Codependency and Entrepreneur Meeting with Stuffed Animals

Startling but true, these success-driven behaviours can be your worst dysfunctional nightmare.

“You have that enormously positive expectation that you’ll be free, and then you realize that you are in a worse prison than before because it’s one of your own making.”  ~ Michael Gerber

Entrepreneurship puts intense pressures on people, and when that happens, we dial up those success traits to the extreme, or take a few shortcuts to survive.

You’ve probably seen this yourself as the business leader or the employee.

This Could Be Your Story

Steve has been in business for a little over two years. To all outside appearances, things are going well for his computer consulting business.

From the inside, Steve has a few problems brewing, including denial.

Christine, the project manager, has been calling in sick more often lately. Steve thinks there may be something going on, but has no proof and doesn’t want to appear insensitive to Christine’s health issues. Besides, Steve likes Christine. Christine was a solid performer and outwardly always provided a lot of positive support to Steve.

More recently, Christine is agreeing publicly and then pushing some initiatives off the rails through neglect or backroom discussions with other team members. She is choosing to work on the initiatives she considers worthy of her time rather than the ones the business needs to get done.

Ryan is a software developer who joined near the beginning. He initially worked very well with the team although he did have a tendency to focus more on the technology than the clients’ business needs. As his skills improved and he saw what others were doing on the leading edge of development, he wanted to implement the same things. However, he didn’t have the practical experience and Ryan’s initial attempts to try new things tended to fail, putting his projects in jeopardy.

The development lead and Ryan are frequently conflicting on approach and the trade-offs between new and old methods. The exchanges are getting more and more heated, and the rest of the team is feeling uncomfortable. So as a quick fix, Steve decides to keep the two on separate projects to allow them to work without tripping over each other.

Steve goes back to putting out fires. He just doesn’t have the time to deal with people problems, so he assumes his team are all as motivated as he is and cuts them some slack.

After all, people issues are just part of running a growing business, right?

Patterns of Codependency

When we overlay the patterns of codependency with the patterns of entrepreneurial success pushed to the extreme, we end up with a startling insight.

Entrepreneurship can lead to a pattern of codependent behavior.

“Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.” ~ Skip R. Johnson from “Codependency and Codependent Relationships”

As leaders, we cover for our employees and team members all the time (and vice versa). At some point, it becomes dysfunctional rather than healthy.

I’ve seen many examples of people who otherwise are confident and successful showing codependent behaviors with family, friends or at work.

Since codependency is also situational and learned, anyone can become codependent in the right situation.

Entrepreneurs are often in that right situation.

Entrepreneurial Codependency

Steve’s story is one of initial success. But the reality is there is a big dose of dysfunction building into the business that will come back to haunt him and everyone else.

Based on the story and what we know of entrepreneurs, these are some of the success patterns that also lead to codependency for the entrepreneur:

  • Blind Optimism – If I believe and work hard enough at this, things will work out.
  • Suffering –There will be a lot of problems and stress, and you should be prepared for that. Being an entrepreneur is hard. Share it. Embrace it. Accept it.
  • Strong Attachments – Entrepreneurs don’t quit, no matter how hard things get. This applies to people, ideas, results, or the business itself. People will change for the better so believe in them.
  • Problems Solvers – Turn problems into solutions and opportunities. Everything can be solved, fixed, or worked around (including people).
  • Cover Ups – You learn to do many roles as you grow and so when someone falls, you cover for them, over and over until they learn to reverse delegate.
  • External Validation and Acceptance – Entrepreneurs need feedback to succeed. The numbers, customers, the public. Instead of being a tool to drive the business, the positive validation itself becomes the motivator.
  • Bravado and Secrecy – Entrepreneurs will tell you everything is great right up to the day the doors close. “Fake it until you make it” is part of the expectation and culture of business leaders.
  • Isolation – It is lonely at the top. As a business owner, you are surrounded by people who work for you and you have some responsibility for them. This isolation makes it hard to find people you can share with openly if you even have the luxury of taking time away from the business.

The reality is everything that makes us human can also be taken to such an extreme that it becomes dysfunctional, or even destructive. Entrepreneurs are especially vulnerable.

The first step in preventing and fixing dysfunctional behavior is awareness and acceptance.

Then action is required.

Steve needs to have those tough conversations with Christine and Ryan and take ownership of his leadership role.

What do you need to do in your organization to keep success from turning into codependency?


Disclaimer: The author is not a psychologist, lawyer or doctor. If you suspect you are dealing with significant disorders or addictions, consult the experts.

The article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo Credits (Modified): Flickr/tiarescott