“This doesn’t make sense to me!” Halfway down the train car, a woman’s voice was rising. She was assisting one of her two daughters with homework, and her aggravated tone caught my attention. “This doesn’t make any sense!” the mother kept saying. “You’re not answering the question!”
She probably believed she was helping, but I shuddered for the child’s sake at the frustration I could hear in her voice. “Not right now, honey,” she snapped at the younger sibling, who thankfully had no homework to complete on the train. “This doesn’t make any sense,” she repeated, even louder this time, drawing the attention of an entire train car full of people. “This is what you should say.”
Occasionally, when I’ve observed a child being treated badly, I’ve been able to create a diversion until the parent’s temper cooled, or come up with a distraction that lets everyone reassert their humanity. But I was seated too far from this family, and any intervention on my part would have been too obvious to preserve everyone’s dignity. Plus, I didn’t want to commit the same offense as the mother: conveying to someone else, “You’re doing it wrong and I can intimidate you into doing it better.”
You Can’t Lead by Demeaning
Have you ever worked for a boss who treated you like a child and intimidated you as if you were powerless? Someone who, instead of actually helping you, pointed out in a demeaning way just how inadequate you were for not doing better — or doing things the way they wanted them done?
In the train scenario, I don’t believe the mother actually understood the homework. It sounded like her anger and frustration came from fear, as if she didn’t know what the teacher wanted any better than her daughter did, so she was deflecting her own fear and anxiety onto her child.
But what the mother communicated was an impossible double-bind: “I may not know what the right thing to do is but you’d better not get it wrong.” Instead, she could have asked questions: “Tell me what you remember your teacher explaining.” Or suggested alternative paths: “Is there someone in your class you could ask?” Or even referred back to the actual authority: “Let’s write a note, honey, and explain to your teacher that you did as much as you could and you need a little help from him.”
But there was absolutely nothing effective about her approach. Don’t be that kind of leader!
Help Them Learn Their Way, Not Your Way
Do you truly want someone to learn? Then help them figure it out themselves rather than dictating to them. Ask leading questions. Encourage hypothesis and experimentation. Provide relevant information. Don’t take over. The only time to take over is in an emergency. Never take over if you don’t actually know the right thing yourself.
Punitive, insulting behavior breeds powerlessness, and eventually, resentment, whether you’re dealing with a nine-year-old child or a 45-year-old employee. Punishment and humiliation squelch good thinking, and can foster acting out, either passive-aggressively or assertively, in ways that will damage the organization, if not the ineffective leader.
And such harsh, unempathetic behavior can cascade downward, creating a culture where disdainfulness and lack of compassion become the norm.
Make the Other Person Feel Safe
By the end of the train ride, the mother had carried on enough to demonstrate that homework was not her only trigger. It became evident that this mother doesn’t look ahead, and then imposes her reactivity harshly upon her child. As we pulled into the train station, her vocal edge was audible again: “Maisie, let’s go! Get your stuff together!”
The command came at the last minute without any advance notice. A much better approach would have been to prepare the child ahead of time: “Maisie, we’re going to be arriving in a few minutes. Why don’t you start putting your things together?” Or the mother could have used a more direct style: “Maisie, we’ll be in the station very soon. Please get your stuff together now.” Instead, when the child did not move quickly enough, the mother reiterated, “Maisie, let’s go! NOW!” making it clear how fed up she was — as if she, not the child, were the wronged party.
Maybe Maisie actually is consistently slow, irresponsible, and scattered. But she’s only nine. She’s still a child. The mother is an adult — and should be acting like the responsible party, guiding the child into more effective behavior. Creating a frightening, threatening environment won’t help a child improve — no more than it will help us business-casual-wearing, LinkedIn-connected adults.
We all learn and perform better when someone cares as much about us and our learning as they do about our output. So please, when you’re frustrated by a co-worker or a subordinate, before you lash out, think about how you might speak kindly — and developmentally — to a child in a similar position. Take a breath and start over. It always works better to treat people with respect and kindness.
Onward and upward,