HR & Management

The importance of not treating employees like children

4 min read

29 August 2018

Adults come to work and undertake the role they are paid for, with maturity and awareness and are able to manage conflict and difficulty. Do your team regularly and consistently do this? If not, perhaps you need to consider whether you’re leading with a parenting style.

By parenting, I mean those leadership behaviours which seek to nurture people. In practice, it means the leader advises, guides, teaches and solves problems for others. It doesn’t seem such a bad thing. In fact, most of us think we are being our most helpful when we do things for our teams; but as time goes on you may find that it doesn’t get the best from your teams.

So why don’t parental behaviours bring out the best in people? Ideally, you need all of your team to come to work and behave like adults – for all the reasons already mentioned. However, parental leadership often brings us the opposite. Actions such as guiding, advising and problem-solving for others, often have the effect of “closing down” the thinking capacity of other adults.

Such brain activity can be corroborated by neuroscience evidence, but you will know it to be true instinctively. How many times have we said something like “I’ve told that person 10 times what to do, so why aren’t they doing it?” Well now you know. They’re not doing it because your intervention has closed down their ability to think.

To bring about the adult to adult interactions, stop using ‘telling’ actions (advising, offering solutions etc.) and move to ‘asking’ actions (ask a question instead).

Instead of responding to an issue that a team member brings you, with a “if I were you, I’d try …” style approach, try a “what do you think should be done?” or, “what have you tried so far?” style approach. This way, you will move away from the danger of closing off thinking capacity, to switching it on instead.

Of course, if you are moving away from a ‘parental telling’ style and towards an ‘adult asking’ leadership style, you are also going to have to stop and listen too! There is no more disrespectful a leadership interaction than asking a question but not stopping to listen to the answer.

I know that’s going to take some more of your time and I know your time is precious; but the very act of encouraging your team to interact with you in an adult way is going to reap you many more rewards – including saving your time down the line – than a parental telling style ever will.

A word of warning, however – your team may well be suffering from a career lifetime of parental leadership styles and a lack of adult interaction and care at work, so they will have become ‘conditioned’ to this. A more adult form of workplace expectation may be strange and confusing at first, so be patient.

This is a journey, not a one-off process and you won’t be able to turn your team into functional adults in the workplace in five minutes, especially if you’re working with a long-term legacy of parental leadership styles.

But it is worth persisting with – so that you end up with a team of intelligent, intuitive, functional adults who can come to work, do their jobs well and free you up so that you can do yours too.

Tracy Kite is author of Love to Lead (£14.99, Panoma Press). She has many years of experience in the design, delivery and implementation and evaluation of learning and leadership development programmes. Her work is focussed on achieving strategic and operational leadership excellence and a defined return on investment for organisations.