It’s not really something easy to talk about—questioning whether drinking with the people you work with is impacting you in a negative way. After all, it’s the way lots of teams connect. Some large client systems I have worked with have alcohol flowing freely at every company event. But drinking too much can certainly impact your credibility, and in some cases, more than that.

Recently, I learned about how the president of a big division, got blasted drunk at a large corporate meeting. He then got on the elevator with one of his key female direct reports—a bright future leader—and lunged at her and tried to kiss her. She panicked, got off the elevator and, within months, quit her job. Later, he was fired by the Board when word got out that, at more than one company retreat, he drank so much that he blacked out. It was a heartbreak in every direction. And the #metoo movement has pointed to lots more of these kinds of scenarios that no one knew about.

Of course, this is an extreme example. But there are also the garden variety incidents, like the incoming VP of Sales who drank too much at an association retreat and fell down on the floor while dancing. People don’t forget these kinds of things. Her credibility was affected.

Okay, here come some simple reminders of common facts:

Alcohol is a depressant that slows down messages between the brain and body. The use of alcohol affects your problem-solving skills and your judgment.

We’ve all made stupid choices under the influence, whether it was ordering that pizza at midnight or saying something regretful to your co-worker at the bar after work. Alcohol impacts concentration and slows down reaction times and coordination. Alcohol also has negative consequences on your “fitness for work” as well as your health and well-being.

But you knew all of that.

So why do we do it? Leaders often drink to ease social anxiety, to manage stress and boredom, and because they succumb to peer pressure. There are also a number of situations that might make us feel like drinking more: When we’re traveling and away from family, which makes days long and evenings lonely. When our social activities are limited to eating and drinking. When we have to work long hours or do shift work. And when we have stress on the job from things like difficult work relationships and low job satisfaction.

I know. I’ve been there and done that. I drank for a bunch of the above reasons, as well as to fit in, to calm down, to have more fun. I have consumed plenty of alcohol with colleagues—it was part of the gig. Through my twenties, I traveled with a team of twelve and we drank every night on the road like it was Friday night. The company was paying for it, so we didn’t have to worry about that. I remember doing shots of tequila at a team retreat with a bunch of consultants. It got sloppy. But the next day, we were up and at it, creating and having big conversations about growth and strategy. Then, at happy hour the drinking would start again. I didn’t question it. It was part of being in the world of business. And especially as a woman, I had to learn to muscle up and increase my alcohol tolerance. I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘lightweight.”

But recently, I’ve come to question the role of alcohol in my own life. I am now what’s called “alcohol-free.” This is the term for people like me who aren’t necessarily alcoholics, but who know that alcohol isn’t doing them any favors and decide to stop. I could see that drinking with my team was lowering my IQ and intended impact. For six months or so, I played around with drinking in moderation—only when out to dinner or at a friend’s house. But, ultimately, I decided that no alcohol works for me.

Since I became alcohol-free, I’m happier and more creative at work. My mood is more stable, and that makes my work relationships better. On a personal level, I’m sleeping better. And, best of all, I have no remorse about what I said or did or didn’t do after having a couple of glasses of wine. I wake up happier and more confident in myself, which is a lovely surprise and not one I thought I would find by giving up my beloved Chardonnay.

Regardless of how much or how little you drink, be aware of why you drink and what you are modeling for your team. What practices can you adopt that will support your team being healthier and happier? Even at social gatherings, you are still the boss, and your behavior is watched closely. People tend to emulate their leaders. I challenge you to consider the role of alcohol in your overall “brand.” Is it helping or hurting? And then try exercising a bit more moderation or consider doing a “dry January” to see what might arise in your creativity, productivity and well-being without alcohol. You may just love it.


  • Dede Henley


    Henley Leadership Group

    I have been in the field of leadership development since 1982. I founded Henley Leadership Group 20 years ago to help leaders and organizations create more equitable and productive workplaces and ignite the nascent leadership potential of employees at all levels. Through individual coaching and programs designed to generate positive business results, Henley Leadership Group has served thousands of corporate leaders in a variety of industries, including healthcare, technology, energy and finance. Away from work, I live with my husband, and try not to meddle too much in the lives of my half-dozen kids.