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Tools from the HR Desk: Do Your Workers Need a Time Out?

Tools for rooting out childish behavior in the workplace.

HR Magazine, March 2000
A clinical psychologist would call childish behavior among adults “regressive”; you probably just call it exasperating.

If you manage a seemingly mature human being (temples of gray, body parts heading south, wrinkles) who regularly acts like a child, it may be more than annoying; it may be adversely affecting the entire organization.

You know the “children.” They’re the ones who cruise the hallways whining, sniveling and stamping their feet to retirement. The only missing juvenile antic would be inserting crayons up their noses during lunch.

A workplace is no place for children; yet managers still tolerate childish behavior. It is your responsibility as a leader to create environments that send a very clear message: For adults only.

Are There Children In Your Workplace?

Childish behavior usually sends a passive-aggressive message: “I need or have lost control.” When adults lack the skills, fortitude or positional power to represent themselves at work, they often regress to childish behaviors—the ones that have always worked.

Why act like an “adult” if you know your whining will drive someone to the point that he takes care of your problem? Regardless of their degrees or pedigrees, all workers—and managers—have the potential to open mental file drawers and recall some childish device that usually has given them control.

Your organization is accountable for this type of behavior. First, if childish behavior is rampant, your organization may be partly responsible for the employee’s regression into the role of the child. Has the workforce learned that the smartest career path is to keep your head down and your mouth shut? Highly repressive workplaces will create highly regressive workers.

Second, who are the models for control in your organization? Do the people who kick sand, throw tantrums or win “King of the Mountain” get the promotions? You should not be mystified about childish behavior among the ranks when misbehavior is rewarded with a cushy chair in the executive suite.

Third, and most important, is your organization enabling childish behavior? Some people in leadership get a high from keeping employees low. It is ego enhancing when someone comes to you and says, “We have been waiting to get your decision on this.”

Instead of resorting to the negative approach (“Would you please grow up!”), try a positive alternative, such as “Here is what an adult-only organization looks like.”

Transactional analysis of your department works well here. Thomas Harris taught in I’m OK, You’re OK (Avon Books, 1973) that people will use the “parent,” “adult” and “child” ego role to get what they want from others. Because these terms can be easily misunderstood, try replacing them with “aggressive,” “assertive” and “passive,” respectively.

Aggressive and passive ap proaches govern most organizations. An aggressive employee takes away someone’s right to intimidate. So, comments like “We don’t have a problem here because it will be done my way” or “What about the word ‘no’ is it that you don’t understand?” demean and, ultimately, beg for a childish response.

While the aggressive approach is often best when you have an emergency and have no time for handholding, when the aggressive ego role is constantly used, the “payback system” begins, and employees silently strategize on how to make the “parent” pay for the repeated verbal attempts at demeaning his co-workers.

Negligence or all-expense-paid-guilt-trips typically characterize the passive response. Managers can easily detect the pattern of the passive co-worker. He walks around muttering phrases such as, “I don’t need this today,” “These people have taken five years off my life” or “After that meeting, my acid-reflux will be a 10.”

Passivity presumes that if the speaker can look, sound and act like a victim, others will gallop in and attempt a rescue. There is a subtle but pervasive message here: “I do not have the internal strength to make a decision or take action and therefore I need you to authenticate me.”

Your employees need to learn and laugh about their aggressive and passive approaches to each other. They should be able to recognize that both of these ego-roles, common to most organizations, are manipulative and dishonest.

The preferred option—one of the assertive adult—should replace these approaches. Once your employees understand this choice, there will be no choice.

Assertiveness is not the answer to world hunger, but it is the bedrock to building an adult organization. Within the confines of this definition of assertiveness lies the balance between respect for the person and respect for the task. That delicate balance characterizes the mature organization.

Childproof Your Workplace

Here are 10 suggestions to childproof your workplace:

  1. Look at your department’s mission statement. If it lacks the word “adult,” change it. It should read something like this: “We work for an adult organization that fosters a mature and healthy workplace.” When confronted with childish behavior at work, you can pull out that mission statement and ask the employee, “What do the words ‘mature’ and ‘healthy’ mean to you?” This allows permission and professionalism to confront playground behavior.
  2. Ask human resources to conduct organizationwide assertiveness training. This will become the boot camp for anyone who wants to work at your company. Your employees will learn and practice the language and agenda of functioning as adults with each other and your customers.

    Language is important. Childish language often takes the form of nagging, whining and sniping. Because most adults avoid acting out their juvenile predisposition with such antics as depositing bubble gum in someone’s hair or biting a hand, they rely on words, the Excalibur of the sophisticated child.

    To effectively deflect this mind-set, everyone must adopt a new language for working with each other. The suggested vocabulary is not about being nice; rather, it is about being clear and mature.

    Specifically, eliminate the personal pronoun “you” during conflicts. “You don’t know what you are talking about” and “You need to get your act together” convey a parental role that reinforces the “I’m-the-landowner-you-are-the-serf” environment.

    Instead, everyone in your workplace should become comfortable using “I,” as in “I am expecting this task will be done by 11:30 a.m.” or “I am confused as to why my calls were not returned.” The “I” statement takes responsibility for yourself; the “you” statement takes re sponsibility for the other person.

  3. Make your employees accountable for practicing the “soft skills.” If you believe obscene gestures, temper tantrums and leaving unsigned, toxic notes are unacceptable, then the annual performance review should reflect both the reward of adult behavior and the penalty for acting like Oscar the Grouch.
  4. Share the wealth. If your organization is making money, profits should be shared with those doing great work as well as those who have been thinking the great ideas. Stock options, incentive pay or some type of bonus conveys to workers that they are full partners in the company’s success. When only the “big people” profit from success, you have opened a new playpen.
  5. Raise expectations for everyone. The Alberta Pacific Forest Industries had it right when it published this statement to its employees: “You either grow and continuously learn here, or you move out.” Adult organizations do not have to apologize to adults for raising the bar.
  6. Give away your authority and responsibility. This gutsy approach assumes that many people in the organization have the same potential as you to make good or bad decisions within specific guidelines.

    Millions of people hate their jobs because they are given stupid, childish work. Employees need to be challenged. Don’t people become unusually mature and work as a team when there is an emergency? The crisis demands thinking followed by action. And employees salivate for a siren.

    If management shares with staff in the privilege of being right and wrong within specific guidelines, brains—and adults—will start emerging. No one learns to handle increased authority unless it is placed in his hands. The adult organization takes smart risks with people as well as products.

  7. Declare war on passivity. The greatest threat to any work environment is entitlement. The childish assumption of entitlement is: “If my body walks through the door, you owe me a paycheck and it doesn’t matter if the work is done right.”

    The problem with entitlement is that the list of what someone is “owed” grows longer by the minute without any connection to productivity. Ultimately, entitlement creates a workforce of whining adults who spend most of their mental energy strategizing about the next perk. When someone willfully ignores what needs to be done, there should be consequences.

  8. Encourage fair fighting. Childish behavior is easy to spot during conflict. Name-calling, pouting, screaming, blaming, cursing and throwing temper tantrums all occur in the workplace because, in the moments of greatest stress, people regress. They return to what has worked for centuries: dirty fighting. In dirty fighting, there is just one simple rule—use any method to destroy your opponent.

    Conversely, fair fighting is a form of conflict resolution reserved for adults who believe disagreement does not have to destroy. The intent of fair fighting is to admit when opposition exists and then quickly resolve conflict without assigning a “winner” and “loser.”

    The rules of fair fighting are quite simple. Never lose emotional control; don’t apologize for holding a different opinion; keep the resolution focused on mutual gain; refrain from the “cheap shot” comment; listen with the goal of hearing the “other story”; stay in the present; and give up something.

    If you have to walk away from the conflict with “all the toys,” you have missed adulthood. Your staff will not embrace maturity if they see lapses to immaturity in you. Giving up part of your position declares your willingness to actively listen and then respect your opponent.

  9. Openly terminate for non-compliance. While this is easier said than done in a tight labor market, if you compromise your right to purge the organization of blatant malcontents, the parent/child cycle roars into new life.
  10. Never use the terms “child” or “childish” to describe either corporate or individual behavior. Although this may be your honest evaluation, those words come off as condescending.

Follow these rules and you will keep children from running your workplace into the ground. Children will keep showing up unless a strong leader is willing to post the sign, “for adults only”—and then stand by it.

Cal LeMon is a corporate educator and professional speaker with more than 20 years of experience helping organizations make internal cultural change. His company, The Executive Edge Inc. in Spring field, Mo., provides sequential leadership training programs with on-site follow-up and accountability.


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