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Chaos Addiction in the Workplace

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

The Problem

I know this may come as a surprise, but believe it or not, some people just don’t like to be told what to do. Some find comfort in following the rules. Others, for whatever reason, find it a challenge. This is the mystery that every manager (and parent) has been trying to unlock since the dawn of mankind.

As a young manager years ago I had a misguided opinion of why people would discard systems and processes in the workplace. It can be frustrating when others don’t share your same desires when you are trying to accomplish something as a team. The systems and processes that are important to you don’t seem to be a top priority to some team members. It is easy for an unseasoned leader to

take this personally and point the finger at a person’s character. Why don’t they value what you value? Why are they so stinkin’ stubborn? Do they realize their success depends on doing things “right”? It is easy to assume that this careless rulebreaker is taking a personal stand against me and what I value. Maybe that’s not all together true.

Approaching people from this cynical perspective can have minimal or an adverse effect. Directly calling out the perpetrator on their non-conformity can cause them to hide these behaviors from the authority. Rule breakers learn when it’s worth following the rules and when they can get away with out. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

Another Perspective

Over the years, my understanding to why some people struggle with systems and processes has grown. My thoughts in this blog come more from leading people who struggle in this area over the last 25 years, and less from any medical or psychological expertise. Reading and learning from experts helped me gain a clearer understanding, however rubbing shoulders with people in the workplace made it real.

It is easy to label a person as rebellious, stubborn or even careless. I have discovered that there may be other reasons for their lack of compliance. I believe that “Chaos Addiction” is a real thing. A related but slightly different version of this I call “Order Averse Tendencies”. Here is what I have experienced.

Chaos Addiction

Chaos Addiction is when a person is more comfortable with the predictability of the unpredictable. Out of necessity they have adjusted their worldview to survive in a constantly changing, unpredictable environment.

Chaos Addiction can happen when a person develops their mindset amidst a chaotic environment. When order is not present, the child or adult can feel like they have limited control. When boundaries are absent from a culture or family environment, a young person learns to adjust to survive. Sometimes in the form of disorders, hence the name “Dis-order”, or the absence of order. There is actually a physical change in development in a young brain that causes it to form differently to adjust to the chaos. When this happens, the braind does not fully develope as it would in a healthy environment.

Order Averse Tendencies

When a person struggles with “Order Averse Tendencies”, they may have come from the opposite environment. When a child or young person grows up under strict rules or a controlled environment they may not have the opportunity to learn to be responsible for their own actions. When they have little choice or control, it is difficult to develop self-imposed boundaries or a strong sense of self-control. Resentment can be a strong driver of behavior.

When kids grows up and graduate to a place of needing to make important choices on their own, they struggle.  Under developed discernment skills lead them to indulge in their new freedom. To them, the rules they grew up with kept them in bondage. They enjoy their new found freedom of choice, and for the first time in their lives they don’t have to do anything they don’t want. Think of the average freshman dorm room.

Another and possibly more common cause for “Order Averse Tendencies” is ADHD or ADD. A person who struggles with staying focused can also find it difficult to keep their attention on following a prescribed protocol. Focus issues and Control issues can have a similar appearance in the workplace to the untrained eye.

It Hits Home

My wife and I have been foster parents for several years and we have had interactions with therapists that have helped us to understand this better. When children have experienced trauma in the home, then move to an environment of peace and order, they often react the only way they know. They try to recreate what they have become comfortable with. When they cause disruption and rebel against instruction they often are merely behaving the way they have been trained. This was a surprise to us. This understanding helped us form a more knowledgeable and responsible approach towards chaotic behavior. This was especially difficult for me, having a bent toward kids needing to learn personal responsibility.

Grown-ups too

I have discovered that when adults find it hard to follow systems and rebel against authority, they too may be reacting the only way they know how. It may not be that they won’t follow directions, rather that they can’t. This was a revelation to me to learn.

Imagine a person who has an extreme fear of heights. You place a $100 bill at the top of a 12 foot ladder, they get three steps up and completely freeze up. They are motivated to keep going, but they simply can’t. Something in their subconscious kicks in and convinces them of something that is not true, and they freeze. Their perceived threat of altitude is blown out of proportion in their mind causing an emotional reaction of fear.

I believe that the same thing can happen to people who have never seen or experienced the freedom and fruits of following a system, or operating within the rules. Many people believe that rules and systems are in place to take your freedoms away. They are there to control you and take control away from you.

         “Many people believe that rules and systems are in place to take your freedoms away.”

The truth is, only within the confines of following the rules and doing things the prescribed way, can you truly experience freedom and personal control. You have to use the right tools to get the right results. This is a paradox that can be difficult for some people to come to understand.

Example: When you don’t drive over the speed limit, you don’t get a ticket. When you exercise your freedom to drive as fast as you want, your freedom is removed by a judge.

Addressing the Problem

So as leaders, how do we approach people with Chaos Addiction or Order Averse Tendencies?

  1. We could continue pleading our case with them hoping they will change. That never works.

  2. We could put the hammer down and make them do it our way. That will eventually drive them away.

  3. We could give them heavy incentives to bribe them into following the rules. That will only have short term results.

  4. We could simply move them out of the company.

Unfortunately the last option sometimes ends up being the only method that will protect your customers, your company and co-workers from the erosion that comes from having a cog in the wheel.

Another Approach

I believe that people matter, and as leaders we have a responsibility to try to help people move past their obstacles within our capacity. We also need to understand our own personal limitations. It is important to recognize when it is time to recommend them getting assistance from a person more appropriately trained.

Moving people past a Chaos Addiction doesn’t necessarily have a high success rate for a complete turn around, but a person can develop better self-awareness and self-management techniques to stay ahead of it the best they can. Here are some suggestions on how to coach a person struggling in this area:

  1. Trust – The first step is to make a connection with them. Any leader will have little to no effect if they do not gain trust and respect of the employee. You absolutely need to earn the right to be heard. If you don’t care, they will know. If this is the case, the problem is with you more than with them. Get yourself fixed first.

  2. Self-awareness – Many people who struggle with Chaos Addiction don’t even realize it. Many just believe they are broken and can’t be fixed. Others believe that everyone else is broken and need to be fixed. By asking them pointed questions, you may be able to help them see a more clear and objective perspective. You need to help them to remove their blind spots with gentleness and respect.

Asking the following line of questioning can be a non-threatening way to help someone see the relationship between their thoughts and results.

  1. “When you are asked to comply to a set of instructions, how does that make you feel?” Why?

  2. “Describe how your approach toward systems and rules have affected you in previous jobs/life.” This is the “How’s that going for ya’?” question. Are there any patterns that you can help point out to them? Do they keep repeating a cycle?

  3. “What tasks have you accomplished that required following specific instructions. How did that effect the results?” Are they able to repeat those results in other areas? Why/Why not?

  4. “How can I best help you.”  Sometimes they know best and a great question can draw it out of them.

  5. Vision of Reality – Help paint a picture of the one common factor in all highly successful people and organizations. They find out how things really work, then they adjust themselves to those unchangeable principles. Staying within the boundaries of how things really work is the only way to navigate through life with any degree of effectiveness. Any other way ends in chasing the wind.

  6. Guardrails – Help them determine for themselves what guardrails they need to put in place for themselves in order to be able to self-manage their way through this maze. These are boundaries they have to own and be responsible for. The idea is that when a person owns their own boundary, they aren’t being controlled by others, rather they are self-directed.

  7. Commitment – All self-directed activity is anchored through commitment. Any notion of successful self-guidance without being fully committed is a fantasy. If you leave a way out, you will take it when things get hard.

  8. Accountability – Talk through the need for accountability to help them with their guardrails. Create written SMART goals, and make sure they line up with their vision. Follow-up is one of the most crucial factors in helping someone change a lifelong habit. If they cannot come to a place of committing to accountability, they may never get past it.

A Leaders Responsibility

As the leader of people we need to fully commit to helping individuals become their best self. Trying to balance between the needs of the individual and the health of the organization is very tricky and can be stressful. As a steward of a business we need to maintain a healthy approach to keeping the health of the organization and the needs of the many, a priority over any individual, as cruel as that sometimes seems.

A rule of thumb; When you allow a struggling person to continue being a part of a team, you have a limited time before the problem begins to overflow onto the rest of the team. You have to navigate with assertiveness and within the confines of a time limit. If you are not able to make the appropriate progress within the prescribed time, you need to have the discipline to make a move for the health of the organization. This is one of the hardest responsibilities of a leader.

I would love to walk with you through your journey!

Joel Smith

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