Organizational Co-Dependency

Sheri was a smart, ambitious, and energetic executive. She had lifted herself up through many of the barriers that arise in all growing careers, and through many of the barriers  unique to women leaders. How?

First, she had the requisite talents and competencies. She brought as much to the table as anyone. Wise superiors and mentors recognized her value and leveraged it. it was win/win.

Second, Sheri maintained a can-do attitude. She never said no. It was a great asset. But it almost killed her, and it almost killed her career. She, like most of her colleagues, both male and female, had not recognized how the nature of organizations elicits co-dependent behavior.

What is Co-Dependency? The term co-dependency comes from the field of addiction. As professionals were gaining an understanding of the nature of addiction, they came to recognize that people who loved the addict often unwittingly contributed to the addiction. Here’s a common example:

John is an alcoholic. His wife Cindy knows it. John doesn’t. One night John “ties one on.” He then drives home. The whole town is lucky he didn’t kill someone. He crawls into bed at 3 AM. He should be at work by 8 AM. Cindy tries to wake him, but it is clear that even if he wakes up, he’s in no shape to go to work. Among other things, he still reeks of alcohol. She calls John’s employer, making up a story about John being sick. In other words, Cindy takes over one of John’s responsibilities, covering for him, and not for the first time.

Then she looks outside to see John’s car. While he didn’t kill anyone, there is new damage. No  telling what John hit. His license already has lots of “points.” Cindy takes the car to the shop, claiming that she was driving when the damage happened. Another rescue.

Outcome: Cindy gets burned out, hates John, perhaps starts drinking excessively herself, and may develop health problems. She might “suddenly” get out of the situation by surprising John by her demand for a divorce or by dying.

Notice the pattern: Addiction consistently leads to failures of responsibility. People who behave co-dependently fill in the resulting gaps. They can make good arguments for doing so in each specific instance, until the pattern becomes clear. In Cindy’s case, John’s job is the family’s livelihood. They have children to raise. If he loses his job, there will be serious trouble. Cindy tells herself, “I have to lie this time.” Cindy is also a naturally helpful person. She loves John and wants to support him. (Unlike some addicts, John is neither mean nor abusive.) She is so busy taking care of her own responsibilities, and filling in for John’s failures, that it is difficult for her to lift up her eyes to see the pattern herself. She defines each instance as “an emergency.” They are emergencies, emergencies grown in the garden of addiction. In reality, John over-spends not just money but also his energy, time, and health on alcohol.  And burns a lot of good will.

What is Organizational Co-Dependency? In short, Sheri is Cindy. Her organization is John. Here’s how it works.

Organizations become addicts when they chronically live beyond their resources of money and people. Symptoms of alcohol addiction include consistent overuse of alcohol and irresponsible behavior. Symptoms of organizational addiction include chronically asking more of people than is reasonable, and constant emergencies, often referred to as “fire drills.”

As with most of us, Sheri’s great strength is also a great weakness.  She has been rewarded consistently for her “can do” attitude. She doesn’t say no. When presented with a request, her response is to double down on effort and time devoted to work. Because she is so highly skilled and agreeable, it comes naturally to senior leaders to count on her. Sheri worries that if she were ever to say no that she would fall out of favor.

She frequently tells her family that “an emergency has come up at work.” At first, the family made allowances and took care of what Sheri missed at home. But now, they plan on her absence and her pre-occupation when she is at home. Her husband is losing interest and her children miss a parent. Further, as Sheri moves into middle age, she doesn’t have the stamina she had in her twenties and thirties. But she still has the same work habits.

As an executive coach, I’ve worked with many people in Sheri’s boat, both men and women. Ambitious talented people rise up the ranks. Ambition encourages these people to put themselves in the position of feeding their organization’s addiction, i.e., rescuing the organization from unrealistic planning and poor use of resources. Both the organization and its star performers have difficulty seeing the pattern, engaging in denial just as addicts and their enablers do.

I recently warned a former coaching client about the dangers of Organizational Co-Dependency. His response: “Have you been talking with my wife?” Apparently, I wasn’t the first to bring up the issue to him. He’s a very hard-working man whose talents have wisely been recognized by his company. Do they ask too much? If so, it isn’t uncommon.

The Solution: Sheri can’t expect her organization to recognize the problem. As described in an earlier blog post (Can Organizations Have EQ? – EQ Leader, Inc.), organizations can’t be expected to behave humanly because organizations are not humans. Organizations are 100% focused on their own survival and well-being. It takes the leaders of organizations to manage the human elements of work.

Sheri has a choice. She can wait until she has an emergency in her own life – husband wanting a divorce, acting out or depressed children, a health issue – to take action. Or she can use her strong intellect to get out in front of the problem. Basically, she has to learn to say no. But if she just starts blurting it out, her fears of falling out of favor are likely to come true.

If you were Sheri’s coach, how would you help her?

First, she probably needs your perspective to recognize the danger of her co-dependent behavior.  Because her behavior is not hurting you, and because you have created a trusting relationship, you are in a great position to kindly help her see the pattern. Part of your effort might be directed toward building her EQ skill of Emotional Self-Awareness. How tired is she? What feelings has she been burying about her family life? Has she been feeling some resentment toward her organization? Does she feel taken advantage of or used? Has her enthusiasm for her work been declining? Is she as mentally sharp as usual?

Second, you might help her create a plan that includes constructive ways to begin to set limits on the demands the organization is making on her. The plan will require Sheri to be assertive. Given her status in the company, she probably has some Assertiveness skill. But she may not be applying Assertiveness with her superiors. As a result, they may have no idea about her situation. They can’t know unless she tells them. You will need to help Sheri remember that Assertiveness does not consist of making threats. Assertiveness is a way of talking that leaves both parties feeling safe.

If Sheri has a good relationship with her boss, she might tell her boss something like, “I’ve come to recognize that I’ve been so focused on work that I’ve been neglecting other important things in my life. I wonder if we could explore ways to ensure that I do what I truly need to do for the company, but find alternative solutions for other things.” In other words, she would alert her boss to the pattern that Sheri herself has helped create and signal her total willingness to work something out for everyone.

If Sheri doesn’t have reasonable trust in her boss, then you probably will need to help her work things out in a more piecemeal fashion. A partial solution often includes delegation. People who have trouble saying no are often poor delegators. Help Sheri recognize the value of delegation. It is not just for Sheri. Her people are probably champing at the bit to get new opportunities to learn and grow. Will they do something as well as Sheri? Not at first. But a leader’s job is to develop her people.

Another partial solution is to get help from colleagues. “Joe, I was just asked to do X, but my plate is really full right now. I think this project fits your skill set really well. Would you like to take a shot at it?”

It would also be helpful for Sheri to begin to set priorities at work. Sheri needs to have an honest conversation with herself about which elements of her job are truly most important and which ones are less so. This will help her focus on the right things and not be held hostage by the “tyranny of the urgent.” Then, as requests come to her, she can respond with something like: “What you’re asking sounds interesting and important.” (No sense insulting the boss.) “But I’m not sure I can do it justice with everything else on my plate. Where does this request fall in your priorities?” She can add: “In my view, I could delay X and work on this if you want. If I don’t tell you the situation, there’s no way you can make a good decision.” This kind of conversation creates a partnership with her boss, which is likely to lead to greater mutual respect.

Finally, when a request comes that would be difficult to pass off, Sheri might say something like: “That sounds interesting. Here’s what I’ll need to be able to get that done,” as a way of negotiating for support.

But wait! What if Sheri tries these things and they don’t work? What if she has good reason to believe that even trying them will lead to disaster? Then she has to face the fact that the organization’s addictive behavior toward her isn’t going to stop. She probably needs to divorce her organization. That’s a painful decision, but less painful than any of the other possible outcomes. Help her realize that when she goes to her new employer, her old patterns are likely to get the old results.

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