As leaders, we want people who come to work, with maturity and awareness, responsibility and accountability. We also want them to be able to make decisions and solve problems and to manage conflict and difficulty as adults. If your team doesn’t do this as a matter of course, could it be that you’re leading with a parenting style?
By parenting, I don’t just mean those leadership actions that seek to nurture people and teams; I also include advice, guidance, teaching and problem-solving for others. You might think that these actions (which constitute parenting in the workplace) don’t seem such a bad idea – perhaps we are being our most helpful when we do these things for our teams? But as time goes on, this doesn’t get the best from your people.
Parental leadership, over time, often brings us the opposite of what we might expect it to. That is because guiding, advising and problem solving for others, often has the effect of ‘switching off’ the thought processes of the adult brain. This is validated by and documented in neuroscience, but you can also corroborate it yourself. How many times have you been with others and said: “I’ve told that person so many times what to do. Why on earth aren’t they following my instructions?” They’re not doing it because your repeated instruction switched off their ability to think and act.
To get the best from your people, try petering out your use of ‘parenting’ behaviours (advising, instructing, offering solutions etc) and ask a question instead. This is a move from a ‘telling’ style of leadership to an ‘asking’ style. Next time someone comes to you with a problem, stop yourself from telling them the answer, or what you would do, and instead ask what they would do. You might ask what they’ve already tried. You might want to stop assuming you know all the answers and check in to see if they can solve a problem creatively for themselves. This way, you will move away from the danger of switching off thinking capacity, to switching it on instead.
A word of warning here: if you are moving away from a ‘parental telling’ approach, towards an ‘adult asking’ approach, you will also have to stop and listen too. It is rude to ask a question but not stop to listen to the answer – good manners are the tenet of great leadership. I know that takes more of your time (which is precious) but fostering your team to behave in an adult way is going to bring you many more rewards – including saving your time down the line – than a parental style ever will.
A further caution too – your people are likely to have been conditioned to respond to parental leadership styles, having experienced this throughout their working life, from other leaders and managers. Because of this conditioning, a more adult form of leadership interaction and expectation may be unfamiliar and baffling at first. Try to be patient with them and yourself.
This is a journey, so you can’t turn your team into functional adults in the workplace with no input, effort or learning. If you’re working with a long-standing remnant of a previous boss’s parental leadership style, it’s going to take time. But persevere – you will end up with a sharp, perceptive, efficient team who can come to work, do their jobs well and give you the freedom to be excellent too.
Tracy Kite is the author ofLove to Lead.