CNM 019: Workplace Codependency – with Dr. Marie-Line Germain

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In this episode, I interview a Leadership and Human Resources expert all about what codependency looks like in the workplace, the effect it has on our work and relationships with peers and bosses, and how to be aware of (and handle) people who prey on codependent workers.

I was able to secure a conversation with Dr. Marie-Line Germain, a researcher and associate professor at Western Carolina University, who has presented her research in 8 different countries and consulted with over 40 non-profits and small businesses. She’s currently working with colleagues to create an international coalition of Suicide Prevention in the Workplace and has a lengthy list of impressive credentials (she also likes to fly single-engine planes for fun in her spare time).

Let’s get right to the good stuff. Here’s my interview with Dr. Germain:

Interview on Workplace Codependency – with Dr. Marie-Line Germain

Question: When we hear the word “codependency”, many of us immediately think about a romantic relationship or maybe a family member, but what does codependency mean in a workplace setting?

It’s very similar to how it’s defined outside the workplace, but I think we should define it because will serve as a working definition for our interview today. First, I think we should note that there’s no definite diagnosis for codependency per se. If you look at the definition used by the American Psychological Association, which is the largest association for mental health professionals and researchers, they offer very little in terms of codependency information. But if you look at the typical dictionary definition, it defines codependency as a psychological condition, or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another person who’s affected with some sort of pathological condition, and that could be an addiction to alcohol or a type of drug. But broadly, it’s defined as a dependence on the needs of or controlled by another person, and that definition is really no different than how it’s defined outside the workplace.

So essentially, codependent relationships occur when a dominant personality forms a relationship with someone who will be submissive in the relationship, thereby forming a sort of emotional attachment where the two people operate as one. In the workplace this might look like a dominant boss with a submissive employee.

I think it’s also important to note that much of our codependent behaviors are established during childhood, and usually are a result of the relationships we did or did not develop with our care-givers.

Question: What are the traits of a codependent employee? What effect does codependent behavior have in the workplace?

Codependent employees may show signs of constant approval-seeking, low-esteem, dependency on the boss or a co-worker for value in the workplace. They may be over-sensitive to the remarks of others, they may feel excessive feelings of workplace responsibility to point of being overworked, and often guilt for not meeting the expectations of others. Codependent workers can experience more stress than others, and they are more likely to quit or have higher turnover intentions if they are stressed. And because of the stress they experience, they may be less productive in the workplace, more prone to sickness or quitting, and if they can’t quit their job for financial reasons then they may take in even more stress and be even less productive.

Organizations, and HR departments specifically, do care about those variables such as absenteeism, employee turnover, and what we call “presentism”. In other words, being present, not absent, in the workplace while not being productive. So, you’re there but you’re not doing much of any work. Those variables, such as absenteeism, presentism, and employee turnover, along with all the medical costs, are very costly to organizations. Organizations do care about their bottom line. They may care about the employee, but the employee has a direct effect on their bottom line. Sadly, very few organizations are truly altruistic when it comes to employee well-being. Yes, they care (because they have to), whether it’s from an ethical standpoint or from a financial standpoint, or both.

I’m fascinated by this because I had codependency issues in my career. I see some similarities with what you just said in my own experience, but one difference for me was, instead of my productivity being lower, I worked extra hard to please my boss and management. I didn’t want them to be able to say anything negative about my performance. It was a much bigger motivator for me than it probably should have been…

I’d like to add one point because I think you’re right. When I say productivity, it’s not actually the amount of work that a person puts in, it’s the final result. You’re like a hamster in the wheel spinning faster, but in terms of results it doesn’t necessarily translate into a higher bottom line.

Question: How does an employee’s codependency affect their work overall?

Often times codependents in the workplace feel burnt out, overly stressed from being overworked and feeling overly responsible for the work that they often do on their own. They don’t necessarily delegate, and feel they have to produce as you mentioned. Codependent tendencies may foster unhealthy relationships with co-workers whether it’s workers with the same level of responsibility or between followers and leaders; at all levels of the organization. And these tendencies perpetuate a system of low self-worth or narcissism for the other person.

I was sort of a first-line employee, at the bottom of the totem pole even though I had a fancy title and a decent paying job. So I didn’t necessarily have any subordinates, but I’m wondering, how would being a codependent person affect one’s relationship with subordinates, peers, and / or bosses?

We could do an entire recording on codependent leaders, but for now I’ll give you a broad overview of how this applies to those types of relationships. Codependents often feel over-worked and underappreciated, as well as responsible for far more than they actually should be. With a codependent boss, you may see an inability to delegate work, and therefore they end up taking on heavy workloads.

Two researchers wrote a really good article on the topic noting that codependent tendencies in leaders should be paid close attention to because they affect all employees on a variety of levels. So to answer your question, your own behavior affects all employees around you.

I had an assistant sales manager position early out of college, and I remember a time when I needed to discipline one of the sales reps (which I mistakenly did in front of other reps). It wasn’t received well. I felt like the whole room turned against me and, and it felt a little traumatizing. I built up this fear of putting my foot down with people, and felt the need to make sure everyone was pleased with me.

It goes hand in hand with needing approval. You’re afraid of reprimanding, and you’re expressing the need for approval. How can you do that when you’re saying something you don’t want to say to someone else? I think it’s part of the reaction you had, and of course the high tendency for hurt feelings. And so, you were very in tune with how the other person might feel about your comments to them, because you have a high empathy level.

Empathy was too much of my focus at the time, and there needed to be an ability to understand and balance an appropriate level of empathy with making sure that I was living up to my responsibilities as a leader as far as accountability is concerned.

Right. And that detachment is tough; the detachment between work and non-emotional matters is very tough for codependents.

Question: On a related note, what are some typical problems that codependent employees encounter in the workplace?

Well Brian, we just talked about the need for approval and the high tendency to have one’s feelings hurt. Codependents also often feel taken advantage of, and so a codependent employee may feel shame, fear, pain, or anger, and these feelings are often magnified because of that high empathy level. So it’s not unusual for codependent employees to reach out to other co-workers in an attempt to cope with the overwhelming feelings of anxiety, and that can be very disruptive to all parties involved and quite costly to organizations if you think about it from a productivity standpoint. Instead of focusing on doing your work, you’re really distracting other employees and trying to share your feelings of anxiety or translating that anxiety onto other employees making them anxious.

Question: To flip the coin over, what if you’re a codependent subordinate, but you have a supervisor that you have issues with? What do the dynamics look like in that kind of relationship?

I’d like to mention the codependence spectrum which explains the actions and feelings of both the dominant individual (typically the one in the supervisor role), and the submissive (typically the individual in the subordinate role). The dominant codependent behavior would be controlling, yet very competent, a giver, sometimes perceived as aggressive, useful, and having an inflated sense of self. On the opposite end you have the submissive codependent, and that person would be described as scattered, inadequate, someone who takes things from people rather than gives. Someone perceived as helpless, passive, or even needy, with a deflated sense of self. These two types of employees play out on each other’s weaknesses (or strengths), and that creates a dysfunctional cycle between employees. Now, there are other dynamics that play out when you look at who typical codependents report to, and who is most likely to choose a codependent as a subordinate.

Question: Along those lines, are there certain types of employees that like to prey on codependent workers?

Absolutely. There is extensive research and practical examples supporting the fact that codependents are often the victims of people diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There’s a manual called the DSM-5 which is used by mental health professionals to define and assess mental and personality disorders, and it says that the essential features of a personality disorder are impairments. These impairments can be in personality, but also in the functioning of that person. So to diagnose NPD there are very specific criteria that must be met. People with NPD have a difficult time dealing with themselves and others. From a self-functioning perspective NPD’s have a very difficult time with their own identity; they make excessive reference to others to define themselves and to regulate their own self-esteem. They tend to exaggerate their appraisal of themselves whether it’s inflated or deflated, and they vacillate between extremes. So one day they’ll tell you, “I’m the best at what I do,” and the next day they’ll tell you, “I’m really not that smart.” They use the codependent person to inflate their self-esteem and to satisfy their own needs, and that’s at the emotional and sometimes financial expense of the codependent person.

NPD’s tend to be self-directed; they’re very goal-oriented. Their personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see themselves as exceptional, and they will put that on the codependent. Or sometimes their standards are too low because they feel a sense of entitlement. Truthfully, they are often not aware of their own motivations.

Question: If someone is codependent and thinks the boss is emotionally abusive, how would you advise him or her to handle that type of a situation?

In order to end that dysfunctional cycle, one needs to really gain an understanding of what behaviors are codependent specifically. For instance, does an employee consistently overlook his or her needs to satisfy the needs of others? Do they feel helpless or constantly taken advantage of by their boss or co-workers? Do they feel demeaned by the people around them (either publically or privately)?

A second step to take would be to confront problematic codependent behaviors (their own behaviors) and create new behaviors with a positive self-concept and exercise feelings of control within one’s own life. It’s easier said than done, but I think introspection and courage to address these behaviors are really key to initiate a change. One reason codependents are reluctant to speak up is because they have come to fear the reaction of others and may even fear for their job.

As Leslie Irvine, who’s a professor in the department of sociology at SUNY at Stony Brook, says, “Popular contemporary rhetoric of the self advocates knowing the needs of the self and reaching a balance between ‘self’ and other,” and this is exactly what the codependent needs to act on; awareness and taking control, and those are tough steps.

Question: What is your biggest piece of advice for a codependent person?

You know Brian, it’s really about being aware and acting on that awareness.

Do you have any final thoughts on the topic before we wrap up?

I’m really glad that you’ve initiated these recordings. This is a very important topic, especially in the workplace where it’s not really expanded on. And yet, there’s a spill over effect between ‘life and work’ and ‘work and life’. The way we behave in life is often the way we behave at work, and the awareness you’re creating in that area is invaluable. Thank you for that.

About Dr. Marie-Line Germain

Marie-Line Germain’s Ph.D. is in Leadership with a specialization in Human Resource Development. Her research interests include leadership, organizational psychology, and human resource development, with a specific focus on the concept of human expertise and mental health in the workplace. She has authored several manuscripts presented at national and international conferences and has published book chapters and research articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Human Resource Development Quarterly, Human Resource Development Review, Human Resource Development International, Performance Improvement Quarterly, Advances in Developing Human Resources, etc.

Dr. Germain is a current review board member for the journal Career Development International and for the Mentoring and Coaching in Education journal. She was on the Reviewer Board for The Journal of International Business Studies and is an ad-hoc reviewer for half a dozen peer-reviewed journals. She is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the Academy of Management, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Academy of Human Resource Development and the Southern Management Association, and has been the recipient of several national grants and research awards (including the national and competitive “Dissertation of the Year Award” from AHRD) and several reviewer awards. She is an associate professor of Human Resources and Leadership at Western Carolina University (The University of North Carolina).

In 2015, she was a scholar in South Korea. In 2014, she was a visiting professor in Finland and a scholar in Japan through the Japan Studies Institute. She has presented her research at international conferences (India, The Netherlands, Brazil, France, Canada, India, and Peru). She has been a pro-bono HR consultant to over 40 nonprofits and small businesses in SC, NC, TN, and VA since 2011.

She is the current Book Review Editor for the European Journal of Training and Development. She is a leadership member of the Eastern Academy of Management international. Also, she and three research colleagues from Canada and France are in the process of creating an international coalition on Suicide Prevention in the Workplace.

What do YOU think? Have you experienced codependency in the workplace? How did it affect your work, and what would you tell others who are having the same issue?

  1. Very interesting subject! Full of useful (to me at least) information because I have codependent workplace issues. I really hope you’ll delve deeper into this subject in future podcasts.

    I have so much anxiety and stress at work and see much of what you describe here in my real life. I am taking steps to change it, though, and it’s already improving. 🙂

    Thank you so much for all the information you have shared through the website, it’s changed my life.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share what you’ve researched and learned about co-dependency in the workplace. It’s valuable information. I can definitely relate to the tendencies described. Do you have a podcast episode that talks about what healthy boss/subordinate relationships should look like?