How Helicopter Leaders can destroy meaning at work 1

How Helicopter Leaders can destroy meaning at work

We’ve all heard of helicopter parents who take an overprotective or excessive interest in the lives of their children. We know through experience and academic study about the damage it does to the development of important life skills. Is it also possible to be a helicopter leader and does this negatively affect the development of your team? The answers are yes and yes. This style of leadership is sometimes known as micromanagement. Like its parenting-style equivalent, it also comes from a good place (wanting the best results) but it’s negative side-effects will quickly reduce the meaning and happiness that your staff experience from their work and inhibit their long-term effectiveness.  

I was at my five-year old’s five-a-side soccer match last weekend. They are not quite at world cup level, yet! There is one very strong player on the team, two who are alright, and the rest just follow the ball around hopelessly not confident enough to shoot. There are always two players on the bench but everyone gets rotated throughout the game. As I watched, I couldn’t help but be overcome with the desire for my son to experience a win and protect him from the pain of losing (again). If we want to win the match why don’t we keep the strongest player on the field the entire game? I had to stop myself in my tracks.  My short term pain-avoidance strategy would cause long-term harm by denying him a chance to step-up his game or to learn through failure.

Relating this back to the workplace, if a helicopter leader is too hands-on it takes away the opportunities for others in the team to have meaningful experiences and grow. When leaders step away, there are three core pathways to meaningful work that are activated for the employees:

  1. Achievement- Achieving a result that is hard is much more meaningful than being spoon-fed. The sense of achievement is much sweeter for having been stretched and challenged.

  2. Self-esteem- Succeeding through adversity builds self-esteem. What’s more when the star player (or helicopter leader) isn’t hogging the spotlight it allows for more recognition for the rest of team which also builds self-esteem.

  3. Belonging – Working together as a cohesive team and making equal and valued contributions toward a team result is a fast way to boost a sense of belonging.

I now recognise how easy it is to fall into the trap of becoming a helicopter parent/leader. This is often exacerbated in workplaces where the leader is incentivised on the short-term result but the message is clear, you are reducing meaning and happiness for your employees by striving for short-term pain avoidance. This will drag down long-term performance.  So, stop spoon-feeding and allow them to grow! If you need an added incentive you will soon find that helping your staff to reach their potential will boost your own sense of meaning and happiness. It’s a win-win!

As for my son, well, his team lost the match but they gained so much more. When the best player was subbed out, the others were challenged to fill the void and saw a lot more of the ball. My son didn’t get the goal he wanted but I could see his confidence grow and this was the biggest win.

 Author: Birthe Nohrden

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