In the ever-evolving corporate world, effective leadership is pivotal to drive success and generate a positive work culture. According to Zippia, 83 percent of organizations say it is important to develop leaders at all levels, but only 5 percent of these organizations have fully implemented development at all levels. Thus, it becomes more pressing to find creative ways to hone the skills of future leaders. In our Innovation Women Speak! Webinar Series, Executive Coach at E Leader Experience and Innovation Women speaker Megan Robinson explains a technique to develop stronger leadership skills: business parenting, or applying parenting styles to managerial practices in the workplace.
By envisioning different parenting styles—authoritarian, neglectful, permissive, and authoritative—as leadership styles, leaders can adapt and refine their approach to effectively manage their teams. How might each style play out in the workplace? What is the potential impact of each on team dynamics and productivity?
The problem: a generation disillusioned with work
Robinson believes that the problem with the current workforce begins with the new millennial generation—one she admits to being part of herself—being less and less motivated to work. Robinson cites the 2006 rom-com, Failure to Launch, as a prime example of media showcasing the attitudes of millennials towards work. The movie tells the story of a 35-year-old man who is wholly uninterested in participating in the workforce and living with his parents. To Robinson, this reflects the reality of the millennial generation. In fact, from 2001 to 2019, the number of adults aged 23 to 37 living with their parents has more than doubled.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always heard the complaints about what millennials feel entitled to,” she said. “Complaints that they’re so difficult to work with, or there are so many challenges with it. But most people are waiting for them to kind of grow up.”
There are legitimate reasons for this unwillingness to work. Robinson concedes that many issues have hit the millennial generation especially hard such as student loans, wage stagnation, recessions, and most importantly, childhoods where they were not accustomed to the type of hard work or discipline that their antecedents were.
All these reasons, Robinson claims, point to this undeniable shift in the millennial generation causing them to lack both life skills and professional ones. She cites the term “adulting” as a pivotal shifting point that reflects the millennial inability to handle tasks that people had previously seamlessly transitioned into.
“The term adulting came onto the stage,” she said. “Adulting is that informal term to describe behavior that seems responsible and grown-up. It has suddenly become this magical thing. People are proud that they’ve been able to “adult” by doing the most basic adult-like things.”
The solution: paralleling business leadership to parenting
Robinson is focused on how the millennial age of development relates to the workplace. In recent years, she states that more and more managers have used language like “babysitting” and “taking off the training wheels” to refer to managing a team. Similarly, the idea that leaders need to shelter and protect their team members feels to her like parenting taken into the business arena.
Robinson underscores the fact that people in the workplace are not children, but adults. In the professional sphere, however, the comparison of leadership to parenting can be useful to put things into perspective.
“Everyone in the workforce is an adult, and it’s time that we start treating them that way,” she said. “We haven’t really set the expectations for us to professionally grow up. When I looked at leadership, and how people are approaching their teams, their organizations and the language that they use, it is shockingly like parenting.
“There are a lot of similarities of what you do as a leader and what you do as a parent. Taking both of those strengths, both of those skill sets, with the right intentions, help you give the best for your team.”
Robinson envisions the four parenting styles—authoritarian, neglectful, permissive and authoritative—in the workplace, explaining what that may look like and how each style can be damaging or beneficial for managing a team.
Authoritarian leadership: demanding yet unrewarding
The authoritarian parenting style is characterized by strict rules and high expectations from the parents. This style emphasizes obedience, discipline and control, with limited freedom and autonomy for children. Similarly, Robinson explains that when translated into the workplace, an authoritarian leadership style can be strict and suffocating, result-oriented focus and poor, one-way communication with limited autonomy.
“If you are an authoritarian parent, you are incredibly demanding,” she said. “You’re not very responsive, you are not looking for feedback or input, and the kids are often beating themselves up. They’re always trying to achieve more, and they lack a lot of confidence.”
The consequences of fostering workers this way are manifold. This leadership style damages your team’s self-confidence, and many times this means that they will not realize their potential or celebrate their achievements, contributing to a gloomier workplace atmosphere. In addition, Robinson explains how this environment can also get tiring for the manager.
“Your team’s always looking for permission from you. A lot of leaders that are exhausted because the team keeps coming back to them, they’re always looking for information, they’re always looking for the right answer.”
Beyond honing teams that fail to take initiative and cannot rejoice in their successes, authoritarian leaders can also cause their teams to have real, tangible ramifications.
“People are leaving dictators,” she said. “No one wants to be in that dictator relationship, so people can step out of it. They’ve had the time to reflect, and they’ve been able to realize more of their potential and step away from it. This means that the retention rates for teams led by these managers can be low.”
Neglectful leadership: the damaging hands-off approach
Neglectful parenting, characterized by a lack of engagement, attention and guidance, can lead to serious consequences for a child’s development. Similarly, Robinson explains that neglectful leadership breeds a disconnected workplace environment. Managers adopting this style demonstrate a lack of interest in their employees’ growth, suppress communication within the team and avoid providing the necessary resources and structure.
Robinson explains that falling into the neglectful business “parenting” style can be a slippery slope. It’s easy to become neglectful when leaders are trying to opt for the healthier behavior of trusting their employees.
“A lot of times, startups are really in this laissez-faire parenting style because they’re looking for everyone to jump in and contribute in varying ways. It can empower employees at certain times, but it doesn’t build a lot of trust.
“Moreover, it really limits development. Because you’re not able to give employees direction, you’re not able to look for organizational growth and align people to something. Everyone’s off on their own island.”
Robinson pinpoints telltale signs to look for in your team that reflect a neglectful leadership style.
“If you’re finding that the team doesn’t know what they’re talking about, people don’t know what they’re working on, people are completely silent and isolated, or if they’re having some bad behavior, that’s neglectful leading.
“It’s very easy to be asleep at the wheel. Sometimes leaders really give up a lot of their authority to their employees. But when we see scandals in the corporate news, that’s usually from neglectful management on the higher levels.”
Permissive leadership: coddling and encouraging lazy behavior
In parenting, a permissive approach involves few expectations but many rewards, which often results in spoiled children. Parents who adopt this style tend to have little control over their children’s behavior and rarely set limits or boundaries. They prioritize their children’s freedom and happiness over discipline and structure. Translated to the workplace, permissive business parenting manifests as an ungrateful and unambitious team that expects praise for mediocre work.
Robinson believes that this kind of parenting style is more and more common, which explains why many millennials have grown up with attitudes that Robinson deems less proactive. This also explains why millennials now carry that with them to the workplace.
“I always say this is where a lot of that entitlement can come from,” she said. “When you see team members that aren’t taking responsibility or when they don’t know how that affects others. I’ll joke this is very much the millennial me generation: when you think of people who balk at the word ‘no,’ are poor losers, or are ungrateful.”
How does this apply to the workplace?
In the workplace, some leaders continue to allow and foster that mentality. Robinson explains this often means more work for the managers who cannot set proper boundaries and have lower expectations of their employees.
“When you start to spoon-feed your team, you don’t trust them, you lower your expectations and you end up doing all the homework for them. ‘Oh, they’re too busy.’ ‘Oh, they can’t do this, so I’m just going to jump in and do and pick up the slack.’ You start becoming more and more permissive because you have fewer expectations.
“If they become more entitled, they become more self-obsessed with it. And now, you’re almost working for them. It doesn’t really help anyone; it doesn’t help the team grow and it makes you exhausted because you’re always cleaning up their messes.”
Robinson draws a thin but important line between supporting and understanding your team—a healthy leadership behavior—and wholly catering to them.
“I’m all about listening to your team and supporting them,” she said. “But when service style leadership gets taken too far, suddenly you have taken those organization’s objectives and ideals, and you have put the team member above them. It starts crossing boundaries. It starts becoming less profitable. That relationship gets a little bit toxic because you’re always in that servant place. You’ll never actually be able to lead effectively and get where you need to go.”
Authoritative leadership: providing structure and empowerment
The authoritative parenting style emphasizes clear communication, setting rules and fostering independence. Similarly, authoritative leadership in the workplace establishes well-defined goals and guidelines while encouraging employees to think critically and contribute ideas.
Robinson emphasized how authoritative leadership is the optimal choice for leaders, their employees, and the overall strength of the organization. By nurturing trust and open dialogue, an authoritative leader can inspire and motivate their team to be confident and achieve their potential.
“The authoritative style is where you’re very demanding, but you’re still giving your team independence and you have a strong connection with them,” she said. “Authoritative leadership is characterized by high accountability and high responsibility. The team knows exactly what’s expected of them, and they have the independence to achieve it. You build a lot of trust, and they’re comfortable coming to you for help.”
Importantly, Robinson highlights that an authoritative style of business parenting also leads to the best retention and best organizational health overall.
“With authoritative leading, you get a culture of high performance,” she said. “You’ll foster a workspace of high accountability. This is the ideal place that we want to move towards with our leadership because we have strong retention and high performance. Out of all the styles, this is where you’re getting the most out of your team.”
A holistic approach: Robinson’s tips for finding the right balance
Each business parenting style has its distinctive impact on a team. A holistic approach that incorporates aspects of authoritative leadership is often most effective. By blending structure and empowerment with attentive guidance and open communication, leaders can foster a supportive and productive work environment.
Creating a positive work environment:
- Make sure you’re delegating opportunities to your team.
- Provide constructive, positive feedback and recognition of your team’s achievements.
- Stay connected to your team and listen to their suggestions; build trust with your employees and show their opinions and ideas are welcome and heard.
- Find a balance between how involved you are in your employees’ work. Avoid micromanaging but do not completely check out of their work process.
- Lead by example and show your own hard work to influence others into doing the same.
The concept of “business parenting” offers a fresh perspective on leadership in the workplace. By recognizing the potential impact of different parenting styles, leaders can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and adapt their approach accordingly. Robinson encourages all leaders and managers t to adopt an authoritative leadership style. For her, combining empathy, structure and empowerment paves the way for sustainable growth, improved productivity and a vibrant work atmosphere that nurtures individual and collective success.
To read more about leading in the workplace, check out the 7 Essential Steps to Team Health.