We Are All Adults Here

Cute, but not a work relationship

Our relationships with our parents are some of the most significant relationships in our lives, for better or for worse. We cannot and should not try to replicate those relationships at work. It is time that our workplaces adopt the policy “We are All Adults Here”.

Playing at Parents and Children

When Netflix set out to define its culture as a startup, one of the core ideas was “we are not family here”. Netflix explicitly set out to leverage a radical idea of establishing its culture on adult-adult relationships. They want employees to have the freedom and the responsibility that comes from interacting as adults. Too many organisations’ efforts to extend autonomy are undermined by a culture of policies and procedures that treat employees as children. The ‘nanny state’ of political imagination is alive and well inside organisations.

Treating employees as adults is not a new idea. It is just rarely implemented. Treating employees as children started back before Frederick Winslow Taylor. In the craftsman’s shop and in the early days of industrialisation before child labour laws, many employees were children. Early industrialists and other Taylorist viewed the employee’s brain as the last thing you would use. Taylor himself once reiterated his point in testimony to a Special Committee of the House of Representatives:

I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handing pig-iron is so great that the man who is fit to handle pig-iron as his daily work cannot possibly understand the science; the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron

Taylor’s school of thought may have been dominant in industrial thinking, but it was not alone. Even back in the early 20th Century, Mary Parker Follett was researching and demonstrating the potential of reciprocal adult relationships at work. Follet who focused on the connection between leadership and followership in shared purpose said:

That is always our problem, not how to get control of people, but how all together we can get control of a situation.

We didn’t lose the idea of adult relationships at work for the last century. It has been a constant counter-conversation to the insidious parent-child theme embeded in management. From time to time, the movement for more adult conversation has broken into our literature, our MBAs and our leadership programs. Many people have been introduced to a conversation about parent-child relationships since Eric Berne wrote Games People Play in 1964. Many of the same themes of mature relationships are found in Roger Martin’s wonderful book “The Responsibility Virus”. Other organisations went before and further than Netflix in exploring adult relationships. However, few managers have shifted the culture of their organisation.

Letting Go of Mom and Dad

The era of global digital networks that we now face has shifted the balance irreversibly from Taylor to Follett. An employee who sits childlike at the node of a network, waiting to be fed instructions is a blocker and will be routed around by customers, fellow employees and the community. In a network, you are judged by what you contribute, not what you consume. Waiting for a clear unambiguously attractive “what’s in it for me?” means a missed opportunity to make a personal choice.

The pace, customer centricity and competitive challenges of digital business demand organisations leverage the greatest potential of their people. An employee on the spot responding like a fully functioning human adult is the greatest competitive advantage that can be put into market, particularly if they can command the digital resources of the organisation in support of their decisions. That will never happen if they are really children playing and waiting for approval.

There are many psychological reasons why we revert to the comfort of adult and child relationships. Having an adult to ‘look after us’, whether CEO, boss or politician can be comforting in times of uncertainty and threat. However, as too many employees and citizens, have discovered that leader is only looking after themselves and leveraging the parent-child relationship to do so at their disadvantage. Unlike parents, CEOs are not in the business of sacrificing themselves to save their children.

The hard adult work of reciprocal relationships is in front of us. This is one of the critical reasons why organisations need to develop strong practices in sense-making, collaboration, adaptive leadership, and experimentation. We can no longer rely on the one adult in the room to make all the decisions. Changing engrained habits is not easy. However, these new challenging relationships are the way to realise our human potential.