approach it head-on and get an idea what the employee’s needs are before the employee’s issues start to impact others.

What are the potential impacts of the dissatisfied employee on an organization?

Lost productivity is almost a given, and not just for the person who is highly dissatisfied with the job. Somebody who is negative or speaks negatively about the company is going to affect morale throughout the workplace.

How can HR professionals identify the traits that indicate high levels of differentiation?

Get a feel for how a person works with others during the interview process. Skills and abilities are important, but how they work with others and deal with adversity in the workplace is just as important. Present them with hypothetical situations: What would you do if you didn’t get along with your boss? How do you deal with last-minute changes to a project? You won’t always get an accurate feel, but it is important to ask.

Your study found that "high-achievers" are often dissatisfied because of their intense connection to the job. How do you strike a balance?

Identify the person’s motivations. Some are looking for raises; others, for more autonomy; still others, for more involvement. Find what the person finds most rewarding and go from there. And don’t be afraid to tell the high-performer to take it easy or take a long weekend. Stress that he is working hard and is appreciated but that you want him fresh. Studies show that for the workaholic, the more hours they put in, the less productive they become. The key in every instance is to be proactive as a manager.

Adam Van Brimmer is a business reporter for the Savannah Morning News and a freelance writer based in Georgia.

Web Extras

Reseach study: Differentiation of self and its relation to work stress and work satisfaction (Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture)

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