Ah, parents. It seems that regardless of how strong or distant, the relationships we have with our parents are life-altering. A side comment your mom makes about your five-pound weight gain at age 13 can make you weight-conscious for life, while a mom who tells you how smart you are can turn you into a high achiever.
Whether the dynamics we have with our parents are good, bad, or (most likely) somewhere in between, we can’t deny their impact.
So what happens when a supervisor takes on a parental role in our lives? I interviewed a couple of women to find out just that.
The Bad Dad
Sarah* came from a family that constantly affirmed her and told her she could be whatever she wanted, so imagine her surprise when a supervisor at her first professional job said she didn’t have “leadership potential.” This manager, whom I’ll call Bill, told this to Sarah after she had seen everyone else in her office promoted to managerial level positions. Bill acknowledged that Sarah was a dedicated worker and quite competent at her job, but said he wouldn’t feel “quite right” advancing her. For Sarah, these comments lead to several months of self-doubt and comparing herself to her colleagues who’d been promoted. Was she missing the leader gene? Had she done something that indicated she’d be a pushover as a manager? After months of soul searching, Sarah decided to ask her boss why he didn’t seeleadership potential in her. As it turned out, Sarah reminded him of his daughter who was often afraid of asserting herself or committing to a decision. He went on to say that Sarah rarely spoke up in meetings and still dressed “like a college kid.”
Sarah soon realized two things: he was probably somewhat biased, and that it would be helpful to rebrand herself at work. She understood that his opinions about her leadership potential were possibly displaced feelings about his own daughter, but also recognized that they had some merit. She began reading books and website articles about positively asserting oneself at work and began dressing more professionally in the office. Though Bill never promoted her, Sarah eventually moved on to another company where her unique strengths and newly-acquired assertiveness techniques were appreciated.
The Model Mom
Then there’s my friend, Brooke*. Brooke’s parents were never very invested in her education and weren’t supportive when she achieved her goals. As the first in her family to attend college, Brooke often felt like a fish out of water in the classroom. This feeling continued when she became an attorney and attended big work events. Brooke felt as though she had been thrust into a world where she didn’t belong and was struggling to learn what she perceived to be the “secret language” of the successful. Until the day she met Meghan*. Meghan was the lead on a project to which Brooke was assigned and began to act as Brooke’s mentor. Not only did she assist Brooke with the tips and tricks necessary to succeed in the professional world, but she also provided support and encouragement as Brooke climbed the career ladder. Like a second mother, Meghan was there to cheer Brooke on when she was promoted to junior partner and constantly reinforced the notion that Brooke did belong in that world.