Leading Issue:
The Parent Boss


An article that appeared last week in the Harvard Business ReviewBeing a parent made me a better manager and vice versa by Jelena Zikic has reignited some thoughts I have concerning managers and leaders who draw leadership inspiration from parenting. Zikic opinions, “The skills we learn as we engage in parenting ought to transfer into our work, and vice versa.” My view is that parental behaviours should be kept out of leadership. I do understand that the parental instincts of care, safety and nurturing are good modern leadership attributes; the problem is, I have seen too many examples of bad parenting in the workplace: from complaining about the messy desk to insisting that the boss knows best. The Canadian born social constructivist, Eric Berne, termed this the parent ego state in his popular book, The Games People Play. The Parent ego state (or taught concept) derives from early parental influence and is largely characterised by authoritative, conditioning and judgemental attitudes absorbed from our parents exemplified in such language as “don’t speak to strangers,“look both ways before you cross the road” and may include such gestures as finger wagging and head-shaking.

This can infantalize us and evoke what Berne terms our child ego state where we rebel against the boss, deny responsibility and complain to just about anyone who will listen about how unfair things are. The child ego state (felt concept) derives from the emotional memory we have of early childhood experience and is largely characterised by unconscious, emotional and sensory elements. If the child is involved in the social transaction, common phrases will include “it’s not my fault”, “I wish”, “I don’t want”, “won’t” and tends to be accompanied by such gestures as arms folded, screwed up face and foot or fist stamping.

This parent-child dynamic can be as destructive in the office as it is in the family setting. The story of modern leadership is one of a progressive shift away from command and control leadership behaviours toward what Declan Fitzsimons termed shared leadership in a recent HBR article. Here, structural control is displaced by shared responsibility. Discussion, dialogue and reasoning are typical behaviours in this adult-adult dynamic. Berne calls this the adult ego state (learned concept) which derives from the rational and analytical part of the personality that grows from a childhood learned ability to carefully weigh up the data input from parental guidance and self-observed feelings. If the adult is involved in this  social transaction, common phrases will include “have I understood you correctly…”, “help me understand how…” and tends to be accompanied by open, inviting active listening body language such as tilting head, leaning forward, smiling, nodding and positive eye contact.

Creating a caring, nurturing and psychologically safe team environment can be accomplished outside of Zikic´s well-intentioned parental model. Most of us working in leadership development are trying to discourage parent-child dynamic in the workplace in favour of cultivating (mature) adult-adult relationships.

by Ric Kelly PhD.