Under-Performing Employees? Why Leaders Should Partner, Not Parent

September 25, 2015

partner with your team

The business world is seeing a troubling trend.

Many employees are technically engaged—that is, they are loyal and committed to the cause, they come in early, stay late, and take pains to get things done. But they are exhausted.

Here’s why: according to brain science, when we are low on energy, the “executive function” of the brain suffers. This affects our ability to connect the dots, focus our attention in the midst of massive distractions, regulate our emotions in tension-filled situations, predict outcomes, and make smart decisions. Without all these “power tools,” we are unable to think innovatively. As a result, in the workplace, over-extended employees resort to quick fixes and workarounds—as well as reactive firefighting—which consequently hardwires depletion into the overall system.

Traditional engagement initiatives do nothing to help energize and fuel the executive function; rather, business leaders continue to focus on ways to get even more discretionary effort from their already exhausted workforce.

One such way managers do this is by taking on a parenting approach in their relationships with employees. When employees are parented in ways that feel inappropriate to the circumstance, this effectively shuts down employees’ willingness to offer discretionary effort, as well as their capacity to access their executive function.

The brain science: why do leaders parent?

Granted, there aren’t many managers who, as they eat their morning cornflakes, think “How do I make my employees feel like children today?” So what triggers managers, no matter how enlightened and well-intentioned they are, to treat their employees like children?

The answer is in your brain.

The school of psychology called Transactional Analysis shows that managers can show up in three ways in their relationships with employees: as a parent, an adult, or a child.

Leaders inherently want their dealings with employees to be adult to adult. But because the emotional brain perceives shared responsibility as a threat, it will naturally avoid it. Why? Sharing responsibility with employees is risky. It requires relinquishing ownership and control, and placing the leader’s reputation in the other person’s hands.

In essence, responsibility can be viewed as a seesaw with one person’s under-responsibility triggering over-responsibility in the other. To avoid sharing responsibility, the leader’s brain tends to go binary and do one of the following two things:

  • Take on all the responsibility and risk, letting the employee off the hook
  • Give full control to the employee, thereby getting themselves off the hook in the risk department

Taking a binary approach to responsibility seems much safer to the leader’s brain than sharing responsibility. However, this communicates a negative message that creates a learned helplessness in employees: “You’re missing something, and I need to supply it myself.” For example:

  • You’re missing intelligence, so I need to supply my advice
  • You’re missing motivation, so I need to supply you with my reminders
  • You’re missing capability, so it’s quicker for me to do it myself

Moreover, depending on the situation, managers often slip into parenting behaviors that are too directive with one employee, too supportive with another, and too hands-off with yet another.

Regardless of what type of parenting behaviors leaders slip into, this prolonged approach ends up introducing all sorts of negativity into the organizational culture: one rife with guilt, shame, and compulsion; control, manipulation, and micro-managing; intimidation and bullying; and, oftentimes, unhealthy employee-versus-employee competition.

Partnering is the goal

The fact is this: many employees already have what leaders think is missing. They have the desire to make a difference, the intelligence to generate great ideas, and the need to feel pride in doing a great job.

Unlocking that discretionary effort and helping employees access all the power tools of their executive function requires switching from a parenting to a partnering approach. Partnering involves two people holding out for each other’s highest good. And it’s worth holding out for, because a person’s highest good is a combination of the two things that matter most: the relationships they build and the results they generate.

Essentially, partnering is about two people contracting to hold each other accountable for their impact on results, and their impact on relationships.

For example, if you’re a manager and you’ve got an employee who is the “relationship guy,” loved by everybody but not hitting his numbers, you partner with him and hold out for his highest good by holding him accountable for his impact on results.

If your employee is a “results maven,” technically brilliant, yet trampling her teammates and not living the values, you hold out for her highest good by holding her accountable for her impact on relationships.

The ability to partner with employees to solve engagement issues is what lifts the leader’s burden, freeing them from unsustainable parenting roles. And in response to partnering, businesses can reap rewards including:

  • building a culture that cultivates decision-making capability
  • helping employees own and manage their own engagement
  • deepening relationships
  • unlocking results
  • releasing energy

In other words, it is well worth making the shift from parenting to partnering.

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About The Author

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc., a corporate training company that services organizations from Toronto to Los Angeles. This article is based on principles from Brady’s latest book, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need. Follow Brady on Twitter (@BradyJuiceInc) or visit

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