In my coaching work with executives and managers, I frequently hear stories that suggest that my client is struggling with some “childish’ behaviour in their team. My tendency is to name it as exactly that because it opens up the opportunity to explore how my client may be managing in a parental way – behaviour that enables this childishness. Is my client excessively critical, figuratively wagging her finger at “naughty team members” for not behaving or performing as expected – in which it is no surprise that there is a culture of blame and unaccountability? Is my client overly nurturing, rescuing team members by fixing or completing their work for them, letting them off the hook – resulting in a pattern of “delegating upwards” or delivering incomplete work?
The Parent – Adult – Child model has its roots in Transactional Analysis. It is not the purpose of this article to present this entire approach, but to demonstrate how the model can be used to raise the maturity (emotional intelligence) of a team by moving the manager’s behaviour away from being either an overly critical or overly nurturing Parent to something more Adult – thus enabling and expecting more Adult behaviour from team members. The principle here is that we are all adults making an adult contribution to an adult pursuit (the work of the organisation) – and we need to approach that in an adult manner.
As an aside, I have observed Parent – Child patterns of behaviour at every level in my client organisations – including at Board and Executive levels.
Let me start by sharing a beautiful Parent – Adult – Child diagram created and developed by Karen Pratt, an exceptional Cape Town-based Coach and Coach Supervisor, adapted from the work of S. Temple (1999):
In essence, this model is saying the following:
- Constructive interactions are based on the assumption that I’m OK and You’re OK – in other words, neither of us is better or worse than the other, and both of us have a contribution to make. All work transactions in the normal course of events should be based on this assumption. This is how adults deal with one another.
- Critical Parent (AP): while it is completely appropriate for the manager of a team to clarify expectations, structure the work and the team, and be consistent and fair in his responses and reactions to team members’ performance and behaviour (+AP), it is inappropriate for that manager to wag his finger (figuratively or literally), over-control, criticize and be rigid in how work might be carried out by team members. This style of transaction might describe expected performance or behaviour and ask questions to invite the team member to contribute his own perception of what a good result would look like. The manager might prescribe certain parameters (deadlines, sources of information, style of presentation, etc.) and might ask coaching questions around how to approach the task, source input, and explore possible obstacles) – but reaching agreement on the expectations is still an AP transaction.
- Nurturing Parent (NP): it is appropriate and even desirable for a manager to be compassionate, encouraging and supportive towards the struggles of her team members (+NP). However, it is not helpful if she rescues, mollycoddles and protects team members from the consequences of their behaviour and performance (-NP). So the manager might well express support and empathy for the fact that a team member is struggling with one of their subordinates who is behaving in a destructive manner, but will still coach them around how they intend resolving the impasse (A). The fact that life is difficult does not change the fact that we are adults and need to figure out how to deliver what is required, including managing and leading our teams.
- Adult (A): this is the form of interaction where we account to one another*, solve problems and think things through together, apply past experience to current circumstances and make decisions – and it is a collaborative style of interaction that takes collaborators to a point of agreement around future actions.
- Adapted Child (AC): while we want people (ourselves included) to be considerate, polite and collaborative (+AC), behaviour that is petulant, defiant or overly compliant (-AC) is not helpful. When the team member you are transacting with is being defiant and blaming, or is submitting and agreeing (when what you really want is a rich discussion) it is appropriate for the manager to move into an Adult (A) form of transacting. In respect of blaming or defiance, you might ask her to outline where she slipped up or what she could have done differently. In the case of the “Yes Man” you could quite sincerely ask the team member to articulate how he might execute a project within the agreed parameters. You might also ask that team member to identify any problems in the approach you have agreed to. Compliance and submission is not desirable in an adult environment with adult endeavours – and it is the leader’s responsibility to find ways to actively foster engagement rather than submission.
- Natural Child (NC): we encourage spontaneity, creativity, emotional authenticity and imagination (+NC), but it is not good for the work or the team if its members or its leader are immature, irresponsible or inconsiderate (-NC). In respect of the latter, you might go to AP to ask questions about the impact of your team member’s behaviour on the rest of the team or on their ability to deliver.
Perhaps this script will demonstrate what such a conversation might sound like. Let’s imagine a conversation between a Member of the Board (MoB) and an Executive Manager (EM) reporting to her. Some time ago these two had a discussion in which the MoB requested the EM to prepare a report to be presented to the Board on progress on a mission-critical project. The EM is not the Project Leader, but is the manager of the division responsible for the successful execution of the project. The Board meeting is on Monday and the board pack must go out tomorrow. The report is flimsy and thin on detail. The MoB can expect a roasting at the hands of the Board if it is presented as is.
MoB: When we met 2 weeks ago we agreed that you would prepare a report for the Board meeting on the Just in Time Procurement project. I have read your report and I have some real concerns about presenting it as it is. It shows that the project is behind schedule, that key milestones have been missed and that we may have wasted a lot of money, time and human resources on something that just won’t fly. I need to present this in the Board meeting on Monday. How do you think this is going to land with the Board? (Adult)
EM: Silence. Stony face. I don’t know (-AC).
MoB: Imagine for a moment that you are a member of the Board of a large company that has committed significant funds to a project like this. How would you react if you discovered late in the day that we seem to be wasting our money? (A)
EM: I don’t know (-AC).
MoB: How do you think you would react? Put yourself in their shoes – after all, they have to answer to the shareholders (A).
EM: I suppose I would want some answers (A).
MoB: What kind of answers (A)?
EM: I suppose I would want to know why we are struggling. I would also want to know what we are doing about it, and what the expected results of our actions might be. I would want revised delivery dates, and I would want to know what further expenses will be incurred. (A)
MoB: Do you see any of that information in this report of yours? (A)
MoB: So what stopped you from including this information? (A)
EM: Robert (the Project Manager who actually reports to EM) didn’t give it to me (-AC).
MoB: Did he know that it was expected? (A)
EM: I suppose not. I guess I didn’t ask him. (-AC)
MoB: Did you discuss his report with him before you sent this on to me? (A)
MoB: Tell me more about that (A).
EM: I was busy and assumed that he would have done a proper job. After all, this is his responsibility and I’m not really involved (-AC).
MoB: So who’s responsibility is it to make sure that reports you submit to me are right?
EM: Silence (-AC)
MoB: Would you be happy to present this report to the Board on Monday? (A)
EM: Hesitates I suppose not.
MoB: I can promise you that I am not happy to present this to the Board as it is. I am also clear that I am not sending this report out with the board pack as it is. The board pack must go out tomorrow and a project report that shows the reasons for the delays and the corrective action being taken must go out with that report. Would you agree? (+AP)
MoB: First of all, let’s be clear on the content of the report. Can you describe to me what additional headings you will include in this report? (A)
EM: Describes the revised content of the report with some gaps.
MoB: Those headings are fine. I would also like you to include the lessons that have been learned from the delays, and how these lessons could, in fact, result in a better outcome (+AP). Now this is going to put you and Robert under pressure (+NP) because I need it by 8.00am tomorrow morning so that I can read it before including it in the board pack (+AP). How are you going to get it done (A)?
EM: I’ll have to ….. (outlines what he’ll do to get it done) (A)
MoB: Asks a series of questions to make sure that she and her EM are on the same page (A). Examples of such questions include:
- Who else will you involve?
- What obstacles or problems might you experience and how will you address them?
- How will I know if you are having a problem?
- What will you do if you get to the end of the day and you are not finished?
- How will I know that it’s done?
MoB: Thank you. This report to the Board is extremely important because we may need to ask for more time and more funds. If we don’t make a good business case for this request, this project will be bombed, and I will have to answer some very tough questions which will not make any of us look good. More to the point, we will have some very tough discussions with our shareholders at the AGM – and last year’s AGM was tough enough anyway. We do not want another one like that. (+AP).