“The Mom & Dad Dynamic.”
It’s one of the “Team Toxins” I see in organizations all the time: a culture of unconscious infantilization. Leadership as “I’m the grown-up here and you’re not.” Or even: “we’re all one big family here!” (Which, if your family is anything like mine, is no picnic.)
No matter the stated or “official” culture, the actual culture for many organizations is: the managers are kind of like the parents, and the staff are kind of like the children. Leadership gets let in on secrets, can be “trusted” to see the bigger picture, possesses some magical grown-up ability that others somehow lack, spends the money, and sits at the head of the table for key family rituals. (Directors are a bit like teenagers; trusted with the keys to the car every so often — but at the end of the day it’s still: “my roof, my rules!!!”)
Why is this unconscious pattern so prevalent? Faced with the confusing, messy realities of hierarchy and power, it’s natural that we often revert back to our base template: the one we grew up with. The one imprinted on our brains from such an early age.
The trouble is: the Mom & Dad Dynamic sucks for those on both side of the line. Everyone (and I mean everyone) instinctively hates being infantilized or talked down to. And if you treat people like children long enough (lack of trust, micro-managing, keeping secrets, assuming they can’t handle the whole truth / bigger picture, acting like you’re innately superior), they start acting like children.
Managers end up with a bunch of surly teenagers who smile and nod at the dinner table, then whisper and complain behind their back. Leaders complain about the staff’s complaining, or staff’s failure to take more “responsibility” or “accountability” for their actions. And thus: the cycle is complete. Both sides end up colluding to produce the very behaviors they claim to hate in each other. And work becomes some crappy family sitcom we’re powerless to escape, playing our assigned roles without really knowing how or why.
In some ways, the challenge of authentic leadership, self-managed organizations, or courageous collaboration is simple: treating each other like grown-ups.
Some days I really do think it’s that simple: the dream of healthier organizations — or “self-management,” or collaborative leadership versus “leadering” or “Boss-ism” or the various flavors of Dilbert-ized baloney that pass for “management” — is simply the dream of growing up, and treating others like grownups.
That’s why I’ve been so struck by Jerry Colonna’s book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.
“I didn’t set out to write a book about growing up,” Colonna writes. “But I believe that the process of learning to lead well can help us become better humans. By growing to meet the demands of the call to leadership, we’re presented with the chance to finally, fully, grow up.”
How does one do that? “The most challenging piece of the formula is the notion of radically inquiring within. I define it as the process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that no mask can hide us anymore…. It’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself—your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as ‘you.'”
Work as spiritual battleground
Colonna is a philosopher of work. He sees the cosmic dimension hidden behind our power struggles in the office, how they’re often haunted by ghosts from our childhood, and the urgent business of waking up / “being a better leader to yourself.”
Work can give us meaning. But work can also be a means of our suffering.
“Work gives us the means to create the physical safety upon which our lives depend. Work feeds and shelters us and those we love. Work can give us meaning. But work can also be a means of our suffering.”
“By understanding what’s truly happening all around us, the ways our core belief systems influence our everyday experience, we can extract meaning from the suffering, coax the lotus from the mud, as the Buddhists teach. But this will happen only if we use those challenges that the calls to leadership make on us, not only to grow up but also help us discover our why.”
Some of the questions Colonna suggests asking to guide us through that radical self-inquiry:
- How can I grow into the adult I want to be in the world? How can I use even the loss of status and challenge to my self-esteem that are inherent in leadership to help me do that?
- In what ways have I depleted myself, run myself into the ground? Where am I running from and where to? Why have I allowed myself to be so exhausted?
- Who is the person I’ve been all my life? What can that person teach me about becoming the leader I want to be? What was the story my family told about being real, being vulnerable, being true?
- Why do I struggle so much with the folks in my life? Why are relationships so difficult? What am I not saying to my co-founder, my colleagues, my family members, my life partner that needs to be said?
- What’s my purpose? Why does it feel I’m lost while I struggle to move forward? How do I grow, transform, and find meaning?
- How has who I am shaped the ways I lead others and myself? What are the unconscious patterns of my character structure that are showing up in my organizations?
- What kind of leader and adult am I? What is enough? How will I know when my job is done?