I’ve been reflecting this week on a coaching session with “Anne” with whom I’ve recently started working. Anne presents as a warm, empathic person who has an engaging presence.

She is a senior executive who has had particular success in leading large teams and is known for her collaborative, inclusive leadership style.

Anne has been in her current role for around 18 months and is keen to explore her relationship with her boss, “John”.  It turns out that John has become increasingly authoritarian and micro-managing in his approach and she is finding him incredibly difficult to work with. Whilst Anne is putting in long hours, nothing that she does seems to be enough for John – and she is feeling extremely stressed. Anne says that this is particularly challenging as she loves her role, her team are highly functioning and that the work is very meaningful for her. Anne says she realises that unless this issue is resolved, her position is unsustainable in the long term and probably even in the short-term.

In our last session I found myself really curious about exactly what it was that was stopping Anne being able to have a “crucial conversation” with John. She has proven over the many years of her career to be really assertive and clear in her thought processes.

I asked her: “I’m curious to know if you have ever experienced anything like this before? And if you have, how did you deal with it then?” Anne turned pale; tears came to her eyes and she slumped in her chair. For a while she sat in silence and then she whispered: “It’s my father”.

She said she hadn’t realized, until just now, how incredibly similar this situation was to her early life at home. She said: “I had issues with my father all of my childhood – nothing I ever did was good enough and even though I did really well at school and in sports, he always wanted more of me.” She continued describing the challenges she faced in this relationship growing up and how it ended up with her going to university in another city so that she could get away from her father’s overbearing attitude. She also explained that as she got older, the relationship between them improved greatly and they had been able to talk about the earlier years and make peace between them.

I asked Anne what she had learned from this experience and what she could also take from it to help her with her current problem. We’re still working on this deeply challenging concern.

I guess it made me realize again how incredibly powerful our past is, how it can unconsciously impact us – and how we often bring it into the workplace.