There aren't many managers who, as they eat their morning Corn Flakes, think "How can I make my employees feel like children today?" 

But parenting in the workplace occurs all too often.

As a business leader, you inherently want your dealings with employees to be adult-to-adult. But sometimes, even the most enlightened and well-intentioned managers slip into parenting mode, and end up treating their employees like children. 

You likely already know that this style of leadership has negative consequences. So what, then, is the dynamic triggering you into parent-mode?

The answer lies in brain science.

What kind of parent are you?

If there is one thing that terrifies the brains of business leaders, it's the prospect of sharing responsibility with others.

Why? To do so means giving up ownership--and putting your reputation in someone else's hands. It represents a lack of certainty, risk for failure, and potential for conflict.

The very idea of relinquishing control poses such a threat to the emotional part of your brain that you may find yourself sometimes taking on any of the following parenting styles:

1. You overpower your employees
You demand unthinking obedience, pressure people to work without concern for the implications in their lives, and tell employees how they should do something before they even ask for help. You over-remind, micro-manage, and are slow to delegate things.

2. You comply with your employees
You tend to "helicopter" your employees, and are quick to rescue them when they make (or are about to make) a mistake. Often, you take the work on your own shoulders because you don't believe your employees will do the work the right way. 

3. You avoid your employees
You avoid issues until they become emergent; and when they do emerge, you often throw them back to the employees without engaging them. You are not in touch with the implications of work in your employees' world, and fail to challenge or support them. 

Learned helplessness 

No matter what parenting approach you take, you're pretty much avoiding the sharing of responsibility altogether. 

In doing so, you're sending a negative message that creates a learned helplessness in employees: "You're missing intelligence/motivation/capability, and I need to supply or do it myself."  

Moreover, when you habitually parent your employees, this eventually introduces all sorts of toxicity into the organization. Over time, it can create a culture rife with:

  • guilt, shame and compulsion; 
  • control, manipulation and micro-managing; 
  • intimidation and bullying; and 
  • unhealthy employee-versus-employee competition.

And that's just the beginning. When you parent employees in ways they feel are inappropriate to the circumstance, employees will effectively shut down their willingness to offer discretionary effort, as well as their capacity to access their executive function.

The impact: an organizational culture unable to be innovative, or remain competitive.

Partner, don't parent

There is good news.

Many employees already have what leaders think is missing. And not only that: it's possible to unlock employees' discretionary effort and power up their executive function by switching to a more positive managerial approach.

That approach is called partnering.

What is partnering? Simply put, it involves two people--you and your employee--holding out for each other's highest good, and holding each other accountable. 

One simple question

The next time you find yourself in a tension-filled situation where you are slipping into parenting mode, ask your employee one question.

Start it with How can you and I partner to...and then finish the question using one of the following options:

  • "...find a solution?"
  • "...move this project forward?"
  • "...get you what you need?"
  • "...address this issue?"
  • "...create a path forward?"

This question is a mechanism that sends a signal to the employee: "I'm not here to fix this; I'm here to partner with you. You will fix this problem, and I will ensure you've got what you need to do so."

By partnering (i.e., sharing responsibility) with employees, this actually can lift the so-called "leader's burden," freeing you from unsustainable and ineffective parenting roles. 

Moreover, in response to partnering, your business can reap other rewards including:

  • building a culture that cultivates decision-making capability,
  • helping employees own and manage their own engagement,
  • deepening relationships,
  • unlocking results, and
  • releasing energy

Make the shift to partnering

Managers who partner do just that:  they partner with their employees to help create conditions that energize them to flourish, fueling great customer experiences and better business results.

When you engage employees as partners--co-creating the conditions for each other's success--you will see your organization begin to brim with optimism, passion, and innovative thinking.

In other words, it is well worth making the shift from parenting to partnering.