The Adult-Child Trap at Work

Human brains are lazy. They like consistency and look for it where ever possible. In life, we tend to copy states that we are already used to. For example, we treat friends like our siblings, a sport coach or even a dentist like a parent. We tend to carry this structure within us “Adult knows best, tells me what to do, then I get praise”. We don’t often question what they say or how they do it, we trust being told is what will help us. Listening to our parents got us this far in life it must make sense.

This constellation of “Listen to me and act as I say – you will be evaluated and treated accordingly” starts with parents at home but then extends to school. Teachers treat us the same. As an authority figure they tell us how to act, what not to do and evaluate us accordingly. Behavior is such a big part of initial school reports if you think back. For the largest extent of our lives we have this structure of Adult-Child that determines how we are measured against others. Then comes work.

The jump from school to work is scary. For around 20 years of your life, you were guided through a system with clear metrics and structure. You would know if you gave a certain kind of input – say studied hard – you would get a certain kind of output. None of that applies to work. You are not guided through the system – there are no clear metrics and structure. You are left to your own devises to figure out how it works and it often changes. Why else are there so many books about managing your career, how to succeed, how to be more productive etc. Some people work themselves into a burn out because they work so hard and put in so much effort and yet they never get promoted or get a raise. It is a unclear, complex and unsupported world you have stepped into. So it makes sense you try to figure it out by using everything you have already learned in the world and apply it to work.

What our lazy brains tend to do is to copy this structure that we are used to for the bulk of our lives “Adult-Child” or “Parent-Child” to work. We believe if we act as we are told by our bosses, we will be evaluated accordingly. It sounds reasonable and rather logical – just do as you are told and everything will be fine but it is wrong and highly unhealthy. It should be a “Adult-Adult” constellation. It is the reason why so many of us are overworked and unhappy with our jobs and our lives.

For one – you become submissive. You tend to forget that you have rights to ask for things such as breaks, less work, more exciting projects, more pay or promotions. We forget that it’s not just a company that has demands towards us, but also we have demands towards them. It should be a respectful mutual relationship – not one where you owe the company your existence. You can see it from a productivity standpoint – you will work best if you feel supported, seen and valued. It’s in the company’s interest you feel good at work.

Two – you seek validation at work. This leads to us assuming that our worth is tied to how our boss perceives us. In all honesty no matter how great your boss is, he too has his own issues (or her!) and insecurities that they are projecting. Most people are promoted because of the work they have put in or by chance – not because they are great managers. The only validation you should care about is your own. A stranger that you didn’t even select to be a part of your life should not have the power to determine your worth and your feelings towards yourself.

Three – you already have parents with expectations towards you, why would you want more of that?

If you change the mindset from “Adult-Child” to “Adult-Adult” at work, you will become empowered and more clear of your needs – which deserved to get addressed and heard. This is your life and well being we are talking about which goes beyond a job that in a matter of weeks can be replaced by another. Your life and happiness can’t.

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