CNM 023: The Codependent Leader – with Dr. Marie-Line Germain

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A few episodes back, we brought Dr. Germain from Western Carolina University on the show to talk about codependency in the workplace. I was so interested in the topic that we decided to bring her back on to expand on codependent leaders and the impact they can have in a business, non-profit, or any organization. Codependent leaders may not realize the impact their behavior has on their teams, stress level, job satisfaction, departmental performance, and the company overall.

If you’re a leader who struggles with codependency, we would love to hear from you and how it affects your work. Click here and send us a note.

Here’s the interview:

Q&A with Dr. Germain

Question: Can we start by having you explain attachment style how emotional bonds form?

Sure. At the root of the word “codependency” is the word “dependent”. That derives from the theory of attachment, which was heavily studied by a British psychologist called Bowlby in the 1960’s. He was particularly interested in the psychological connectedness between human beings. So an attachment style refers to how a person goes about developing relationships. It refers to an emotional bond to a specific and emotionally important person to them. That important person, whether it’s a romantic partner, counselor, mentor, or even a supervisor for that matter, is referred to as the “care-giver”, and the attached person, whether it’s a partner, protégé, or subordinate at work, is referred to as the “care-seeker”, and that person is motivated to maintain a range of proximity to and seek care from that caregiver. Maintaining that range results in safety and some felt security.

We often talk about codependents in our personal relationships, but we rarely mention codependency in our work environment. The term “codependency” in the workplace is rarely used, especially when it refers to leaders, and yet such relationship dynamics can be quite problematic for both employees and for organizations. Codependents leadership is, again, a direct result of the failure to develop a secure relationship with a care-giver during childhood, and that results in feeling a variety of feelings that include loss, rejection, sometimes abandonment, and it’s often associated with a low self-worth.

So generally speaking, a codependent relationship is one in which there are dysfunctional patterns, and these patterns are often due to a person’s fears of the rejection, loss, abandonment, etc. Typically, someone with a dominant personality will form a relationship with someone who will be more submissive. And they form that emotional attachment where the two people operate, feed on each other, and operate as one. The less confident or more submissive person does the opposite; they seek a dominant personally to complete them and abdicate their own authority, so it’s rarely an equal relationship. It’s either, “How is this person useful to me and my job, or how can I be useful to them,” whereby one always ends up compromising their own needs if not resigning to these needs. So as an adult, codependents workers (in any function), unconsciously seek relationships with people who make them feel more capable, useful, powerful, and definitely less anxious.

Question: In the case of a codependent leader, are they seeking certain types of characteristics in the people that work for them?

It’s not unusual to see that, and it’s often done unconsciously. We’re attracted to certain people in the work place. If we detect that a person may feel a void; the void inside us, we’re more likely to hire that person. And we know that codependents work more based on their feelings, which gets in the way of business needs.

Question: Could you talk about the broad characteristics of codependent leaders? What are they like?

Codependent leaders are not easy to identify, especially when they have reached a very high level of success in an organization and they hold senior leadership positions. Signs of their codependency may include the lack of trust that anyone can their job without the leader’s help. They are employees maybe perceived as non-performing. They may have very ineffective communication skills, or ineffective communication between the leader and follower, and that breakdown usually derives from the avoidance of a direct and open conversation about work deficiencies of the followers.

Codependent leaders also have a propensity to want cooperation from their followers. They want to include everyone in the decision-making process, which may have an effect on the decision-making process itself. It may delay action too. That leader may appear as incapable of making decisions on their own. For the purpose of inclusion they may also plan unnecessary meetings with people who have very little expertise in a particular area or domain, or who have little to contribute to solving a specific problem.

Because the needs and feelings of others are often more important than their own feelings and needs, codependent leaders may have difficulties asserting their own authority and asking for what they want or need to get the job done. They may be more permissive with employees, they may find excuses to justify their mistakes and even poor performance. For instance, they may say, “Oh, she’s a single mother, she has a forty five minute commute to come to work.” So they avoid and don’t know how to deal effectively with poor performance of their employees. You see that in workplace quite often.

They may be perceived as over-praising, which may frustrate overachievers who believe that is just part of their job. A codependent leader may say, “thanks for coming to work today.” That may not be very well-received from someone who wouldn’t even consider calling in sick. They lower work expectations, which often impacts productivity in a negative way in the workplace. Codependent leaders also don’t often know how to say “no” to employees. Whether it’s a salary increase, request for time off, or whatever it may be, which may compromise productivity and the budget of the organization.

One last characteristic of codependent leaders is that they fail to give employees very clear performance expectations. That is a critical limitation because it’s detrimental to everyone involved including the organizations bottom line because the employees are not productive as they should be?

Question: Are there a lot of organizations that have codependent leaders in high-level positions?

I can’t really pigeonhole everyone. I think we all deal with our own limitations in various ways. You have a variety of leaders and characteristics. Some of them are narcissistic and they reach the top, some are codependent and reach the top. So I can’t pigeonhole and say we have a lot of codependent leaders. If anything we probably have more narcissistic leaders than codependent leaders.

Question: It seems like having a codependent leader in a high-level spot could detrimental to a company. Could you talk what the consequences to an organization if they have a codependent leader in place?

Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, codependent leaders can be detrimental to leaders, followers, and to their organizations.

First, it’s detrimental to the leaders themselves. Codependent leaders can be very successful at achieving their business objectives as we just mentioned. They may not be very good at achieving their own full potential. Part of their attention and energy is going into care giving and care-taking, supporting or compensating for employees’ inadequacies. From an occupational perspective, the main challenge with codependent leader behaviors is they make people-decisions based on emotions, and they are easily thrown off-course by the emotions of the employees. They often compromise themselves and their own needs as leaders to get their business needs met. So essentially their emotions can get in the way of good business decisions and practices.

Second, codependent leaders may hinder the development of their followers. They may have a direct report dependent on them, and often do. They don’t always trust their employees to do certain things, so they can fail to delegate, mentor, or coach. Even if they delegate tasks, they have a hard time delegating the authority to make the final decisions. That means that they do not give their employees the opportunity to professionally develop, and professional development includes being given the responsibility of bigger projects, the ability to make important decisions. The codependent leader does not relinquish that. Followers are in a way deprived of these opportunities.

And third, codependent leaders may impede optimal organizations performance as we mentioned earlier, and they do that in a variety of ways. While some employees like the feeling of their leader praising them, it does lower the performance bar substantially, and ultimately it becomes meaningless. So if everyone is recognized for performance even when it is lower than average, then the award for good performance loses its significance. Everybody gets a trophy or reward. What’s the meaning of that reward? They tend not to deal with poor subordinate performance, and that frankly can be a source of frustration for team members if the organization relies heavily on employee teamwork and the leader does not effectively deal with the under-performing team members. The leader is way too afraid to upset the underperforming employee, so they are putting off that discussion they really should be having with that poor-performing team-member. Sometimes it’s referred to as a social-loafer. So in turn, not addressing that behavior increasingly aggravates the other team members, and the performance of those other team members may actually start to decrease.

Of course, performance that decreases means less productivity. Even when other direct reports complain to the codependent leader about another employee, the leader may avoid addressing the issue altogether. They don’t want to be the bad guy or gal. The codependent leader’s inability to say “no” can lead to being taken advantage of by their employees. They don’t trust their employees to do certain things.

Leaders may end up actually working longer hours, harder to meet the goals of the their own department, and that means that they may reach burnout much sooner than other employees. They often hire people who don’t have the capability to do the job effectively, and they may not be doing that consciously. They may hire employees who can feed into their dysfunctional pattern of behaviors, and as a result of that, the codependent work relationship in which the leader feels validated will thrive at the expense of the business often times. Over time, such poor hiring decisions take their toll on other employees, on productivity, and on the organizations financial results.

Question: If somebody finds herself in a position of leadership but recognizes that she has these tendencies, what then? These things are naturally engrained into us over time, we know that about codependency, but how do you start to turn this around, be a better leader, and be better for your company and employees?

Codependent leaders might recognize there are problems in their department and the organization, but they may not realize how they contribute to these issues. The key to remedy to the codependent leader’s limitation is to first have them focus on what they need to be successful, then focus on their behaviors, then focus on the reasoning that is leading to the problems they are having in their department. For instance, “I need my employees to arrive to work on time, but I’ve been lenient on tardiness.” The result of that is my employees arrive late. They need to address tardiness so that employees arrive to work on time. It’s about establishing boundaries, and creating and enforcing consequences for arriving late at work.

Often times it’s about enforcing existing HR policies. Codependent leaders rely heavily on their emotions to make decisions, so while their feelings cannot be completely ignored, leaders should learn to focus on organizations issues, not just on feelings. They need to learn to separate feelings from good business sense. Some tend to focus on how employees might feel instead of the business needs, imperatives, and reality. By putting energy into understanding and rationalizing employee behavior the real business issues don’t get resolved. They can get training in issue-based decision-making or conflict management skills at the interpersonal and team levels. Learning to address employee behaviors effectively is really crucial. Coaching helps some codependent leaders to learn how to shift their attention from the personal to solving the organizations issues they’re having such as tardiness, underperformance, etc.

If it’s not already in place in the organization, I think it’s very important that they create and use an organization-wide performance management system to support their leadership. That’s particularly true in many non-profit organizations in which I served as a pro-bono HR consultant. Some organizations don’t have clear or updated job descriptions, for instance. They have no rigorous or regular performance appraisal systems. Job descriptions can help employees have a better grasp on what their work expectations are. Clear job descriptions will also help the codependent leader in creating a sense of accountability in their employees. The system should be directly linked to the planning and development of employees, and an organization should ensure not that there is just a plan, but that it’s actually put into place and leaders are trained on using that performance system and implement it regularly. They need to ensure that the underperformance of employees is address and not just pushed under the rug.

One more thing about establishing employee accountability – that will make the followers accountable for the work they sign off on, and the codependent leader may be more inclined to delegate tasks and, we hope, decisions which they hold onto very tightly. This will also prevent employees from requesting exceptions for not following organizations policies in general.

Another thing codependent leaders can do is stop doing the work of their employees. Doing their work only encourages poor performance. It feeds into that underperforming issue and the failure in hitting performance targets. Codependent leaders need to set boundaries with their employees, and these boundaries may include having consequences for poor performance and behaviors; those behaviors that are detrimental to the organization. Everyone needs to be accountable for their work; the leader but also the followers.

Another thing an organization can do is create a leadership development program, which might include building awareness of how leaders contribute to their team dynamics, how they may feed into the employee’s dysfunctional behaviors, and how leaders may encourage poor performance by just simply doing the work of their employees or by endorsing their employees unsatisfactory work.

Question: Let’s say I realize that I’m a codependent leader, and I decide to take the advice, formulate a plan, and start setting boundaries. I go to work tomorrow with determination, but my employees don’t react well to being help accountable. How do I deal with that?

You can make it very objective and say, “We have not met our targets,” if that’s the case. Or, “We’re not as effective or efficient as we should be. We can do better, and this is how we can do it. If everyone’s accountable for their work, we can easily double our productivity and this is how…” Linking it to very tangible results will help take away that personal edge from the problem, and putting it in light where the employee will benefit from it by having more opportunities to be involved in important projects or having more responsibility, and that responsibility in turn may lead them to higher positions.

But by doing their working, helping them, and making decisions for them, we’re actually impeaching them from growing. So putting it in that light of performance and also professional development opportunities may help the employees make sense of those changes.

Question: What if I own an organization and I see someone on staff who is a leader and I recognize that they are codependent, and that is affecting the department they work in. Is there a recommended way to address that type of a person?

Well, you know psychology is a very touchy subject in organizations, and we don’t like to give diagnosis and pinpoint behaviors in people. We can have a non-threatening conversation with that person, but instead of general comments make very specific comments about how their department could be doing better. If you’re on the level that you can have an honest and direct conversation with that person it’s easier. If it’s in the mix of political discourse then you may want to refrain from doing that because you’re putting yourself at stake.

Question; Is there anything you’d like to add to what we’ve discussed to round out this conversation about codependent leaders?

Ideally we don’t want a codependent work relationship. We want an interdependent work relationship in which we have very clearly defined boundaries, clear expectations of each other, mutual respect and a sense of reciprocity. Just like we don’t choose our family members, we don’t often get to choose our supervisors or leaders. When we are able to identify some of the dysfunctional behavioral patterns of codependency at work (the ones we just talked about), we place ourselves in a position of even greater power, and that is the power to change.

Question: I think you’ve answered this a little already, but if I recognized that I was a codependent leader, what would be your biggest piece of advice for me to start going forward from today.

If the feelings of others and the growth of other people is really more important than your own, then look at it as how they are missing out on their own opportunity to grow. It’s using your own limitations to help others really. This is not about me, this is about others and how they can grow, and I should set boundaries for their own good, not just for mine.

About Dr. 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).

What do YOU think? Is codependency affecting your work? Do you think codependency is having a major impact on your organization’s productivity and performance? Leave a comment below!