Several years ago I served on the board of directors of a non-profit organization I co-founded. Fueled by my passion for the organization’s mission, I would often be the first to volunteer for a project and was by far the most enthusiastic and prolific fundraiser. My impulse to immediately jump in made it easy for other board members to put forth less effort and caused some to feel as if they were not living up to my standards. My habit of readily “helping” our very capable staff often caused them to feel undermined. Ultimately, my well-intended efforts weakened the organization and led to my own eventual burn-out. I was the classic profile of an over-functioning leader.
What is over-functioning?
Over-functioning occurs when you take on responsibility that is not yours and belongs to others. It comes from a strong drive to help, fix, remedy, or rescue a situation or people based on the fear that if I don’t, nobody will. As illustrated in my story above, over-functioning often takes place with the best of intentions, including passion for a mission, a sense of responsibility, and a desire to be helpful. But in the end, leaders who over-function encourage those around them to under-function.
How do you know if you are over-functioning?
It’s one thing to understand over-functioning conceptually and quite another to recognize and interrupt it . Here’s a checklist of 15 behaviors that suggest a pattern of over-functioning. How many do you recognize in yourself?
- Telling someone what to do before asking about their assessment and ideas
- Completing others’ tasks when you feel worried or bored
- Talking in order to fill the silence in a meeting
- Saying something like, “no worries, I’m on it” to calm others’ anxieties
- Working longer hours than others (often as a badge of honor)
- Promoting your reputation as the “go-to person”
- Taking over a project that is advancing too slowly or not to your expectations
- Worrying about other people’s responsibilities
- Doing a task for someone because you think they won’t do it as fast or as well as you
- Making a decision for someone else
- Complaining about others’ lack of initiative, care, competency, or motivation
- Volunteering to take on the hardest or highest-stake parts of a project
- Checking in frequently on deadlines instead of letting people self-manage
- Giving up personal time and priorities to accommodate others’ needs
- Powering through difficult projects and problems without asking for help
What’s wrong with over-functioning?
Although leaders who over-function do so with the best of intentions, they, their colleagues, and their organizations pay a price for this type of leadership. Let’s examine the consequences of over-functioning.
Cost to others: When leaders over-function they deny others the opportunity to grow, develop, and exercise their own agency. When leaders constantly step in to provide answers, solutions, and decisions, their colleagues are deprived of the opportunity to discover and build their own strengths. Over time these people feel less motivated, less capable, and often resentful.
Cost to the organization: When leaders constantly step in to fill gaps, it masks and perpetuates fundamental organizational vulnerabilities, including underperforming staff, inadequate staffing levels, lack of cultural or strategic alignment among team members, and underdeveloped or obsolete processes. Too often, a sudden departure of an over-functioning team member reveals these vulnerabilities.
Cost to you: If you are a chronic over-functioner, you absorb the emotions and stress of your boss, your team, and even your family members. As a result, you pay the price in two ways. First, you eventually become resentful about the burden you carry and risk major burn out. Second, because you are taking on everyone else’s priorities, you never get to use your true gifts to make the highest possible impact in your role as a leader.
In Part 2 of this blog series (coming your way in early July) we will take a look at why so many leaders tend to over-function…
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