Dependency and Co-dependency in Organizations
Co-dependent organizational behaviors and change management

On the subject of dependency in relationships, people generally refer to the least powerful person as the one who is dependent on the other.  Indeed, we generally like to allot traits to one or another person in a system when the trait could just as easily be attributed to the whole system.  Consider, for example, that if a child can truly be considered as very dependent on a mother, a separation between the two will rapidly reveal how emotionally dependent the mother also is on the child.  In fact, they are co-dependent on each other.

Also, consider a domineering boss who displays disqualifying behavior with a submissive assistant.  The latter may be perceived as quite passive and enduring a form of dependency, but the day the assistant has enough and quits, the boss is often quite lost and confused as to how to rapidly replace the relationship with another equivalent partner.  I remember a CEO who once refused to give his underpaid secretary the raise she requested.  She left him to find a better paying job and he took months to finally replace her.  He ended up paying 30% more for the new hire, and he also had to train the person for months in order to achieve the same level of professional effectiveness.  This was an eye opener.  He painfully learned that he was much more dependent on employee loyalty than he ever thought.

So although we often perceive that dependent relationships are one-way processes, there are many indications that when we perceive a dependency within any relationship, it may really be a subtle form of co-dependency that concerns all the people involved.

One way to understand co-dependent relationships is to consider the interactive processes taking place between people rather than focus on the people themselves.  In effect, this more systemic perspective could lead us to focus on collective behaviors rather than on the individual roles of any one of the parties involved.

Collective Co-dependency

If one listens to powerfully directive leaders that head centrally controlled and driven organizations, their usual leitmotiv is that their personnel is passive, lacks initiative, is submissive, etc.  In fact, the employees are quite dependent on the leadership’s drive.

One could mistakenly assume that this type of leader would in fact want to be surrounded by more autonomous professional partners.  In fact these leaders are totally dependent on their own behavior and have selected the type employees and environment that suits their style very well.  In the same way, the personnel in the same organization may indifferently praise or criticize the excessively directive leader, but will always make sure not to take the risk of doing anything more or anything different than what their leader expects.  Risk avoidance is in fact quite a comfortable position.  Should this leader lead by fear and intimidation, be critical, arrogant or excessively directive, this will privilege the development of even more co-dependent relationships.  The personnel will become fearful, submissive, and compliant and will elevate personal and collective protective strategies and avoidance behaviors to a fine political art.  

In another type of organization, one could imagine that the form of co-dependency developed over the years is much more relational.  Pleasant interactions are the rule. Everyone is expected to take the time to exchange views, consult, chat, socialize after work, be consensual, take in consideration everyone’s preferences and feelings, treat all with equal cheerfulness, avoid open opposition and conflict, etc.  Any more directly confronting behavior in these systems will be met with lavish displays of emotions and reveal a collective dependency on a very specific form of relational interaction. 

To provide another example, this is also true for the collective behavioral characteristic of competitive systems where everyone fends out for his or her own territory by making sure that in the fight for survival, they always end up on top. 

Organizational Cultures

In fact, different workplaces have different dominant cultures. However these may differ from on company to the next, they each end up training their employees to a specific set of behaviors and interactions, principles, beliefs and value systems.  These lead to predictable co-dependent habits and results.  After awhile, changing any organizational culture becomes rather difficult as all have become completely co-dependent on their shared worldview, as if no other form of relationship has become possible.

Common sense may suggest that an organization’s culture really depend on leadership profile.  Many indeed feel that if leaders change, the rest will follow.  It also seems, however, that whenever historical leaders are replaced with very different successors, the organization will very strongly resist the newcomer’s style and any corresponding cultural change.  This resistance to change will occur even when new leaders are offering their personnel relatively enlightening perspectives and innovative opportunities.  The organizational paradox is that although both leaders and personnel relentlessly repeat that they want their organizations to change for the better, neither really wants any change to occur.  All are quite co-dependent on keeping things the way they are, and are quite co-dependent on each other.

One argument often put forth is that leaders and employees actually don’t agree as to the specifics of the desired change.  Both for leaders and employees however, the general leitmotiv is that all of them would welcome more empowerment, more room for initiative and internal entrepreneurship, more freedom to be creative and innovate, more shared responsibility, more collective partnering, more motivating interactions, more possibility for an enlightening workplace, etc.  Paradoxically, all these terms seem to define the exact opposite of dependency.   We may be even talking about inter-dependence.  But all in all, it seems that many organizations are rather limiting environments that create or foster different dissatisfying forms of co-dependency, and that the personnel and the leaders unanimously agree that they would want that to change.  So why does real organizational change not happen?

The Paradox of Change Management

Most often, the difficulty is the following: how does one change a web of relationships that define the intricacies of a system when all the partners are completely, almost hopelessly held by the very web they want to change?  The problem is age old, and some of the requisites are known.  One cannot initiate something new with old processes.  For example, one cannot change a centralized system from the center out.  One cannot expect that a top-down culture should change from the top down.  In effect, dictators cannot dictate freedom any more than anarchists can install any form of organizational architecture. 

The paradox is that many organizations relentlessly try to implement their own transformation by implementing their same old organizational processes.  They can only drive the ones they know how to muster.   Typically, leaders define the necessary changes, and Human Resources scramble to roll them out.  But when one attempts to undertake change management by applying well-tested processes that belong to a specific cultural frame of reference, it is no surprise that results are never more than superficially cosmetic.  Even when organizations search for external consultants to implement cultural change, they often end up choosing profiles that correspond to their cultural bias, in order to achieve the very non-results they could have achieved on their own.

So very paradoxically, in order to liberate themselves from their cultural forms of co-dependency, expert organizations look for expert systems, top-down leadership insists that it should lead a top-down change process, relational systems privilege very lengthy  relational approaches based on widespread consultation, and creative entrepreneurial systems choose to rely on innovation and chaotic external development.  Unfortunately, these preferred strategies only serve to reinforce what these organizations already are.  In effect, their change strategies only serve to consolidate their specific forms of internal cultural co-dependencies.

In order to achieve any real change away from co-dependent organizational cultures towards a more mature form of inter-dependency, a breakthrough strategy becomes absolutely necessary. The first obvious step is to design an interdependent or collaborative process that will allow the organization to experiment how to define inter-dependent operational procedures in an inter-dependent process.  In effect, the organization needs to immediately implement a change process that reflects or embodies the cultural change it wants to operate.  Still in other words, the architecture of the change process needs to allow the organization to immediately be the change it wants to become.  It is indeed by doing the change in a totally different way that the organization can allow the cultural change to happen.  The approach just described is the one that is allowed by organizational coaching.

Organizational Coaching

This type of "just in time" or immediately emerging organazation coaching transformational process can only be undertaken if the usual cultural forces that ensure system co-dependencies do not attempt to control it beforehand.  Inter-dependency is a form of co-creation that rests on the trust that all the partners in the change process are mature enough to want to see it through and have the personal and interactive skills to make it happen.  For the leaders and managers of organizations that choose do go down that path, adopting this change management process is truly an act of faith.

The first step is to learn to establish a partnership with a coach, whereby the coach is not expected to simply implement a process that could be designed by the organization.  Indeed, in most change management undertakings, the retained external providers, consultants, trainers or coaches, are expected to roll out programs conceived and completely managed by the client system.  The external providers are perceived as external subordinate to the internally-managed program.  In an organizational coaching process, the program needs to be co-designed with a coach that will continuously stretch the internal clients beyond there comfort zones.  Generally as with most truly emerging coaching processes, there is no telling how and how the whole program will unfold: each step is co designed one at a time, resting on the learning experienced by the organization as the process unfolds over time.

To be successful, organizational coaching processes should also simultaneously address relatively large segments of the client system.  To illustrate, up to 100 participants representing coherent segments of the client organization can be asked to work simultaneously in a big ballroom, in multiple sub-groups of differing configurations, over a period of three days.  This is a concentrated investment of people and time focused on achieving operational results on a corporate level, within a division, in an area or country management system, within a world-wide business unit, etc. 

An immediately predictable cultural reaction in most organizations is that it is impossible to mobilize the top 100 key playes of any system for three days in a row.  Indeed, that has generally never been done, or if it has, the process has always been carefully prepared, timed and controlled by the appropriate internal instances who's role it is to ensure the habitual forms of accepted cultural co-dependency. 

So indeed, to initiate change management, one has to take it out of the hands of those who so far have initiated internal forms of culturally correct "change management".

Copyright Alain Cardon MCC, Expanded from an article for "Manager Express" Bucharest Romania

pdf To consult a general proposal on a typical Organizational Coaching process