Do you have an employee who is hard working and extremely conscientious? Who takes on more tasks and is always willing to follow through on the tedious, clerical chores everyone else avoids? Who routinely stays late and does favors for all? Who remembers birthdays and brings in homemade brownies? Who anticipates every office need?
Sounds wonderful. What’s not to love?
Do you have an employee who is moody and unpredictable? Who is pleasant much of the time but blows up with unexpected anger and frustration at commonplace frustrations? Who is frequently in a tizzy over personal problems? Who is hard-working at consistent tasks but timid or downright resistant in taking on new challenges?
Not so wonderful.
And what is even more disconcerting is that this second employee—the difficult one—may be the very same person as the delightful employee described earlier.
There’s a word that describes employees who exemplify both these desirable traits and the less desirable ones: codependent.
Codependency broadly refers to dependence on the needs of, or control by, someone else. The term is often used in describing family relationships, especially between spouses but also between parents and children. Sometimes alcohol, drug or other addictions are involved.
In the work setting, codependency plays out a little differently. The codependent may give lower priority to his or her own needs and be overly preoccupied with the needs of others in an effort to be deemed invaluable, even loved.
In the workplace, this tendency may be paired with a reluctance to take independent action and a fear of “doing it wrong” and therefore displeasing others. This fear of messing up plays out as an unwillingness to take on responsibility and even paralysis when charged with creative or professional decision making.
Here are some effective ways to deal with the situation:
- Respond positively to the employee’s best behaviors. These individuals want to feel respected and liked. They resent it when the favors they perform are ignored or taken for granted, which is likely to happen over time. When the behavior is positive, thank and recognize the individual. Different strokes for different folks is part of effective management, and codependents are most receptive to being appreciated.
- Reciprocate their kindnesses to coworkers. If they remember birthdays and special occasions, for instance, why not respond by celebrating theirs? Some people value such behaviors more than others, and we can tell the behaviors that codependents most value by observing what they do for us and for others.
- Encourage them to take on new responsibilities and stretch their capabilities. Unless the screw-up is egregious, give as much positive reinforcement as is reasonable. When possible, coach for improvement by saying, “Next time you could try to …” rather than “That’s wrong, you should know better.”
- Give clear instructions. When employees are especially frightened of making decisions and taking independent action, they can better manage their fear if they understand what you want done. It may take some conversation to assure they understand what you mean rather than a terse email or a post-a-note that says “handle this!”
- Do not allow the codependent’s private problems to dominate the office. All employees have personal or family crises at times that must be addressed, but don’t allow one individual’s oversensitivity or ongoing family problems to sap everyone else’s concentration and energy. It may require a private discussion with the employee, especially if this is a recurring situation.
- Consider referring the individual to a corporate Employee Assistance Program. Sometimes people need more counseling or support than the supervisor can provide. In this case, turn the heavy lifting over to a professional who is qualified to intervene.
The codependent employee is often highly reliable, tends to stay with the employer for a long time and brings devotion and competence to job tasks. It is usually worth managing potential negatives to enjoy the positive contribution this individual can bring.
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