Helicopter Parents and Bosses Crash!

Accountability Personal leadership Resilience


Key Point: Stop hovering as a parent or manager! I’m a huge cheerleader and supporter of my now adult children. When they hurt or struggle I don’t like the situation, and it is natural to want to fly in and try to “fix things.” It is so tempting to be the Rescue King, and many of us, with the best intentions can cross the line to become what literature calls “helicopter parents.” We all end up learning that they are the only person capable of fixing a difficult situation in their own grown up lives. There is a lesson in this for bosses too.

A new study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that being overly involved in your grown up kids’ lives could do more harm than good. The same parents who have been calling their kids’ college professors to complain and interfere about grades are now, you guessed it, showing up at work. This is becoming an all too often occurrence. Parents are accompanying kids to job interviews, and believe it or not, actually going to the top of the organization to complain about how their recently hired children have been unfairly treated.

A recent article on the subject noted: “Managers today feel that Gen NEXT (millennial) employees often look like a ‘deer in headlights’ or ‘as if they’ve been shot’ when the manager gives the slightest bit of critical feedback. And why wouldn’t they? If this is the first time someone has told you bluntly you failed, you’d take it personally too. “Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent,” says Holly Schiffrin, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington. “When adult children don’t get to practice problem-solving skills, they can’t solve these problems in the future.”

Everyone reading this blog has probably run into difficult situations at work. At some time in our career, it is highly likely we will have a crummy boss, miserable peers, unreasonable customers, and occasionally all three at the same time. We are all going to be treated poorly, perhaps even unfairly. Yet when we ask successful leaders to describe when they have learned or grown the most, they usually describe a how they navigated through a very challenging project or situation. So why would we deny our children the same experience?

You may think this parental interference is far fetched but I’ve seen it in action. Think about how you would feel if your mom or dad called your boss to complain about the way you were treated? Ideally parents are there to hear us safely vent our feelings. That doesn’t mean or give them license to take action on our behalf. Frankly, it is disrespectful to all involved, especially our children. And most of us parents know there is another side to the story. Do we really want to find what it is?

The same hovering concept applies to managers. I remember watching a new sales leader knock himself out doing the work of his sales people rather than coaching, teaching, supporting and giving them feedback. He was well intentioned, but the consequence of being a helicopter manager was that he took on all the stress and burden of his sales people’s success (or failure). And even worse, his sales team stood back and let him do so rather than being self-accountable. Unwittingly he made them less effective sales people.

Character Moves:

  1. As a parent, encourage your children to develop skills dealing with conflict, criticism and disappointment; including but not limited to learning how to conduct difficult conversations. Do not hover and never (unless it is a rare matter of personal safety) directly interfere. It will make matters worse for all.
  2. As a leader/manager learn not to hover the same way. Do not manage and try to “fix” people. Rather, coach people for results. Care enough to give constructive and specific feedback… And yes, that means positive criticism. Recognition is vital, but you will rob your employees of personal growth if you exclusively give “badges” of praise. 
  3. As an employee, don’t take it totally personally when you’re constructively criticized. Be self-accountable and ask yourself what you have to do to change things. Fix yourself first. Be the first to go to others, including your boss and parents if appropriate, for coaching advice. Ask for help and insight about what YOU might do. Take counsel and then YOU decide what action YOU will take. 

No hovering in The Triangle