Under the Influence of Unsafety

“What you’re doing is right at the edge of breach of contract!” Jeff seethed.

What freakin’ contract?” Mary fired back.  “The one we haven’t even called the lawyer back about because we’re fighting so much?”

“I think,” interrupted Sally, “we need to be clear about what’s going on here…”

“Okay, Sally — what is going on here?” Jeff asked sarcastically.

Sally turned on Jeff. “I’m getting slammed for not doing what you think I’m supposed to do!” 

“In business, like in love, initial ‘Leaps of faith’ are pretty scary—after all, faith, without showing up and doing the work, is dead.”Mark

In environments where trust, security and mutuality are scarce, people in relationships — personal or work-related — easily slip into caretaking routines that are a reaction to and re-enactment of group-level anxiety. Sometimes this is the result of neglect of group members’ human needs. In addition, resentments can build and burn in reaction to subtle alliances between other group members. In such situations, the idea of safety is, at best, suspect.

“Supposed to do?” Mary asked, genuinely concerned.

“Yeah — you know: what Jeff tells me to do.”

“You think I’m you’re boss?” Jeff countered.

I don’t think so, but one of us seems to.”

Jeff missed a beat. Then, “Admit it: if I didn’t crack the whip we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with this project.”

The caretaking routines that develop to reduce anxiety unconsciously express group members’ out-of-control feelings about unaddressed problems and needs. The tensions expressed in the scene recounted above express this raw, dissociated anxiety. As the group dynamic continues to sideline members’ needs, unaddressed feelings surface with increasing stridency, leading to increased alienation and mistrust. Underneath it all is a shared fear of facing frightening unresolved issues at the relationship’s core. In this situation, safety (or what, in the work setting, the authors call “corporate intimacy”) is beyond reach because the parties are jointly invested in ignoring those crucial issues.

The Return of the unaddressed

“Look, Jeff,” Sally blurted out, “I’m not here for you to tell me what to do.”

Jeff smirked at Sally.  “Even if what I want you to do is only what you agreed to? Even if it’s your job?” 

“A healthy corporate culture includes willingness to respect our colleagues unique abilities and perspectives. ”Daniel

“Oh? I agreed to be bullied?  When was that?”

The same anxiety activates deeply conditioned patterns of behavior that each individual learned in their own dysfunctional family. Each individual’s patterns of interpersonal behavior come together to inform how the present group deals with stress. Understanding our individual contributions can help us extricate ourselves from the present group problems and find a much better way to collaborate, but it takes both mental and emotional work. It also takes a leap of faith — at first. Then, when we see that it is working well, it ends up being rewarding and we start to develop momentum. We might, at some point, even welcome challenging conversations, because at that “tipping point” each difficult conversation allows for a possible group resolution that builds the safety and trust that are not there — except as wishful thinking — to begin with.

Sally, Jeff and Mary are the principals of a (so far) surprisingly successful consulting start-up. With clients, any of the three would be able creditably to tease out the missing pieces in interactions like these. But where they themselves are personally invested it doesn’t play out that way. What they do realize is that if they don’t get a handle on their stuff, their success is guaranteed to be short-lived. They’re coasting on the value of a good idea they had, and a fair amount of work, but everything else is up in the air.

Assuming an understated but stern tone, Jeff said, “I want to make sure something is clear to everybody: You two keep complaining about my pushing to get contracts and our operating agreement signed. But I’m telling you now, the legal stuff be damned: if these ugly scenes continue, I am so outta here.”

Success Without Safety

Sally, Mary and Jeff had dreamed of creating this start-up since they’d worked together for a major consulting firm years before. In a matter of months, Sally and Mary were more than satisfied with the buzz (and revenue) their work was creating in the consulting world. Meanwhile, Jeff was becoming resentful that his role seemed increasingly limited to being “the business guy.” 

“Corporate intimacy may be a contradiction in terms, but we think not.”Grant

His threat to exit their company startled both of his partners.

“The nuclear option, Jeff, really?” asked Sally.

“You don’t give me much of a choice. I tried to tell you both this was where we were headed if you kept pretending to listen to me. Your lips say yes, but your actions say ‘f—k you’! If you two keep resisting everything I try to do, why the hell am I here?”

“But Jeff,” protested Mary gently, “it’s working! We’ve got more work requests than we can accept and all of our social media numbers are through the roof. What’s the problem?”

To which Jeff replied, “It’s kind of working, but there’s a lot more work to do and we can barely do what we need to do as it is. How are we going to scale-up to meet this demand? Am I crazy? I seem to be the only one who gets it!”

Jeff’s complaints are partly based on his resistance to being pigeonholed, as well as fearing he may be used as scapegoat should the need arise. But in fact, he was highly competent in nearly every aspect of the work they shared. He was deeply uneasy that the meat-and-potatoes aspects of their joint venture weren’t getting the shared buy-in from his partners that he knew to be necessary for sustaining long-term viability.

A House Built On Sand

“The problem,” Jeff explained, “is that I’ve been here too many times to like what’s going on.”

Without a sense of security built on shared investment in empathy, intimacy and vulnerability, early company successes didn’t dispel the sense of scarcity driving Jeff’s anxiety.

Jeff continued, “Yeah, in one way everything looks great. But I see too many possibilities for everything coming apart if we don’t nail down our legal stuff and take better care of the business plan. I know—those things are expensive and maybe not all that interesting. But without them we can only hope to go so far.”

The bottom line was that, for Jeff, without actual reciprocity and regardless of their early success, they were building a house on sand.

“Mary, those numbers you’re talking about may be your idea of success, but if you don’t at least try to look at what I’m telling you, in this market, we’re gonna tank.”

Though outvoted by his partners, Jeff was unmoved. Their willingness to ignore what he knew from experience only made him feel less safe. So, to the irritation of his partners, Jeff dug in his heels and kept up the compulsive scaregiver routine. Nevertheless, he remained committed to their project, and deep down, Sally and Mary were more grateful than they knew.


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