The longer I work in the field of addiction, I am coming to realize more and more the importance of managing over-alignment of staff with clients. There are many other terms for this issue, including counter-transference, losing objectivity, co-dependency and favoritism. Let me be clear – I am not coming from a place of judgment, because I too have over-aligned with clients more times than I wish to admit. The truth is, it is a natural human response when working with people. Here are some of the identifying signs that a staff member might be over-aligning with a client: the staff member becomes the client’s “defense attorney” and feels the need to defend their actions to other staff, the staff member makes exceptions to the rules on the clients behalf, the staff member does special favors for the client, the staff member spends extra or excessive time with the client, the staff member’s primary focus is on the client’s comfort, the staff member is not open to feedback about how to work with their client, and/or the staff member believes other staff is mistreating their client. Over-aligning with a client can be incredibly detrimental to a client’s progress because they are robbing them of the experiences, feelings and accountability that are necessary for emotional and spiritual growth. It can also be harmful to other clients in a community when they see a peer being treated differently. The essential task as a treatment team is to create a safe environment of authentic communication where team members feel free to challenge each other when they see over-alignment happening. It is also important for staff members to feel safe enough with their supervisor to admit when they have become over-aligned with a client. The intent is never to make a staff member “wrong” or “bad”, but to simply identify the truth about what is happening so as to move into a solution.
Once you’ve identified that a staff member is over-aligned with a client, what can you do about it? One very effective solution is to make all decisions as a team and leave very little room for individual staff decisions. Another option is when having treatment planning meetings, let all members of the team except the over-aligned staff member vote and weigh in on decisions about a client. Inviting all members of the treatment team to challenge the over-aligned staff member in the moment through real-time feedback is a very effective method to raise awareness amongst team members. It is always important to work with the over-aligned staff member through supervision and/or providing access to personal counseling to identify underlying associations or patterns that may make them vulnerable to over-aligning with certain types of clients. And in severe cases of continued over-alignment, switching the client to a new counselor may be necessary. If the over-aligned staff member is not their counselor, then a therapeutic contract may have to be put in place to separate the staff member and client. Over-alignment will happen, so creating an environment where it can be talked about openly and honestly and moving into the solution is the key to success.