Last year, I worked with a client who was smart, ambitious, and very committed to doing the best work possible. I’ll call him Sam. As an individual contributor in the financial services industry, Sam had always worked hard and shown initiative, and he had risen quickly in his organization. At the time we worked together, he led a team of about 6 people. One of his goals in coaching was to build a team that was more proactive, whose members took initiative in the way Sam always had.
Sam and I focused on several different strategies for how he could shift his leadership in order to generate the results he wanted. But one stood out: Sam needed to stop over-functioning for his team. He was working way harder than necessary.
Do you know about over-functioning? It’s a central concept in the Resilient Leadership framework that I wrote about last month. Basically, the idea is that when the emotional system of your organization gets anxious, that anxiety provokes a response. For many of my clients, the response is to over-function. For others, it may be to under-function.
In our first several conversations, it became clear that Sam sometimes took on pieces of the work he expected from his team members, particularly when it came to gathering information on what was happening in the markets. He told himself it was just easier to do it himself. He knew the requirements and he had the right contacts, while some of his team members were still building the relationships they needed.
And yet, at the same time, he was frustrated by his perception that certain team members didn’t take initiative to gather market information. He didn’t recognize how his behavior – essentially taking over that task rather than providing clear expectations, support, and appropriate performance feedback – undermined their ability to do so and invited them to under-function.
And guess what? The more they under-functioned, the more he over-functioned.
As we explored this pattern, Sam grew more aware of the underlying anxiety that was driving his over-functioning behavior. He was, after all, responsible for the results of his team. In his view, when he took on the tasks he expected from them, he was just making sure that those results met his expectations and the expectations of his boss. After all, his team sure didn’t seem to be doing it!
What Sam came to see just as clearly, however, was that as long as he continued to do that task for them, his team would continue not to take initiative. He was, in fact, creating their under-functioning with his own over-functioning. And if he kept on doing so, he would burn himself out over time.
So, how can you tell if you over-function? What does it actually look like? Jeffrey Miller, the author The Anxious Organization, has some great suggestions for how to recognize this pattern in yourself or others.
The first thing to be aware of is that, while over-functioning can have to do with actual tasks, it often has more to do with what Miller describes as a “style of relating to people.” He offers these behaviors and thought patterns as potential clues that you are over-functioning:
If, like me, you recognize yourself in that list, you might want to consider the possibility that you are over-functioning as a leader. If you see evidence of this and want to shift your behavior, here are some principles to keep in mind about over-functioning and under-functioning.
Neither behavior exists alone. If you’re over-functioning, someone else is under-functioning. If a member of your team is under-functioning, someone else is over-functioning. (It might be you!) If you recognize one half of the puzzle in yourself or someone else, look around to find the other half.
It takes two to tango, but it takes one to change. The over-functioning/under-functioning pattern requires two parties to maintain its momentum. However, you don’t need the other person to do anything different in order for the pattern to change. That just takes you. If you’re over-functioning, or under-functioning, stop.
Change isn’t necessarily easy. I don’t want to suggest that changing the pattern is as simple as “just say no.” If you stop over-functioning, often the other person will respond by increasing their under-functioning behavior. This is a natural form of resistance to change, and probably isn’t even conscious.
If you face resistance, stay the course. The danger is that when resistance comes in the form of even more under-functioning on the part of others, you will take it as “proof” that nothing will ever change. Instead, see it as a call to stay the course. If you persist with your new behaviors, eventually the other person will either change her behavior, or find a new person to tango with.
In the Resilient Leadership training I attended last fall, one of the trainers made a statement that was a light bulb moment for me as someone who over-functions. She said, “People who over-function toward others automatically under-function toward themselves.” The truth of this resonates deeply for me. I also appreciate the way this statement points to one antidote to over-functioning: start taking care of yourself. Focus on your OWN functioning, not the functioning of others.
2. Get better at recognizing your own anxiety. Begin to pay attention to what happens for you when the intensity builds. Do you kick into action and start organizing other people? Do you stay at the office late every day until the project is finished? Whatever your particular response, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings beneath your behavior. If you really want to examine them, stop doing your habitual behavior and notice your internal experience when you stop.
3. Adopt a practice that helps manage your anxiety. Those thoughts and feelings that arise full force when you stop over-functioning are what drive your over-functioning in the first place. Once you get to know and recognize them, you need a way to manage them. It may be centered breathing, it may be talking walk around the building, it may be calling a good friend, it may be a regular yoga class – whatever it is for you, make it a practice that helps you interrupt the automatic response and calm yourself.
These three steps will go a long way toward helping you resign from any over-functioning behaviors you may see in yourself. And you just may find that those around you who have been under-functioning begin to step up to the plate, now that there’s room!
What about you? Do you over-function in your role as leader? What effect does that have on you? On those around you? What helps you stop over-functioning? What questions do you have about how all this works? I’d love to hear your comments!