Our Scarlett looks like her namesake: 'beautiful, with black hair and flashing green eyes'. Photo: Public domain

Wednesday 25th March 2015

The trouble with Scarlett

One woman’s experience of how family dynamics can unconsciously influence behaviour in the workplace

Why do things go wrong in companies that shouldn’t? The answer, according to Dr. Shelley Reciniello, often lies deep beneath the surface in the unconscious processes of leaders and their employees.

Working as a sort of psychological detective, her job has been to consult with organisations and individuals to figure out what the real problem is when a poised-for-success corporate initiative fails, when a promising individual or team can’t perform, or when a well-conceived departmental project doesn’t deliver.

In her book “The Conscious Leader” Dr Shelley describes the nine most fundamental but often neglected truths about human beings and their workplace behaviour.

In this extract, she considers the case of Scarlett, who finds that her family dynamic is being mirrored in the workplace to unfortunate effect.


When I first met Scarlett, she was a 40-year-old executive in an in-house advertising department of an international pharmaceuticals company. She had come from a white, upper middle-class, old South Carolina family who raised her, as she put it, “to be pretty and good.” For, like her namesake, Scarlett was beautiful, with black hair and flashing green eyes. Her father was a very successful attorney and her mother, “a regular Christian martyr,” was active in charity work. Her parents always predicted that the lovely Scarlett would marry young and have “a parcel of kids.” Her older sister, who was plain looking and a bookworm, was expected to be a career woman. As it transpired, the older sister married young, had three children, and assisted her mother in her philanthropic endeavors.

After graduating college, Scarlett moved to New York and began working in advertising and had a steady string of promotions. She was smart, creative, and her work was nearly flawless. She worked long hours and never went out to lunch. She eventually married a man who was almost equally as dedicated to his job and they had no children. Her door was always open to her subordinates, and she admitted to having trouble delegating. When she stayed late at night to finish her own projects, she would feel frustrated and angry. She resented that her employees took so much of her time, and yet she felt, “If I leave them on their own, it’ll only come back to haunt me.” In addition, Scarlett’s secretary was a single mom with a daughter with learning problems who required lots of concessions. Tom, Scarlett’s husband, referred to her as Scarlett’s “charity case.”

9780985286446Scarlett’s 38-year-old boss was delighted with her performance. He traveled a lot and she took up the slack for him and “made him look good.” On her review, he wrote, “Scarlett is the kind of employee who makes everyone else look bad.” When Scarlett wrote her annual evaluations of employees, she agonized for days. She felt she had a responsibility to be totally fair and accurate. When one of her direct reports, Julio, was not performing to expectations, she rewrote the review several times. She told her husband, “I feel terrible and mean. Poor guy. He tries. If I were given a review like this, I’d die.”

After a couple of years, Scarlett was promoted to director. When she told her family, she felt embarrassed by the title and ashamed of her salary. Her parents and sister said, “Congratulations.” No questions were asked and it was never brought up again.

Three years after her promotion and after her annual evaluation, Scarlett came to see me. It had been a tough year and she had successfully completed some particularly difficult projects. At evaluation time, her boss gave her the usual terrific review. This time he said, “I had hoped to nominate you for vice president this year. The kind of work you do is VP quality but no one on the committee would endorse it. They said they really didn’t know enough about you and what your contributions were.”

Getting along

Scarlett was flooded with feelings. At first, she was shocked and oddly embarrassed. She had never really thought that it would be possible for her to be a VP. She realized it terrified her. Those feelings gradually changed to anger, “If he hadn’t passed off my contributions as his, they’d know how hard I’ve worked.” And then, “What kind of unfair system is this anyway? I’ve been good and worked hard and that should be rewarded.”

Clearly Scarlett was intelligent, had the business acumen to do her job well, was an excellent performer, and got along well with others.

Simultaneously, she coddled her employees, over-empathized with them, completed many special projects for her boss, and didn’t self-promote. Her boss had been only too glad to use this to his advantage. This behavior caused Scarlett’s career to stall and she felt resentful and under-appreciated.

In intensive, psychologically minded coaching, Scarlett realized that she had always felt guilty about her career success because it was not the part she was raised to play. Her employees became her children and her causes. This was her attempt to fulfill the role of good southern girl and be like her mother. Her parents’ ambivalence about her career only reinforced for her that she had disappointed them. Her unconscious compromise was to work too hard, so that she would suffer for her success.

In addition, if she did not draw attention to her accomplishments, she felt that whatever success she achieved was earned, and couldn’t be helped. To consciously pursue a promotion, however, would make her feel disloyal to her family and would require that she own her ambitious nature and the simple fact that she did not want her mother’s life. That brought up unpleasant feelings of anger and disappointment about her mother’s masochism, and her need to defer to her husband’s judgment without any views of her own. In some ways, she became her mother and made her young boss, who she catered to and let rule the roost, her father.

When it came to choosing a professional career over a traditional woman’s role as defined by her family, Scarlett’s unconscious was many layered, with each tier leading down to feelings that Scarlett found more and more unacceptable and shameful. Her continued success depended on making her unconscious issues conscious. Eventually, Scarlett realized how she was holding herself back with family values that were no longer relevant in this era. She also learned that she did not have to become like her mother or agree with her choices in order to love her. She acknowledged her own considerable ambition and began a plan that ultimately led to her promotion to vice president. It didn’t stop there, and today Scarlett owns her own highly-profitable boutique advertising firm.

Dr Shelley Reciniello

Fathers and mothers

As you can see from Scarlett’s projection of her father onto her boss, who was younger than her, transference knows no age. Projections are also not deterred by the sex of a person. People can view male bosses as fathers or mothers, and female bosses as mothers or fathers. There are some interesting transferential twists, however, when it comes to female bosses. One of the scenarios I saw repeatedly on Wall Street involved bright young men reporting who initially respected the woman for being tough and smart; she wouldn’t have been in her role if she wasn’t.

But if she ever crossed some invisible line, and in their minds became castrating, she was doomed to a negative transference that would eventually result in a plan to get rid of her, which usually worked.

As long as women give birth to men, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon, they will, in most cases, still be the ones who will teach young children hot from cold and right from wrong while simultaneously giving them what appears to be unconditional love. Female bosses who are angry, who say no, and who aren’t loving are hard to accept. They go against the internalized, idealized version of an all-accepting mother, whether she ever existed or not.

The kinds of transferences that can occur between two women can also be unique. I knew two equal partners of a successful fashion design firm. One designed shoes, the other, handbags. They fought continuously, and the constant refrain from one was, “You are just like my mother, always prying, always in my business.” And the other woman’s lament was, “Why can’t you answer phone calls and emails like a person? You are so much like my father –– if there is any conflict you just disappear!”

Reaction formation

The family dynamics that appear in the office can also involve present day families as well. I have spoken to men who’ve been conflicted about high-powered women in the office because they had superstar wives. It may sound counter-intuitive, but while they were supportive and comfortable with their wives’ success at work, they resented their female bosses. A reaction formation helped them to keep any feelings of envy toward their wives at bay, but then they displaced the envy and resentment into anger at their bosses, creating negative transferences.

Think about your own transferential relationships, and the overall dynamics of your own family. Start with your bosses and colleagues over the years, as well as your assistants and other subordinates. Maybe you can make some sense out of things that didn’t make sense at the time.

It would be unusual if you had not projected something onto someone you worked with at one time or another; even more unusual if you were not projected upon. This is human nature. We just do it. It probably started out as some evolutionary protection, wherein we looked for similarity in relationships to help us understand and acclimate to new ones. But as we developed and that neocortex grew and our minds became more complicated, we became capable of making connections where none existed, except in our unconscious minds.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.