From the Cradle to the Workplace: A Study of Leader-Follower Relationships

By: Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center

Many of us have heard about helicopter parents. That’s defined as a “parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.” One of my graduate school organizational behavior professors once said, “99% of the people in the world are dysfunctional and the other 1% lie about it.” He certainly was right on the mark, so new parents and expanding families, this blog is especially for you! It also applies to anyone trying to raise well-adjusted children.

If you want to raise well-adjusted children who thrive in the workplace, the results of a recent study might be of interest.

The study, published in the journal Human Relations found that the way parents treated you as an infant–whether they let you “cry it out” or rushed to comfort you–influences your workplace behavior and relationships today.

Researchers believe this is because babies whose parents were particularly attentive tended to look at them as a source of support, while those with parents who let them cry did not have the same association. As they grew up, those same individuals brought this same mode of thinking into the workplace. Case and point: those who didn’t view parents as a source of support were found to be anxious or avoidant attachment. They tend to manifest fears that people won’t return their affection and often overreact anytime they feel their relationships are in jeopardy. They often use guilt and manipulation in hopes that others will stay near and reassure them.

The study also looked at management style and found that anxiously attached people are affected the most by the type of boss they have. When they work for supportive leaders, they have no problems. However, when they work for distant, unsupportive bosses, they do not have positive outcomes. That’s because they feel threatened and their anxieties are often manifested in an unhealthy way.

So what are the takeaways here? The researchers said they believe parental support as infants and toddlers can be a boon for individuals later in life. However, there is room for management style to help mitigate some of these issues. While some might find that a mother or father figure in the workplace is helpful (to offset some of the negative tendencies), bosses should avoid coddling.

So keep in mind the following:

  • We have to assume and hold ourselves personally responsible for our choices and actions.
  • In order to achieve personal and lasting change, we must be aware of the need for change, possess the willingness to change and have a burning platform for the change.
  • Trust (faith in others versus strong personal bonds and feelings for another person) is the key to healthier and lasting organizational relationships. Some followers need constant reassurance from their leaders in order to more fully contribute in the workplace. Knowing this fact can help supervisors deliver the trust and support necessary to bring out the personal best in others.
  • The study findings have tremendous implications for job redesign, selecting supervisors and delivering quality feedback.
  •  Issues of workplace performance outcomes and job stress are not unique or specific to millennials. It applies to anyone working in the workplace, but it is clear that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will be comprised of millennials.

Sadly, millennials are the most educated generation, the most exposed to entrepreneurship yet the least entrepreneurial. Seeking more and better understanding might reduce the chasm that exists today in maximizing their performance and engagement in the workplace leading to high levels of entrepreneurship in the future.


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