top of page

How to Understand the Forces that Have Shaped You and Everyone You Work With

The Forces that Shape Us

Imagine you’re leading a cross-departmental task force where you and a group of people are building an important new product feature. The deadline is tight, but you’ve got some of the company’s best people in the room.

Things should go rather smoothly. But for some reason, they don’t.

Over the course of several meetings, you begin to notice some limiting patterns of behavior.

Bob overreacts to even the smallest issues and often storms out of meetings. Christine dominates conversations and quickly dismisses ideas she doesn’t like. Diane is devastated by even the smallest hint of negative feedback. Mark shuts down whenever there’s tension in the room preferring to sit in the corner, browsing Reddit on his phone. And as a person who generally avoids conflict at all costs, you are stressed, not sleeping and more than a little cranky, especially during task force meetings.

Sound familiar?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; we all have our stuff, and we bring it to work.

Every person you work with, be they excellent colleagues or problematic ones, is the product of a lifetime of powerful shaping forces.

It’s not our job to fix our co-workers, but it is our job to try to understand them. Because great leadership begins and ends with understanding.

Understanding the Forces that Shape Us:

Individual experience

Each of us is shaped by our biology, innate disposition, sexuality, and sexual identity, as well as our genetic legacy. We’re also shaped by the events that happen in our lives – for better or for worse.

And each of us has a set of basic human needs (certainty, significance, variety, connection, growth, and contribution) that we prioritize in different ways at different times in our lives. The methods we choose for fulfilling these needs shape our attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, each of us has a unique set of core values - the qualities of life and character that are most important to us.

And each of us has trauma.

The longer I’ve worked in coaching, the more I’ve come to understand the pervasiveness of trauma and how it affects our day-to-day lives. When we think of trauma, we most often think of violence, abuse, or the ravages of war. But the truth is, trauma is as much about the good things that didn’t happen as it is about the bad things that did.

When you think of it that way, you can see how we all carry trauma with is to some degree. And to some degree, its aftereffects shape our daily lives, relationships, and careers.

Family/intimate network

It’s no surprise that we are shaped by our families (see trauma above). Our parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives provide us with our earliest frameworks for what the world is, and who and how they think we should be, act, and think within it.

These should values are some of the most influential forces in our lives, and some of the most difficult to shift. That’s because we shape ourselves to meet the expectations of those close to us so that we can secure our place within the group. A primal part of each of us associates not being a part of the group with grave danger (it’s scary to get kicked out of the cave), so we’re often willing to do what it takes to stay in favor, even if it betrays the core of who we truly are.


We are shaped by the communities we live in, be they geographical, cultural, religious, linguistic or professional.

Ideas about what is right (acceptable) and what is wrong (unacceptable) are often determined by the communities we’re in. Some of these ideas can support and uplift us. Others can enforce the idea that we should know our place, we shouldn’t want to rise up or be different in any way.

The communities we belong to can also dictate how we interact with and are seen by the outside world. We can experience the pain of racism against our community. And we can learn to be racist within our communities.


From the moment we’re born, institutions play a huge role in our lives. The schools we attend, the governments that serve (or don’t serve) us, the healthcare we have access to, the laws we’re subject to and the criminal systems that attempt to enforce them are examples of institutions that shape us. So too are the religions that guide our notions of what it means to be a good person or what it means to be a “normal” person, and the economies, social classes, and social structures we function within.

Institutions shape us by either creating or eliminating the opportunities for safety, dignity and belonging we all need for personal wellbeing.

Social norms

We live in a world of norms. Gender norms, sexual norms, relationship norms, parenting norms, professional norms and religious norms. Even seemingly innocuous things such as speech patterns, accents, and fashion sense can be an indication of the norms we were raised with.

Each of these shapes who we are and how we are perceived in the world.

Historical forces

Powerful forces such as the prevailing socio-economic class system and its ability to support or not support upward mobility affect us on a deeply personal level. The legacy of European colonialism shapes the culture and the people of colonizing countries as well as the nations and regions that were colonized. The United States has the legacy of slavery that continues to affect social equality and mobility over 150 years since the civil war ended. In my country Canada, we have a devastating history of racist, abusive mistreatment and subjugation of indigenous people that continues to affect First Nations people and communities to this day.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say, things that happened long ago can have an ongoing legacy that affects each of our daily lives, attitudes, and prospects.

General landscape

We are living in a digital, always on, era of misinformation, distrust, and division. It’s in the ether. And the fear, anxiety and anger arising from these things shape each of us. Our sense of security, dignity and belonging are threatened.


Each of these forces shape how we determine what is right and what is wrong. They shape how we react to negative triggers and how we respond to opportunity. They shape the stories we tell about ourselves and about others. They shape the relationships we have and how we maintain them. They shape our physical and emotional health. And above all, they shape who we are, how we feel about ourselves and how we move through the world.

In other words, the person you see standing before you at work, or walking down the street or on the corner asking for money, is the result of an astounding array of interconnected and interacting systems.

Kind of changes how you look at the world doesn’t it?

The big question is: How might it change how you lead?

That’s what we’ll be talking about on this blog for the next few weeks.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Me
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
bottom of page