In many organizations I have encountered during my consulting career, people have complained about “Cobbler’s Children Syndrome”. Like the proverbial children of the shoemaker who go without shoes, I have consulted to technology companies that have outdated computer systems, marketing firms that don’t market themselves in any way, and consulting firms that fail to put into practice for themselves a single theory or model upon which they have built their businesses.

Everyone who works in these organizations is aware of the irony of these situations, and yet it’s very difficult for individuals, teams, or the organization as a whole to do anything to change the dynamic. Perhaps there is some deep psychological reason why the “Cobbler’s Children” dynamic exists, like an anorexic who can prepare great meals for other people without personally partaking, as a means of vicariously enjoying food.

There may be a compensatory aspect to the syndrome in that, for example, one suffers from some kind of weakness, and becomes acutely aware of it. Still struggling with it personally, you may know what it takes to help others deal with it. For example, a shy person might be talented at helping others with their public speaking skills. The shy person, through introspection and self-awareness, knows how his or her shyness manifests itself, and is therefore very adept at helping others identify and remedy difficulties in communicating to large groups.

There may also be a defensive aspect to this syndrome. A person may develop a rigid and inflexible world view as a way of protecting him or herself from inner rebelliousness. While still unconsciously resenting rules, the person may develop usually-effective strategies for keeping his or her impulses in check. Then, he or she can take that show on the road and provide for others the same kind of order and control that he or she learned how to use personally. For example, someone who works in auditing or quality control might have developed talents in uncovering discrepancies and variations because he or she learned how to maintain order and consistency in his or her life. At times, however, particularly under stress, the person’s repressed desires for spontaneity and freedom might emerge, thereby rendering ironic the control of others.

Many clients I have worked with over the years have said that if they truly faced the irony of being a law firm that skirts the law, an investment firm that doesn’t manage its own investments, or a fitness company where all the executives are out of shape, they might go mad.

I look forward to hearing from you about your “Cobbler’s Children” experiences.

Where have you observed this phenomenon? What do you think might account for it?
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