“Adult supervision”: The worst new buzzword in leadership communication

For years I’ve noticed that business leaders in many companies think of employees as children who need tight supervision and who can’t be trusted to make good decisions or to handle information appropriately.

Apparently, that attitude has gone mainstream. In his Harvard Business Review blog, MIT research fellow Michael Schrage expresses his astonishment that high-profile business and political leaders recently have come right out and said their employees or colleagues are no better than children needing “adult supervision.” In fact, “adult supervision” seems to be a new buzzword. Great, we needed another buzzword in the business world.

Schrage hits the nail on the head as he explains why using this phrase is a bad idea:

“Condescension rarely builds loyalty or trust. Describing—even dismissing—adversaries and colleagues as ‘childish’ and ‘immature’ seems a surefire way to inspire hostility and resentment. You’d think serious leaders and healthy organizations would avoid insultingly corrosive characterizations.”

You’d think, but you’d be wrong.

There’s a pervasive feeling among business leaders that employees are unable to think for themselves, to demonstrate good judgment, to handle sensitive information (especially when it’s bad news), to self-monitor how they use their time, to act responsibly on behalf of themselves and their company, or to do pretty much anything that the guys in the executive suite can do.

To be fair, there is a minority of workers who can’t do any of those things. They are bad eggs and you’ll find a few anywhere you have a large assembly of people.

But in my 23 years of experience working in employee communications for dozens of organizations, I’ve mostly run across employees who do act like adults, who want to do well in their jobs and want their companies to succeed, and who just wish their companies’ leaders would treat them like adults.

The “adult supervision” mindset leads to a host of problems: lack of trust between employees and managers, lack of confidence in business leaders, lack of motivation to take risks or to be innovative, decreased levels of employee engagement, wasting time in CYA mode, wasting time gossiping and complaining, and many others.

A great current example of how the problem plays out is the fact that half of the companies out there still don’t allow employees to access social media from work. This is in spite of the fact that increasing numbers of prospective employees expect their employers to use the technology people use in their personal lives. Social media has tremendous potential to help employees share knowledge and information, to collaborate and to save time finding answers to their work-related problems. Yet many business leaders are afraid their employees will waste company time by using social media in inappropriate ways.

I’ve been working since before email was widely used in business. Let me tell you something: the small percentage of slacker employees will find ways to waste time whether or not social media are allowed at work. It’s a management problem, not an employee problem.

Employees will act like adults when managers and business leaders start treating them like adults. Business leaders can start by embracing a more open communication culture.

Robert Holland is a communication consultant based in Richmond, Va.

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