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Absent fathers – Always present

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    Aephoria Partners

    06 Oct 2016

Some of us had absent fathers or absent mothers. The migrant labour system, long hours at work, Apartheid Separate Development, the shifting of traditional cultural norms, addictions and violence have meant that many of us grew up with an absent father/authority figure or one that was unpredictably present in our lives.

Our sense is that the absent or unpredictably present father is a strong reality within the mining sector and that because miners seem to breed miners, this is an issue of ongoing relevance that may also be a source of insight with regards to current leadership and work patterns within mining companies.   It is for this reason that we have written this blog.

The Enneagram is useful to understand how these absent or unpredictably present fathers continue to impact on leadership and work behaviour as a whole. In this brief paper, we have combined our learning about childhoods with the research of Riso and Hudson (1999) to briefly explore this area.

The theme of the absent father sits within the childhoods of the Enneagram Sixes, Threes, Eights and Ones. We consider the absent or unpredictably present father a theme, rather than a causal factor because the research is anecdotal rather than rigorously statistical at this point. Also the developmental factors within personality are complex and the map we are providing in this paper simplifies this and must be understood only as a map and not reality. While we may focus here on the father theme, there are many others that intersect within people to finally crystallise into one personality or another. Even so, we believe that exploring one theme; the relationship people have with their fathers, is useful in understanding and managing work behaviour.

For the Enneagram Sixes, the father is absent or unpredictably present, either because of work, addictions, additional families or other factors. The child can often feel lost because there is no authority/father figure to provide a map of how to do life and this results in a fearful approach to doing life. Situations become fraught with negative possibilities and dangers and the child becomes cautious, risk averse and fearful. This behaviour continues into adulthood and results in a very cautious and risk averse manager/leader. It becomes hard for these leaders to take responsibility for mistakes and blaming is often a strategy employed to remove risk and danger from themselves. These managers are good at managing risks, planning for problems and solving complex problems, they can also provide the backbone of compliance in organisations along with the Enneagram Ones. The Sixes tend to have some relational and interpersonal skills although these are often only developed in order to manage relational risk.

For the Enneagram Threes, the pattern is that the young child can stand in the place of the absent or intermittently present father but at the same time can be focused on impressing this father figure by being very successful at whatever they take on. The child learns to tune into the explicit and implicit expectations of the environment, and thus out of their own needs and feelings. They can become goal-orientated workaholics, suppressing their own feelings and merging with the organisation as a new father/authority figure to impress. This is useful for the organisation, at least in the short term, because these people can really deliver, but when Threes become fixated they burn out and/or sacrifice innovation, risk, strategy and relationships for short-term gain. They can become expedient, blamers or liars because acknowledging failure in the face of the surrogate father figure (the organisation) feels so devastating. They can also become independent operators; undermining teamwork and leadership in order to be more successful than others and gain the recognition from the absent father. The Threes tend to be transactional in orientation and have interest in relationships at work only so far as they will serve transactions.

For the Eights, the childhood patterns suggest the theme of absent father, but in a different way. When the father figure fails to protect by being absent or distracted, and/or the father figure becomes the cause of pain/abuse then the child will learn how to stand up for themselves, suppress their feelings and develop the tool of anger as a way to look tough and prevent others from attacking them. We see this pattern with military or police fathers, or even fathers in mining who believe that the child, especially the boy child needs to toughen up. This childhood experience results in tough leader who has immediate access to anger who replicates the childhood experience of pain/abuse/toughening up in the workplace but this time taking the role of the perpetrator. This is the traditional, and old fashioned, mining guy profile; tough, straight talking, prone to anger and possibly even violence. More positively these guys can really make things happen operationally and can also be very effective as strategic thinkers. While some Eights can be relational, as a whole they tend not be, focusing instead on outcomes and getting the job done.

A similar childhood pattern to the Eights can be found within Enneagram Ones. In this case, the father/parents may be absent or chaotic or in fact may be very present but very strict. In some cases we find both, for example with an alcoholic, perfectionist father. In the case of the chaotic father, the child creates structure and order to fill the gap left by the father, and the structures they create tend to be extremely perfectionistic in order to compensate for the absence of the father. In the second case, the child needs to comply with existing very tight structures. In both cases, the child needs to grow up and become responsible and perfectionistic at an early age. As managers they tend to micromanage, are tactical rather than strategic in orientation, and can be experienced as critical or pedantic. On a more positive note these guys tend to be self-starters who finish jobs properly and can be counted on to sort out problems, mop up poor work and generally fix whatever is “going wrong” in teams as long as the problems are not strategic or people problems. These managers are excellent at compliance and as such are the backbone of a strong health and safety culture. Enneagram Ones, like the other types in this document tend to be transactionally orientated and less concerned with relationships and people issues.

A significant proportion of the groups we deal with in mining are Enneagram Threes, Ones, Eights, and Sixes and a significant proportion of these people have backgrounds within the mining sector. While we can see both the benefits and problems with these types of personalities, it is not the organisation’s responsibility to take on the role of the absent father. However, perhaps this knowledge can help us to understand how the organisation is experienced on a psychodynamic level and become more effective at managing this, thereby supporting our people to be happier and more effective.