I’m a sucker for used book sales. I find lots of treasures in the book section of my local resale shop, and I look forward to my local library’s used book sale with hopeful anticipation. At every sale, my sites are set on the same books: self-help, recovery and spirituality. There is an abundance of these kinds of books at book sales. They have been purchased by people who are looking for “the answer,” the silver bullet that will cure whatever’s ailing them. How do I know this? Because I am still paying for a storage locker to hold my library of self-discovery literature. Self-help books are great motivators, and they are valuable tools for creating a certain degree of self-awareness, but without some type of coaching to reinforce the concepts outlined in a self-help book, the value is diminished. (But that’s a topic for another time.)
Back to used book sales. Recently, I picked up a book called “Talk, Trust, and Feel,” a Hazelden book featuring the work of several experts on codependency including Melody Beattie. The title jumped out at me, because these three verbs are foreign to people like me who grew up in a family affected by alcoholism. Kids (or grandkids) of people addicted to alcohol or drugs adhere to three unspoken, but strictly enforced, rules: DON’T TALK, DON’T TRUST, DON’T FEEL. In my experience as an executive coach, I have also found that these three unspoken yet strictly enforced rules show up for people living amid any type of dysfunction…and that includes corporate dysfunction! Think about it. If you work in an organization led by a CEO or leadership team that is unhealthy (lacks self-awareness or worse yet, lacks integrity) you develop survival skills that probably mirror those of a child growing up in a dysfunctional home. Let’s break it down:
Did you ever hear the phrase “the elephant in the room?” It refers to an issue or situation that no one wants to address. Put succinctly, it’s called denial. In a family, it may be the alcoholism of a family member; in a corporation, it might be the unhealthy behavior of the CEO. In a dysfunctional work setting, people learn to not TALK directly about issues that are important. Their survival depends on it! One of the members of a leadership team I coached called this a “workaround.” Their CEO was a results-driven individual who used intimidation (or sometimes charm & manipulation) to lead his people. The members of the leadership team, rather than addressing issues head-on with him, worked among one another to indirectly get things done. They learned DON’T TALK or their position/paycheck would be jeopardized.
When you work or live amidst dysfunction, you learn to not TRUST. Trust grows best in an environment of open communication. If a company’s leaders are using the “workaround” method of survival, effective communications aren’t possible. And through a confusing system of indirect messaging and triangulation, no one can trust one another…and individuals even stop trusting themselves and their own leadership instincts. I remember this occurring while living with active addiction (dysfunction). I could never fully TRUST what was going on, and I was continually questioning what the unhealthy person was doing and thinking. This person would say one thing and do the complete opposite. As a result, I began to not trust my own perceptions and even my own capability. My confidence plummeted, my attention was perpetually redirected, and my productivity declined to the point of ultimately filing bankruptcy. This holds true in a corporation when the leader says one thing (like, “I fully support these changes”) and does the opposite.
Working in an environment of distrust where everyone is talking “around” issues instead of addressing things head-on creates stress and disharmony among teams. Fear mounts up quickly and people shut down. When bad things continually happen to a kid growing up in dysfunction, rather than perpetually feeling down or anxious or scared, the kid learns to shut off feelings completely. The DON’T FEEL survival skill is easily applied in the world of business where success is measured by results: production, profitability, performance, etc. In business, it’s not about how you FEEL it’s about how you DO. At the peak of my success in sales, I was at the depths of despair in my personal life. I was married to a person addicted to alcohol & drugs, I was abusing alcohol to keep my feelings of despair buried, and I was working an insane number of hours. My boss gave me permission to work 4 days per week (of course, I committed to maintaining the same numbers I produced in 5 days per week!) so I could work 2 days per week to handle administrative tasks to support my husband’s failing business. I was also performing 2 nights per week in a band! To anyone standing on the outside looking in, I looked like SuperWoman; but in retrospect, I see that my activity was an effective method of not feeling.
Melody Beattie says in the introduction of “Talk, Trust and Feel,” “for many reasons, we can find ourselves using coping behaviors we thought we had outgrown. We start neglecting ourselves, taking care of others, feeling victimized, freezing feelings, overreacting and trying to control.” Take a look at your current reality:
1. Are you taking care of yourself?
2. Are you spending too much energy taking car of others?
3. Are you feeling victimized?
4. Are you stuffing your feelings?
5. Do you find yourself overreacting?
6. Are you trying to control too much?
If you answer ‘yes’ to the above questions, you could be using survival skills you thought you had outgrown. But what can you do about it?
Awareness is the first step in the Universal Growth Process, but knowledge without application is worthless. I hope you will be inspired to reflect on these ideas…learn how they show up in your life and in your work. Then reach out to a resource (like a coach!) to help you apply what emerges.