This piece published previously in June 2007.
At a company I used to work for, the President and CEO was a highly respected entrepreneur who kept his leadership skills honed by attending seminars at Harvard’s Business school every year. After the seminars, he would come back with new theories to try out on us. He was really earnest in his desire to better the company by helping its employees grow and succeed.
So he came back one year with an idea for employee motivation. He bought these wooden plaques with plush velvet centers for each one of us. Then he announced that each quarter he would be rewarding gold pins to deserving employees for different categories, such as Team Work, Innovation, etc.
This became quite the unspoken competition among some employees. You’d go into someone’s office and see their plaque hanging there with more medals than General MacArthur had. At some point, it dawned on me that this reward system was not unlike a kindergarten teacher’s gold star system. And that’s kind of appalling at first blush.
Was the workforce of this company being manipulated by a strategy gleaned from a child-care book? If I hadn’t seen that it worked really well, I would have been insulted. I took a look at my own management style. I didn’t think my direct reports had the mentality of toddlers, but I did feel some parent/child dynamics. For one, I was unconditionally supportive of my team and they knew it. And there were times I actually had to step in and help make peace between employees like a parent would with her children. But these were not conscious acts of manipulation. It was a natural part of my managerial role.
I also made sure that I listened to everything my team had to say. The late, great Texas governor Ann Richards once said that the most important thing she learned from raising her four children was to never let anyone leave the table feeling they hadn’t been heard. Makes sense to me.
So I have to ask — in your opinion, what other elements of personnel management closely resemble advice in child care books? And is the similarity creepy and insulting, or is it just a fact that human nature doesn’t change regardless of the age range?