Transitions and Breaking Family Patterns

Blog March 8th 2009

There are many transitions going on today affecting individuals all around the globe. The economy is provoking what some say is the end of the era of leveraging and unrestrained greed by some people. Global restructuring is underway. This is a time that requires a shift to a more realistic look at today’s problems. There is no hiding from the fact that we (and our leaders) are struggling to understand and solve these problems in order to make a thoughtful transition to the future.

Now that I have finished writing the interviews of leaders in Mexico, there are many topics I would like to consider from a Bowen theory viewpoint. There may be questions that each of you would like to see addressed and I encourage you to post your questions on the right column on this site. But for the time being, I will continue to interview accomplished people, noting how their family experience may have contributed to where they are today.

As more individuals clarify how they have found a new direction, the crowd itself can become wiser.

As fate would have it I was fortunate to be able to interview Sylvia Lafair whose book, Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success was published this month, March 3, 2009. I think you will enjoy her book and her interview. I found Sylvia’s effort to bring greater awareness of family patterns to motivated people, encouraging and useful. She offers a unique map of the way family and work systems mutually influence our ways of functioning.

At this same time I was also given two other books. Both authors are friends of mine. I read and enjoyed these books on my ski vacation. Since I know each of the authors I can include a bit about their family stories plus give you a quick look at their contributions. I’ll focus on those in the next blogs I write.

At the broadest level, Blythe McGarvie’s new book, Shaking the Globe: Courageous Decision-Making in a Changing World (Jan 27, 2009) is filled with interesting facts about her close up view of what it takes to be a central part in the changing world. Blythe is a special leader who allows us to learn from her first hand account of what it takes to be a responsible decision maker. You can get a lot of ideas from her book, whether or not you are not traveling the globe or working for international companies. Even if we stay at home, it is important to understand the forces operating on all of us as a part of the world community.

I met Bythe in 2004 when she came to the first leaders’ meeting that I had convened. She was curious about the ideas in Bowen theory. Some Bowen concepts seem to fit with what she has referred to as the FISO Factor. Differentiation, the concept about how people are able to separate out a self from their family of origin, was useful to her in developing a way of thinking about how people can maintain their ideas and still be a well functioning member of various groups. Her first book, Fit In, Stand Out: Mastering the FISO FACTOR – The Key to Leadership Effectiveness in Business and Life explores the numerous challenges one faces when one decides to be for self and for the organization.

Jeffrey Miller’s book looks at another level of functioning for people at work, the relationship system, the juice that runs the system. It’s often harder for people to see the relationship process and how anxiety functions in organizations, but Jeffery can see it. Most people find it easier by far to focus on individuals as saints or sinners. I have known Jeffrey for many years through the Family Center’s meetings. The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things, is now in its second edition. As the title suggests, it is for people looking for ways to be more aware of how relationships fall apart in a crazy system and the consequences of those relationship disruptions on the organization.

Jeff’s theme of staying calm, clear and collected while understanding the magic of process sheds another bit of light on interactions at work.

Each of these books focuses on the overall point that the more we can observe, the more knowledge we have, the greater the opportunity to make the world a better place. And, each of these books provides the reader with a “can do” approach to solving issues. Each one helps us look at a part of the system or part of the global elephant.

I first learned about or “met” Sylvia by reading the letters to the editors in The Harvard Business Review. The January 2009 issue was focused on Leadership. I was not expecting to see the word “family” much less “family as a system” mentioned. Much to my surprise, someone had written a letter encouraging people to see awareness of family patterns as a way of enabling profound change in work situations.

Hooray! I almost jumped up and clicked my heels but I was wearing boots. Being somewhat grounded I just paused and wondered who was this person shining a sliver of light on the basics of human behavior? HBR is a professional journal that seemed to me to stay away from family ideas. But perhaps no one had written a compelling piece for them? So I asked myself,, who is this person that can write such a concise note and get it printed?

Of course I wrote to say “WOW” and “thank you”. I thought, here is a woman, brave and clever enough to thread the needle between one’s personal life and one’s business roles. She wrote back immediately telling me about her training with Iván Böszörményi-Nagy and her great respect for Murray Bowen. She sent me a galley copy of her book. I thought it would be interesting to read her book and to interview her to see how her family life had impacted her professional focus.

It is long jump, for most people, to see relationships between the impact of family life and how he or she functions at work. Was it Descartes who said that one’s personal and family life are to be kept separate? No, it was not his doing. He simply rationalized the separation of mind and body, giving us all good reason to put subjective data into a pile that would be safe for scientists to ignore for centuries.

Needless to say there is long history of compartmentalized observations about human behavior that we all live with today. Human resource people are stuck trying to understand human behavior surrounded by all kinds of rules and regulations about privacy and family life that are barriers to understanding human functioning.

There are also many enterprising people, usually away from the workplace, who have found ways to bring up family dynamics, in seeking to understand human behavior. Many of them are my friends and colleagues.

I am pleased to have found a new voice who has been able to engage corporate leaders with the compelling message that family awareness and knowledge enables people to increase needed skills at work. In her book, Sylvia offers practical steps to enable anyone to be a more flexible individual. Her thesis is that the silent and heavy burden of family baggage can be lifted if one makes the commitment to learn to 1) observe, 2) understand and 3) transform repetitive patterns of behavior. She has seen that it is the automatic patterns that are out of our awareness that drive our reactions to one another. She does not wonder whether we have free will, but whether we are awake or willing to wake up and thereby be freer?

When I called Sylvia, I started by noting that both of our mentors, Bowen and Nagy, were probably up in heaven laughing about how we found one each other. She said she wondered if people ever really die? What a wonderful question about the shadows cast on future family members. In both families and organizations the roles people play are remembered and influence the future long after people have died.

Let’s take both Darwin and Lincoln who coincidently share the same birthday. They influence us in terms of our thinking but may not require us to play out a parent-child role with them. People die but their ideas and even their functional footprints linger on in these newly recreated systems of relationships. The closer people are, the greater the influence in some interdependent way. And to Sylvia’s point, we do take this family experience and reenact it, in some form, at work. If so, then the challenging question is how does one step off this family stage, which has been so artfully constructed?

First, as she notes, you have to see it. Being an observer takes practice. Sylvia’s book tells us about her ideas and how her solutions have been useful to people. Many people fail to see and deal with life patterns. If it is hard to see then you can understand how much harder the process is to change.

Sylvia’s hypothesis is that people are more motivated to work on understanding and observing their family patterns, because doing so has a beneficial outcome on their paycheck. Sylvia’s book is not about psychotherapy; it is about how to be more effective at work. She describes three patterns (gender, race and cultural background) to show how people are sensitized to understand the world around them.

You know the gender stereotypes: the strong silent type and the woman warrior, or the big shot and the modern goddess or perhaps the jock and the cheerleader. There is great deal of research about how our behavior is influenced by these kinds of stereotypes.

One compelling example of this is when older people heard the word “old person” whispered as they walked down a hallway, that whisper affected the speed of their walk. Our behavior can be affected by the social situation and the way we are seen or believe we are seen by others. The way we behave in social situations is vulnerable to social pressure and to very old rules of thumb that tell us how to react.

By looking closely at the influence of stress on individual’s behavior or clues activating an old program, Sylvia constructed her initial “types” or roles: the persecutor, the avoider, and the denier. Her thesis is that due to the pressure of survival and family loyalty, people have invisible parent child and sibling roles. Examples of these abound: the smart, pretty, weak, funny, bad, compliant, good, industrious, or even overly-social person.

These personality characteristics are short cut ways to understand who the other is and what impact their personality might have on us. We do, after all, react to the people we are with. Some of us are at ease with the funny person, and find the weak or “bad” person has the power to makes us crazy.

There it is, the parent-child dynamic being played out at work. People who participated in her program (The Total Leadership Connections) saw how they stepped into stereotypical roles and further, that there was something they could do to step outside those roles. She eventually developed thirteen descriptive roles to identify how patterns automatically play out. We are “given” or take a role and play it out in an old emotional play.

All this seems to go on without out our advice or consent. For those who would like all of this to stop or at least change a little, Sylvia offers a way to explore one’s family roots to see what might be influencing our functioning. She has developed a tool which she refers to as Sankofa Mapping. As she said, “this tool enables people to heal the past to free the present.” The map is her way of understanding three generations of family members and how they relate to one another over time.

One of my interests has been in emotional blindness. I wonder why people can’t see what they are doing? Family diagrams sometimes help and sometimes they are like so much dust before a steamroller of anxiety. I give a lot of credit to Sylvia’s ability to relate well to people so they feel comfortable seeing their map. Psychological information is not just information. It is information that can carry a charge. It is often hard for people to hear personal information.

Having a good coach who is able to stay with you while you learn makes a big difference in how well people can use the Sankofa Map. Sylvia has her way of reaching people with an explanation of how psychological blindness comes to be. She has a track record that people find useful. In addition she frames her ideas in ways that allow people to see how they have taken on a particular “role” in the family and how this role has come to dominate his or her response when working at a job.

Working still requires interacting and interacting can become a very automatic or old habit. Before one can develop a new sense of self, they have to be able to see where they are and the impact they are having on themselves and others. Some leaders are “born observers.” Often, I have noted in the history of leaders, that something happens early on that makes people better observers of relationships.

Always curious, I asked Sylvia how she thought her family life might have influenced her career and her leadership abilities.


Sylvia Lefair’s Interview

SL: I was fortunate to be raised in a family that knew how to encourage dialogue. Even as a child we were allowed to have a viewpoint and people did not move away from conflict.

Conflict was not seen as a bad thing. And so I think you could say I was a kind of gentle rebel as the youngest in my family. I have a brother who is five years older. He was slated to become a doctor from early on.

My mother, Rebecca, was born into the middle of a large family, the sixth of nine children. I see her as a gentle rebel. She was not a strict feminist but she was for women becoming aware of being free to choose a life. Since my mother wanted to explore, she did not marry until she was 24. She was a great influence on me until her death, when I was in my forties. I was also influenced by the social consciousness of both my parents.

I still recall as a child driving through some very poor areas and my parents saying things like, “We want to make a difference. We do not want to accept this kind of poverty.” This idea of making a difference stayed with me.

My father was the oldest of three brothers. His mother was having a lot of trouble getting pregnant and went to a spa in Baden-Baden Germany which she thought made the difference in her getting pregnant. A few years ago I went there and thought, “Oh my God this is part of my family heritage”. It is interesting how being there made me feel in better contact with my grandmother.

My grandfather started a family business named Lafair. It was a clothing accessories factory. His three sons worked there and there was always tension among the family in the business. I remember the conflict between my father and his brothers. Since I have a love of family business, perhaps you could speculate that in some ways I entered the area of family business to heal my own family experience.

Unfortunately my father died of a heart attack when I was fourteen. One day we were a family and the next day we were preparing for his funeral. My mother had the ability to carry on and keep us all going. Early on in my work with families I worked with one family that had a similar conflict between the brothers after the father’s death. I told them about my own experience in the hope that they could make a different choice.

AMS: Are you saying you look at what happens to us and see that often we learn from pain how to solve future issues? Do we think that we learn not to make the same mistakes that were made either early in our lives or in a previous generation?

SL: We are all standing on the past. We have to see the patterns so that we do not carry these disappointments forward into the current work situation. I saw my sensitivity in the family business and was able to use this to enable others to see. My motto is: Go back, learn and go forward. We learn to stay too much in the present. We are not learning well enough from the past.

With my husband I decided to change my work from therapy to strategic planning. I had to learn to change the language so people could understand the past. My first goal is to meet people where they are. It took years of trial and error to not let words in psychotherapy, like projection, slip out into the conversation. If I used one of these words, people would hold out mental garlic as though I were a vampire.

AMS: So you are saying that people tell us their story and we have to be able to relate to them so they can understand their story?

SL: I saw a situation today in which a woman’s family had adopted a foster child and when her son was ready to adopt she became fearful. It took her awhile to see how her old family situation was affecting her in the present. Of course she knew she had to make some sacrifices in her childhood when this foster child was in her family. But she was not at all aware that this might influence her NOW. She thought it would not bother her because that child was only in her family for a few years.

I encouraged her to think about it. Eventually she was able to share her early experience with her son. This also influenced the way she worked with people. She admitted that she was sensitive to people saying they might not be there forever. If she felt people were not loyal she would be more critical of them.

AMS: How are you brought in to work? Is it by individuals or by companies?

SL: Usually someone refers us to one person in a company, and then we begin to work long term with the company on how people are making decisions in the work place.

AMS: As you help them see their roles, it appears you clearly see people as being on a continuum. In other words, the roles people become stuck in can be and are transformed.

SL: People are so complicated. They are far beyond one role. I call it strength training to gain more flexibility. We also have about 12 professional trainers in our group. Very few come from the therapy world. The language is so different. The essence is that the way out is to become a better observer and to see how these patterns come to be. We have several programs to enable people to do their Sankofa map. We do not put people in the same group if they work together. Work colleagues do not need to hear personal information. I think it is important for people to feel safe when they tell their personal story to others.

AMS: Perhaps you might be more capable of leadership because you survived the loss of your father at an early age. SL: I know his death had an impact on me. For example, after 9/11 I wanted to go and help but it was impossible. I was upset and my husband reminded me that this could be due to the feelings I had when I was fourteen and not able to do much for my father. His comment made a difference. I also knew that during that time after my father’s death my mother was able to hold us together.

AMS: Perhaps I might think of your mother as a non-anxious presence.

SL: There are many stories in my book of how people discover the way real events in their lives have made them more vulnerable. But once they see it they can alter their responses.

AMS: I hear you saying that there is a great deal of hope in knowledge of how the past has influenced us. I also see my time with you is up. Thank you so much. I enjoyed being able to talk with you and hope we can continue in the future.