Parenting, managing inform one another

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

On occasion people ask “What’s the difference between parenting and managing?” My reply is “Children are shorter.” This reply is neither entirely facetious nor does it apply to teenagers.

It is interesting to note that those who study the job/family interface have found much is transmitted in both directions across this boundary. So much for the advice to not take your work home or bring your family issues to work; it’s pretty much impossible.

Here are three of the major findings: 1. Behaviors at work are repeated at home. 2. Moods/emotions carry over from work to home and home to work. 3. Work patterns are related to parenting practices. How people manage or are managed is a primary work pattern.

So what are the similarities of parenting and managing? A colleague often notes “When the top of an organization is confused, the organization is confused.” This means that when management doesn’t have its act together the organization doesn’t function well. This is certainly true of families. To be a thoughtful, effective parental pair means to share and practice some coherent child-raising philosophy. This means constant communication between the parents about decisions and actions that affect the children.

Some people say teens are unmanageable. This is nonsense. Parents control access to the most wonderful toy/tool in the teen world: The automobile. Some years ago, we had a 17 year old come and live with us for a year. After a couple weekends he asked me for the car on an upcoming Saturday night and I said no. Then he asked my spouse and she said yes. Fortunately we talk with each other and realized we had been played. For this, our new teen lost access to the car for three weekends. Guess what he did the next weekend? Guess what we did next weekend? Immediately, we saw his behavior toward us start to change; he became more respectful.

Child development research shows that parents are powerful role models. Many of us have had the experience, on first becoming a parent, of saying or doing something with our child and immediately realizing that was exactly what our parent did with us when we were much shorter. I once heard a child development psychologist state, “The best gift you can give you children is to treat your spouse very well.”

Continuing with the importance of role modeling, it is essential to create a predictable environment, especially for a small child. The same holds true for managers. Ask employees about what the worst manager looks like and many will respond with, “What mood is he in today?” Managing one’s consistency or predictability is more easily accomplished if one manages the say/do ratio. Do what you say you will do, and if you cannot, inform why as much as possible. In general, some information is better than no information.

“Why” is a good lead-in to verbal communication. In general, it is better for children to know than not to know. They “read” their parents well and if there is a problem they sense something is amiss. Communication is the solution even if it means not knowing exactly what to say. I remember my daughter when she was about four and we were in the car together asking, “Will you die before mom?” You can be sure I gave that one some thought before I answered. By the way, although the “why” questions can sometimes drive you nuts, it’s always best to try to encourage questions, as they often start important conversations.

Research looking at interactions between parents and children shows that better conversations result from child-initiated interactions. Interesting that the same seems to be the case with interactions between employees and managers. How many times are parents or managers too busy right now? Re-scheduling works OK with employees but not so well with children. Make the effort to listen now as much as you can.

Perhaps the hardest realization of many new parents and new managers is that it is most important that their children or employees respect them. Acting in the best interests of the company or the family may not be the decision that those being managed seek or prefer, but it is usually the better decision.

A colleague of mine has a sign on the fridge at home that says something like “Remember, we are their parents, not their friends.” Later, when children get in the early 20s, you will probably make the relationship transition from parent-child to adult-adult, and what a sense of personal satisfaction that can be after lots of year of parental angst.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at