Do you find yourself experiencing the same patterns in your work relationships again and again? Are there certain people you experience strong friction with and find that your emotional reactions to them seem bigger than you’d expect from the circumstances? If so, there is a good chance that your connections with others are being unconsciously determined by schemas formed in childhood. You are being compelled to repeat the same dance time and again with different people.
Schemas are mental frameworks we develop, usually in childhood, to organise information. We then use these as our filters to make sense of the world as we go through our lives. For more details about schemas and how they’re formed, you might be interested in our Why do I keep dating toxic people? post.
These schemas or filters are self-reinforcing so we tend to focus on anything that confirms them and overlook information that doesn’t fit with them.
We spend so much of our lives at work and interacting with our colleagues and clients. There are inevitably demands in the workplace but these can be exacerbated by the beliefs we have about ourselves, others and the tasks at hand. Here are some of the most common schemas we see in people in relation to their work and working relationships. Do you recognise any of these in yourself?
“I often feel like my colleagues or boss might be deceiving me or have hidden motives”
For example, someone with this schema might be suspicious if asked to do something, questioning whether they’re being manipulated into taking on more than they should
“I constantly worry that my co-workers will discover that I'm not as competent as they think.”
For example, someone with this schema might hesitate to contribute ideas to a project, doubting their abilities despite their qualifications and experience
“I believe that no matter how hard I try, I'll ultimately fail in my responsibilities.”
For example, someone with this schema might be offered a promotion and immediately worry that will end up disappointing everyone
“I set extremely high standards for myself at work, to the point where it's never good enough.”
For example, someone with this schema might successfully complete a project but then fixate on minor details that could have been better, rather than celebrating the achievement.
“I tend to be very hard on myself when things don't go as planned.”
For example someone with this schema might believe that harsh consequences are deserved if they (or others) make a minor mistake or miss a minor deadline
“I often feel like I need to suppress my own needs or opinions at work to avoid conflict or disapproval.”
For example someone with this schema might have a differing opinion in a team meeting but choose to stay silent to keep the peace
“My sense of self-worth heavily depends on the approval and recognition from others”
For example someone with this schema might be constantly overworking and taking on extra tasks, just to get compliments and validation from their boss and peers
These schemas can be triggered by interacting with people in positions of power or whose opinion matters to us. But, leaders and managers will also have schemas that get triggered. If you’re in a position of authority where you manage others, do you recognise any of these?
“I often doubt the intentions of my team members, suspecting they might not be honest in their reports or could be hiding mistakes.”
For instance, someone with this schema might assume that when a team member completes their work ahead of time that they've cut corners instead of appreciating their efficiency.
“I constantly fear being exposed as inadequate.”
For example someone with this schema might decline a higher managerial position fearing wouldn't meet the expectations and everyone would see their flaws.
“As a leader, I harbour a deep-seated belief that I will fail in guiding my team effectively”.
For example someone with this schema might hesitate to implement a new strategy due to being convinced it would fail and reflect poorly on their leadership skills.
“I impose extremely high standards not only on myself but also on my team, often leading to excessive stress.”
For example someone with this schema might push their team to work overtime regularly to meet these standards, overlooking the negative impact on their well-being.
“When a project doesn't go as planned, I tend to be overly critical and punitive, both towards myself and my team”.
For example someone with this schema might respond with disproportionate criticism to small errors, creating a tense and fearful work environment.
“I suppress my leadership instincts to avoid conflict, overly accommodating team members' demands.”
For example someone with this schema might agree to unrealistic project timelines suggested by the team, ignoring the practical constraints and own judgment.
“My decision-making as a leader is heavily influenced by my need for approval from higher management or my team.”
For example someone with this schema might accept an ill-advised project or not set boundaries to protect their team, simply because it was popular and praised by senior management.
We tend to take similar roles in relationships and attract people who reinforce our schemas, while we in turn reinforce theirs. We tend to spark with people who unconsciously ‘agree’ with our schemas — and us with theirs. This is why controlling and passive people are often drawn to each other. Or narcissists to self-sacrificing types. Or critical individuals to people who are seeking validation. There are certain schema combinations that are particularly prone to problematic interactions…
An employee with a mistrust schema may constantly suspect that their colleague seeking approval is being insincere or manipulative in their attempts to please others. This can lead to tension, as the approval-seeking employee feels undervalued and misunderstood, while the mistrustful employee remains suspicious and distant.
A team member who feels defective might be overly sensitive to criticism or feedback from a colleague with unrelenting standards. The high expectations and critical nature of the latter can exacerbate the former's feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, leading to a strained working relationship.
An employee who believes they are bound to fail may become increasingly anxious and underperform when working with a punitive colleague. The punitive colleague's harsh reactions to mistakes or setbacks can reinforce the failure schema, creating a cycle of fear, underperformance, and criticism.
A team member with a subjugation schema, who tends to suppress their own needs, might find themselves constantly yielding to the demands of a colleague seeking approval (who may continually overpromise to clients). This dynamic can lead to the subjugated employee feeling resentful and overburdened, while the approval-seeker might remain oblivious to the imbalance in the relationship.
In a scenario where a mistrustful manager works with a punitive employee, the manager's distrust could lead to constant scrutiny and doubt over the employee's actions. The punitive employee, in turn, might respond with hostility or defensiveness to this lack of trust, escalating tensions in the workplace.
An employee with a defectiveness schema may feel inherently flawed and thus unworthy of asserting themselves, which can be compounded when working with a colleague with a subjugation schema. Both might struggle to voice their opinions or needs, leading to a passive dynamic where important decisions or actions are delayed or avoided.
In a team where one member has unrelenting standards and another harbours a fear of failure, the high expectations from the former can intensify the fear and anxiety of the latter. This could result in the fearful employee becoming overly cautious or hesitant, while the demanding colleague becomes increasingly frustrated with the perceived lack of progress or ambition.
These examples illustrate how different schemas can interact with both individuals being trapped in a toxic dance that started in their childhood when their beliefs about the world were being formed but are now are affecting workplace dynamics, often leading to challenges in communication, collaboration, and overall team cohesion. Understanding and acknowledging these schema interactions can be crucial for creating a more supportive and effective working environment.
Yet if any of this sounds familiar, thankfully there are ways that you can escape the trap and move towards healthier connections with others.
Awareness: The first step to making changes to unhelpful patterns in working relationships is to be aware of them. Notice any trends that follow you as you move roles and companies. If you end up feeling the same but with different people, certain schemas may be at play. Jeffrey E. Young’s book Reinventing Your Life goes through all the main schemas in more details and provides ideas about how to spot them. Once you’ve recognised the schemas that impacting you reactions and interactions, it might help you to be more compassionate with yourself as well as seeing others in a different light too.
Choices: Once you’re aware of your patterns, you then have options as to how you proceed. When you know what you’re doing – and potentially why – it gives you the opportunity to think about how to respond, rather than automatically react. You can think about whether this way of acting serves you well and helps you get the desired outcome.
Change: Then having considered your options, you can then implement different strategies to ensure you don’t continue to fall into these traps. For example, if you recognise you have a subjugation schema, you might practise setting boundaries. If you become aware that you have a punitiveness schema, you might practise giving more balanced feedback (to yourself and others). If a defectiveness schema has come to light and you have a tendency to underestimate your worth, you might practise purposefully paying attention to your positive qualities and achievements to correct the bias in your thinking.
All the above are possible – and it’s possible to make changes at any point in our lives – but sometimes this can be difficult to do without additional support. A psychologist or psychotherapist who is trained in schema therapy can help you spot these schemas as they play out in your life, even highlighting them as they come into your interactions with the therapist. Again, once the awareness is there, it’s possible to explore options and then make changes to relationships.
Ready to find out more? Let’s talk