Employing Adults, not Children

employ adults not children“I tripped over the box on the stairs, why didn’t you tell me it was in my way”, “I saw the others using gloves, but no one told me I should use them too”, “You’ve no right to make my job redundant, you should protect every job”, “I’m not changing the way I do things.”

More than ever before we need adults working in our businesses, adults who think, who reason, who problem solve, who use their common sense. With the pressure businesses are under the last thing anyone needs are adults who behave like children.

Our brains develop throughout childhood and up to about our mid 20’s. One of the last areas of the brain to finish developing is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is essential as it is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for our ability to plan, to think about the consequences of our actions, to solve problems and to control our impulses. In essence, it is this part of our brain that differentiates adults from children and brings such value to the workplace.

Before the prefrontal cortex is sufficiently developed, for us to reason and behave as ‘adults’ we rely on our amygdala for our responses and problem solving. However, the amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression, and instinctive behaviour. Therein lies the difference between childlike behaviours and adult like behaviours. Which do you need in your organisation?

Adults will help us rebuild, turn our businesses around, bring in ideas and energy. Adults behaving like adults are also great for team support, collaboration, driving forwards, great morale. They are created by great managers and leaders who treat them like adults, who set the tone or path but then step back to allow them to find their own way, who use mistakes as learning opportunities, who coach endlessly, who feel no need to micro-manage or control, and who create a clear culture in which people can operate as individuals.

In contrast adult ‘children’ have been created by an environment of endless process and procedure, risk aversion, forced (and enforced) conformity, being treated as though they are stupid and a default position of finger pointing or ostracization when things don’t go according to the ‘rule’ book.

It has been my experience that the adult ‘children’ employed in UK businesses have often been ‘educated out’ of questioning, challenging, debating, and original thinking. They have too often not been held to account nor asked to deal with the consequences of their actions or behaviours. Beginning in school and at home and now continuing into the workplace, they are simply not encouraged to reason, to use common sense, to make their own decisions and assess their own risks. As a result they lose the ability to do so… ‘it might go wrong’ or ‘who do I complain to’ are typical of the first thoughts that comes to mind rather than ‘how can I make this go right’ or ‘what could I have done differently to help avoid this situation’?

Child-like responses are draining and damaging to both individuals and businesses. So how do we get our employees back to what we need – adults behaving like adults?

I was asked this question on Tuesday by a friend. She had issued a 10-step procedure to a manager who responded saying a 30-step procedure would have ensured that every eventuality was covered.  My friend’s frustration of course was why couldn’t the manager just use her brain to do her job within the parameters of the procedure that had been issued.

My response was ‘tell her that you expect her to manage within the parameters of the procedure sent out and that you have every confidence she will be able to do that’.

In other words, don’t bail her out, don’t be tempted to add in a couple more bullet points to appease her, don’t roll your eyes in frustration, but instead seek to make her accountable…. your team, your decisions. I am here to support, not here to bail you out. And every time you ask me to bail you out by making decisions for you, I will be disciplined enough to step back and instead remind you that you are accountable and you can make the necessary decisions in your own team.

We had an interesting example of the tug of war between treating adults like adults or adults like children in a recent parliamentary session. I am not interested in the politics of the situation but we had the government on one side asking adults to use their common sense in respect of the spread of Coronavirus in line with their Stay Alert messaging, whilst others were saying we would not prevent the spread of infection unless a specific instruction was given to the public, i.e. don’t allow adults to use their common sense because we all know they will mess it up.

Of course, a specific instruction would minimise the risk (which is clearly the goal) however the long term consequences of risk assessing for others (removing their need to do so) is that people lose the skill entirely or otherwise come to believe that risk assessment is not their responsibility.

Even more interesting to me were the numerous individuals in the community who further argued, it’s not fair to ask us to use our common sense, we need to know specifically what we can do and cannot do.

So we appear to have gone from ‘I’ve forgotten how to reason like an adult, I’ve lost the ability to use my common sense etc’ to ‘it’s not fair if you ask me to make decisions and use my common sense’. No adult behaviours and no accountability.

So where does that leave you when managing staff in your workplace or driving your business forward after months of chaos?

I think organisations have a choice:

1) Accept that most adults will behave like children and the more we treat them like children the more they will behave like children. We then have to work out how to reduce business exposure to the consequences of that pattern of behaviour i.e. loss of problem solving, reasoning, independent thinking, conflict management etc OR …

2) Seek to turn it around through training, education, clarity of culture and reinforcement of the behaviours we want. But do this in full knowledge it is a massive job and one that will need to be ongoing.

I hope that my thoughts here might have encouraged you to think about your own business. If you decide it’s time to convene a board meeting to decide your future path, my suggestion for the agenda item would be “Prefrontal cortex v Amygdala – what are we going to choose?”

Thoughts, ideas? I would love to hear them. Comment in the box below …

This is a personal blog written by Helen Jamieson. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Jaluch Ltd. The views and opinions posted in response to this blog are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Helen Jamieson or Jaluch Ltd. Jaluch Ltd is not responsible for the accuracy of the information within this blog.

5 replies added

  1. Ian Hay 11 June, 2020 Reply

    Wow Helen, you have hit the nail on the head with this blog. You said it all and straight down the line.

  2. David Rudd 17 June, 2020 Reply

    Outstanding commentary Helen.
    Absolutely nailed it.
    Totally spot on about what happens in many small businesses, which has a terrible impact on the business as a whole.

  3. Helen Jamieson 19 June, 2020 Reply

    Thank you Ian and thank you David. Whilst businesses’ attention is so focused on cash, pipeline, reorganisations etc which are so critical at this time, I hope we don’t lose sight of what we need from our staff to move beyond this current crisis.

  4. Bruce Main 25 June, 2020 Reply

    As a recently retired MD of an SME this struck a chord with me on many levels. In particular, the parallel between the government’s attempt to devolve responsibility for ‘common sense’ to the people of the country, and that of managing a business.
    In every business environment the staff exist in a spectrum ranging from ‘child-like’ to ‘adult-like’. It is the task of senior management to lead, train, educate, encourage, cajole and motivate those people to progress and add value to both themselves and the organisation.
    Sadly, some of the behaviour that now exists within today’s society through (for the right reasons) political correctness and modern schooling methods has encouraged those ‘developing adults’ to adopt more of a sheep than pioneer approach, at the expense of developing their own initiatives .

    • Helen Jamieson 26 June, 2020 Reply

      Thanks for your comment Bruce. There has to be a balance somewhere between using our initiative and following the rules.

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