Are you leading your team, or parenting them?

by | Feb 28, 2022 | Career, Confidence, Leadership, Resilience

Empathy and care are essential qualities for leaders in the best of times. In the past two years, they’ve been needed in spades as the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental and emotional health of employees and team members.

While life and work are slowly getting back to a (new) normal, many of the senior managers and leaders I work with are still finding it challenging to balance care for their team with delivering against expectations.

However, to be honest, this is something I’ve seen many of my coaching clients struggle with over the years, notwithstanding the effects of a pandemic.

These are the sorts of things I hear them saying :

  • “There’s so much to be done but I don’t want to burden my team – they’ve already got enough on their plates. I need to protect them, not dump on them”

  • “It’s my job to be available to my team to answer their queries and help solve their problems even if it makes it difficult for me to get my work done.”

  • “My team’s feeling anxious given all the change going on. I feel like it’s my responsibility to give them answers and reassurance. What should I tell them?”

These leaders feel the weight of responsibility for the welfare of their team on their shoulders.

The problem is that this not only means they are at risk of burn-out, but it prevents them from creating the space to lead and strategise, not just manage and execute.

What’s more, their team members can become reliant on them – they’ll go to their manager more often if they know they’ll solve their problems, which in turn limits their capacity to learn, grow and take ownership.

Parenting and leading have much in common.

At their best, they’re about creating the conditions for people to flourish and be their best selves.

Yet a big difference is that employees are adults not children. They are responsible (legally, in fact) for their actions. 

On that note, I’d like to call out a few home truths :

  • Your team members are adults. While you have a duty of care to help them thrive, they have chosen to work for your organisation and all that entails. They can also choose to walk away if it isn’t working for them.
  • Being a leader means you’re accountable for what you and your team deliver, but you’re not responsible for doing all the work. If there are challenges to be dealt with such as change initiatives or new deadlines, you and your team have a collective responsibility to respond to these. It’s not all down to you.
  • As their manager, you have a responsibility for managing the performance and welfare of your team, helping them grow and develop – but it’s 50 : 50. Your team members need to take ownership for their career development, seeking out the support and feedback they need from you and others to help them achieve their goals.

This may sound harsh.

However, by “parenting” your team, you are not only making life hard for yourself, you are preventing your team having the opportunity to step up and find out what they’re capable of.

Here are a few tips that may help you lead your team, rather then parent them :

  • Get crystal clear on your strategic and operational priorities – what only you can do and where you need your team to step up
  • Reframe delegation as an opportunity to empower and enable your team for their benefit as well as yours and the organisation’s, rather than to “dump” on them
  • Put boundaries around your availability. Schedule time for the work you need to get done and let your team know when you’ll be free.
  • Ask team members to lead the agenda for 1-1s and be clear on what issues they particularly want to discuss. Stick to time.
  • One size doesn’t fit all – don’t assume you need to give everyone a 1-1 on the same frequency. Ask your team members what they need rather than make the decision for them.
  • Watch out for diving into their problems. Use a coaching approach, asking questions to encourage them to find their own answers.

I think this quote from American politician, Tom Ridge, is an apt way to close :

“You have to enable and empower your team to make decisions independent of you.  As I’ve learned, each person on a team is an extension of your leadership; if they feel empowered by you, they will magnify your power to lead.” 

What do you think? Drop me a line at alison@alisonreid.co.uk.

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Alison Reid helps smart people unleash their brilliance so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of "Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More". Download an extract or buy the book.