Over-Functioning and Under-Functioning

August 27, 2014

A business partnership is a system. Sometimes that system resembles a couple or family system. And like any couple or family, there may be one over-functioning and one under-functioning person in the partnership. Often the over-functioning one does a great job of compensating for the other’s dysfunction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to do so or good for the business.

A normal, functional person is one who can fulfill the following job posting: “Looking for a responsible person who meets deadlines, shows up on time, keeps their promises, makes decisions while involving others, acts professionally, and lives a balanced life.” The functional person is not overly dependent on others, isn’t a perfectionist, and knows not to overstep boundaries (personal and professional). When stressed, a functional person acts responsibly towards meeting their obligations.

Over- and under-functioning employees may show some of these functional qualities, but not all. Here’s what you will likely see instead:


Common traits of an under-functioning person:

  1. Has difficulty making decisions
  2. Does not do the heavy lifting
  3. Is disorganized
  4. Is very dependent on others (and usually dependent on one over-functioning partner)
  5. Often looks to others for help and support
  6. May appear immature for role or stage of life
  7. Zones out to TV, movies, and video games
  8. May appear irresponsible


Common traits of an over-functioning person:

  1. Appears totally together
  2. Is very organized
  3. Is buttoned up
  4. Does their work and then does others’ work (often for an under-functioning partner)
  5. Is overly responsible and uber dependable
  6. Takes over other people’s life responsibilities
  7. May often say, “If not me, who?”
  8. Neglects self in exchange for getting things done for others
  9. Feels under-appreciated for what they do for others
  10. Believes they know how others should live their lives
  11. Are often over-stressed and over-whelmed (despite appearances)

The Partnership of Over-Functioning and Under-Functioning

When I work with business partners that display this symbiotic relationship, it is usually near or at crisis level. The over-functioning partner has amassed tons of ammunition–partly because they’ve done so much work and partly because they’re better at record-keeping. To a neutral party (like a fellow entrepreneur at a YPO, EO, or Vistage gathering), the under-functioning partner is clearly the one to blame. Neutral parties are quick to put an arm around the over-functioning one who’s exhausted from lifting so much of the load. And yet…both parties should probably shoulder the blame equally (for once!).

If asked, “Have you always shown up this way–doing the work of others?” the over-functioning person’s answer is usually yes (or mostly). The over-functioning partner likely chose the under-functioning partner purposefully, in fact, so that they could show up well by comparison. To some extent, over-functioning people enjoy being the martyr, or they may be trying to avoid some aspect of their personal life by working so much.

The under-functioning person shouldn’t get a pass either. Most under-functioning people wash out due to laziness or immaturity. If they rise to the highest ranks of an organization or partner their way there, don’t underestimate their cleverness or skill at manipulation. They are likely master manipulators and work-avoiders. And they certainly shouldn’t get credit for shirking so many of their responsibilities and over-working their partners.

It helps to understand that the two partners are co-dependent. Usually, they bond when the under-functioning person displays a value or skill (often creative) that the over-functioning one lacks. As time goes on, the under-functioning partner tends to delegate more work and appear lazier and lazier to the over-functioning partner. This sets the trap for the cycle to end. The over-functioning partner eventually becomes overwhelmed with responsibility and commitments, and feels under-appreciated for the work they’ve done.If balanced isn’t achieved and the co-dependency broken, the partnership will likely end with both partners having much less than half the value of what they currently hold together.

Balance can be achieved, but it requires constant rigor and outside intervention to keep both partners on track.

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