The idea of treating employees like adults should hardly be a novel one, even less so a topic that garners extensive articles. And yet. You hear this everywhere, in every corner of the world, in every industry. A tale as old as time: the overbearing boss. The condescending project leader. The patronising micromanager.
Adlerian psychology calls this a vertical relationship, in which one person has power over another. A horizontal relationship, adversely, is where both are treated as equals. It is important to note that it does not mean equality of abilities or knowledge, but equality in power dynamics. One can have a horizontal relationship with someone much older or younger, in various stages of their lives.
So why is it that leaders refuse to treat their employees like adults, and instead, choose to breathe down their necks? Why is it that almost all employer-employee dynamics are of a vertical nature?
Untrust begets untrust
The fact is that employees are adults, and should be treated with trust and respect. Ranking and rating systems, for instance, say that at best, employees need juvenile encouragement and at worst, should be pit against one another. Same as attendance policies or strict dress codes, all of which displays a leader’s lack of trust in their employees.
Rather than allowing employees the autonomy to be accountable for their own time and decisions, many organisations still practice top-down, sometimes military-esque management styles where employees are constantly monitored, berated or given patronising criticism. The problem with treating adults like children is that they are, in fact, adults, and will know they are being treated like children. This leads to poor performance, lowers engagement and weakens retention.
When leaders begin treating their employees like adults, it’s a win-win situation: leaders develop their relationships with their employees to become more horizontal, where people treat each other as equals so that everyone progresses in parallel, without detriment to either party.
Stinky Fish and the FIRO theory
The FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) theory is a brilliant way to practice this trust. Briefly, the FIRO theory posits that self-concept drives feelings, feelings drive behaviour, and behaviour drives results.
The theory provides a fresh perspective on how to understand your own interpersonal needs, as well as that of others’—understanding that all humans share these three basic needs will shape your communication style, tone and content while keeping a fundamental level of trust and respect.
An exercise that Hyper Island does is Stinky Fish. Participants are asked to put their Stinky Fish on the table—a fear or anxiety that the more you hide and ignore, the stinkier it becomes. The Stinky Fish could be anything from anxiety over the unknown of office politics, to feeling left behind in an increasingly tech-centred world.
Participants write this down and share it with the group, and that’s it. The beauty of this exercise lies in its simplicity. What Stinky Fish does is foster a climate of trust. Sharing anxieties lowers the facade of bravado, removing the idea that everyone knows what they’re doing. Participants change their self-concept (e.g. “I’m not alone in feeling anxious about office politics”), therefore changing their feelings about something (e.g. feeling less anxious about office politics). Feelings drive behaviour (e.g. understanding office politics and why they happen), and behaviour drives results (e.g. reducing or dealing with office politics).
Utilising models like FIRO provides a more nuanced understanding of the people around you.
They’re not sheep waiting to be herded, but rather adults with goals, anxieties and unique minds and perspectives, that leaders should trust are clever and mature.
The Buurtzorg Model
What does this look like in practice? Buurtzorg is a healthcare organisation that is seen by many enthusiasts as “a key part of the solution to challenges facing healthcare systems across the world”, and one of the most successful healthcare organisations in the world. It is led by Jos de Blok, who said in an interview with Rutger Bregman, “Managing is bull****. Just let people do their job.”
The crux of this model is empowerment: empowering nurses to deliver all the care patients need, rather than outsourcing it to nursing assistants or cleaners. The company of 14,000 has no managers, no call centre and no HR department. Targets and bonuses do not exist. Workers are divided into teams of 12 who plan their own schedules and employ their own co-workers.
In the same interview, Bregman says of de Blok: “He just trusts his employees and he doesn’t think he knows better how to do their job. He thinks they know better how to do it.” And it seems to work—the organisation has been voted Dutch Employer of the Year five times.
According to a KPMG case study, the nurses, “freed from excessive hierarchical rules”, have increased efficiency, reducing the hours of care per patient by 50 percent, while improving quality. Both patient and employee satisfaction levels have risen dramatically, and absenteeism is low.
Ultimately, it boils down to trust. de Blok trusts that his employees know how to do their job best, and gets rid of arbitrary management and inflexible systems. The company’s motto is apt: ‘humanity before bureaucracy’.
Are you managing or are you leading?
Marie-Claire Ross, a coach who helps leaders and organisations improve trust in teams, posits that reducing micromanagement in the workplace comes down to two main factors: changing the mindset of the leader and teaching them how to delegate.
As a leader, there exists the polarity of taking the lead against the expectations to empower employees. On one hand, leaders should lead with expertise, experience and decision-making. On the other hand, leaders want to entrust their employees with authority. But empowerment is not giving employees the responsibility of doing the leader’s job, it is about setting them up to feel comfortable with that responsibility.
It’s an intentional, introspective process that might take time. But when leaders start to treat their employees like the competent adults they are, everyone wins.