4 Ways I Found Managing Employees Is Like Being A Parent

Number 2: You are not the boss.

by Jonathan Brill
Originally Published: 

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In what ways is people management similar to parenting?

One of the first things I learned about people management is that it’s a misnomer. You can manage time, maybe you can manage your attention, but people? People are self managing. And what being a people manager really means is relentlessly mentoring people on how to better manage themselves. Better for them, better for whatever organization is paying you, better for anybody who is depending on the output of their work.

Likewise, one of the first things you learn about parenting is that you have influence, but not control. That’s a weird thing to get your head around, but for those who’ve “managed” people, it’s not too different. Here are some universal truths I’ve picked up from being a manager and being a parent:

1. People Are Only Happy When They’re In Control Of Their Own Fate And Making Their Own Decisions

Whether you’re a people manager or a parent, there’s a notion of ultimate responsibility, in that you are responsible for another person getting some stuff done. Maybe it’s TPS reports, maybe it’s putting on pajamas, but the temptation will be to try and exert control over what this other person does and how they do it. But this is very short term thinking, and will fail miserably and will result in rage-poops, tears, or bitter, spiteful reviews on Glassdoor. People don’t respond well to being controlled. If you want to help someone do what they have to do, they need to buy into the idea of doing it, and trust that you can and want to help them. This requires empathy, which I’ll cover later.

2. You’re Not The Boss

Whoever told you that managing or parenting meant you were the boss was a cruel prankster, and you should take them off your Christmas card list. I’ve never really been someone’s boss, if anything it’s the other way around. My job as manager is to help them, not just tell them what to do. I do this by removing obstacles, helping them innovate their way out of doing repetitive tasks, provide guidance on how strategy might be changing, and try to get them more resources and help them earn more responsibility. So basically I’m working for them; like a dog.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to get up, take my 6-year-old to her swim practice, take her to music class, make sure she gets a rest, then work with her to find something fun and challenging to do before she takes in a show, maybe a spot of ice cream, and then gets her beauty sleep. So basically, I’m working for my 6-year-old. And she’s the most demanding boss ever. She never stops learning and is constantly fighting to earn more responsibility and if anything is disappointed I can’t supply her with more worthy challenges. Like every good employee I’ve ever managed.

3. They Don’t Need Your Help To Do Their Work

They need you to help them prepare for the next challenge. Comfort does not equal happiness, and although a moment’s respite can be refreshing, more than that is not fulfilling. If your employees or your kids have been lulled into accepting the shallow pleasantries of repetitive tasks and easy affirmation, you’re failing them. Your job is not to make them happy, it’s to help make them better. They know you’ve been there before, they know you’re dialed in to what comes next for them, and they need you to help prepare them for it.

The tricky part is that people really want this long term, but never want it in the moment. Like vegetables. You need to be the reminder that they’re investing in tomorrow. If they take the easy path now, they’re not going to be ready for what’s next, and they will not grow. What grows, never grows old, but conversely, what doesn’t grow, dies. Don’t let them stop growing. This will require a little coaching, and an ability to help them cut through excuses, procrastination, and get more perspective. And they’re not going to want you to do that if they don’t trust your intent.

4. The Only Way To Earn Someone’s Trust As A Mentor Or Parent Is To Care About Them Deeply

And the only way to do that is to empathize with them completely. In reading through interviews with Marva Collins and her book, Marva Collins’ Way, one story stuck with me more than anything else. Marva was talking about the challenge of dealing with a particularly spirited child, one who was a bit violent and defensive. And when he’d lash out, she’d just embrace him and tell him that she was going to get him through this because she loved him. And I remember thinking, oh crap, Marva didn’t discover some hack around memory retention or a new way to teach algebra, she just legitimately loves all those damn kids. That’s her whole deal. She has complete and total empathy and understands where they’re coming from and how they feel and deals with that on their terms, not her own. Everything starts with that.

So basically, I’m working for my 6-year-old. And she’s the most demanding boss ever.

But man, that sounds like a lot of work! Can that be the only way? Maybe not, but it’s the only way I know. And I learned it from Marva. My kids and my people trust me because they know I care, because I empathize with them completely. I care about how they feel, and I treat their problems like they’re my problems. There is no quid pro quo here, and there’s no short cut. We’re both giving everything we can, but I’m giving it to them, and they’re giving it to their work. My commitment will influence and drive theirs. And I’m all in.

I’m not sure if good managers are all good parents or good parents would all be good managers, but I do believe there needs to be a committed effort to be good at either, and that kind of effort will be obvious.

Jonathan Brill is the Writer Relations lead at Quora and has been published on numerous sites including The Huffington Post and Forbes. You can read more from Quora below:

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