The pitfalls of “cool parent” leadership

Jan 03, 2023 10 mins

The pitfalls of “cool parent” leadership
author
Carl Karlsson

Senior Editor, US

contributors

Leadership is undergoing a seismic shift. As millennials become the majority of the workforce and Gen Z continues to file in, young workers’ modus operandi has become less about paying dues and more about prioritizing a holistic approach to work. Today’s employees have demands about office culture and work-life balance that require leaders to show compassion, create horizontal corporate structures, and essentially, be “nice.”

But is this always possible? Can leaders make sure their teams are meeting targets, staying proactive, and meeting the companies’ expectations, all while being constantly available and genial? What are the potential pitfalls of being the “cool parent” when so much depends on a leader’s ability to make tough calls and, at times, put the needs of a company first?

These are some of the topics we discuss with Alison Taylor, Welcome to the Jungle’s ethics expert from The Lab. Taylor is the executive director of Ethical Systems, a US think tank and research center that builds bridges between academia and the business world. She teaches professional responsibility and leadership at NYU Stern School of Business.

After a decade of rapid changes in our workplaces, we seem to collectively have landed on the idea that empathy is the most valuable leadership skill and the secret sauce to a profitable operation. What are your thoughts on this?

In a previous interview, I believe I mentioned that my impression is that our view of leadership has become somewhat schizophrenic. People certainly talk a lot about “servant leadership” and empathetic leaders — these are the CEOs and managers who build a trusting foundation with their employees and foster a culture of openness. But at the same time, we seem to love and long for these decisive, top-down leaders like Musk and Bezos. The issue is that these different sets of character traits rarely exist in the same person.

Even if we focus solely on the “empathetic leader,” it comes with its own set of issues. One of the things I worry about with Gen Z is the notion that a good leader should act like your favorite professor — the one that takes care of you, and is understanding when you can’t hand your paper in on time. In the US, universities have become obsessed with student ratings, where professors are evaluated and rewarded in accordance with how much their students like them. Leaving aside for now that studies show this is not the best way to evaluate teachers — and that it’s probably not good for the education system — my fear is that students will continue to bring that mindset into the workplace. Corporations don’t work like universities, and expecting your manager to nurture you whatever happens is a recipe for disappointment and lack of career progression.

In the workplace, the outcome is that leaders start acting like politicians trying to win the votes of their employees, typically by trying to give an empathetic ear to as many issues as possible and seeking input on everything. And that collaborative mindset can be incredibly helpful and is long overdue. But in my experience, the result when everyone is consulted on every topic is that it rapidly becomes chaotic, the organization loses efficiency and workers become frustrated. It seems to me that we need to stop obsessing over whether leaders are “good people” and return to the idea of good management, which itself will benefit the health of workers. There’s clearly a lot of toxic management to go around, but the idea that a good organization lets everyone have a say in everything is hardly the solution.

It seems to me that another tricky aspect is that we don’t really have a definition of what empathy means in the context of leadership. For example, I’ve read plenty of articles pointing out that empathetic leadership is profitable, but how do we actually define the term? Couldn’t it be that workers experience good management as empathetic as it provides stability and a safe work environment?

So I think it’s worth noting that feeling empathetic towards someone doesn’t necessarily lead you to make better decisions. There’s a book called Against Empathy where the author, Paul Bloom, makes those important distinctions between empathy, compassion, and moral decision-making. We have to ask ourselves if too much comfort and safety — when you start to see your workplace like a family — is actually good for anyone. What often happens when certain workers become too comfortable and let go of performance expectations is that their colleagues feel they’re not pulling their weight, which is unfair and leads to resentment.

A long time ago, I inherited a team where the previous manager was very beloved and, I think, very empathetic. She was very involved with the team, going out with them and talking about their love lives and so on. What she hadn’t spoken to them about, however, was that the team was in fact underperforming. Not mentioning this was perhaps empathetic or sympathetic, but to me, that leadership style reminds me of “cool moms” — essentially not setting sufficient boundaries in a bid to become loved and popular. In the end, was this manager actually doing the team members any favors by not telling them that their work didn’t cut it? Does that really help them develop careers where they can feel safe and competent? No, the result was rather that no one was learning or progressing. Then, when their sense of entitlement was challenged, it resulted in a lot of anger. In short, the whole thing ended really badly.

That balance between direction and creating a safe space makes me think of when I was at university and studied at a French and American school at the same time. In France, the professor would walk in and start reading from a book — that he’d written himself, of course — and then the students would just transcribe. On the opposite end, at the American school, professors would tell students there were no wrong questions (and sometimes even answers) which naturally led to a lot of wacky discussions as the teacher did little to correct assumptions that were, in fact, wrong.

Yes, and that analogy works well when looking at the private sector today. On the one hand, we have the traditional top-down hierarchy: leaders bark orders from the top, workers take notes: Do your job, bring in the money and shut up. And on the other hand, there’s the idea of a corporation as a perfect democracy. But it isn’t. A fully democratic system doesn’t even make sense in a for-profit setting, given performance pressure, and the reality that decisions need to be made fast and sometimes on the fly. Even more fundamentally, there is no mechanism for democratic decision making, so its easy to listen to the most vocal employees and think you know what employees think in general, when you don’t. So there must be a balance between having leaders who aren’t tyrannical and mistreat their employees and an environment where they aren’t expected to act like “cool moms” and provide no direction or guidance beyond a posture of omnipresent empathy.

Similarly, I think it’s something very positive when younger workers feel safe enough to challenge leadership. But it needs to be tempered by the notion that experience also counts for something, and there might be things to learn.

What do you think are the main drivers of this reframing of leadership and authority?

Well I’ve already mentioned the university culture spilling over into the workplace. But there’s also a more sound aspect of questioning authority, which is younger people thinking: Why should I listen to these older people who got society into such a mess? And that’s a mindset I can really sympathize with.

The new narrative around workers’ relationship with leaders has, at least partly, been framed as a mental health question. What are your thoughts about the place of mental health issues in the office, and where does leadership fit in?

I think mental health in the workplace is a complicated issue. As a teacher, something I see in the classroom — and that I love — is that students feel much more comfortable talking about what used to be a very taboo topic. When I was younger, people thought there was something wrong with you if you had any kind of mental health issues. Now that’s changing in both education and in the workplace. So I think it’s something positive that managers are taught and expected to respect mental health issues by, for example, giving time off. But the question is whether we should expect leaders to go further than that.

For example, I had a student saying that if I’m struggling mentally, I expect my employer to intervene and protect me. Now, one obvious issue is that most managers don’t have the proper training to assist you, and that can lead to a situation where their intervention is potentially harmful to the employee. A second issue is what I’ve mentioned before, that whenever a manager steps into a sort of parental role or that of a therapist, we’re on dangerous territory — given that the context is business.

Why? Because the truth is that if the company isn’t profitable enough, you’ll get laid off regardless of the state of your mental health. In other words, the employee ends up in a very vulnerable position by ceding so much responsibility for their personal life to a manager. So, I say employees should be able to feel safe when expressing concern for their mental health, and managers should show concern for you as a human as we should with any colleague. But somewhere around there we must fix the bar for our expectations with regard to the role of a leader.

I should also add that there’s a different type of psychological safety and meaning that can be achieved by keeping work in its box. To me, it goes back to the notion of not bringing your whole self to work. Maybe I don’t have to bring my whole self to work, and in return, HR should keep out of my home! I don’t need to share all the details of my personal life with my colleagues. And I’m not pressured to be in the bar having enforced “fun” with all my colleagues. Rather, I can come, do my job, be professional and then leave — and that should be fine! The risk with an anything-goes culture is that it can become very culty and suddenly there are all these social pressures on workers to join various events and gatherings.

What I’ve found is that a mindset of professionalism can be of great help when you’re in a bad place privately. When I’ve been heartbroken, it’s been a relief to focus on my job and not think about my personal life for eight hours. That too can be great for your mental health, to briefly turn off that part of your brain that is dealing with a breakup, a painful conflict or bereavement. Again, I think we’ve lost the idea that there is such a thing as professionalism, but I think we need to bring that back.

You’ve mentioned, when leaders overstep their traditional boundaries, that there’s a dual risk of the company not performing well and employees not feeling well. Are there also risks you see on a broader, societal level?

It’s also all too easy to forget that your manager caring personally about your mental health or personal life should never be a substitute for you getting paid fair wages, getting paid time off and being treated with dignity and respect as an employee. To me, I’d rather have a manager who’s setting clear direction, pays me fairly and lets me know where I stand, than one who’s acting as my therapist and promises to be there for my personal development no matter what. Because it just isn’t true. And it places a huge burden on the manager.

How would you like to change the discussion?

My first point would be about feedback. Returning to my story about the failing team, a better way to deal with the situation — rather than being the “empathetic” leader ensuring them that all is well — would be to give continuous feedback on performance. You don’t humiliate, you don’t shame people, and you don’t save everything for the quarterly performance review and then dump a load of criticism on people, but let people know throughout their work what they can improve and where they’re doing well. So that’s sort of changing the narrative on what empathy actually means, which might mean being less of a friend and more of an ethical manager.

My second point is about psychological safety — and here there are a lot of things you can do as a leader that will provide that sense of safety without putting you in the position of the “cool parent.” For example, in meetings, don’t allow the most powerful person in the room to speak first, make sure they speak last. You can instead let people speak one-by-one which especially helps more introverted people to feel included. It’s just one way of managing the group dynamic of the team. Another simple way to build that foundation is to be honest when you’re not sure about something. That will signal that you don’t see yourself as this perfect authority and others will feel more comfortable having an open discussion.

Third, I think it’s very important to be clear about what’s up for negotiation and what isn’t. The fact is that no leader is all-powerful; even the CEO is answerable to the shareholders and the board. So the job of a middle manager is to convey decisions made from the top while listening to people at the bottom. As such, these leaders shouldn’t give the false impression that they got power over something they don’t, or that if employees complain enough, something’s going to change when it’s actually not. That might sound obvious but it’s in fact very hard to achieve this balance as a middle manager, especially as you sometimes will disagree with calls made higher up. But part of being a good manager is owning those unpopular decisions, rather than getting people below you all riled up against the senior management. I’ve struggled with this myself as a manager, so I know how important it is not to do this. In my experience, that type of honest, more straightforward leadership does much for people’s mental wellbeing and sense of safety.

My final advice is to be clear about the tension between what’s good for the team and what’s good for the individual, and the best way to do that is to talk about workload and team goals. For example, suppose I give you a week off because you’re feeling down, then that’s going to be a burden on the team as they will have to pick up your workload, which — if overdone — risks fuelling resentment. So even if I feel employees should be getting time off if they’re not feeling well, that zero-sum game must be acknowledged, and rather than it being my job as a manager to fit in around your individual desires and proclivities and peculiarities, it must be my main responsibility to make sure the team functions.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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