When you become a mum or dad, you are definitely in for some funny and surprising moments where your children react in a totally unanticipated way. Example: I sit at my computer and fill out my tax return. My three year old son comes in and asks: “Daddy, may I help you at the a-pluter (computer)?” - “No, sorry, Max, you cannot help me here.” The result: Max throws himself on the nearby couch in desperation, shouting out: “But why not? I am your friend after all.” It was so cute (and heart-breaking) that even as I type these words, it makes me smile.
At first glance, it seems that some kinds of behaviour are typical of children only. However, the more I think about it, the more I find that many of them are not unique to children. They are just more visible in them, because children react more extremely. Adults often have the same reactions, but they do not show them as much. Below, I want to highlight three specific things that I learnt or re-learnt as a parent, but which are transferable to adults as well, and which can even provide guidance in working life.
In the parenting classic Children: The Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs and Vicki Stolz, there is a quote that stuck with me:
“A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.”
Consider this for a moment, because the implications are huge. A misbehaving child is a discouraged child. In other words, if you want to avoid undesirable behaviour - intentionally breaking things, taking others’ toys away, spreading their food all over the kitchen floor - all you have to do is to avoid discouragement.
Unfortunately, of course, this is impossible, because discouragement comes in so many forms. A child learns to walk and falls down for the eleventh time: Discouragement. She wants to build a high tower of wooden blocks, but the tower keeps falling over after the fourth block: Discouragement. She wants to tell you something, but you cannot fully understand her, because the words don’t come out right yet: Discouragement. All of these are sources of frustration. There are hundreds more, and you cannot avoid them.
However, there are two things you can do:
- Provide enough encouragement to make up for the discouragement that is unavoidable.
- Avoid active discouragement on your side.
Encouragement is rather straightforward. If a child falls, tell her how good she is already doing, and that everybody falls now and then. If the tower keeps crashing down, encourage her to try again, and help her get started if she won’t. If she wants to tell you something and you cannot understand her, repeat the fragments that you do understand and pretend it is Shakespeare-grade poetry to you (which it might just be).
Encouragement is important in the workplace, as well. In fact, I think it is important (and sorely lacking) in most situations in life, but let us focus on the workplace here. If somebody “wastes” an entire week on switching an application to a new framework, only to find out that it is a bad fit, encourage them. Thank them for their work, and tell them that this is a valuable insight. If somebody’s feature implementation causes a downtime and they are depressed and afraid about it, cheer them up and tell them it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. Tell them about your own mistakes from the past. In a workshop where everybody is hesitant to ask questions, be the first one and ask a question that borders on stupidity, just to show that nobody has to fear losing face here.
Avoid active discouragement
These were examples of encouragement. What about active discouragement, then? Think of a daughter who wants to climb a tree, and her father keeps her from trying: “You’re still a little too small for that, it’s too dangerous.” This often not done out of malicious intentions, but out of an overprotecting attitude. However, the result of this behaviour is discouragement of the child.
The same can happen in the workplace, where you would usually rather call it demotivation instead of discouragement. Imagine a new topic coming up, and one of your developers has already invested quite some time to do research on it and develop a prototype. Of course, this developer will want to get involved in the topic. If you then assign him to something else instead, and let a colleague with less task-relevant expertise handle the new topic, the motivation of the first developer will take a dip.
Or, imagine a junior developer who is excited about a new technology, and would like to build a prototype demonstrating its usefulness. If you hold him back, you will actively discourage him.
Somebody brings ideas for a new feature, but they are dismissed with no proper explanation. That is discouraging, and after a few times, the person will stop contributing ideas.
Discouraged children react with stubbornness, indifference, or aggressive (or passive-aggressive) behaviour. They will throw their toys around, turn their back on you, refuse to eat their vegetables, scream at you loudly, or just become quiet and stop trying hard things.
Your employees will probably not throw their computers around (or will they?), but, to them, discouragement is equally detrimental. They will get the impression that you (or your organization) do not believe in them, and do not want them to succeed. They, too, will stop trying hard things. They will become afraid of failing, and only do what they already know. They will stop bringing their ideas. Some of them might quit. I think you will definitely want to avoid discouraging your people.
So, can we adopt Dreikurs’ and Stolz’ quote to the working world? “A disengaged employee is a discouraged employee?” I would probably not go that far. There can be other factors that cause somebody to disengage. At least, you cannot always fix it in the workplace. However, if you sense that somebody is becoming disengaged, finding out if something is discouraging him is probably a good idea.
2. Manage expectations
Max: “Daddy, may Leo and I watch Shaun the Sheep after dinner?”
Me: (checking my watch) “Hm, you know, it is pretty late already.”
Max: (running away joyfully) “Yeeeeees, we may! Leo, we may!”
Me: (puzzled) “But…“
What happened here? My son approached me with a request. I did not give a clear answer right away, so he heard what he wanted to hear. I allowed him to have an expectation that I was not sure I wanted to meet.
Or, think back to the anecdote at the beginning of the post, when I was doing my tax return. Often, when Max wanted to help me, we would “work” together to find monkey or elephant pictures on the internet. So he probably had a similar expectation or hope in this situation, and was disappointed that I said No this time - totally random to him.
Expectation management is super important with small children. This example is pretty harmless, because a Shaun the Sheep episode is just funny, and takes only six or seven minutes. However, when we are in the car, and my son becomes impatient on the back seat, with three more hours to go, I certainly won’t tell him “We’ll be there very soon.” If I do that, he will whine about it every five minutes, and become increasingly frustrated. Instead, I look at him firmly and tell him: “Max. It is still a long way to go, and I need you to be brave. Okay?” This sets a clear expectation.
Small children do not read between the lines. In the Shaun the Sheep dialogue, my son did not notice my undecidedness, or at least he did not know how to interpret it. Instead, he needs clear messages. In the workplace, it is similar. Even though your colleagues probably can read between the lines, their hope and optimism will sometimes lead them to view your explanation in the brightest light possible. Therefore, be as clear as possible in order to rule out any possibility of misunderstanding.
So, if there is a good chance that you will take three weeks to finish a project, don’t say: “We will finish in two weeks if everything goes smoothly.” Say something like: “Realistically, we have to plan for three weeks. If everything goes super-perfect, we might make it in two.” Then, if all the other person hears is “2 weeks”, well, it is their own fault.
Or, if you might be able to promote somebody to a position they are interested in, but it is not entirely in your hands, then do not promise it to them prematurely. Even if your employee is becoming impatient, tell her: “I am pushing for it with Jeff, because, ultimately, he has to agree as well. However, there is a slim chance that he will not go with it. So I cannot make any hard promises yet, but I will do everything I can.” If you do make promises, and the role switch does not work out after all, your employee will be very disappointed, and this disappointment will be in part directed at you, leaving you with a damaged relationship.
3. Build a strong relationship
I have touched upon this aspect before: By spending time with a child, you can build a strong relationship. By building a strong relationship, you increase your influence, and will be able to educate more effectively. Conversely, if I go away from home for a few days because of a business trip, the relationship with my son will become slightly weaker. He will prefer his mum to help him brush his teeth, or to take him to bed, or to read him a story. He will not listen quite as well as usually, and be slightly more reluctant when I ask something of him. By spending dedicated time with him and building some nice Lego houses together (mostly fire stations or prisons (yes, I am slightly worried)), I can strengthen our bond again.
In the workplace, the same principle applies. If you spend little or no time with somebody, your relationship with this person will suffer, or at least not develop any further. If you have to ask mutual favours of each other regularly, or if you value regular trustful conversations with a person, you should take the time to build, renew, and cultivate pflegen your relationship. In an office, you usually don’t construct Lego buildings together, but there are other ways. For example, one-on-ones are a good way to do that, because it is really only the two of you, with no distractions around. They work well not just between manager and direct report, but between any two colleagues who have some overlap in their interests. Having lunch or taking a walk together are also good ways to deepen a work relationship.
It is a humbling, but maybe also a consoling thought: We always pretend to be the adults, but underneath it all, we still work a little like children. Some inherently human traits are simply there, and no amount of training or education can make them go away entirely. I say it is a consoling thought because, consider the alternative: If you need no encouragement whatsoever, if you do not care if your expectations are thrown overboard all the time, and if you do not need to build relationships with anybody, you are probably a robot. And, hey, even Data cares about people, so you would be more like a conveyor belt robot than a human-like android.
I think that especially encouragement is a powerful tool in your management belt, and I have the feeling that it is, on average, greatly underused. Goethe once wrote about the relationship to his teachers:
“Instruction does much, but encouragement does everything.”
Encouragement is an important aspect of teaching and working. Maybe you can help in making it a bit more common.
This blog post took me around 4.5h of work.