Don’t Turn Employees into Adolescents

Carl, an experienced supervisor, had good people management skills. Yet many of his employees behaved like Carl’s teenage children. No matter what went wrong, it was never their fault. They resented Carl’s directives, though they refused to take initiative themselves. They asked the same questions repeatedly. Sometimes Carl’s frustration was palpable.

Carl concluded that some people just never grow up. He was right. A few don’t. But why, he wondered, were there so many of them in his shop? Like most people, he assumed that personality was the only factor that influences behavior. It never occurred to him that his auto parts manufacturing company also manufactured adolescents. The truth is that the employee policies and rules many companies use unintentionally invite adolescent behavior.

In his book The Healthy Company: Eight Strategies to Develop People, Productivity, and Profits, psychologist Robert Rosen quotes Richard Semler, President of Semco, S.A.:

“The moment they (workers) walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock or eat their lunch, get permission to go to the bathroom, give lengthy explanations every time they’re five minutes late, and follow instructions without asking a lot of questions (p.66).”

Tell me that this does not remind you of high school.

It is emotionally satisfying to blame workers for immature behavior. And, of course, people must be held responsible for their behavior or everything is lost. Yet, when leaders do not take responsibility for the nature of the working conditions they create, leaders disempower themselves from fixing the problem. When we recognize that organizational factors also influence worker behavior then we can open our eyes to exciting possibilities. There are management techniques that encourage adult behavior. Using them can multiply profits.

Let’s understand how management practices that “manufacture” adolescents evolve. Leaders usually understand their specific industry quite well. But they may not have any training in the nature of organizations. Their understanding of how organizations work often comes from the first organization they belong to - not a work place, but their family. Much of what we believe about how organizations should (in our minds) work actually comes from values and principles that existed within the families we grew up in. Such beliefs feel so normal to us that we may not recall where we learned them. They just feel right.

This “organizational training” can create problems, because while families and companies do share some characteristics, they also have significant differences. They are the same in that both have hierarchies and that one’s place in the hierarchy determines one’s privileges and responsibilities. Adolescents and adult line employees usually have more limited privileges and responsibilities than parents and executives. However, limits exist for different reasons in families than at work.

Adolescents are denied certain privileges and responsibilities because they have not yet developed required competencies of emotional maturity. As they gain competencies of, say, sexual self control, then we chaperon dating situations less strictly. We give adolescents curfews because they often are not able to anticipate the consequences of staying out too late. High schools have rules about skipping class because many adolescents are not yet emotionally mature enough to honor time commitments for intrinsic reasons.

The vast majority of adult employees can be assumed to be emotionally mature. Therefore, it is not useful for companies to make rules about behaviors that are primarily a function of emotional maturity. Limits on adult employees should be related to as yet undeveloped work related competencies. Then such limits should be lifted as soon as those competencies are developed.

Of course, a few employees never grow up. They are not intrinsically motivated. They can’t see anything outside their own egocentric view. They arrive late, leave early, and under-perform, while blaming others.

Unfortunately, organizations tend to respond to such behavior by making rules and policies. These must be applied across the board, even with employees who have no need of external controls. Other employees become resentful of these “Mickey Mouse rules” that threaten their sense of themselves as competent, self motivated adults. They express their resentment through behavior that, sadly, looks pretty adolescent. They live down to the company’s expectations of them.

Soon, you have unintentionally recreated your high school. Worse, the most immature 10% of your employees are running the company. Their behavior has set the policies.

The Challenge: Review your company policies and rules. Identify the ones that seem to assume that the adults you have hired need external consequences to control their own behavior. What if you eliminated those policies? What would be the consequence of sending your employees the message that you trust them? You may fear that they would take advantage of you, and perhaps a few would. Most, however, would live up to your new expectations and do so with energy and excitement. (The sluggards can be dealt with individually.)

Example: Glenroy, Inc., a Wisconsin manufacturing company, had a “push” management style, i.e., the assumption was that workers would not perform without external pressure. An extensive set of company policies and rules reflected that limited belief in its employees.

The company was underperforming. The president committed himself and his company to a different management style, one that depended upon more mature behavior from leaders and employees alike. He found appropriate leadership training for his key leaders. He involved his employees in planning new ways of getting the work done. And, he got it all started in the Green Bay Packers parking lot. On that site, he and the company employees burned all the employee manuals, forcing them to find more creative ways to solve problems. It paid off. Over the fifteen years since that bonfire, the company has quadrupled its earnings, tripled its workforce, and enjoyed very low turnover.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at


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