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Why parenting team members can be so detrimental

Tracy Kite

As a leadership writer and researcher, I focus on the caring behaviours associated with management actions. One risk of this thinking however is that parental, controlling styles of leadership can often be mistaken for caring. The language of Transactional Analysis – a theory of communication and therapeutic interposition – is helpful in illustrating this. Contributor Tracy Kite, Author – Love to Lead.

The concept states that every adult has three potential modes of behaving. All three are appropriate and contextual and I’m sure you will recognise these from previous leadership learning. We all choose to behave as Parent, Adult or Child. This is not good/bad, or right/wrong – all modes of behaviour are applicable in the right situation.

Parental actions are directing, teaching, advising and guiding; managing risk on behalf of others and nurturing. Parenting-type behaviours assume that others are unable to know and understand as much about the world as the parent does. So, parents must advise and teach, and ensure their ‘offspring’ remain safe in a world they know less about.

So, what is wrong with this? Surely as managers, we know more about the work and organisation than our teams? Clearly, we must nurture them by advising, problem solving and directing life at work on their behalf? This is how many leaders see it.

Unfortunately, this often means that such leaders are always uncontrollably busy; they are constantly reacting to or taking on others’ problems; they work long hours because almost everyone needs supervision and constant guidance; they never have enough time because of frequent interruptions; and are ‘on call’ to their teams, out of working hours.

Does parental leading seem familiar? Some of us find this style fulfilling – it’s good to feel needed and helpful. However, as time goes on, burn-out is highly likely. For parents, children naturally grow up and begin living independent lives. Unfortunately for leaders who parent, their teams won’t ‘grow up’ and the situation continues until the manager is too tired and disillusioned to manage anymore

Parenting styles disable other adults. They appear to come from a caring place, but really, they originate from a controlling position. People won’t make decisions and will pass responsibility back to you at work. Yet outside of work, the same people raise families, manage their budgets, make complex decisions, undertake demanding tasks and don’t leave decision-making to their own parents. So why don’t they do it in work? Is your leadership style disabling those ‘adult’ brain actions and turning them into needy ‘children’ at work?

Behaving in child-like ways is perfectly normal and healthy too, providing we are in the right context. It is natural to play with our children, partners and friends in the appropriate situations. Childlike behaviours bring fun, laughter and creativity into our lives. However, children are also needy, lack experiences and skills and cannot always make appropriate decisions or be relied on to behave with maturity and wisdom. The interesting thing when adults communicate, is that if one is interacting in parent mode, childlike behaviours are automatically generated in the other. Leaders who routinely adopt a parenting style, therefore ‘push’ childlike behaviours, in their teams. Conversely, if your team behave like children at work, your parenting behaviours will unconsciously emerge.

Ideally, people come to work and carry out their roles, with minimal need for managers to supervise them, make decisions and solve problems. Usually, adults can do this for themselves, at least outside of work. When leaders facilitate their teams to work in an adult and independent way, work is less stressful, and people are more fulfilled because they are thinking for themselves and solving problems creatively – much as they do at home. Your attrition rate improves, and your complaints and grievances become far less. As a leader, you can get on with your job, because your team are getting on with theirs.

The strategy is to stop parenting, stop creating childlike behaviours in your teams and facilitate adult relationships with all your people. If you care enough to do this, people become the self-sufficient, creative and effective individuals they already are outside of work.  In turn, your work life becomes less stressful, more achievable and you are free to be the best version of yourself too.

Tracy Kite is the author of of Love to Lead (£14.99, PanomaPress).

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