Transference: you’re in it before you know
As a leader or manager you can be placed in a ‘parent role’ by your employees. This means that, sooner or later, you’ll have to deal with the transference of ‘old feelings’ experienced by employees and projected onto you. These feelings are often connected to their own relationship with their parent(s) in the past.
We’re talking about all the wishes, expectations, desires, fears and prejudices that stem from an employee’s family of origin. That whole package of negative and positive experiences, with everything that’s connected to it, is part of a person (the same goes for managers). Everywhere they go, so also at work! In that sense, family systems and organisational systems constantly mix. Therefore, it is valuable to be able to recognise transference and countertransference.
Repeating an old relationship in the here and now
Nine out of ten times transference has to do with a parent or other important – often hierarchical – person from the past, such as a guardian, coach or teacher … That’s why transference is often described as the repetition of an old relationship in the here and now and with someone else (Weisfelt 1999). The relationship is one that didn’t feel (entirely) rewarding in the past. In a way, the relationship hasn’t been completed. Imagine someone who didn’t receive enough recognition from his or her parents. It’s likely that he or she will continue to search for it, for example in the relationship with his or her manager.
Transference lurks when there are certain triggers. Triggers evoke memories – in the first place, subconsciously – of important people or past situations. This often happens on the work floor. Employees subconsciously project all kinds of things on their managers to get something that they missed or achieve something that wasn’t achieved before, like in the example before. In many cases it’s about attention, love or recognition from (one of the) parents. When a manager doesn’t recognise the transference of an employee or doesn’t know how to deal with it, it’s likely that you’ll get wrapped up in an ineffective pattern.
This is why it’s useful – and in our eyes a must for every manager – to gain more insight into your own patterns of transference and to be aware of the transference that you easily evoke in employees. The result is that you can distinguish between what belongs to the current situation and what doesn’t.
Many conflicts and miscommunications would cause less fuss within organisations if there would be more awareness for this matter.
An example of transference
Tine is one of the quieter people in the team. When she tries to make a point in a meeting, she’s constantly interrupted by colleagues who talk louder and demand more attention. The chairman doesn’t do anything about it. Tine fades away and when she gets into her car she bursts into tears. Nobody understands why she withdraws herself so regularly and Tine doesn’t understand why these situations make her so emotional.
What she doesn’t realise is that she’s falling back into an old pattern. It’s just like it used to be in her childhood: the children who shouted loudest at the table received the most attention from her parents. She usually disappeared into the background and her need to be heard and/or seen was ignored. Her sadness about this was still very present at certain times.
Looking back on those situations, Tine realised, step by step, that she isn’t able to respond maturely when these moments occur, for example by suggesting to stop interrupting each other or addressing her colleagues’ behaviour. No, instead she snaps back into an old pattern and freezes.
Transference can have a positive or a negative effect
In a positive sense, an employee might project the image of an ideal parent on his manager, showing what he would have wanted to see in his mother or father. This creates a sense of security, reliance, care or admiration. Positive transference can also lead to employees putting you on a pedestal or even falling in love with you. In that case somebody is truly motivated to work for you as their manager.
In a negative sense, employees can project all kinds of feelings on their manager from an unsafe, absent, failing or dismissive parent from the past. These feelings can include fear, anger, insecurity or loneliness. Negative transference can then cause the relationship between manager and employee to deteriorate or get out of hand.
Whether it’s positive or negative transference, in both cases it’s useful to be aware when an employee experiences transference towards you.
As a manager, you can learn to recognise the transference of employees. There are various signals that can indicate the presence of transference:
Exaggerated emotional reaction: an employee shows a more extreme reaction towards you than the situation calls for, the employee’s response is disproportionate.
Regressive behaviour: an employee or team isn’t capable of reacting in a mature way or relapses into old (childish) behaviour.
Repetitive behaviour: you keep going in circles with an employee. It feels like you’re stuck in the same groove of a record, ‘There we go again…’.
We’re curious which types of transference you recognise. Let us know!