When Your Teammates Act Like Children

Published: April 18, 2018

Sometimes the influences of team behavior are in the here and now. Teammates are responding directly to each other and managing present day challenges. Other times, teammates behave in reaction to historical patterns and traumas. Colleagues become siblings. Bosses, managers, and supervisors become parents. This can get messy.

Most of our coping patterns were established much earlier in life that our current work environments. Under stress, we tend to rely on the adaptive maneuvers that have worked in the past. Most of these were forged in the first two decades of our lives.

In clinical circles, this is called transference and countertransference. When it’s transference, you are aware of the influence. When it’s countertransference, it’s happening unconsciously.

Simply, the more intimate the current interaction, the more likely it is to stir up patterns from the most significant people from our childhoods. When teammates respond to each other from these historical contexts, transference occurs. It’s usually unnoticeable since your boss doesn’t know he reminds you of your father.

Countertransference, however, happens outside of awareness. These interactions are usually called dysfunctional. When someone’s reaction to a teammate is driven by unresolved conflict with people in the past, it’s likely to cause discomfort in the workplace. Your teammate has no way of understanding that your emotions are rooted in a relationship from your past. You aren’t much help in clarifying your reaction since you’re not even aware of where it’s coming from.

Most of us don’t think about the historical context for our own coping style (let alone what might be motivating a teammate). Usually, you just know which teammates are easy to get along with and which ones are difficult. Some teammates fuel your energy and others drain you. Some exchanges are high maintenance while others are effortless.

Bring your team dynamics into the present. The workplace is not a psychotherapy office. Workplace wellness mean you know the difference between healthy and unhealthy interactions. Stress doesn’t come with permission for teammates to act like children.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.