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Free-range eggs, free-range children…free-range companies?

May 14, 2008

Lately, I seem to be coming across more and more literature that makes an interesting claim: parents tend to make better managers. Hmm, I wondered. I’m not a parent, but maybe there’s something to this idea.

According to 2007 study conducted by Clark University and the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., researchers found that parents — at least those committed to family life — actually perform better in the office. This study suggests that being able to manage the demands of children and running a household helps people better manage the stress of work instead of adding to it. Having children also helps managers develop the ability to see others’ views — a capacity which is critical to supervising others, working in teams or relating to superiors.

But, if parents make better managers, I couldn’t help but notice that today’s parenting issues seem quite similar to those faced by managers. In particular, both camps appear to be plagued by such conundrums as motivation, empowerment, responsibility and performance.

Allow me to elaborate. As I was flipping through the Globe and Mail, I came across an interesting article. This article discusses a new movement among a growing number of parents who are going back to basics and espousing a philosophy where children should develop their life skills just by being kids.

Proponents argue that these days, parents are ‘hyper managing’ their children. That is, in efforts to produce children who are smarter, more successful and better equipped to survive today’s world, parents are keen to nurture every single little budding talent. Rather than allowing them to have unstructured free time, they’ve scheduled every minute of their day into a different activity – shuffling them from hockey to brownies to choir. And they’ve been doing so from a very young age. It started with baby yoga, baby music and baby swimming and sometimes this type of enrichment continues well into the teens and twenties.

While this type of parenting may be well-intentioned and may benefit their children, the problem with hyper-parenting, writes Carl Honoré, author of the book Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the culture of Hyper-Parenting, is that it is not necessarily contributing to their development into confident, autonomous, happy adults. He cites studies that suggest while some early enrichment for children can give them an advantage at a young age, these same children tend to be more anxious and less creative later in life.

He also writes, “By any yardstick, we are raising the most wired, pampered and monitored generation in history…childhood today seems a far cry from the ‘nest of gladness’ imagined by Lewis Caroll. And parent-hood is no walk in the park either. In many ways, the modern approach to children is backfiring.”

But perhaps the most passionate point is made by Lenore Skenazy on her blog ‘free-range kids‘. She writes, “…isn’t it wrong to teach kids that they are incapable of taking care of themselves, that they can’t trust their community, and that it is better for them to live a virtual life inside, where life is programmed, than a real life, outside, where they can glory in the wonders of the world?” Skenazy isn’t suggesting taking away all boundaries – it’s important for children to feel safe. But a less micro-managed style empowers kids and protects them from failing later in life.

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a very obvious parallel between the notion of ‘free-range parenting’ and The Tatham Group’s approach to coaching managers. We believe that one of the keys to successfully transforming the culture of a company is to teach managers how to empower their own employees to make their own decisions, to trust their environment (in other words, trust the processes they work in), to make data-driven decisions, to apply common sense skills and to come to managers for guidance and support.

And, much like ‘hyper-parenting’, it’s not uncommon for us to observe the same behaviours exhibited by managers. The same way parents micro-manage their kids because they don’t trust them to become little Mozart’s on their own, many managers don’t trust their employees to perform unless they are closely watched.

Christina Bielasczka-DuVernay, author of the Harvard article Micromanage at Your Peril writes, “Micromanagement is a natural tendency, even among seasoned managers, to think close examination of a direct report’s work will improve it. Sure, such scrutiny might reveal opportunities for improvement: processes she could streamline, shortcuts she’s taking that undermine quality, shortcuts she’s not taking that she should. But tread this path too often, and any gains realized from process improvements will be offset by the deleterious effects of disengagement. A consistent pattern of micromanagement tells an employee you don’t trust his work or his judgment, is a major factor in triggering disengagement.”

Here’s where Tatham is also effective. In using our method, managers learn to delegate responsibility. Even if things go wrong, managers who allow employees to fail in a safe way (so that employees can still recover) do two things: first they provide them with a powerful hands-on lesson, which secondly — allows the employee to grow. The same could be said for parents: those who allow their children to experience life as it is, will provide them with the life lessons and skills they need to make better decisions.

Moral of the story? If free-range eggs are healthier, and free-range kids are happier, then perhaps ‘free-range managers’ can help build healthier, happier and more successful companies.

Related links: http://www.macleans.ca/culture/lifestyle/article.jsp?content=20080402_47686_47686&page=1