The flipside of treating employees like children

When I was last a manager I couldn’t help but draw analogies between raising children and managing employees. Now, having been both an employee and a manager, the association is even stronger for me. At the same time there are two perspectives on treating employees like children. The one is harmful (as you may imagine) and the other can be very positive.

The classic approach to treating employees like children

When you think about managers treating employees like children, you may imagine managers –

  • working on the assumption that employees can’t be trusted to do their work without close supervision;
  • strictly determining working conditions and times to reinforce that close supervision; and even
  • micro-managing their work.

That is a pretty common approach to managing employees, I think, particularly one adopted by managers who may not have a lot of experience and having stepped into the role believing that managing employees means telling them what to do and when to do it.

It isn’t a particularly effective strategy for the most part. For one thing it basically kills the employee’s initiative and creativity by imposing far too much structure and oversight. Why bother being creative and using your initiative if you have a manager looking over your shoulder telling you exactly what to do and how to do it?

One argument I’ve heard is that many employees are incapable of working unsupervised and if you give them too much flexibility, they won’t get the work done. I think this approach is the embodiment of the destructive perspective on managing employees like children. It tells employees that they are not trusted to get their work done or to make decisions about how best to do their work. It also typecasts employees as programmable machines that can’t be left unsupervised for five minutes.

This approach has been framed as encouraging planning and goal setting but it’s really far more than that. It is the expression of deep distrust and fear of losing control over processes that don’t function productively when controlled so tightly.

A more productive approach to managing employees

Our son is eight years old and we are starting to trust him with responsibility for a couple things. As you can imagine, an eight year old is not exactly accustomed to taking responsibility for many things. We’ve been working with him for a while now to teach him what it means to be responsible for things like his toys, a feature phone we gave him for emergencies (it turns out there are a lot of emergencies in an eight year old’s life) and school work.

I had an epiphany after a discussion with him last night; about responsibility and managing employees. He mislaid something we made him responsible for and only told us a week later. I had two options at the time. The first option was to take away the responsibility and revert to managing that aspect of his life and the second was to reinforce what it means to be responsible, guide him and give him another opportunity to behave differently. I’m not sure how much of what I was telling him really sunk in at the time. Then again, he is a child and his primary focus shifts between Megaladon sharks and Star Wars: Clone Wars (depending on the day) with school work somewhere in the persistent background.

Unlike our son, however, employees tend to be adults and are capable of independent thought and brushing their teeth without being told when and how to do it. Just on that, our son can brush his teeth, he just needs reminders now and then. It is far more effective to rather apply the minimum structure required to make sure projects proceed as planned and to otherwise leave it up to employees to figure out the best time and method to get the work done. You can keep track of how projects are progressing using various minimally disruptive tools (my favourite is still Basecamp for team projects) and perhaps even have regular status meetings (although I think that these are largely redundant if you are tracking project progress effectively using other means) to bring teams up to date.

This approach requires a fundamental shift that can be challenging for managers: instead of assuming that all employees are lazy machines that will slack off (not the awesome team messaging app, the act of not doing much unless driven to work) at the first opportunity; managers could rather start with the assumption that their employees are adults capable of independent thought and getting their work done efficiently with appropriate guidance (guidance, as in leadership, not puppetry).

Just as it’s more constructive to teach our son what responsibility means and give him the tools he needs to learn to behave responsibly; managing a team constructively is really more about leading them to success and empowering them to do their work in the most effective way they can. That doesn’t mean hovering over them and directing their movements. It means giving them the guidance and tools they need to develop their most productive workflows and the space to do great work.

Unchain your staff

Businesses are not 19th century factory production lines (even 21st century production lines aren’t 19th century factories), particularly in knowledge-driven industries. People work differently. Some thrive under closer supervision and others needs more space and flexibility to disappear off into the ether and to return with their creations in hand. If you are going to treat employees like children, treat them like you’d like to treat your children if you want them to grow up to be responsible, independent and confident adults. Preferably, though, recognise that your employees already are adults and have the capability to do great work if you would just remove the chains and let them do it.

Image credit: Grandstand figures by Efraimstochter, released under a CC0 Dedication


7 responses to “The flipside of treating employees like children

  1. David Bennett avatar

    Having also been on both sides of the fence, like you, I think one critical thing is for employees to see how the boss works. He/she is the one who is going to radiate a particular ethos and bring out the vision of the enterprise. Whether it is by intention or not depends on the boss.

    1. Paul avatar

      I agree with you completely. I always tried to keep that in mind. If the boss just messes around, s/he can hardly expect employees to pick up that slack (again, not the awesome service).

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  3. Nathan Jeffery avatar

    I agree with this sentiment, not just from a leadership perspective but from a personal growth perspective too. Leaders need to care.

    In terms of productivity, a leader needs to trust his/her team to do the work delegated to them and give them the chance to make mistakes and learn from them.

    It is the leaders responsibility to build in mechanisms and systems to ensure the business can cope with potential mistakes so as to build a learning organisation that becomes independent of the leader in the long term.

  4. Paul avatar

    Bossy people don’t create capable teams, they create the functional equivalent of well trained German Shepherds. Don’t be that boss.

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