Are you parents to or partners with your employees?

Hitchcock, Darcy

Gail puts on her coaching hat and calls Lisa into her office (the scanning system which tracks all checkers’ performance shows that Lisa’s speed has fallen below that of the others).

She asks her if she realizes that she is slower than the other checkers. “No,” says Lisa, she thought she was doing fine. Gail makes sure that she is aware of her expectations and the performance standards. (Not wanting to be heavy-handed, Gail does not mention the probable consequences if her performance does not improve.) Lisa says that she can’t imagine what she is doing wrong, so Gail offers to send her to a training session. After Lisa leaves her office, Gail pats herself on the back for completing another successful coaching session.

Is Gail an empowering coach? Your answer should be an emphatic NO! She wants to empower her employees, but an inconsistent management philosophy is driving her to act like a parent instead of a partner. Gail is not alone, in fact, she has a lot of company.

Philosophy and values first, then the details of self-management–When people begin learning about empowerment and self-direction, they often get fixated on the details. They want to know:

* How many people are on a team?

* Do they have to hire their own co-workers to be self-directed?

* Do you have to reorganize or can you make your existing department self-directed?

What they are missing is that empowerment and self-direction are not teams nor a structure, or even a set of responsibilities handed off. Empowerment and self-direction represent a management philosophy, a set of beliefs and values about how to lead organizations. These beliefs and values of leadership have a lot to do with the manager’s choice over which type of relationship they will have with employees–being a parent or partner.(1)(1 omitted)

Managers as parents

The parent-manager model is based upon the premise that work is unpleasant, therefore workers have to be alternatively bribed and threatened if anything is going to get done. This is also known as the lion tamer’s school of management.(2)(2 omitted)

Countless supervisors have been told not to get too close to employees as doing so would reduce their effectiveness. Many still use a combination of bribes (compensation) and fear (consequences in business newspeak) to motivate employees.

Employees as children–Let’s play this out to its logical conclusions. If you assume that work is unpleasant, then you also assume that employees will do as little as possible and will only be motivated by extrinsic rewards. In this system, it is assumed that employees, like children, have little relevant knowledge and so parent-managers should do most of the important thinking and deciding, leaving employees to do the work. Supervisors are necessary to stand watch over the workers (children).

The parent-child contract…This is a contractual relationship, of sorts. Both sides are getting something from the other and the relationship is considered equitable. Management has the right to make important decisions such as pay rates, organization direction, hiring and firing, etc. Employees expect to be fairly compensated for their work and to have a safe workplace. Managers retain control and employees do what they are told. It’s a fair exchange.

Gail and Lisa: Part two…As with Gail, how managers handle various situations is determined by their management philosophy:

* Managers select employees based on their technical competence because all they want of employees is to do the work.

* The managers set expectations by giving new hires a copy of their job description, performance standards, and the employee handbook.

* If an employee does not meet expectations, she is called into the manager’s office and reminded of the expectations–an act which Gail mistakenly believes is coaching.

* If an employee continually does not meet expectations, she is fired.

Setting boundaries…Every system needs a way to establish boundaries: what is in and what is out; what is okay and what is not. Just like parents of young children, parent-managers set boundaries by rules: policies, procedures, codes of conduct, etc.

Compassionate paternalism…Working for a parent-manager does not necessarily have to be demeaning; you can work for a benevolent parent. Many people like the feeling that someone is watching out for them, protecting them, making the hard decisions. Paternalistic organizations may promise life-time employment, define career paths, and spend thousands of dollars on employee development. However, the parent-manager philosophy is built upon a contract of dependency–employees abdicate responsibility for their own well-being and employers assume that responsibility.

Compassionate paternalism…The dark side of this system is that managers may view their employees as chattel; they own them. For example, one flier I received recently began:

“You’re fired!” Wouldn’t you like to say those words to whomever you want…whenever you want…without getting slapped with a lawsuit?

Managers who discuss what they will allow employees to do, what new responsibilities they will permit employees to assume are simply being empowering parents and are hopelessly lost in the wrong paradigm.

The impact of a parent-manager system–The result of this belief system is that managers are overburdened with responsibility and employees only offer compliance. In these organizations, you will often hear, “If only they would listen,” “There’s nothing I can do,” and “It’s not my job.” This system can usually only produce marginal performance because only a fraction of its members are pouring energy into it.

Lisa and Gail, the lion tamer…The case study at the beginning of this article describes a benevolent, well-meaning manager whom we labeled a parent-manager. Why? Let’s compare Gail’s unconscious assumptions with those of parents.

* Gail assumes that it is her right to determine the expectations for the job just as parents set the rules in most households. She views her job as one of developing her employees, watching over them, and correcting them when necessary.

* Gail assumes that she is more knowledgeable than her employees as she puts more faith in a computer system than Lisa and her coworkers. It never occurs to her to ask Lisa and her coworkers whether the computer system accurately reflects their performance. After all, what would they know. Even though Lisa’s customers and coworkers are satisfied with her work, and her coworkers know the measurement system can be manipulated, Lisa is called into a demeaning coaching session.

* Gail assumes that it is her job to fix Lisa’s performance and so she decides the consequences: training. Gail does not have to remind Lisa about the power she wields over her, for just like a parent, she is the only one who can mete out punishment. Gail is acting like a parent which simultaneously offends and disempowers Lisa.

Now let’s lee how parent-managers compare to partners.


Empowering, self-directed organizations are based on a totally different set of assumptions. At the core are the assumptions that:

* Work is a natural and fulfilling part of life…

* Employees want to do a good job…

* Employee knowledge can contribute value to the organization…

* The driver of performance is intrinsic rewards, not extrinsic ones.

The implicit work contract–This leads to a very different contract from the parent-manager model. Here managers in effect say: “We are giving up considerable control, but we need something in return. We need you to promise to act in the best interests of the organization.” This employment contract is based on interdependence.

The employee/employer ledger has just been enhanced on both sides:

* Employees now have gained many rights such as participating in important decisions and in exchange they must assume responsibility for the health of the entire system, not just themselves.

* Managers now must involve employees in decisions which affect them and share critical information.

* Like a partnership, responsibility, risk, and rewards are now more evenly distributed across the organization.

As one supervisor puts it, “I don’t have to be a god anymore.”

The manager in a partnering paradigm–How would a partner-manager handle the same situations we posed before?

* When hiring a new employee, a partner-manager would not just care about the candidate’s technical ability. The partner-manager would be at least as interested in the candidate’s personal attributes such as trustworthiness, problem-solving ability, and teamwork.

* Expectations for the new employee would be set jointly with the entire work group and would focus on values and norms of behavior.

* Since the assumption is that the employee wants to do a good job, if the employee is struggling, the partner-manager would do much more than regurgitate performance expectations. (Unlike Gail, this manager would coach the employee to help him be successful–investing significant time in exploring and overcoming the obstacles.)

* If the employee’s performance continued to miss the mark, the partner-manager assumes that the position was not a good fit with the employee. The organization’s preferred option is to help the person find a position in which she/he can contribute to the organization.

Boundary management–The partnership system manages its boundaries very differently than does the parent model. Instead of policies and procedures, employees are guided by values. For example, Nordstrom’s employees are given a one-page Employee Handbook which says, “Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service…Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”

This communicates a powerful message about the values and expectations of Nordstrom without having to establish a policy for every conceivable situation.

German-style partnering supports commitment over compliance…Germany which has a history of labor-management cooperation, provides an interesting example of partnering. Companies with over 2000 employees are required to have an aufsichtsrat (advisory board) consisting of a 50/50 representation of shareholders and employees. This aufsichtsrat appoints the board of directors and approves major decisions affecting the organization structure such as acquisitions and new issues of stock. This structure honors the needs of those who have the most invested in the organization: its owners and the employees.

This belief system results in employee commitment rather than just compliance. Because employees have grappled with the tough issues and shared responsibilities’ for making decisions, their heart and soul are invested. This system can usually far outperform the parent model because everyone is actively working in the best interest of the organization.

Lisa and Gail as partners…Red-faced Gail, having read this article, now wants to change how she coaches Lisa. What would she do differently? (Lisa and her team would receive their performance information before Gail did and would most likely take corrective action themselves but let’s assume that the team did not act):

* Gail would not assume that she and the scanning system were the only sources of knowledge about performance.

When the measurement system began to single Lisa out, Gail would go to the entire team and ask if they felt the indicators were valid. If yes, she would ask Lisa if she had any ideas about how to improve. If Lisa had no ideas, she might ask if the other checkers might have some insight. Gail would still be helping Lisa to develop, but she would not take responsibility for Lisa’s development–a subtle but important distinction.

* Instead of providing a pat solution–training Gail would leave the decision about the best approach to Lisa.

She might suggest the workshop as an option but the decision would rest with Lisa.

After all, Gail assumes that Lisa wants to do a good job and that therefore she is in the best position to decide how to improve.

* If the team did not think the measurement system was providing valid information, Gail would help them redesign the system.

She might call a meeting of checkers and customers so that she and her team could discover what their customers really cared about. Then she would engage her team in a discussion about how to manage and measure their own performance to ensure spectacular customer satisfaction. She would value and use the knowledge of her employees.

A clear choice between the two options: parents or partners

This is like a Chinese menu: pick combination plate A or B; no substitutions. Fudging on this decision is what leads to accusations of not walking the talk. So do some soul searching and make a decision. Then commit to acting in alignment with your decision.

Two pitfalls to avoid–Despite your decision, your organization’s behavior will fall along a spectrum from highly paternalistic to strongly partnering. Assuming you want to move your organization toward the partner end, be prepared for these common mistakes:

1. Being paternalistic about empowering employees…Managers trying to make the transition toward partnering often resort to parental methods to instigate change: they tell their employees to do it.

A don’t-try-this-at-home example…Here are some of the actions one governmental agency took:

* The managers told their employees that being part of a team was now expected of them.

* They made teamwork part of the employee’s job description (so they could fire them if they didn’t do it).

* They included teamwork on their performance appraisal form.

* When coercion didn’t work they tried to convince employees that the change would be good for them–they even offered to pay them more.

In short, these managers were not walking their talk. They were using the behaviors and beliefs of parents to create partners. This rarely works.

It is usually more effective to begin acting as a partner. If you assume that employees have a right to be involved in decisions which will affect them and that they have relevant knowledge, you will chose education and dialogue instead of coercion to instigate the change.

What about those who want us to be parents? Employees who are well-indoctrinated into the check-your-brain-at-the-door-no-worries employment contract will undoubtedly still resist the change. They’ll ask, are you going to pay me more to do your job? Don’t get seduced back into your comfortable parental assumptions. Give them information, take them on site visits, send them to workshops, and engage them in the decision making process.

Transform fear with support, not direction…When people express fear, you can still be supportive without reverting to parenting. Asking, “What might make you feel more comfortable about assuming these responsibilities; is there anything I could do to help you?” keeps the responsibility in their court.

2. Abdicating responsibility–Like an adult version of Home Alone, many organizations go from parental control into chaos. Managers abdicate their responsibility to lead.

They tell employees that they are empowered but do not ensure that they understand what they are empowered to do and what the new boundaries are. And they forget to ensure the employees have all the skills and knowledge to perform their new responsibilities.

Some managers forget that they are equal partners…One supervisor in a trucking firm allowed her employees to be abusive to her, assuming that since she was the supervisor, she had to take it. Another supervisor in a transportation department allowed the team to delegate unpleasant tasks back to him such as confronting coworkers on poor performance. Instead, he should have said “I can take your responsibilities away from you. You are part of the team and as such you have an obligation to help your coworkers improve. I’ll help you but I can’t do it for you.”

Self-direction is not anarchy and it is not doing anything you wont…Self-direction is management sharing control and employees accepting the responsibility to act in the best interests of the organization. Employees must understand heir new responsibilities along with their new rights. The ledger must stay in balance. What do you do when you find an employee who does not seem to fit your humanistic assumptions? What if you have employed a strongly Theory X employee who does need a lion tamer for a boss! You must act swiftly.

In a high-involvement, partnering organization, you cannot afford to carry people who do not pull their weight or who look out only for number one. Employees in this system must be trustworthy. Good-faith mistakes should always be forgiven but malicious acts should still be grounds for firing. The partner model is not a mushy, anything goes system. It’s a contract which requires that both sides live up to their responsibilities.

Three final suggestions–Most say they want to live within the partner rather that parent system, and most say they act consistently with their beliefs–observation tells us otherwise. Espoused beliefs are often different from the ones which guide behavior so everyone needs a mirror to reflect reality. Here are three excellent first steps to becoming a partner:

1. Read and discuss Stewardship by Peter Block.

2. Write out your beliefs and ask people to comment on instances when you violated those principles.

3. In any tough situation, ask yourself, “If this person were a 50/50 partner with me, how would I handle this situation?

Darcy Hitchcock is president and co-founder of AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to leveraging human potential through quality, teamwork and training. With over 15 years experience in training and management she is recognized as a leader in high-performance systems and self-directed teams. She is the author of The Work Redesign Team Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Self-Directed Teams and co-author of Why TQM Fails and What to Do About It which was selected by SoundView as one of the 30 best business books published in 1994.

Copyright Association for Quality and Participation Dec 1994

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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