Dad's Impact on Your Career

Experts explain how a father's parenting style can have a long-term impact on the workplace.

From the WebMD Archives

As yet, there's no such thing as "Take Your Dad to Work Day." But a psychologist maintains that most of us -- consciously or unconsciously -- bring our fathers into the workplace every day. Who's behind your need to (pick one): please the boss, find someone to blame, bark at subordinates, climb the ladder, or work harder than anyone else? Stephan B. Poulter, PhD, says it's Dad.

He spells it out in his book The Father Factor: How Your Father's Legacy Impacts Your Career. WebMD talked with Poulter, a former police officer who for 24 years has been a clinical psychologist specializing in family relationships, and two other experts about the influence fathers have on careers.

Understanding the Five Fathering Styles

Much is known about a mother's role in shaping offspring, but Poulter believes that fathers provide the model for workplace behavior. "Dad's rule book" -- the spoken and unspoken rules about work ethic, relationships, ethics, and money -- gets internalized. It may foster positive behaviors, such as a strong work ethic, but often sets up career roadblocks.

The legacy comes from the "father factor," or the type of fathering a son or daughter receives. While dads can exhibit a combination of styles, Poulter says one will dominate. He categorizes these styles as Superachiever, Time Bomb, Passive, Absent, and Compassionate/Mentor.

  • Superachiever. Looking good and winning is the mantra of the Superachiever, whose legacy is shame. Their children become their own toughest critics. They expend tremendous energy hiding weaknesses, can't share their insecurities with anyone, and feel they are phonies. Poulter has a five-step strategy for becoming a "balanced achiever," at the heart of which is a lot of self-nurturing.
  • Time Bomb. With a dad who explodes unpredictably, a kid learns that keeping Dad happy is goal No. 1. As an adult in the workplace, the child may be skilled at reading others' behavior but has difficulty dealing with conflict out of an insecure need to please. The first step in changing this behavior is to recognize the problem and change limiting thoughts, such as "If I'm not always nice, people won't like me."
  • Passive. More than 50% of baby boomers are products of passive fathering. Such dads act more as observers than participants in their families. Emotionally they neglect the children, who respond with self-neglect and ultimately depressiondepression. Two career roadblocks loom: lack of motivation and fear of failure. Gaining insight, taking charge, and changing the internalized father factor are keys to personal and career satisfaction.
  • Absent. When a father is physically or emotionally absent, it gets translated into rejection. "Kids are wired for both parents to love them," says Poulter, who describes his own father as emotionally distant. Poulter tells WebMD that absent fathers are the glue that holds juvenile gangs together, and he believes they're also responsible for widespread depression among Generation X. In the workplace, the child may have problems with authority figures, especially male bosses, and direct anger toward co-workers. Poulter offers action steps for healing the anger, which include recognizing that the absent father's legacy carries positive as well as negative influence.
  • Compassionate/Mentor. This is the poster dad for effective parentingparenting -- usually someone else's dad. He doesn't drag around resentments or unfulfilled dreams. Poulter lists 10 characteristics of the Compassionate/Mentor dad that less enlightened men can learn to emulate in the workplace. These include "allowing flexibility, forgiveness, and compassion to influence management style, co-worker relations, and client relations," and "reaching a balance of assertiveness between the extremes of aggression and passivity."

Poulter has a number of checklists and exercises for recognizing and moving beyond career roadblocks. "People think they can't go beyond their legacy, but the goal of this book is to get the adult to move in the direction they've always wanted in their career, life, finances, and relationships."


Another Point of View

Brian A. Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist who applies a psychohistorical approach to career planning. Having counseled more than 1,700 clients, he says almost all of them fail to understand how their fathers influenced their career success, failure, or satisfaction. But he believes mothers also play an important role in their offspring's workplace behavior, especially with their daughters.

"Parental influence carries a lot of weight," he tells WebMD. "The boss and co-workers become stand-ins for the family. People rise to the level of success that their self-esteem can absorb, and the roots of self-esteem are a reflection of our parents. People can be very talented, but if they don't have self-esteem, they either don't achieve or they achieve and sabotage themselves."

Regarding Dad's role, he believes the emotionally absent father does the most damage. "Emotionally, the children keep going back to a well that is empty."

But, he says additional factors, such as birth order, family dynamics, and a child's personality type, help explain the very different career levels and workplace behaviors found among siblings, something Poulter's book does not account for.

Schwartz, who is writing a book entitled Career DNA, believes that to move beyond the parental legacy requires dealing with the issues. "When men and women take the courage to have a genuine conversation with their father or mother, they find themselves released and able to go on with their lives. There's no guarantee that the parent will respond in a constructive way, but it gives them emotional lubrication to move on."

When Dad Owns Your Workplace

If Dad can affect your career even though he's miles away and has never set foot in your cubicle, imagine what it's like to work in the company Dad owns. It's like throwing the father-child dynamic in a pressure cooker. (Stir in Mom and some siblings for a really interesting mix.)

In her position as senior associate with Family Business Consulting Group, Amy Schuman lives in Chicago and travels around the country to consult with family businesses and has an opportunity to observe the roles various family members play.


"The founder of a family business has to be pretty entrepreneurial to be successful. They're usually dominant, very directive, and fast-paced. They're not very facilitative and not good developers of others."

She tells WebMD that in businesses that pass through generations, there's often a pattern of a strong founder, weak son, strong grandson, etc. "You'll hear families say the grandson is so much like the grandfather. That's because the son has to learn to accommodate the founder of the business, and the grandson can show the same spark as the founder if Dad isn't threatened."

Like Schwartz, she says siblings grow up to be very different from one another in spite of having the same father. "Siblings are the most diverse group in terms of style. It might be two who are opposite, or four who go different directions. Then the siblings have to find a way to manage that and deal with sibling rivalry if they're going to own the business."

When Dad dies, one of two things typically happens. "His ghost might hover over the business, but, I almost hate to say it, sometimes it liberates the kids so they can fully express themselves and their vision."

She explains that becoming an adult requires separating from parents, but that if kids differentiate too much in a family business, it can threaten Dad and the unity of the family. "If kids have to pay the price of their own individual identity in order to be part of a family business, it's very damaging. But if they can manage to differentiate, it's tremendous."

Going to Work Without Dad

Poulter is optimistic that adults can move beyond the father factor to realize personal and career satisfaction. He ends his book with "Seven Steps to Success":

  1. Make a commitment to change.
  2. Improve your self-awareness.
  3. Identify your triggers.
  4. Don't allow your mistakes or career setbacks to derail your commitment to change.
  5. Be aware of old, familiar father factor habits.
  6. Get a support system in place.
  7. Determine what success looks like, and set your goals for achieving it.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 29, 2006


SOURCES: Stephan B. Poulter, PhD, author, The Father Factor: How Your Father's Legacy Impacts Your Career, Los Angeles. Amy Schuman, senior associate, Family Business Consulting Group, Chicago. Brian A. Schwartz, PhD, psychologist, Norwalk, Conn.

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