My journey as a supervisor began long before I supervised anyone.
New to the workforce, I was excited to learn and be independent, to feel valued. It didn’t take long to realize that in my entry level role, I wasn’t invited to contribute beyond the tasks required of my position. Someone like me was supposed to take orders, accept mandates with no opportunity to weigh in, be a cog in someone else’s wheel. If I admitted to feeling overwhelmed by my workload, my supervisor micromanaged me (usually a well-meaning effort). If I took the initiative to propose a new idea, my ideas would be batted away or I’d be encouraged to institute them on my own with no support, allocated time, or resources. How many hours I worked and how much I got done was valued and noticed more than the quality of my work or the level of my engagement. It was as if management believed that employees wouldn’t get anything done, or the right things done, if they weren’t watched. I just wanted to scream, “I’m not a child!”
When I first became a supervisor, I replicated all of these same patterns. Even when I meant well, the subtext was, “Don’t worry, I’m in charge.”
The workplace is not for parenting. Paternalism as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is “the practice of controlling esp. employees or citizens in a way that is similar to that of a father controlling his children, by giving them what is beneficial but not allowing them responsibility or freedom of choice.” The managers-know-better attitude is a symptom of a larger system predicated on the assumption that people without power and status are not capable of having full agency over their lives. The belief is that they simply don’t know what’s best and they wouldn’t make the right choices.
This is what Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, refers to as infantilization: “the act of treating someone (including children) like a child, deciding for them what is best, directing them, assuming we know better than they do, worrying about them, taking care of them,” (p 47). She argues that it’s impossible to listen to someone profoundly and respectfully if you are infantilizing that person. She proposes that infantilizing others is driven by our desire to “be seen as expert, indispensable and brilliant,” and so it is actually a symptom of our own insecurities.
Most organizations promote people into management without the necessary development around how to motivate people and teams for engagement and innovation. What made someone an effective employee in their specialized role does not automatically translate to being an effective people-manager. To make matters worse, the spoken or unspoken directive to middle management is often, “get it done,” which perpetuates this notion that managers accomplish work through other people and that their chief concerns should be efficiency and productivity. Without training, new managers muddle through the learning curve and model the management they’ve experienced themselves until those practices are deeply entrenched in their own management styles. The well-intentioned manager coddles and protects employees, not realizing that they are shielding employees from their own best selves in order to preserve the manager’s power and status as the expert and hero.
Change happens when we leave our heroes at the door. The world of Human Resources is slowly changing from one centered on compliance and risk management to one centered on engagement and culture. But people in the field have been demanding this shift for a long time. One article I read years ago that continues to guide me as a people-manager is “Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host” by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. Wheatley and Frieze call for a new type of leadership called host leadership, as opposed to heroic leadership:
“Our heroic impulses most often are born from the best of intentions. We want to help, we want to solve, we want to fix. Yet this is the illusion of specialness, that we’re the only ones who can offer help, service, skills. If we don’t do it, nobody will. This hero’s path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and unappreciated.
It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems. ”
This issue is so alive for me because, not only have I felt disempowered throughout my career as a supervisee and a supervisor, but in recent years, I’ve begun to understand that it’s systemic! We are part of a system designed to keep power at the top and in the hands of mostly white, cisgender men. It shows up in many aspects of our lives; our workplaces and professional roles are no exception. And even those of us who are not white or cisgender men replicate this larger system of dominance. It’s not good or empowering for most people across identities and in all levels of management, but we feel powerless to change it and/or we lack self-awareness of our complicity.
So, where do we go from here? None of us can single-handedly change everyone around us. If we could, maybe we’d need heroes after all. But we can take responsibility, we can shift the way we show up, and we can trust that other voices have as much (or more) to contribute as we do. Changing our own behaviors and patterns is a slow and rocky road that demands a lot of forgiveness, for ourselves and towards others.
In which ways do you show up as a hero? Do you think your ideas are better? Do you worry that you’re the only one who can get it done right or fix things? Do you control and protect the way people use their time? Start by finding those opportunities to pivot from within.
Photo Credit: Eli Windover, instagram.com/eiverdown
Frieze, D. & Wheatley, M. (2011). Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host. In Resurgence Magazine (Winter). Retrieved from https://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/Leadership-in-Age-of-Complexity.pdf
Kline, N. (1999). Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. Cassell: NY, NY.
Paternalism. (n.d.) In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/paternalism