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We have all referred to our work place as dysfunction junction on occasion. It’s a catch all when there are just no words to describe the lack of logic that flows around us. But over time we come to recognize that we can’t control our entire organization – even if you are at the head of it. Martha Beck’s advice in the October issue of O Magazine spoke to me. Well, actually it screamed at me, jumped off the page and jumped on my head.

“Free yourself from dysfunctional people by refusing to try to control them.” – Martha Beck

In my heart and mind, I know this. But I have never heard the action of disengaging put so simply. And it is simple, but oh, so very hard.

Up until six years ago, I was proud to say I had never been in a dysfunctional relationship. And by this time I was married with two children and a third on the way – I was in the clear. Sure I had some rocky dating relationships, but not the kind I hear or read about, most even ended up friendships. And of course we all have the dramatic friends…. but when friendships bring more negative energy than positive – it’s time to become acquaintances. To me, it’s simple logic.

Then one day I came to work for someone I had known for years. Over the first year, I put in hours and energy to create the organization he described. As I peeled back the onion, layer by layer, and brought solutions to the table that required behavior changes from him as well, the climate began to change. But so subtle was this change that I didn’t even detect it. Every time we would spend an extended amount of time discussing the group and the needed changes or the progress we made, I would leave feeling beat up. I would ask for feedback, which I genuinely believe in, but I would leave his office feeling sad. I can remember getting the highest rating that our company allows on my review that year, but by the time the review was over I felt beat up and defensive.

Over the next two years – yes two, slowly I came to realize I was getting almost monthly abuse sessions, which as I discovered were not related to my performance, but rather to his insecurities. It became almost predictable – someone above him or around him would instigate insecurity around a weakness and like clockwork, I would receive another coaching session that had absolutely no tangible examples shared.

So why did it take me so long? By nature I am a mentor – I get strength from mentoring. I would rather see someone I support have the limelight as a result of some action or coaching that I was responsible for than be front and center myself. I think this is a quite common trait in mothers – it is what we do naturally. So I tried to ‘coach’ him along with the organization we ran. Then the day came when he gave me another one of his ‘coaching’ sessions and I began to tell him without tangible examples of what he was describing, to continue the discussion would be fruitless. I assured him that I would work on anything that he could provide examples for. This continued for several months until I asked to move to a new area.

So here’s the thing, I believe that we are all responsible for managing/teaching/mentoring up, down and sideways. We all have something to teach, what I learned from my staff during that three year period is priceless. I am a better person because of them. But in the journey of mentoring up, down and sideways you will run into the occasional individual who has complete disregard for the benefits found in you. And with some luck, I hope you can detect it in less than three years – because three years in a situation like that can age you very quickly.

If a relationship with an individual leaves you feeling drained, then it needs to be adjusted. I still believe that we should take the high road and address our perception with the individual. Most people, while they may not initiate the discussion, are happy to work on the relationship when it is in the best interest of the organization. And many times it takes a couple of tries to get to a place of trust, but if there are two well-intentioned parties, trust can be achieved over time.

But in those cases where the words don’t result in actions that are reflective of a mutually positive relationship, it’s time to concentrate on the tangible. Because Martha Beck is absolutely correct, to try and control the dysfunction will only result in your exhaustion. Ask for tangible evidence / examples on how you have created difficulty for this individual – if it’s tangible, you can adjust it. This you can control – your actions, your work product, your communications – but you cannot control another individual, plain and simple.

Today I can see a dysfunctional relationship almost immediately. I wish it had not been such a painful experience to get this clarity, but it is priceless. I no longer allow someone’s insecurities to cast a shadow on my own self-worth for a prolonged period of time. Sure, it still happens – just not for very long.

And just in case you’re wondering if I was negatively impacted by the decision to leave that position… I received a promotion and ended up in a job that I enjoyed with people I truly adored.