Is alcoholism a disease or a character flaw?
I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a useful complement to Grant’s own personal memoirs. Grant’s memoirs are a must-read for leaders of all stripes, whether or not you have any interest in the Civil War. It’s also, fortunately enough, compellingly readable — so much so that Chernow’s book would be unnecessary except for three elements Grant didn’t write about:
(1) Read Grant’s memoirs and you’ll discover who he was. Chernow tries to explain why he was who he was. (2) Grant didn’t mention his presidency, which was more distinguished than most of us know, possibly because his throat cancer killed him a week after he delivered his manuscript. And (3) Grant did not mention his struggle with alcoholism, even though it played a prominent role in his personal history.
In your career as a leader and as a manager, it’s a statistical certainty you’ll find yourself dealing with substance-abusing employees. And while it’s doubtful any of them will bring as much drive and ability to their responsibilities as Grant did to his, the odds are better than even that most are capable of being valuable employees.
As a manager, how you deal with a substance-abusing employee is reasonably straightforward: You contact Human Resources and have them walk you through your responsibilities and boundaries. Or, you ignore the substance abuse and focus on job performance, on the grounds that as a manager your job is to get work out the door, in large part by making sure the men and women in your organization get their work out the door.
As a manager, if other employees complain to you about the situation, you ask whether it affects their ability to do their own work.
As a leader your responsibilities are considerably more complicated than that. I think your response has to start with the disease vs character flaw question.
I confess I’m old and judgmental enough that it’s hard to jettison the perception that addicts are weak-willed, pathetic when they aren’t harming anyone else, and bad people when they drive while under the influence.
Reinforcing this bias are those who find ways to overcome their addictions: If they can, why can’t everyone else? Which isn’t a fair assessment, as there’s no way of knowing whether someone who can’t has less willpower or a more profound compulsion.
Also reinforcing my bias: Research showing significant neurophysiological differences between psychopaths and the rest of us. I say reinforcing because I’m just not quite ready to say, to myself or anyone else, “Aw, that poor sociopath. If only he had a better amygdala! I feel for him.”
No, I don’t. Maybe I should, but I don’t.
The deeper we dig into the root causes of human behavior, the harder it is to differentiate between character flaws and psychological syndromes. Maybe that’s good. It’s certainly gives you as a leader a reason to fall back on the managerial solution of I don’t care who you are, just how you act while you’re on the job.
One of my regrets is an employee I inherited when I took over a department early in my managerial career. He was an alcoholic, on the wagon when he first started reporting to me.
Then he started drinking again — moderately at first, but for a recovering alcoholic, moderation isn’t stable.
But he was what we now call a high-functioning alcoholic. His work performance remained satisfactory, and so I never once had a frank discussion with him about his drinking. It eventually killed him.
What would that conversation have entailed?
Not threats. He was doing his job well enough. Not “Speaking as your friend,” because he wasn’t my friend. We were friendly, but we weren’t the kind of close that gave me the right to discuss personal matters.
I’m pretty sure I should have let him know I was aware of the situation. I’m certain I should have reminded him that if he ever wanted help, the company had an employee assistance program and made sure he knew how to make use of it.
But he was an adult, and as an adult he had the right to make his own choices, whether or not they were choices I agreed with.
Life is all about choices. One of the interesting things about choices is that while we can and do make them, life doesn’t always let us choose what we have to make choices about.
So while it’s true that an alcoholic can choose to respond to their alcoholism by being a drunk, or by abstaining, that’s different from those of us who don’t have to make that choice in the first place.