Co-Dependency and the Manager—Do You Dread Discord?

"They were enraged and I was scared of them. I tried to enforce my standards but they fought me every step of the way."

Many of the lessons I learned in my previous career as a college instructor (over 15 years), have served me as a corporate trainer. Of course, it was one of my most painful experiences that offered the most vital lessons. After many years of contemplation, I've finally begun to understand the mistakes I made.

A Tough Position

After 10 years of teaching, I moved to a new school with a difficult demographic: wealthy, disengaged students. I had never before encountered such strong defiance and expressions of entitlement. My colleagues and I were astounded by the pervasive attitude of incoming freshman. They often skipped class for weeks or, if they attended class, they wouldn't complete assignments.

For several years, I was miserable. How did my students imagine they would pass if they didn't do any work? Where had they learned that school was "a joke" and nothing was required of them? Were the high schools simply passing these students forward? Were my colleagues passing such students? I stoically endured their rage and tried to hold to my standards. I had always loved school and couldn't understand their deep disdain. I labored to create more engaging and provocative lessons. I searched for new resources. Yet, even as I spent extra time before and after class offering help, I was dismayed to discover my students' rage. Sometimes it was palpable (and frightening); sometimes it was hidden in anonymous rantings online or in classroom evaluations.

I was afraid of my students—could they lash out physically or would they simply complain to the Dean? I was also angry with them. I tried to hide my anger and "act professionally" but inside I fumed. Why couldn't they be different? Why wouldn't they cooperate?

Then, after several years of struggle, I suddenly understood the problem. As much as I craved my students' success, I needed to allow them to fail. I couldn't protect them from their own actions. My standards remained the same but my communication changed radically. As I shifted the responsibility for success to my students, I lost my anger. School became fun. Even those freshmen who were failing were happier. Years later, I also understood how my own negative emotions had seeped into our interactions, even though I had tried to suppress them.

Back at the Office

As a corporate trainer, I hear from many companies searching for ways to improve workplace communications. To those seeking help with issues of "accountability" and "engagement," I offer three steps to leverage workplace communications I discovered in my classroom. Perhaps they can produce a similar transformation to your workplace.

  • Eliminate co-dependency in your interactions (women are especially vulnerable).
  • Eliminate unconsciously-sent messages of anger and resentment.
  • Employ "natural consequences."


Two of my favorite definitions of co-dependency (from research literature) are: "an excessive sensitivity to the needs of others" (Haaken, 1993) and "a person who has let someone else's behavior affect him or her in a negative way and is obsessed with controlling the other person's behavior" (Beattie, 1987).

When I took responsibility for my students' work and was fretful about their actions and their grades, I was acting co-dependently. Why would I make this choice? I think we choose co-dependency (often unconsciously) for two reasons. First, fussing over another person can feel like "caring." When I gave up this pattern and said to students, "You can choose what you want to do, it is your work," I felt so calm and relaxed I feared I had become "uncaring." I soon realized that allowing another person to be responsible for themselves (even if that means occasional failure) is a very compassionate act.

The second reason people behave co-dependently is fear. If I allow someone to fail, will they hate me? Will they get me fired? Even though many of my fears were irrational, I needed to fully acknowledge my unconscious nightmare (they complain to the Dean and I get fired). Once I accepted this worst case scenario, my fears (and the need to control my students) evaporated. Since my anger was a defense mechanism (against their anger and my fears) this also disappeared.

We are Transparent

Current brain research and work by Paul Ekman confirms our experience in daily interactions—as much as we try to control and hide our anger, others will sense it unconsciously. They will detect it in the tiny micro-expressions that pass over our face in a split second, or the involuntary vocal inflections, and body language that occur in conversations. It is almost impossible to hide our emotions from one another. Even if both people are unconscious of the messages that are sent—they will each "have a feeling" of what happened. We might not ever decipher these feelings but they continue to influence us in subsequent conversations.

This is why changing our interactions must happen on a very deep level within ourselves first. If we don't even know what we are feeling, we won't be able to alter the constant messages we are sending out to others. Acting co-dependently with others can contribute to feelings of anger or resentment. If we can remove these co-dependent attitudes and actions, our feelings can also shift.

Natural Consequences

Research by Development Dimensions International confirms my own experiences in the classroom—people accept the natural consequences of an action before they'll accept consequences imposed by another person. (Parenting experts also offer this as a great method.) Once I removed my own co-dependent attitudes and shifted responsibility to my students, I was ready to emphasize the natural consequences of their actions. A natural consequence happens in response to an action. Focusing on the natural consequences allows us to separate the actions from the people involved.

Natural consequences relate to the "what's in it for me" mindset of most of us. If a circumstance or situation is designed to reward me for good work, or lead to consequences for poor work, I am more likely to do good work. Consequences are not the same as punishment since a natural consequence is connected to the work itself or to the design of the situation. A natural consequence is not arbitrary.

If a student arrives late to a class and is assigned to write, "I will not be late" on the board 100 times—that is a punishment. The punishment is intended to send a message about tardiness but may only prove to breed resentment toward the teacher. If a student is late to class and misses a pop quiz—that is a natural consequence. In this case, the student is more likely to focus on not being tardy again.

Here are some other examples:

  • A worker comes into a meeting late and misses the information given at the top of the meeting. A natural consequence would be to find a way to make the worker responsible for obtaining the material given (read the report referred to and submit a report to show understanding). If that action isn't completed, another natural consequence would be triggered (unprepared colleague is taken off the team, which would lead to a different assignment, or an unfavorable performance rating).
  • A worker's report contains many errors, which causes a loss of a client, which triggers the loss of the worker's bonus.

What? So What?

It is hard to make deep and lasting changes in our workplace communication patterns with others. Exploring our own patterns of co-dependency can begin a process of deep transformation. We can also explore any other reasons we may have for resentments or anger at co-workers. If we can root out those deeper reasons, our unconscious messages of anger will disappear. Once we understand our own and others' true responsibilities in a situation, we can construct or allow the natural consequences of an action to correct problems of engagement or accountability.

Now What?

I've included a quiz below to help you determine your level of co-dependency. If that isn't an issue, is there some other trigger or pattern of beliefs/behavior you should explore?

The Codependency Self-Inventory Scale (Weinhold & Weinhold, 1989)

Instructions: Place a number from 1 to 4 in the box before each question to indicate the degree of your response. Make these ratings based on your most significant relationship.

1 = Never
2 = Occasionally
3 = Frequently
4 = Almost always

Scores: 0-22 low, 23-43, low middle, 44-65 high middle, 66-88 high

I tend to assume responsibility for others' feelings and/or behavior.
I have difficulty in identifying my feelings.
I have difficulty expressing my feelings.
I tend to fear and/or worry how others may respond to my feelings or behavior.
I minimize problems.
I deny or alter truth about the feelings or behavior of others.
I have difficulty in forming and/or maintaining close relationships.
I am afraid of rejection.
I am a perfectionist and judge myself harshly.
I have difficulty making decisions.
I tend to react to others rather than to act on my own.
I tend to put other people's wants and/or needs first.
I tend to value the opinion of others more than my own.
My feelings of worth come through opinions of others.
My self-esteem comes from activities that seem to validate my worth.
I find it difficult to be vulnerable and/or ask for help.
I deal with issues of control by attempting to always be in control.
I deal with issues of control by being careful never to be in a position of responsibility.
I am extremely loyal to others, even when that loyalty is unjustified.
I tend to view situations with "all or none" thinking.
I have emotional crises and chaos in my life.
I tend to find relationships in which I feel "needed" and attempt to keep it that way.