When Work Becomes Your Mistress

I have been writing lately about leaders and empathy deficit.  Such a deficit is seldom more evident than when it shows up in the leader’s own family, and when it is clouded by the illusion they have of themselves.  This illusion is usually the result of true or false adoration from their employees or constituents.  Sometimes it is just plain egotism or narcissism.

I will never forget the senior executive who contacted me as an employee assistance counselor, and after a brief hello, immediately said, “I need you to tell me how to tell my wife that she’s too fat.”    What surprised me was not so much his concern about his wife being perceived to be overweight, but the manner in which he approached the issue.  When I asked him to tell me a little more about his concern, he stated matter-of-factly that his wife was too fat, and he need to find a way to make her change, or else . . ..  He could probably sense my surprise when he heard me respond with, “You may have come to the wrong person for a solution to that one!  You sound like you are planning to give her a ‘decision day’. or something.”  A decision day is a suspension given to an employee to help them decide whether they really wanted to get with the program and align their behaviors to their manager’s expectations.  I was even more flabbergasted when he said, “Yes” that was exactly what he wanted to do.

My next question floored him.   I asked him, “So, how long has ‘your company’ been your mistress?”  You could tell from his reaction that he got the point, but he asked me to elaborate anyway.  I explained to him that when he was at work that required him to travel several days a week, he was the person in charge of his region or territory.  I also told him even if the people didn’t like him, they acted like they did because of his position and authority over their livelihoods.  They sort of bowed to him, met his every need, complimented him, admired him, needed him to solve problems, and responded to him in generally positive  and deferential ways.  He nodded in agreement.

On the other hand, when he went home to his wife and children, they were not nearly as admiring, deferential or complimentary.  There were expectations and responsibilities at home that they needed him to step up to.   And instead of being the adoring family, they would complain about some perceived mistreatment or about the amount of time he spent at work.  The financial resources and good intentions aside, they were screaming for their emotional and relational needs to be met.  This left him feeling unappreciated for all his hard  work on the road and in the office.  And so the the cycle begins.  His feeling unappreciated compelled him to more frequently choose work over his family.  The more he chose work, the more discouraged and disgruntled his wife and children would become.  Unfortunately, this wife’s choice for comfort happened to be food, which gave him an additional excuse to consider getting his needs met elsewhere.  This viscous cycle often leads many to the brink of divorce and too many on over the edge.

All this because of his failure to step up and respond appropriately to the people he had claimed were the most important to him.  By the way, there is no value in the blame game in this scenario.  It’s pretty easy to see that fault may lie somewhere in the middle.  But we are talking about leadership here and leaders step up.  Mature leaders would see through all the workplace adoration for what it is, and would step up to their primary responsibilities at home.

What often surprises leaders who go through this is how disappointed his adorers become when he finally reneges on the commitments and promises he has made to his wife and family, and leaves them for some other person.  They are unaware that part of the reason they admired him in the first place was because of the value he said he placed in the things that his employees found to be important to them as well, things like home, family and relationships.   These same leaders have been the counselors to their employees, helping many of them find their way through difficult personal challenges that impacted their work.  Their words, as well as the life they modeled, gave these employees hope that things could be better for them.   But, when their leader’s personal life falls apart, their hope is often shattered with it.  Though these leaders continue to have positional authority, their capacity for maximum leadership effectiveness is eroded.

Let me  switch gears and put on my Marriage and Family Therapist hat for a moment and say that marriage is one of the few places where we are going to see the most accurate reflection of ourselves.  If you don’t like what you see there, don’t blame the mirror who happens to be your spouse and children.  My experience says that your reflection will show up similarly in most any another mirror you chose.  It only feels different in the admiration stage of a new relationship (i.e. mistress).  But, when the new wears off; when the routine sets in; when the demands of work begin to stretch you; when the needs of this new person fail to be met consistently, when your needs fail to be met, the reflection in the mirror looks painfully familiar.

If you find yourself in this situation it is important to do five things:  First, recognize the reflections as a cue to you that something is wrong and needs your attention.  Second, use these reflections first to learn how you may be coming across to those you love.  Thirdly, practice empathy by listening with an intent to learn.  Fourthly, communicate respectfully, and fifthly, respond differently.  These five things can end the vicious cycle.  Doing the same thing over and over is not the answer.  If you have difficulty doing these five things, or you try them and they do not get you where you want to be, call a coach to help you through the tough spots.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *