Understanding Why We Over-react at Work (2018)

Manfred kets de Vries & Katharina Balazs

Present behaviour through the lens of past experiences

Dirk was puzzled about what just happened. To the best of his knowledge, he had only asked Jerome (a recently hired senior executive), to deal more proactively with some of the company’s clients. But Jerome had suddenly become angry, defensive, and stalked out of his office.


Jerome, for his part, was also confused. Why had he reacted like that? Usually he was quite in control of his emotions. Somehow, however, Dirk’s comments had hurt, and he had reacted without thinking.


We can understand something of what happened between Jerome and Dirk by understanding that the human brain is wired for pattern recognition. In short, our brain acts as a sort of pattern matching and pattern generating machine, and when things aren’t already in patterns it tries to make sense of what it sees by fitting it into familiar shapes. Our previous experiences are used as a shortcut for understanding and interpreting new information. It makes sense: if a match can be found between new and old data, then our stored knowledge can be applied to the new situation at much less “cost” than our brain having to figure it all out again.


The same kind of sense-making process is at play when it comes to our relationships with other people. Based on our existing “relationship data bank,” our brain unconsciously organises new experiences in such a way that they fit the relationships we are familiar with. Thus, when we are trying to understand someone we don’t know well, our brain tricks us into assuming that this person will behave similarly to a previously experienced other. We feel good about a person who remind us of loved ones, while alarm bells will go off in our brains if that person reminds us of previous acquaintances who caused us pain. In this way, we often attribute to people characteristics that aren’t really there, automatically and without thinking. And we tend to act towards people in the present based on our experiences from the past.


After calming down, Jerome realised that Dirk reminded him of his overbearing father. When Dirk leaned over his big wooden desk and told Jerome to be more proactive, it reminded Jerome of how his father used to lean over the kitchen table and ask why he wasn’t more of a go-getter. His over-reaction was almost exactly what he had done in fights with his father, too – getting angry and storming away.


This “erroneous” interpersonal connection was first described by Sigmund Freud in his famous Dora case under the name of transference. Trying to understand this unsuccessful therapeutic intervention with his patient, he came to realise that its reason lay in his failure to recognise the transfer of emotions held by Dora for a person from her past onto Freud himself.


Given that the original sources of our transference reactions are important people of our early years, such as parents and other caregivers, as well as siblings and close family members, transference reactions tend to be directed toward people who perform roles similar to those originally carried out by these people. Thus, doctors, teachers, celebrities, and authority figures in general are particularly prone to acti­vate transference responses.


It is transference when you fall in love at first sight with the person who reminds you of someone with whom you had once a passionate love affair. It is transference when you trust someone instantly, without realising that this person reminds you of a trusted figure from the past. It is transference if you are enthralled by a boss who resembles an encouraging and supportive grandmother. It’s also transference if you take an immediate dislike to someone who reminds you of a negative influence in your past.


If you have ever had an emotional reaction to someone which was clearly too intense for the situation, you have most likely experienced a transference reaction. As transference reactions are essentially a reliving of the past, the reaction they trigger is often inappropriate, and even bizarre, in the context of the present.


Transference reactions are not troublesome in moderation. They can create problems, however, when our reactions become excessive, and when they prevent us from building an appropriate relationship with someone who can have a strong influence on our lives. And when we are susceptible to repetitive, excessive transference reactions, we are most likely troubled by some deeper issues or unfinished business from the past.


While our unconscious transference reactions can easily lead us astray, creating awareness of them can help us to become more conscious of our hidden motivations and learn to avoid repeating mistakes and thus to be more in control of our lives.


Reflect on patterns of behaviour that have gotten you into trouble, and where you feel that your judgment has repeatedly been poor. To help you in analysing what has happened, ask yourself the following questions: What kinds of people make me feel anxious, angry, sad, or happy? What do I like or dislike about them? And who in my past do these people remind me off? How are they similar or different? Discovering the ghosts of past is the first step towards not letting them interfere with life in the present.


Dealing with transference issues on your own can be challenging. You might consider enlisting a therapist or coach. With their help, past conflicts can be worked through and left where they belong — in the past.

HBR, 2018

Read more

Add Comment

Go back

Related content

"Unraveling the processes of change"

Transforming the Mind-set of the Organization: A Clinical Perspective

In this paper, the processes of individual and organisational change—their characteristics and dynamics—are explored, and resemblances between personal and organizational change are highlighted.

Published on 1 Jan, 1999

De Menselijke Kant Van Reorganiseren

De Menselijke Kant Van Reorganiseren

In this book, individual reaction patterns to downsizing operations are explored in the victims, the survivors (those staying with an organization after layoffs) and the “executioners” (those responsible for the implementation of downsizing) involved in the process.

Published on 31 Dec, 1997

Mentaliteitverandering in Organisaties

Mentaliteitverandering in Organisaties

In this book the processes of individual and organizational change their characteristics and dynamics are explored, and resemblances between personal and organizational change are highlighted.

Published on 30 Nov, 1996

"Creating authentizotic organisations"

Creating the Authentizotic Organization: Corporate Transformation and Its Vicissitudes A Rejoinder

This article is a rejoinder to the critique by Robert Golembiewski of the authors' article Transforming the Mind-Set of the Organization: A Clinical Perspective, in which the processes of individual and organizational change and the resemblance between them are explored.

Published on 1 Jan, 1999

Take a look at your strengths and development areas through the eyes of others.

Take a look at yourself in the leadership mirror

Many of today’s leaders lack self-knowledge. They are not very reflective of their actions; they may even suffer from hubris, lacking a sense of humility that allows them to clearly see where their weaknesses lie. Asking others what they think of our actions is not the best way of finding out. People are not always straight-forward and executives may be reluctant to be seen “seeking approval”. The INSEAD Global Leadership Centre has taken the findings of its leadership development work (gleaned over 10 years of leadership coaching), to develop the Global Executive Leadership Mirror (“The Global Mirror”), providing a lens through which executives can take a closer, 360 degree look at their own personal leadership behavior.

Published on 23 Oct, 2014

"What makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well"

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David chose the gift of wisdom.


In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness and compassion, necessary in the pursuit of wisdom.

Published on 4 Jul, 2017

"Playing the fool in the workplace"

Why Every Workplace Needs a Fool

Office tricksters tell it like it is and contribute to creative growth.

Published on 3 Feb, 2017

"Why do women still fail to secure top positions in the workplace?"

People-friendly Organizations: Why we Need an Alternative Default Model

This paper deals with the issue of whether the kinds of organisational structures and practices that attract women might also benefit men, and ask whether the male-oriented default position of organisational design has had its day.

Published on 3 Nov, 2010

"A lot of leadership skills are learned at home"

Leadership Begins at Home

Published on 27 Apr, 2012

"Despotic regimes and dynamics of leadership by terror"

The Spirit of Despotism: Understanding the Tyrant Within

The objective of this article is to better understand the developmental history of despotic regimes and the existence of leadership by terror.

Published on 17 Nov, 2006