The Corporate Shrink

Email addicts and the people who love them; life at the bottom of the food chain.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

We all know that email is overused in the workplace, but I think I’m truly addicted. Wireless email pushed me over the edge. My wife gets upset when I check my BlackBerry over dinner and has threatened to toss out my device. I know she’s right, but I can’t help myself. (issue 84, page 42)

I feel sorry for your wife. Perhaps she should get a wireless device, and the two of you can email each other across the table.

Any behavior you believe you can’t do without, or that makes you anxious when deprived of it, can look like an addiction. Actually calling it that is appealing because it makes you feel less responsible for your actions–without helping you understand the psychological purpose it serves in your life.

Email is a wonderful tool, combining efficient, nearly real-time contact with the luxury and safety of delayed response. It makes us feel more in control–at least until it gets out of control. The facelessness and ease allow us to say things to each other that we might, before email, have said only to our shrinks. On the other hand, email has also revived a mode of communication that many feared was dying out: the written word. We have a chance not only to express ourselves thoughtfully but also to hit the delete key that doesn’t exist in an intimate moment of conversation.

Email creates for us the illusion of being constantly connected, which is comforting to those of us who have a hard time being alone. Those around you, though, probably feel shut out when you seem more interested in your email than in old-fashioned human contact.

When you say you can’t help it, I’m not convinced. You’re avoiding your wife and others, and throwing out your device won’t fix that. Talking to them, and listening, would make a difference. R u with me?

I’m at the bottom of the food chain at a university. The org chart has me reporting to a manager who reports to a director, assistant vice chancellor, vice chancellor, and finally the chancellor. But the manager’s job has been vacant for two years, and interim appointees have filled two other slots since 1998. I think this is insane. What do you think?

You’re in a shaky position in a chronically unstable place. My question is, Why are you still there?

When an interim manager is truly interim–filling in briefly during an unexpected vacancy or in a clearly defined transitional period –then it’s a necessity of organizational life. But six years isn’t interim; it’s permanence that isn’t being acknowledged as such. Steve Jobs was acting CEO of Apple for too long (two years plus) before finally acknowledging the obvious: He was there to stay.

“Interim” can be a sign of ambivalence, on the part of either an employee who is reluctant to commit or the organization that is unable to decide on a candidate. Sometimes it goes deeper, reflecting organizational doubts about the role itself.

As a bottom-dweller, you’re in a tough position. Are you qualified to move into one of the higher roles? And if so, have you expressed your ambitions to a supervisor (someone permanent would be better) who has the authority to help? Perhaps you’re being exploited as a lower-paid administrator doing the work of your nonexistent manager. You might have more leverage than you think. To effect change, move up or out.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (