Let’s stop treating employees like teenagers

The world of work is unbalanced, and it’s not sustainable.  Even more so, because it’s invisible: it flows in the background and is ignored by most. We’re talking about the way that we (don’t) talk about the responsibility that employees have towards their managers. If we plug in the keywords “employee”, “responsibility” and “manager” into a search engine, the only connection that emerges is the responsibility that managers have towards their employees. There’s nothing that goes in the opposite direction.

It’s true, managers can do a lot in terms of enabling the people that work with them. We know that workers’ wellbeing often depends on the quality of their relationships with their “superiors”, and that’s where the focus tends to be. We look at their ability to foster a productive working relationship. Managers are trained to coordinate, understand and guide their employees, staying grounded in difficult times and able to give clear answers. Managers are trained to improve their empathy skills, while “caring” leadership also requires them to be close to others and to pay attention. But the responsibility all seems to be on the managers’ side. 

The word “responsible” could potentially be a synonym for the word “boss”: maybe that’s why we find it hard to understand why responsibility should cascade down the levels. So employees can’t feel responsible? They are definitely responsible for their own work and results: employees responsibilities towards their employer are outlined in their contracts. But for everything else, many relational responsibilities aren’t given to them, and they are treated more like teenagers than responsible adults. A managerial dynamic that seems to mirror paternity in the 20th century.

Even though we often talk about horizontal and diffused leadership, the direction and overall decisions seem to move from the top down, while requests and waiting for direction seem to come from the bottom up. Yes, people are waiting, and this attitude aids people removing themselves from responsibility in a “command and control” model, much like old-fashion leadership forms. People avoid thinking when they’re in this context, believing that the solution is in the hands of the leader. That’s just not the case. Or maybe, it is, but only temporarily while we establish a new culture?

When change gains momentum, it’s essential to move together. It’s a way of keeping our work productive and alive. So why are workers not being asked to care for their managers? Why are managers not being listened to? Employees aren’t children, but even children grow up to ask their children to form a different relationship, rather than constantly telling them what to do. It touches a nerve: at least in Italy where children stay at home longer than they do in other European countries. Children are still “dependent” and parents struggle to see them as fully fledged adults. So to suggest equality means giving up a part of the control, but it’s also a way to gain alliances. The same thing is true at work.

We’re teaching managers to recognize their vulnerability, to ask for help and to admit that they don’t always have all the answers. But at the same time, we’re also asking employees to fill the spaces that emerge: space to take risks, to show themselves that they are strong, to reveal new skills and able to put them to the test? Which corporate training program teaches them to cultivate a relationship with their manager, involving them and feeling that you can both contribute equally? It goes beyond “giving each other feedback”. Feedback is about giving something back because you’ve received, not having the responsibility to give anyway.

“We need to stop treating our employees like children“, said professor Isaac Getz, author of “Freedom inc”. What would happen if we moved the focus to our employees, starting to treat them as adults: people able to care for their managers, to lower their expectations and to contribute more?

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here