Real Leaders

By Understanding Your Parents, You Can Become a Better Manager

Portrait of senior potter at workshop

Whoever you are reading this article, I want you to take a moment and think about how you were raised as a child. I don’t want you to think about where, or the events of the era, or even about the quality of your childhood — simply, how your parent/s raised you. 

The reason this is important is because how you were raised affects not only how you interact with others, but also how you expect others to respond to you.  

To a great degree, we are the product of whatever parenting model was in vogue when we were children. I was raised in the early 60’s at a time when “permissive parenting” was all the rage and Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book “The Common Sense of Baby and Child Care” was the go-to source for young mothers. His approach to raising children was to be nurturing and to encourage their individuality. While this might sound very similar to how children are raised today, in reality, children of the 60’s were taught to be very respectful of and deferential to authority figures. If one thinks in terms of the four predominant parenting styles — authoritarian, permissive, authoritative, and neglectful — Spock’s model would be more authoritarian, although it would seem permissive compared to the previous generation.

Tell-Do Parenting

Most Boomers (my generation) were raised in what I refer to as a “Tell-Do” household. Instructions came from the top in a command-and-control parenting style. The parents were the commanders; the children were the subordinates. As children, Boomers were told by their parents what to do and they listened. When our parents said jump, we asked how high. There wasn’t any debate to be had. Failing to comply would result in unpleasant repercussions. “Wait till your father gets home,” was the most dreaded string of words in the English language.

Suggest-Do Parenting

Gen X kids grew up in a markedly different environment than Boomers. Changing economic and social conditions gave Gen X a much longer leash. More and more women were entering the workplace and taking on full-time employment, which meant that Gen X was raised by busy working parents who couldn’t watch over their children at all hours. Between school dismissal and parents getting home from work, Gen X spent many hours home alone, creating our first latchkey children. Their parents were forced to trust them to make many choices on their own, and because there wasn’t anyone around to issue direct orders, Gen X learned to be independent by necessity.

This independence resulted in some leveling of the top-down authority model. The Tell-Do model of parenting gave way to more of a Suggest-Do model. Rather than issuing orders for and about everything, parents would often suggest what their children should do.

While they might sometimes be strong suggestions that might eventually result in repercussions if not heeded, children knew that their parents had a more limited ability to enforce the rules when they weren’t around. It was also easier for busy parents to simply allow their children to manage the small details of their own lives. This dynamic instilled Gen X with a spirit of self-sufficiency. Considering again the parenting styles, this would be more likened to the permissive style and at its worst, the neglectful.

Engage-Discuss Parenting

While Gen X was raised to be more independent, Millennials were brought up under a whole new paradigm of “Engage-Discuss” in which parenting became more facilitative than it had ever been before. So far, this trend has largely continued into Gen Z, as they grow up and come of age.

While the Engage-Discuss dialogue-based model does not call for an abolishment of hierarchy, this interaction involves open communication between the authority figure (i.e. parent) and the subordinate (i.e. child). Rather than harnessing punishment and guilt to change behavior, the authority figure enters into an open dialogue with the subordinate and discusses corrective behavior. This model hinges on a mutually established understanding that can only be achieved when the authority figure eschews coercion for open dialogue. This parenting style would likely fall under the auspices of the authoritative model.

The data suggest there is tremendous benefit in adopting the “Engage-Discuss” model in the workplace. According to William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book Millennials Rising, published in 2000, Millennials have experienced a decrease in crime rates, alcohol, and drug abuse, and exhibit a greater sense of responsibility to others and the environment, as compared to previous generational cohorts. It appears that this model of parenting works and makes great citizens of children.

Gen Z is now entering the workplace and they, too, have been raised on a variation of the Engage-Discuss” parenting model. Again, relating this to one of the parenting styles, this would likely be some combination of authoritative, with a bias toward the permissive. Time will tell, as they enter the workplace in ever larger numbers, if they will interact differently than their Millennial brethren.

When in Doubt, Have a Conversation

We now have a workplace with multiple generations who, as a consequence of how they were raised, are likely to have different expectations and habits in terms of interacting with colleagues. Boomer and Gen X managers need to recognize that younger workers may respond differently than they themselves would have at their age. Moreover, they must be willing to embrace, rather than attempt to stifle, these differences.

By choice or necessity, each successive generation has been raised somewhat differently than their parents. We just need to accept that having conversations, which worked so well in the home, can and does function in the workplace.

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