Transference effect in organisations

A look at the reasons behind bad relationships at work.

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A bad day at work is not unheard of in the life of a working professional. Many a time, this bad day at work is not a result of the nature of work, but because of the nature of the relationships we share with people at work, mostly our managers.

As the common saying goes, ‘employees do not leave companies but managers’. Why does this happen?

There can be many reasons affecting the relationship between managers and employees or other colleagues in the office. One of these can be the problem of ‘transference’. This is a psychological phenomenon, where a person redirects the feelings for one person to another.

For instance, an employee who has an angry and authoritative father, may redirect her/his feelings towards the boss, adversely affecting their relationship in the process. And all this happens unconsciously.

Another example can be of a manager redirecting her feelings for a best friend from childhood—someone who cared for her— to one of the subordinates. Such a manager will share a good relationship with that employee, but may also tend to overlook her/his shortcomings at work, which creates bias.

PV Ramana Murthy

“These emotions usually stem from primary relationships during childhood. Transference explains a lot about the everyday behaviour of leaders in organisations and becomes even more risky when the other person responds by projecting the feelings and emotions back, a phenomenon known as countertransference”

Clearly, the transference effect works both ways.

It may lead to breaking down of relationships at work or even the very culture of the organisation.

“These emotions usually stem from primary relationships during childhood. Transference explains a lot about the everyday behaviour of leaders in organisations and becomes even more risky when the other person responds by projecting the feelings and emotions back, a phenomenon known as countertransference,” explains PV Ramana Murthy, CHRO, Taj Hotels.

According to Ramesh Shankar S, former CHRO, Siemens, cases of depression at workplaces are on the rise. At Seimens, they had an employee-assistance programme where employees could consult a psychologist.

Though the vital information was never shared, data revealed the number of people going through a relationship crisis at the workplace. Accordingly, the HR team worked towards taking remedial actions.

“Generally, the third party cannot disclose any information about the employees if he is going through a transference problem as per the clauses. The HR only intervenes when there is a very serious issue and talks to the concerned manager and employee to resolve it,” says Shankar.

This problem is very prevalent in organisations. It is possible for the HR to identify such problems by developing assistance programmes.

Ramesh Shankar S

“If the transference problem or any mental health issue has really gone serious only then the HR intervenes and talk to the employee and the manager”

It is the individuals themselves who need to tackle this problem. If they are affected by the transference phenomenon, they can discuss this with their psychologists.

The following steps can be taken to deal with transference:

Talk about it – Once one realises one is going through this phenomenon, one can talk about this with the person one is having problems with. It can be one’s boss or a colleague. It is important to just let them know what is bothering one.

Find the root – One may be having a bad relationship with one’s boss because he reminds one of one’s angry father. One may be very close and friendly with a subordinate, which makes one appear biased towards everyone in the team, simply because that subordinate reminds one of a best friend from childhood. The ‘make the unconscious conscious’ theory says that if one goes go deep and works through this, it will help subside the reactions towards the person.

Look for differences – If one wants to end the transference pattern, one can list down the differences of the person from the template. For instance, if one is relating one’s boss with one’s angry father, list down the differences between the father and the boss, and ask oneself ‘Is he really like my father? Do I really hate him?’

Change your feelings – After finding the differences, one needs to think and discuss what feelings yone should really have towards the person. Think about how one wants to relate to the person. This will help one change one’s reactions.

Transference is simply a flashback to our past relationships and emotions. It can make us treat our superiors as parents or subordinates as siblings. People who have travelled a lot during their childhood, such as those belonging to an army background, are very comfortable with frequent changes at the workplace. They are able to tackle changes more efficiently than others because of their familiarity with constant change in their past. Transference at the workplace is a significant phenomenon that can help make or break relationships. Therefore, it is a pattern that needs to be paid attention to.

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