On a Wednesday morning, you scream at one of your team members, “Get out the door, now!” Or, faced with a question about one of your policies, you say, “Because I said so.” Or, over a weeknight dinner you say, “I don’t care if you like it, it’s what you’re having.” Any of these would be bad workplace leadership moments, but what parent to young children hasn’t found herself barking one of these phrases?
In fact, Joanna Faber and Julie King’s childrearing classic How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen makes just this point: We would never treat another adult the way we treat our children, and we’d hate it if others treated us the way we often treat our nearest and dearest. And while they acknowledge that “we can’t treat our children like we treat our adult friends,” Faber and King make the crucial point that “if we want their willing cooperation instead of their hostility, we need to find a way to use the same principle of acknowledging feelings” that we use with other adults.
Another way to think about this is to consider the shocking disjuncture between the management techniques we consciously develop for work in the office but too often ignore when we step through our own front doors. We often think of leadership as a quality important for the workplace, but what about its application in the small organization within the walls of our own homes?
Instead, we might consider what applying more productive leadership models to our home life might get us.
To take just one example, consider the “Likert scale,” which distinguishes between four types of leadership, including the less productive “exploitative-authoritative” and “benevolent-authoritative” styles, and the more productive “consultive” and “participative” leadership styles. Even without a degree in management, you can likely intuit the difference between the more and less productive management techniques. The first two establish a more dictatorial leader who doles out punishments and rewards from on high, and who, whether in the harsher “exploitative” or softer “benevolent” style, is the ultimate arbiter for the organization. In these cases, recall the because I said so model of parenting, or, at its worst, the scary wait until your father gets home model of childrearing. Neither of these inspire genuine and good-natured participation.
As we know, organizations in our professional lives do better when team members share a common goal and feel like valued participants in the process. In the business world, the “consultive” and “participative” leadership models attempt to facilitate this kind of positive energy as a way of demonstrating trust in employees and establishing appreciation for the skills each member of the team has to bring to the table. In the consultive model, leaders may seek advice from team members while retaining the right to make final decisions, or they may establish the governing principles for an organization and then leave smaller decisions up to the team. In the participative model, leaders will involve team members at all levels, including setting priorities for an organization.
Don’t think your toddler has expertise along these lines? Consider the following: Who in your household knows best how itchy a badly placed t-shirt tag can be? Who in your household might know what foods are most likely to be appealing to a toddler? At a more profound level, even very little kids tend to have a sense of justice (think “taking turns”), an idea that violence is not good, and that sharing is kind (if difficult in practice).
So, what might this look like at home? First, consider common sources of conflict. Typical parent-child conflicts might include fights over food or getting dressed and out the door in the morning. And while, as Faber and King acknowledge, kids aren’t adults, modified versions of the strategies associated with consultive and participative leadership styles can work at home.
So, just because a kiddo knows that sweet tastes better than sour doesn’t mean that there will be nothing but popsicles for dinner. However, you can still value and draw on the wisdom of the small people in your life. For example, in the consultive model, a parent might fill a child’s dresser drawer with only weather-appropriate clothes. In the morning, the child may choose any long-sleeved top he or she wishes (even if it clashes with pants, even if it’s the same dang top as the day before). Or, in the same model, a parent might prepare a healthy dinner and allow the child to serve himself and control which and how much of the healthy food he wishes to eat (even if one night this is a dinner of nothing but carrots and the next it’s a dinner of nothing but chicken).
In the participative model, a parent might ask the kids to brainstorm ideas for a family motto or code of rules, asking, “What’s most important to us as a family?” Or, perhaps more fun, ask children to help set a family agenda—“What should we try to do this year?” Then, at a more local level, draw on these principles to make family decisions about how to spend the weekend, what to do for holidays, and so on.
The same strategies might hold true even without kids. For example, if a couple often butts heads over financial behavior, what about discussing common household goals? If the main thing you are working toward as a unit is saving up for a down payment on a home, it might be easier for the spendier member of the couple to cut down on an expensive latte habit. However, if the goal is to enjoy and develop friendships, then maybe coffees out with new neighbors or colleagues is important. Whatever you prioritize, working together toward family goals is a more pleasant and productive way to exist in the organizations we call home.
Photo by @criene / Twenty20
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.