Career coach: Do I remind you of another person?

When colleagues transfer their feelings for other people to you, it may be time to act.

As a chief executive, you might expect that different members of your organisation will view you in different ways. But being seen as mum or dad by your staff or, perhaps even more worryingly, as daughter or son by your chair could prove to be too much to take.

Marie, chief executive of an international aid organisation, was enjoying a much-needed holiday after an organisational restructure and office move.

Imagine her amazement when she received a call from her staff, while she was sunbathing on a beach in the US, saying the alarm system in the new office had gone off over the weekend.

What exactly did her team expect her to do at that point? Gulp down her cocktail, stuff her bikini into her beach bag and leap on the first plane back to the UK? No. They didn't want her to do anything at all - it was just the sort of call you might give your mum to let her know what you'd been up to.

Then there's Robert, who has been head of a health charity for seven years and was responsible for expanding the organisation from tiny beginnings to a major force in its field. Extremely intelligent and articulate, he is respected in all areas of his professional life - except when he is in the company of his chair. She is a Roedean-educated woman with a fondness for brogues 'n' tweed who insists on calling him Bobby and pats him on the head as if he were her son.

Psychotherapists call this phenomenon transference - an unconscious redirection of feelings for one person to another, a phenomenon first noted by Sigmund Freud. In layperson's language, you remind someone of another person. They are trying to understand you and, because they don't know you very well, they assume that you are similar to that person and will therefore feel and behave in ways that are similar to how that other person would feel and behave. You might say something that strikes a chord, or it could be the way you say things. It might be that your mannerisms are very like someone else's.

Most relationships carry elements of this. However, be aware that as chief executive you are already in the position of ultimate authority and you might be seen through a filter of parent, teacher, headmaster, priest or policeman simply by dint of the position you hold.

If you feel you are not being seen as yourself, the easiest thing to do is ask: "Do I remind you of someone?"

You might get a puzzled look rather than an answer straight away, but more often than not there will be a reply at some point, which I hope will lead to an interesting conversation. In my experience, it is the best way to burst the bubble and get yourself seen for who you are.

• Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives.

amanda@psychotherapycity.co.uk.

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