SMALL CHANGE: formative years impact current behaviour



an ebook


Ciarán Fenton

How small changes in your behaviour have a big impact on how you work, lead or follow

That’s the title of an ebook I wrote in early 2020, initially, as a series of 50 short blogs – index here – and as a framework for a longer book.


Section 1 YOU

Section 1.6 Formative years impact current behaviour

Formative years

Your current behaviour is, according to academic research, a function of your formative years which are a key component of your timeline.

What were your formative years like?

I use a simple scale:

7-10?: I use the popular TV series (in my youth at least) Little House On The Prairie or The Waltons as metaphors to capture formative years experiences mainly characterised by loving and nurturing contexts in which you could negotiate your needs and have them met, or not, reasonably.

4-6?: A mixed experience. Sometimes like The Waltons, and sometimes very definitely not. Some good stuff; some significant pain.

0-3? Very tough. The absolute opposite of a Waltons experience.

My purpose is not about analysing precisely what happened and embarking on a process to deal with it  – a complex task best performed by therapists – but to address at a high level only and to what extent you are still playing out decisions you took during your formative years.

Harvard Business Review

Roger Jones, in Harvard Business Review, July 19 2016 wrote:

“Does your CEO remind you of your bullying older brother? Or the mother who always refolded your clothes because you didn’t do a good enough job? Or the emotionally distant father who never praised you? Watch out: Chances are your CEO is recreating the very same dynamics that shaped his early family life. The entire executive team, and its mission, may suffer unless the CEO recognizes it and takes conscious steps to change his subconscious behavior.
My work with top executives has shown that deep-seated, sometimes irrational fears can skew their decisions and their ability to execute company strategy. But I’ve found another influence, equally deep-seated, that affects how they deal with others in the C-suite: their earliest interactions with family members and friends.
Research has shown that our early family experiences often re-emerge in our adult life interactions with others, including those in the business world. Families, after all, are our first “enterprise,” and our parents and siblings are our first “management team.” Early family life affects how leaders respond to pressure and react when team members compete for their attention.”

The Micro-Managing CEO

Many years ago, I worked with a board whose CEO was a self-confessed micro-manager. I have worked with many of these, but this particular CEO was unusual in that

a) he acknowledged “his D Liability”, his main behavioural weakness at work.

b) he had high emotional intelligence (EQ) in that he was self-aware enough to know why he behaved in that manner. He said that in his formative years his parents would not tolerate failure of any kind in any context. He, therefore, decided not to trust anyone because he felt that he couldn’t fully rely on anyone to do anything which might impact him without his constant oversight. This behaviour persisted into adulthood.

c) he was gloriously up for “small change” in that he enthusiastically took part in my “soft contract” process.

Meanwhile, his micro-managing had a severely negative impact on his team.

Are you a micro-manager? If so, do you know why?

It is possible to make a new decision – or a re-decision as academics call it (ref. William Glasser) – in respect of your behaviour.

Ciaran Fenton

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