Am I Your Dad or What? The Pros and Cons of Parenting at Work

A few years ago, I was standing in a coffee shop, waiting for the train with my agency team. We were returning to the office after a good presentation. The Account Manager asked if anyone wanted a cup of tea. The two Creatives accepted, then handed him a pack of gum and several magazines, saying “Can you get these too, I’m sure you can expense it”.

He handled it graciously, but commented to me later that he had no intention of expensing a few cups of tea, he’d just wanted one himself and was being polite. “I didn’t expect them to act like I was their dad.”

It’s surprising how often work relationships can slide into parent child mode.
Whether it’s a manager trying to reason with someone who’d having a rant or your co-worker that’s quit speaking to you since you corrected their work; you’ve suddenly been allocated the parent role.

While the temptation is just to be the parent and move on, it’s a slippery slope. In my experience, the person who was acting like a child will want to be an adult again and then resent the parenting role you’ve taken.

They’ll be confused about how they lost their authority. They won’t understand why the group looks to someone else, the parent figure, for the final say. This causes friction and makes it difficult to re-establish an equilibrium between you.

So, how can you address this when it happens?
Here are 3 suggestions:

Head on
Try pointing out the behaviour the moment it begins. “Gosh, you’re making me feel like your mum here”. Making them aware of it in a light hearted way may be enough for them to reconsider.

Highlight what they’re giving up
“I could manage the project myself, but I’d like us both to get credit for it.”

Put the ball in their court
Ask a question that makes them think about their own responsibility in the issue. “What do you think you could do to help me get your raise approved?”

The Upside to Parenting
There are times when bringing your parenting skills to work isn’t a bad idea. Some things you use at home are equally effective at motivating your team.

I was coaching a man who’d just taken over a new role and was trying to gain the respect of his staff.

He said one of his team was really good, better than he had been at that stage in his career. However, he hadn’t told her that because he didn’t want to undermine his own authority.

He said he managed her by telling her she’d done well at the end of a project. Then he would explain how he would have done the project differently and gave examples of how his approach had achieved better results in the past.

From previous sessions, I knew that this client was an amazing dad and that his 6 year old was turning into a star footballer.

I asked if he ever told his son that he was better player at his age, than he had been himself? He said yes, he did it all the time. I asked how his son reacted and he said he’d get a huge smile and even more enthusiasm.

I wondered how his son would react if he consistently coached him with “that’s good, but let me tell you how I’d have done it”. He laughed and said he didn’t think his son would want to play with him anymore.

Then he explained that he coached his son at football by encouraging him while he practiced. On occasion when his son got frustrated he’d jump in with a few new things to try.

In the next breath, he said he thought he’d try a new management approach with his staff…

What was working from his parenting skills?

Be supportive
Draw positive comparisons, let someone know they have great potential to take your job someday. It builds their confidence and inspires them to work harder.

Encourage independence
Help your staff stand on their own feet, encourage them to manage their projects, make considered decisions and try new things. It will free up your time for the bigger thinking and give them a solid foundation for career growth

Share your wisdom
You’ve got that senior job because you have both wisdom and experience. Share what you know when it’s needed. Timely guidance and suggestions can make all the difference to someone who’s struggling and they’ll respect you for sharing that when they needed it.

What are your experiences with that Parent/Child relationship at work or putting good parent practice in to action in the office?


  1. I travelled for several weeks through South America with one of the owners of my company. I spoke Spanish, he did not. By the end of the first week he had regressed to full child mode, incapable of thinking for himself on any level. It was like traveling with a five year old that I couldn’t scold. How long is this flight? What’s the exchange rate? Can she get club soda instead of water? You mean the waitress who is talking to you in perfect English? Hmmm, I don’t know.

    There is nothing more infuriating than having to add the responsibility of dealing a coworker incapable of handling any responsibility of their own. They simply need to grow up.

    And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t know what time this flight lands. Ask the tri-lingual flight attendant.

  2. Great story Kathy, you made me smile. I can just imagine your BOSS, someone you want to look up to and respect, slipping into child mode. Good thing they have saftey locks on those plane doors – you might have been tempted to put him on the naught step… on the wing.

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