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What managers can learn from helicopter parents

Helicopter parents mean well, they want to best for their kids. Meantime, their care is often suffocating from the child’s perspective. These children are deprived from the opportunity to try things themselves, to learn, and to fail. A counter movement promoting free-range parenting has emerged as a result. Parallels can be found in organizations, where helicopter management is turning humans into mindless robots.

Helicopter parents

Helicopter parents are the “parents of high school or college-aged students who do tasks the child is capable of doing alone (for instance, calling a professor about poor grades, arranging a class schedule, manage exercising habits)”. It can also apply to other age groups. “In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, always playing with and directing his behavior, allowing him zero alone time,” Dr. Dunnewold says.

Why helicopter?

What are the reasons parents become such helicopters?

Karen Bayless of Parent provides the following four reasons:

  • Fear of dire consequences if things go not right
  • Feelings of anxiety when leaving things up to the child
  • Overcompensation from their own childhood experience
  • Peer pressure from other parents

Helicopter management

It seems that nowadays many organizations suffer a similar phenomenon, helicopter management. That is, management who have created oversight in the form of protocols, metrics, routines and procedures for tasks the employees are perfectly capable of doing alone, for instance, judging which patient requires extra time, which analyses to order, which approvals to seek for a certain action.

For the latter, think about nursing home services, in which nursing staff has 11 minutes to get patients with dementia dressed as part of their morning routine.

Or warehouse employees that are tracked for their movements when order picking.

Often these structures are well intended – to optimize labor usage, avoid liabilities etc. At the same time, they make that the strong suit of humans – their ability to judge situations – gets neglected, which in turn can make employees feel and start behaving like mindless pawns or robots.

Not the same as micromanagement

Helicopter management is different from micro management, where a manager might virtually shadow the employee non-stop, measuring every move they make and directing his or her behavior.

Instead, helicopter management is more a structural problem, in which processes, routines and protocols take away the accountability of employees and turn them into human robots.

Does the AP college board truly need a nurse to check every request for additional support? Even in case the request is already approved by the student’s teacher and physician? Creating a bottleneck in the system, that delays the ability for the student with for instance a broken wrist, to take their exam at the designated day.

Helicopter management takes away the unique abilities of humans to make judgement, be curious, and try new things.

Why helicopter management

The reason for helicopter management seem very similar to helicopter parenting.

Fear of dire consequences of making mistakes.

  • Why?

Failure is unacceptable and should be avoided at all cost. Unfortunately, humans are not perfect. Instead of acknowledging that humans make mistakes, routines are protocols are put in place to shift the blame and address liability.

  • Why ineffective?

For example, from a safety perspective, it works better to point out to employees the impact of unsafe behavior. “You will no longer be able to play your favorite sport if you fall from the roof, and on average once every month someone slips while working on a roof – that is why you have to wear a safety vest every time you enter a roof”. Than just having a protocol in place – you need to wear a safety vest when entering a roof.

Feelings of anxiety

  • Why?

Can you trust your employees to do the right thing? According to economic theory, employees are free agents that are out to personal gain instead of the benefit of the greater good.

  • Why ineffective?

In practice, most people are compassionate and like to contribute to the greater good if they believe in the cause.

Peer pressure from others

  • Why?

Organizations are looking at leaders in the industry and try to copy their behavior to be equally profitable and productive.

  • Why ineffective?

While management practices like lean can be copied from successful firms, you will have to make them work for your organization. Blindly copying best practices from another organization and hope for the same outcomes never works.

In sum, helicopter management does not work, because it takes away any accountability of employees by creating structures that are intended to prevent bad things from happening. Just as with helicopter parenting, the intent may be good, yet the consequences are dire. In the most positive case, it creates a bureaucratic nightmare. In the most negative case, it results in disengaged employees who cause accidents and potentially make fatal errors.

Counter movements

Among parents, a counter movement of free range parents started. The goal of these parents is not to set their kids up for failure. Rather the contrary. The goal is to raise more independent kids with critical thinking skills. Not an easy task.

A recent Harvard Business Article proposes to create structures that are not stifling. The article discusses how to give employees essential direction without shutting them down and provides examples of such approaches as used by Netflix and Alaska air.

Setting expectations clear is essential. What are employees supposed to do?

Alaska Airway’s guideline “‘Trust your gut; do the right thing,” for example, resulted in an unprecedented focus on customer service. However, it came at the cost of safety and profitability. So later Alaska’s leadership team defined four standards of service: safety, caring, delivery, and presentation. Within each standard it provided broad guidelines for employees’ attitudes and behaviors. And front-line employees were trained on these attitudes and behaviors, so they could handle accordingly, without taking their responsibilities for the travel experience away.

New service and new product development

Free range management is also needed for successful new service and new product development. Helicopter management will not get your far. With too much oversight, ambitious and driven employees cannot get their innovation projects off the ground, no matter how hard they try.

However, without clear guidelines, a company can easily waste a lot of money on fruitless and unwanted innovation efforts.

At organizing4innovation, we have learned that clear strategic goals help define what innovative solutions the organization is looking for. A clear process helps to get projects off the ground. During the process, focusing on outcomes and progress helps to keep the responsibility and accountability there were it belongs, with the innovation team.

Artificial intelligence

It will be interesting to see how the role of today’s tools like artificial intelligence, big data, etc. will evolve. On the one hand, these “machines” can robotize work even more, as they can make all decisions for humans – like autonomous vehicles. On the other, these machines could facilitate the free-range movement, by for instance identifying those customers that may need or deserve an extra hand, and help differentiating instead of giving everyone the same standard treatment.

Please leave your thoughts on helicopter versus free-range management and the role of artificial intelligence in the comment section below. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences.