Interdependency, Mutual Dependency, and Co-dependency in your NFP

While the terms interdependency, mutual dependency, and co-dependency sound similar, it is important to distinguish between them if a healthy culture is to be nurtured in your non-profit.

Beware co-dependency

A co-dependent relationship has been described as a shared psychological condition (meaning pathology) in which ‘one party needs the other party, who in turn, needs to be needed’. It can be expressed or focussed in different ways, including dependence on the needs or control of another. It can also involve varying levels of both unconscious and conscious behaviour, designed to perpetuate the relationship.

While often used to describe family or social relationships, it can arise in work settings as well. For example, co-dependency can be a trap for mentors and mentees who set out to obtain or provide assistance to address a specific set of goals, but end up perpetuating some level of dependence by the mentee on the mentor (who in turn depends on the mentee to meet their needs).

It can also develop in manager and team member relationships or between work colleagues. To avoid such problematic situations, boundaries need to be defined and maintained – by both parties. Being alert to the risk is the first step, followed by agreement on where boundaries lie, initially expressed in terms of goals and expectations, including what is not ‘in scope’.

The benefits of interdependency

Co-dependency needs to be distinguished from interdependency and its synonym mutual dependency. As in natural ecosystems, interdependence can be necessary and even desirable in most organisations. This is especially true when considering the relationship between management and the board (strategy requires execution), or between team members within and across functions (many workflows and business processes are cross-functional).

Where business processes and workflows involve staff from a number of functional areas, any one of them failing to meet the process requirements results in the entire process stalling or failing. Likewise, third parties and suppliers are integral to the achievement of many organisational objectives. Consequently, cooperative relationships and good communication with those parties are a high priority.

Covey’s Dependency Maturity Continuum

In the overview of his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey makes the point that the habits “provide an incremental, sequential, highly integrated approach to the development of personal and interpersonal effectiveness. They move us progressively on a maturity continuum (illustrated below) from dependence to independence to interdependence“. (Emphasis added)

While describing the nature of these stages or levels he goes on to say:

“Dependence is the paradigm of you – you take care of me; you come through for me; you didn’t come through; I blame you for the results
Independence is the paradigm of I – I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose
Interdependence is the paradigm of we – we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something together.”

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The Business Libraray, an imprint of Information Australia, (1989) p.49

In Chapter 11 of First Things First (a sequel to The 7 Habits published by Simon and Schuster in 1994) titled The Interdependent Reality, Covey makes the point that most of the time management and success literature (up to the time of writing) was focused on independence, and managing things rather than people. He argues that independence can be seen as a way of describing the development of sufficient skills and capacities that one can be trusted by others. Thus, it is a qualification for interdependence, through which quality of life and work can be achieved.

He made a similar point in The 7 Habits when he said:

“You can’t have the fruits without the root. It’s the principle of sequencing: Private Victory precedes Public Victory. Self-mastery and self-discipline are the foundation of good relationships with others.”

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The Business Libraray, an imprint of Information Australia, (1989) (p.186)

Healthy Interdependence

Kristin Hendrix’s insightful post on the importance of healthy interdependence suggests that interdependence can take a number of forms, and that when seen through accountability and collaboration lenses, sub-optimal approaches stand alongside a more ideal approach. Her 2X2 matrix below illustrates the distinctions between these approaches.


Hendrix acknowledges that accountability and collaboration each occur on a spectrum rather than simple high/low scales, and would doubtless also acknowledge that co-dependency is another unhealthy form of interdependence that can be identified when a psychological lens is used.

Hendrix is not disagreeing with Covey’s argument that interdependence is a state to which we should aspire, but she does invite us to think carefully about how that interdependence is expressed in our organisational culture.

Interdependence – a cultural issue

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory looks at interdependence from the perspective of how we should promote intercultural cooperation. The theory offers six dimensions (spectra) with which to gauge degrees of identification with certain values and dispositions.

Hofstede cautions against using the dimensions to stereotype people from particular cultures. Instead, he encourages recognition that we all experience some degree of cultural programming, and that our willingness and capacity to work together can be affected by these different perspectives and beliefs.

The header chart above focuses on two of the six dimensions with particular relevance to the capacity of organisational teams, communities, and societies to achieve optimal interdependence.

Non-profit interdependency

Internal and external interdependencies exist in all non-profit and for-purpose organisations. Whether these interdependencies are understood and optimised, or poorly addressed, is a question for every board and management team.

Cross-functional teams may need help to break down silos and improve cooperation towards more effective and efficient organisational outcomes. Recognising that this capacity building involves individual skill development as a foundation for more effective teamwork, and that teamwork requires additional skills and habits, is a good start.

Future posts will offer further reflections on dependencies in non-profit governance and management.

See also:

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