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All I Really Need to Know About Management I Learned from Parenting

By Deb Tennen · May 8, 2018
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Let's get something straight: I'm not about to tell you that you need to be a parent to be a good manager. I'm also not about to tell you that your employees are anything like children. (If they are, stop reading and go take care of that problem.) And I'm certainly not telling you to cut the crusts off your employees' PB&Js.

Instead, I'm here to reflect on all the ways that being a parent tweaked, honed, and sometimes reinforced my management style. I've managed dozens of employees over the past 6 years, and I'm currently in charge of a rather squishy 1-year-old. The lessons I've learned—and continue to learn—from parenting have helped me grow as a manager. Some are pretty concrete while others are a little less tangible, but here are the 9 lessons that stuck out the most.

1. Your Accountability Helps Others Take Risks

Kids count on their parents. They may not be explicitly grateful for it—or even aware of it, honestly—but they expect you to clothe them, feed them, comfort them, and buy them things they'll stop caring about 4 days later.

And it's that unspoken accountability that allows your kids to take risks.

Even with a tiny tot, it's abundantly clear. When my 1-year-old climbs on the foam mats in our living room, he looks back at me before crawling up to the highest mat. I don't have to do anything—no encouraging, no spotting, nothing. In that moment, he just wants to know I'm there before he goes out of his comfort zone.

Kid climbing on a playground
Not my kid.

The same goes for your employees. If they know you have their back, they'll take more risks and produce better work. When I managed a support team, I would always hop on a ticket to mitigate if a customer became aggressive. Because my team knew I was there to do so, they started to be more assertive with their responses, which usually took care of any issues—and in the end, I had to intervene less and less. Because they knew I was there as a backstop, they went out of their comfort zone.

Show them, tell them—whatever works. But if you're accountable on the daily, it'll have a ripple effect through your employees' work.

2. Make It a Habit to Give Effective Feedback

Wouldn't it be great if you could just tell an employee "do better" and they'd magically internalize it and grow? Well, that's not the way the world works.

I never realized the value of descriptive feedback until I had a kid. Just saying "no" to a kid does precisely nothing. Why "no"? What effect did their action have? What can they do next time to turn it into a yes?

I'm already trying to do this with my 1-year-old. When he starts crawling full speed ahead toward the dog food bowl, instead of just saying "no," I tell him "no, that's Winston's food. If you knock it over, he won't have any breakfast and he'll be hungry." Sometimes it spirals into a story about a hungry Winston morphing into Hulk Dog, but...you get the gist.

Deb's dog eating a cupcake
This might be why my kid wants my dog

Now I map that on to professional feedback. Instead of asking my direct reports if they can "pay more attention to detail" or "be more engaged in meetings," I provide context. "Grow through feedback" is one of the core values at Zapier, and we practice it every day:

"When you miss things while proofreading, it can reflect poorly on the quality of our core product. If someone spots a typo in our copy, they'll probably expect that our product is also less than perfect."

"When you're disengaged in meetings, it makes the rest of the room feel like you don't care about what they have to say. That'll make it hard to build a rapport with them, which is only gonna make your work life harder, not to mention being detrimental to company morale."

Kids love to ask "why," and we can all learn a lesson from that. Usually, it's the "why" that'll make the impact. This can be challenging as a parent: Sometimes the answer is just "because I said so." But when given effective feedback, kids—and employees—will start to answer the "why" for themselves.

3. Facilitate Routines and Schedules

I've never been a spontaneous person. I've always relied on routines and schedules, so that aspect of parenting didn't faze me. I sleep trained my son as soon as I could, I observed his sleeping and eating habits to find patterns, and I made sure to have a consistent bedtime—for him and for me. As he grows up, that kind of routine will be even more important.

"It's called 'authoritative parenting,'" says Colin Johnson, early childhood educator and dad (to my kid, coincidentally). "The predictability offered by structure gives children a sense of comfort, which leads to more flexibility and independence. Of course, too much structure—or, on the other end of the spectrum, too much freedom—can backfire, so you want to find a balance."

As a manager, I like to give my employees lots of autonomy, but I also make sure to provide them with enough structure to thrive within that autonomy. For example, instead of "write the newsletter," I'd say "write the newsletter, which should focus on back-to-school and highlight at least three LMSes."

Jim from The Office giving his rundown.
Never ask for a rundown.

The best part about giving my employees structure is actually selfish: It helps me be able to predict their behavior a bit more. I know where they tend to veer off from routine (which, again, totally fine) and I'm better able to manage that ebb and flow. Turns out that's also true in parenting. Colin adds:

"Rules and structure also help kids predict what other people are going to do. So when they're working with a team or in a group, it's easier for them to figure out how everyone else will behave. For kids—who don't have a lot of experience with the world around them quite yet—that's incredibly important."

4. Everyone Has a Different Style

Hot off the presses: No two people are the same.

Obvious, yes, but it's never clearer than with siblings. One might be shy while the other's outgoing. One's into books and the other prefers TV. Or maybe it's a subtler difference: They both love basketball, but one is better at offense and one at defense. (You've always excelled at bench-warming.)

When that's the case, it can mean adjusting your parenting style for each kid.

Unsurprisingly, when I asked the Zapier team about their experience with siblings, everyone had the same answer: They're all so different.

Muness Castle, Zapier data team manager and father of six, knows what that's like: "Our 8-year-old gets ready in the morning, reminds us to pack her lunch if we forgot, and always has appropriate clothing ready (she checks the weather the night before). Our 14-year-old still forgets to pack a lunch and often wears boots on nice warm days and sandals in snow (and no, she’s not just being cool)."

He continues: "You give each kid what they need: Some need structure; others need flexibility. Some need lots of extrinsic reinforcement to, say, eat apples or use the restroom; others just do those things and adding a reward to them just means they’ll refuse to sans reward next time."

My favorite child pie chart

Map that on to management, which isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. Each of your employees needs something different from you. Some need you to be more hands on, others more hands off. Some need recognition, others respect. Some want smiley faces in emails, while others run don't walk at the mere sight of an exclamation point.

When it comes down to it, we need to adjust to our employees' work and communication styles. That doesn't mean we can't be ourselves or work according to our own values; we just need to be willing to accommodate. For example, I had an employee who was a zombie until 11:00 a.m. Instead of spiking their morning coffee with Red Bull, I just made sure not to schedule 9:00 a.m. meetings with them.

5. Don't Forget to Take Care of Yourself

If you've been on a plane, you know that you're supposed to put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else. There's a reason for that: You won't be able to help the person sitting next to you if you're oxygen-deprived yourself.

The same rule applies to parenting. It's easy to get wrapped up in your kids to the point where you, uh, forget to shower...or eat or sleep. But that doesn't end well for anyone. You get hangry and tired—not to mention smelly—and then you can't take care of your kids as well as you should.

When my son was still a bi-hourly alarm clock, my husband and I would both wake up for every middle-of-the-night feeding. We're a team! We should support each other! Who needs sleep anyway! As you can imagine, that led to two overtired parents who weren't as engaged or focused for their kid during the day. When we switched things up, each owning alternating feedings, things immediately improved. We were each more well rested and were able to enjoy those first few months as they flew by.

When it comes to management, I apply the same practice. It's hard not to prioritize your employees' needs—that's your job, after all. But burnout is a real thing. It's hard to measure, of course, but studies show that it affects up to 85% of workers in certain industries. If you focus on your direct reports at the expense of yourself, you won't be able to do best by your employees.

So take care of yourself. And don't forget to shower.

6. Delegate Whenever You Can

There's a lot of pride involved in parenting. "I don't need help. I can do this on my own." Spoiler alert: You can't. Raising kids is no walk in the park, and you need to accept help wherever you can get it.

Once I was able to swallow that pill, it made it a lot easier to see the same situation in my management style. It's tough to relinquish control, and you might think you're protecting your employees by bearing the burden for them, but...you're not. In fact, delegating benefits everyone:

  • You don't overwork yourself. See: not burning out.

  • Your employees gain valuable skills. It's your job as a manager to help your employees grow, and allowing them to try new things will do just that.

  • The company gets a fresh perspective. Even if you're the best in the biz, having fresh eyes on a task will help. (Plus, with all the newfound time you have, you can be those fresh eyes on other projects.)

7. Balance the Desire to Be Liked with the Need to Be Respected

If you're working with like-minded individuals, it can be tough to keep your distance in regards to friendship. But when it comes time for performance reviews or salary negotiations, you'll be happier if you're not emotionally involved. Plus, if you get too chummy, your direct reports might expect special treatment.

Until I had a kid, this one kind of slipped me by. Being friends with your employees seemed like the best of both worlds. If you have to spend 40+ hours/week with these people, you might as well like them, right? But once my son was born, I started to rethink it.

Yes, I'd love to be the fun mom whose kid thinks they're hilarious and awesome in every way and who serves as a best friend and partner in crime. But it's probably better for my kid if I'm able to provide the necessary support that their friends can't give them—particularly of the limits and discipline persuasion.

Your employees have friends. They have family. They have their social media newsfeed that will tell them which celeb couple broke up that day. So while it's great to be friendly with your employees—no one wants to work for a misanthrope—it's probably best to leave the socializing at home.

8. Incentivize

We'd all love to live in a world where everyone did their best just because it was the right thing to do. We'd also love to live in a world where Reese's Pieces were a health food. But, hey, you can't win 'em all.

I never loved the idea of bonuses: Shouldn't my employees just be working at 110% all the time? Why do they need a bonus to make them go above and beyond? Answer: Because they're human. I finally came around to the concept of bonuses by observing the power of incentive in parenting.

"Our newest thing is getting raffle tickets for doing household chores, which they can exchange for new toys." - Adam DuVander, developer marketing at Zapier

Of course, incentives don't work for everyone:

"One of them has been extremely motivated by this and the other kind of shrugs." - Still Adam

But if you identify that your employees would benefit from incentives, go for it. And remember, the incentives don't have to be monetary (or toy-based). An extra vacation day or company swag can do the trick.

9. Take Some Credit—on the Inside, at Least

Every once in a while, my kid—like everyone else’s kid—does something...good. And occasionally, people give me credit for it. Whenever that happens, I always shoot back with some version of "yeah, we really got lucky." And let's be clear: We did get lucky.

But recently, someone told me I should give myself more credit for how my kid is turning out. And while it's hard to do—especially since there are so many factors involved that have nothing to do with parenting—I'm working on it.

And that's seeped into my management style, too. Your employees are the ones doing the work—you didn't inject them with their skills and smarts—but they wouldn't be able to do it without you there. So, yes, you're lucky to have amazing employees, but remember that you play a major role in their success.

It's no surprise that being a parent leaks into all parts of your life—including the professional. But what I realized recently is that being a manager in my pre-kid life also prepared me for parenting. Being partly responsible for the professional growth of another human being as a manager made it a lot less scary to become mostly responsible for the personal growth of another human being as a parent.

Hero image from Pixabay. Image of child on playground from Pixabay. Pie chart image from Someecards.

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