Do you want adult behaviour in your organisation?

Ready to go deep?  OK, here we go.

What’s the first authority relationship you remember in your life?  It’s your parents right?  That’s the model we start with.  Parent-Child.

What’s the next one?  Most likely teachers. So we’ve got Teacher-Student.

Along the way you might have junior sports, music, dance.   This one is Coach-Player.

You might have had jobs as you grew up, so you had Manager-Junior Employee.

All of these models are burned in young, they are familiar, and it’s what we’re used to.  They share the general structure of Authority Figure – Dependent.  And they are not bad, it’s what’s needed to allow us to navigate the confusing paths of the world as we head toward adulthood.

The thing is…we do eventually become adults.  But….and here’s where we get deep….we can inadvertently keep these models going as we progress into our adult organisational lives.  And we do this because it’s safe.  We can accidentally project the Parent-Child relationship onto Manager-Employee, with both parties being complicit!

For Managers, taking on the role of benevolent parent provides the safety of control without the guilt of being mean.  We do this when we protect our people from the realities of the external world (‘let’s keep it to ourselves that we’re facing severe cashflow issues’), or from the realities of their meeting the requirements of their role (‘tell them something positive, then tell them something negative, then tell them something positive’).

For Employees, taking on the role of the dependent provides safety from the realities of an accountable existence.  We do this when we wish for our leaders to be better, when we are disappointed that things aren’t more clear and whenever we act as if ‘the organisation’ or ‘the culture’ or ‘management’ is something separate to us.   The underlying message: ‘when other people change, I’ll get better’.

The work of Peter Block in this area is eye-opening, significant, and to me is bordering on required reading for organisational life.  He describes the relationship outlined above as ‘parenting’, and it can be an agreeable state of affairs for both Managers and Employees because it’s safe.  The issue is that it’s actually holding both back from their own natural ability to create something for both themselves and the organisation, to work together as accountable adults.

The alternate to this situation Block describes as ‘partnering’, where people come together as adults to get work done.

Now, I need to quickly point out that this doesn’t mean it’s the role of Managers to become mean.  There’s nothing in treating employees like adults and exposing them to the realities of their own performance that says it has to be done in a way that’s vindictive or cutting.  It can be done with the utmost kindness, and in fact must be done with care if this isn’t the norm.  The key point is that to avoid doing so is to provide a layer of protection that says ‘you are not yet grown-up enough to handle this reality’.

Would you like someone to say this about you?

And for Employees, this doesn’t mean that the answer is ‘do whatever you want’.  To ignore the necessities of sensible constraints, the realities that other people have their own roles and intentions is to live in a land of fantasy.  It just means that we stop complaining that someone else isn’t changing to suit ourselves, and we do what we can.  Or we leave.

This is hard stuff…letting people know where we and they really stand is anxiety-producing, as is accepting full responsibility for your own situation.  Which is why we either avoid it, or, when we do it, we go over the top.

But it needs to be done, and done well, because if you want real adult behaviour in your organisation, then both the parenting and the dependency needs to stop.


Adam is a partner of The Working Journey a niche consultancy that designs organisations into creative accountable enterprises that deliver...using ideas such as you just read. Want to chat? Send him an email by clicking here.

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