In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, an article addressed the subject of Emotional Transference in boss-employee relationships.
While that article addressed it primarily from the manager's perspective, I'd like to take a look at this important issue from the employee and job seeker's perspective.
Emotional Transference is an idea, first suggested by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, that people transfer emotions they felt for other people to current relationships. According to the theory, this often happens in situations where the relationship structure is similar to a prior relationship, often to a relationship from early childhood such as with a mother or father. Freud noticed patients falling in love with him (their psychiatrist).
Numerous studies have also shown that transference happens in boss-employee relationships. It's easy to see how: a boss has some similar characteristics to a parent, such as being a provider, point out mistakes, and giving rewards when achievements are made.
However, as the HBR article argued, on the whole, transference is not a good thing. While it does feel good to be reminded of the love we felt from our parents as young children, it is a mistake to feel that a boss would care for us in the same way. Having this kind of expectation is really a recipe for relationship failure.
The unfortunate thing is many bosses are subconsciously aware of this effect and try to use it to manipulate their employees. Some downsides to emotional transference include:
- Reacting emotionally to situations where you should react based on business circumstances. For example, if a boss criticizes your work in a way that reminds you of something a parent did that you didn't like, you could have an emotional reaction that is more about your feelings for your parent than a reaction based on the business situation at hand.
- Although many bosses are good people, it is important to recognize that their primary concern is making money for the company and they will not look out for you the same way your parents would. Emotional transference is one reason people end up staying.