In the world of leadership, inspiration often comes from different sources. One leader I worked with liked to use sports analogies, another one drew on military experience and yet another used stories from the theatre. However, there is another field of expertise and advice that can inform how leaders connect with their employees and manage their teams. Believe it or not — it’s the world of parenting.
I suspect that many leaders shy away from using parenting analogies for three reasons: One, they do not want to be treating their employees like children. Two, not everyone has a happy family life and parenting may have negative connotations. Three, it may also imply a certain intimacy and familiarity, which is not conducive to the workplace. Yet I would like to propose that parenting experts have some solid and well-researched models that can help leaders be more effective at work.
Some months ago, I got the opportunity to attend a parenting workshop by Dr. Ross W. Greene, author of The Explosive Child, Lost at School and Raising Human Beings. Dr. Greene is not only a parent, researcher and clinical child psychologist, but he has also worked with extremely difficult children in extremely difficult situations, like juvenile delinquents and youth with psychiatric disorders. I was drawn to Dr. Greene’s work at a time when my own parenting skills and instincts were failing me. The usual parenting titles weren’t working, and someone recommended The Explosive Child.
In The Explosive Child, I found solace and comfort — many of the anecdotal case studies were much worse than what I was experiencing — but it gave me a new lens through which I could view my child and my parenting. The more I learned about this model, the more I realized that it wasn’t just a parenting model — it was a model for human interaction, and could be especially applicable to how managers interact with their employees.
As a leadership and executive coach, I started embedding elements of Dr. Greene’s model into my coaching and sharing the model — without mentioning that it came from parenting literature — with my clients. They started using it to great positive impact and success. When I told my clients what the source was, they simply nodded and said, “Makes sense,” and continued to use it in their leadership.
Although Dr. Greene’s book is aimed at the parents of “explosive” children, he actually prefers to use the term “behaviourally challenging.” Can you think of someone in your workplace who is “behaviourally challenging?” Perhaps a colleague? Your direct report? Maybe your boss? Or perhaps even you from time to time? When someone else’s behaviour poses a problem, we tend to attribute this to their personality — but that’s not very helpful. Even though personality can change over time, it is very slow to alter, and it’s not an area where leaders and managers have much influence.
However, Dr. Greene indicates that “Behaviourally challenging kids are challenging because they’re lacking the skills to not be challenging.” Let’s look at that again — behaviourally challenging kids aren’t challenging because of any personality defect; they are challenging due to a lack of skills. Now what happens when we replace the word “kids” with the word “employees?” Behaviourally challenging employees are challenging because they’re lacking the skills not to be challenging. When it’s a question of skills, rather than a question of personality, numerous options suddenly appear. Skills can be taught. Skills can be learned and implemented. Personality changes — not so much.
A second piece of Dr. Greene’s model rests on how you view your child. Do you believe he or she is deliberately being manipulative or intentionally making bad choices to seek attention or to get under your skin? Or do you believe that he or she is trying hard, and simply unable to respond adaptively to parental demands and expectations? Dr. Greene tells us that, for all children, “kids do well if they can.”
Again, let’s replace the word “kids” with “employees.” As a professional working with other professionals, do you believe that employees do well if they can? Once you believe that difficult employees are lacking skills, and that they would prefer to do well if they can, you are ready for Dr. Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model.
Essentially, there are three different ways to approach what Dr. Greene calls “unsolved problems.” So named because if the child’s — or employee’s — problems were already solved, then we wouldn’t need to be talking about them. Fair enough.
The first approach, Plan A, is to solve the problem unilaterally. This occurs when the parent — or the manager — essentially says, “Look, I’ve been thinking about this problem and it seems to me that what you need to do is (insert pre-determined solution here).” This is what happens when the parent tells the child that he must wear a coat since it’s a very cold day outside, or when the manager tells the employee that he must run the reports, since the VP is asking for them. This is usually a perfectly reasonable exchange — until it isn’t, because the child or employee doesn’t have the necessary skills to meet the requests. In the child, this can manifest in tantrums. In the employee, this lack of skills can manifest in unmet deliverables, or passive-aggressive behaviour, or even tantrums. Sometimes, adults act like children too.
Plan B, which we’ll get back to, is to solve the problem collaboratively.
The final approach, Plan C, is to set the problem aside for now, and remove those expectations. An example would be the parent allowing the child to wear whatever he wants outside (with seasonally-appropriate clothing available until the child has developed the skill of anticipating how cold it is outside). At work, this might mean the manager asking someone else to do the report, temporarily, until the employee has acquired the skills to do the report on his own. Plan C means that the parent or manager makes the decision to remove her own expectations — it does not involve any change on the part of the child or employee. Plan C is not ideal.
Plan B is where the gold is. Plan B means that together the parent and child, or manager and employee, acknowledge that there is a difficult situation, which stems from an unsolved problem, which stems from a lack of skill.
Although Dr. Greene’s book and teachings go into much more detail, there is an essential script from which the parent would speak to embark on collaborating with the child. I find that, with very few modifications, it works well for managers in the workplace as well. In the interest of clarity, I shall present the model as my clients have been using it in the workplace. Information about how to use this in a parenting situation can be found on Dr. Greene’s websites.
How To Solve the Problem Collaboratively
STEP ONE: Demonstrate empathy for the employee. Although this can be hard, think about a time when you yourself have been in a situation when a task outstripped your skills and ability to deliver. It’s not fun. This is a time for the manager to find out what’s going on from the employee’s point of view. The manager can say something like: “I’ve noticed that when I ask you to complete the monthly report, you are having difficulty getting it done thoroughly and on time. What’s up?” Key words include “difficulty” and “what’s up?” You should be as objective and caring as possible, and avoid voicing any theories you may have as to why the employee cannot deliver on the assigned task.
If there is a trusting relationship between the employee and the manager, the employee will hopefully be able to share what is getting in the way, and the manager, through careful listening and questioning, can determine what skills the employee is lacking. Remember, people do well if they can. This is about skills, not attitude or personality. This is about enabling for success, not trying to figure out what is wrong with the employee.
STEP TWO: After thoroughly empathizing and understanding the skills the employee is lacking, the manager gets to state her concerns. These are not solutions, they are just concerns. The manager can say something like: “I’m concerned about getting the report done accurately and on time because this information goes to our director, who eventually submits it to the VP. We get measured on these numbers and they are used for business forecasting. They need to be right. If they are not right, I get a lot of grief and it causes trouble for weeks.”
Now, the manager may be tempted to swerve into Plan A — creating a unilateral solution. It would be easy for the manager to say: “So I’ve decided that what we need to do is…” but the manager needs to resist. This is about collaboration and not about dictating or solution-providing.
STEP THREE: Once the manager and employee thoroughly understand each other’s concerns and perspectives, the manager should invite the employee to collaborate on solutions that meet two criteria: First, potential solutions need to be realistic — both parties must be capable of doing what they agree to do. Second, they must be mutually satisfactory and address both parties’ concerns. Once a series of solutions has been listed, the manager and employee should pick one to try, and then reconvene to discuss how it went. If it didn’t work, they can go back to the list. If it did work, then the unsolved problem has been resolved successfully and the professional relationship is not only intact, but stronger, and provides a solid foundation for further collaborative solutions.
Recently, I was feeling overwhelmed as a parent. In my capacity as a coach I saw that same kind of overwhelm and frustration in my clients. I knew Dr. Greene’s CPS model could help them, but I was hesitant at first to share it. I didn’t want to tell them where the model came from for fear of how it would be perceived. I’ve since changed my mind.
Dr. Greene’s CPS model has many elements of strong and empowering leadership, as well as significant overlap with coaching. This is probably why I’m attracted to it. However, my clients who are not coaches, are attracted to it because it works. It produces positive results in both task-delivery and relationship-building. And some of my clients have even dared to try it at home with their children.