Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Are you a ‘helicopter manager’?

Published:Sunday | January 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM

As a manager, do you to need to unlearn the bad habit of hovering over employees while they work? If you don't, you run the risk of stifling your employee's development.

Like other managers, you may argue that your employees are uniquely unproductive: outsiders have no idea how awful they are. Convinced of their incompetence, you reel off one fantastic story after another in which you had to intervene to prevent a tragedy.

The theme is often the same: your brilliance was needed to avert a monumental case of stupidity.

Missing from the equation is the idea that you bear some responsibility.

Usually, there's not a trace of it in your lurid, and sometimes hilarious, accounts. To make things worse, you might be caught in a spiral in which the more you hover, the less responsibility your employees display. You have mastered the skill of turning a team of bright sparks into a pack of 'Moo-moos'.

You may not realise that you are following the example of helicopter parents. In the early phases, it seems innocent enough - they drop off a forgotten lunch at school or a mislaid instrument for music lessons. In the later, crazy phases, they call their adult child's university lecturer to insist on higher exam marks.

At Wolmer's, I recall a helicopter parent who brought in two 'bad-man' to bodily threaten a student who wouldn't stop harassing her 15-year-old.

Helicopter managers do something similar - to ill-effect. They stifle an employee's development by swooping in at the last minute, averting a problem. While they think they are helping, they are actually retarding, hogging both the struggle and the glory of accomplishment. They heroically save the day, blind to the rush they feel and the cost of feeding their ego.

An old 1960 study tells the truth about your employees' true motivation. Psychologist John Atkinson gave subjects the challenge of taking shuffleboard shots from different distances ranging from 'very easy'/close up to 'very difficult'/far away.

In such a competition, you may imagine your employees taking the easy way out and shooting from a close distance.

In fact, only 19 per cent of the self-described "low achievers" picked the shortest distance, while 26 per cent chose the intermediate distance. A whopping 54 per cent chose the most difficult distance.

While the study didn't take place in Jamaica, consider the notion that our culture is a competitive one. According to the Hofstede Centre's analysis, we score 68 out of 100 on the masculine/feminine scale, indicating a strong preference for "competition, achievement and success".

Perhaps you are the only factor blocking your employees' natural, cultural propensity for a challenge.

It's no wonder that Ken Carter's Why Workers Won't Work - The Case Study of Jamaica reports that 83 per cent of rank-and-file employees agree that their education and skills are being underutilised.

To reverse the habit of infantilising employees, here's what you, as a manager, can do.

Create the right context from the start. When you hire an employee, explain that in the beginning, it's normal to need lots of help to learn complex new tasks. Use an HR best-practice: give employees some insight into how hard their job can become by describing the worst day possible. This helps him/her understand why close mentoring is needed, if only at the start.

Unfortunately, you might assume the opposite: that employees want to be comfortable. This leads you to hide harsh realities from them, thereby sowing the seeds of later trouble.

Show employees the development path. Most of your employees probably have no clue what long-term plans you have for them, if any. As a result, they relax into the mode of 'keeping my job', which requires little innovation or risk.

Stuck at this level, their contribution is minimised. You may conclude they are lazy, but the best managers push all their employees to add new skills, following a written career plan.

Consciously allow failure. If managers can't play the role of hero, the worst ones abandon employees to flounder, just so they can crow 'I told you so'.

It's better to help workers experience the deep learning that comes naturally from failure. Help employees understand that business, just like life, brings many more failures than successes.

Instead of setting them up, provide coaching in how to become resilient so that they can succeed. This is the opposite of helicoptering, which only produces more Moo-moos, that is, unthinking complacency.

Managers who complain about their staff are often clueless about the problem they helped create. If the cap fits, teach yourself to stop swooping in to save the day. Reality is a great teacher, especially when it delivers tough lessons that cannot be learned any other way.

n Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.