Do you have difficulty making decisions?  Are you someone who asks others what they would do before acting yourself?  Do you find that instead of sharing your ideas at a meeting, you hold back and let others do the talking?  If any of these ring true, keep reading – there’s a chance you could be limiting yourself and undermining your true potential.

Last month, I wrote about the concept of over-functioning.  This month, I would like to introduce you to its counterpart on the other end of the teeter-totter, under-functioning.  These two concepts come from Bowen theory which has been adopted by organizational development practitioners and leadership coaches to help better understand and explain the hidden dynamics at play between individuals when anxiety is high.

To review, over-functioning is when we think, feel, or act on behalf of someone else out of a place of anxiety.  This happens when we over-step boundaries and take on another’s problems, duties, or responsibilities as if they were our own, in reaction to our internal anxiety or someone else’s anxiety.  Under-functioning, on the other hand, is when we allow the behavior of another to diminish our functioning. When we let someone else think, feel, or act on our behalf out of a place of anxiety.  It is when we assume the one-down position in the over/under-functioning relationship.  This anxious reaction causes under-functioners to feel disempowered, ineffective, and incompetent.  As a result, their feelings eventually become their reality as under-functioning inhibits an individual’s confidence to grow and develop.

So, what does under-functioning look like?

  • Defer to others when it comes to speaking up, and making decisions when we know the answers.
  • Giving over our power to someone else.
  • Needing to seek someone else’s input or advice before acting.
  • Ineffective decision-making and/or problem-solving.
  • Lacking the initiative to act is accompanied by feeling stuck or blocked.
  • Resignation – taking on a weak, helpless, hopeless persona.
  • Not taking responsibility for oneself.
  • Blaming and complaining – assuming others are responsible for one’s feelings and/or situation.

Depending upon our role, we may resort to over-functioning in one situation while in another role, we may tend to under-function.  For example, we may be great at community organizing always willing to go above and beyond —  ready to jump in and take charge, whether we’re asked to or not.  But at work for example, we feel stymied by our company culture, disempowered and uninspired, we may slip into less optimal functioning.  The key distinction is that either extreme is characterized by a reaction to high levels of anxiety — a reaction that we may not even realize is a reaction.

In the workplace, whether someone over or underfunctions has little to do with their job description and instead is an indication of the level of unmanaged anxiety in the system resulting from a lack of leadership.  Ambiguity, a lack of vision, unclear goals and objectives, role confusion, and unwritten expectations, as well as individuals’ styles of relating and communicating, are all common contributors to workplace anxiety.  Reactive behaviors such as over or under-functioning, quiet quitting, toxic triangles, and unhealthy conflict have one thing in common: they are all the result of mismanaged anxiety.

Not all anxiety is bad – as a matter-of-fact, anxiety is a necessary force of nature.  Without an anxiety response, human beings would not exist.  In The Anxious Organization: Why Smart companies do dumb things, Miller explains that anxiety is inherent in any collection of people.  The question is, is the anxiety chronic and toxic – resulting in over or under-functioning (and other reactive behaviors), or is it creative tension that is being harnessed and leveraged as a productive energy source?  The critical distinction is in how the anxiety is managed. Effective management of anxiety — or of “the emotional system” as the folks at Resilient Leadership refer to it- contributes to healthy functioning.

One final point – the over/under-functioning dynamic is always reciprocal whether we realize it or not.  Over-functioners tend not to recognize that they are anxious until they become aware of their over-functioning.  It is the awareness of over-functioning that brings awareness to anxious reactions and, hence, is the pathway to new habits of behaving.  By developing greater self-awareness, over-functioners can move toward healthier functioning and less burnout.  For under-functioners, the thought of stepping outside of their comfort zone is their greatest source of anxiety, whether they realize it or not.  For under-functioners to be more effective and fulfilled they will need to 1) become aware of what is keeping them stuck and 2) learn how to take small, safe steps toward their goals and objectives. This will generate momentum, moving them toward greater confidence and self-actualization.

If your team or organization has communication issues or suffers burn-out, high turnover, and low employee engagement, contact for a consultation.  Jennifer is a certified Resilient Leadership coach.

Please note: This article references anxiety, burnout, and stress, and NOT clinical anxiety or depression. If you experience clinical symptoms of anxiety or depression, please consult a mental health professional.