As Thursday night — aka “trash night” — approaches and I near the end of my prescription for my ailing back, I find myself replaying the video in my mind of my costly attempt at preventing our trash can from tipping over and spilling out last Thursday night. As with so many mundane things in life, there’s an opportunity to learn a deeper lesson if one is willing to stop and think/look/listen for it.
Simply put: there are times when some things just need to be allowed to fall over.
There are many situations in which the attempts to prevent the visible, immediate consequence from occurring only serve to create other unforeseen consequences instead. Often, these interventions can actually make matters worse by relieving symptoms without revealing the disease. Whatever the problem is right in front of you, preventing it from happening can be the wrong choice when doing so keeps the underlying causes hidden from view and pushes the actual time of reckoning further into the future. While I successfully kept my trash can from tipping over and spilling, I ended up hurting my back in the process. Based on the relevant importance of my back and the trash, cleaning up spilled garbage and sparing my back would have been the better course of action. (Unless I lived in Blackburn, England.)
The same is true with interpersonal relationships, whether personal or professional. Regardless of the specifics, continually intervening to prevent the choices of others from resulting in the consequences natural to those choices isn’t the best way to help. The reason for this is obvious only upon thinking about it: the real problem isn’t the consequence; it is the choices and behaviors that lead to the consequence. Taking action to sever the connection between choices and consequences enables others to keep making those same choices without the benefit of learning the lesson that only real life consequences can teach.
The key here is consequences, not punishment. Too often, we step in and grab hold of the consequence headed someone else’s way as a result of their choices … and then try to punish them afterwards for our having to bear those consequences. This never works.
This dysfunctional, enabling behavior is the heartbeat of codependency, and learning the lessons of codependency isn’t just for interpersonal relationships bent by the emotional black holes of addiction. This happens in organizations and teams all the time. When a group goal hangs in the balance, and one team member isn’t pulling his weight, the temptation to step in and do his work for him weighs heavily on the other members of the team. It’s an entirely understandable reaction, and a hard one to argue against. That is why the path to codependency is so slippery even as it doesn’t appear very steep. But reaching across the boundary of responsibility, no matter how understandable, is not a viable, long-term solution to the real problem. As Dr. Henry Cloud writes in his original best-selling book, Boundaries:
Just as we can interfere with the law of gravity by catching a glass tumbling off the table, people can interfere with the Law of Cause and Effect by stepping in and rescuing irresponsible people. Rescuing a person from the natural consequences of his behavior enables him to continue in irresponsible behavior. The Law of Sowing and Reaping has not been repealed. It is still operating. But the doer is not suffering the consequences; someone else is. … It doesn’t help just to confront the irresponsible person. … Confronting an irresponsible person is not painful to him; only consequences are.
As a leader, organizational success depends on more than just strategy, operational effectiveness, and the like. Because every organization is made up of people who must interact and cooperate with each other to put those strategic plans and operational initiatives into action, how effectively those people work with each other is fundamental to success. If your team members are exhibiting codependency — either because of a fear of failing to hit their target or under a misguided notion of collaboration — you likely have a bigger, deeper problem on your hands. The only way to get to it, though, is to let the immediate, known failure happen.
In short, when you see a non-fatal problem about to unfold, try a different approach: let it go. See what happens.