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What Parenting Books Taught Me About Management

What Parenting Books Taught Me About Management Credit: Aytekin Tank

This summer, I took three months off from work for the birth of my second son, Tolga. Instead of running JotForm, I spent June, July and August being a full-time parent (i.e. not sleeping much).

For intellectual stimulation, I decided to read parenting books; and I was surprised at how similar managing a company is to parenting. Many parenting books deserve a spot on the business shelf at the bookstore.

I became a better manager by learning how to prevent sibling conflicts and how to encourage growth in children. Among the books I read, two stand out: "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and "How Toddlers Thrive" by Tovah P. Klein PhD. They inspired five leadership lessons that have changed my management style:

When siblings fight, you should let them solve the problem themselves. For instance, when a sister wants to watch the movie "Moana" but her brother wants to see "The Jungle Book," the parent could tell them they must decide what they want to watch together, or they can't watch anything. The siblings are either forced to compromise or lose their privileges altogether.

When there's a team conflict in businesses, managers usually solve the problem by giving orders. Employees learn not to resolve their conflicts and instead wait for a supervisor to intervene.

When an employee approaches me with a conflict, I listen and offer advice, but I never tell them what to do.

Recently, an employee told me that her supervisor wouldn't let her try new ideas. The supervisor was too much concerned with the current priorities. I advised that she stop asking for the supervisor's permission and pursue the ideas on her own to prove their value. It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and it's better to let a team fight than decondition their ability to resolve conflicts.

My two-and-half-year-old son loves his scooter. My in-laws, however, do not; they are terrified of him getting hurt and constantly make sure he avoids danger when riding.  

"You have to let him fall," I told his grandparents. "If you try to help too much, he won't learn. Let him fall and cry. He'll get right back up."

Parents control their kids out of fear for their safety and wellbeing, but they often take it too far. At our local park, I sometimes see parents telling their kids how they should play in the sandbox. How will those kids learn creativity and initiative if they’re taught to wait for instructions?

Managers often make the same mistake. Under micromanagement regimes, employees can't mess up; but they can't innovate either. When a problem arises, micromanagers tell teams how they're supposed to solve the problem. Afraid to disobey, the team ignores better solutions and consequently feels demotivated.  

Through the parenting books, I learned not to control my son too much. If I buy a new toy, I don't tell him how to use it. He will come up with his own way. If he struggles, I start playing with the toy myself, then he will imitate me and develop his own way.

Managers are quick to give orders, which saves time in the short run but undermines inventiveness in the long run. I'd rather lose efficiency to spark ingenuity.

"Why can’t you be more like [insert sibling's name]?" is among the worst things you can say to a kid. It's an equally bad idea to compare employees to each other.

When you publicly call one employee a "rock star" or glorify that person as a role model for others, it often backfires. People view the favorite as a rival and, often subconsciously, undermine that person.  

Don’t compare someone to the golden employee. Ask people to improve against their own standards, not someone else's.

I'm guilty of this mistake. I praise my toddler for every little victory. He's learning to do things for my approval rather than for his enjoyment.

In businesses, people who seek approval from managers often become afraid to take risks. Great leaders want employees to challenge them, and talented workers want to be critiqued.

Find a balance. Too much complimenting creates pleasers; too much criticism creates fear. Ignore what you heard about millennials needing constant positive reinforcement. Critiques, delivered thoughtfully, will produce their best work.  

Have you ever watched a kid have a public meltdown? Everyone judges the parents who try to calm the kid. The problem is that shushing or coddling isn't the solution; the trick is to get the kids to express their feelings.

Communicating the problem defuses the anxiety. But how often do you see adults openly communicate their sources of discomfort at work? People who were told, "Stop crying!" or "Get over it!" as a kid were conditioned to bottle up and hide pain. The result is passive aggression, resentment and backstabbing that corrodes company culture.

Have regular one-on-ones with your employees. Sometimes, you can't do anything about their problems; but letting them express these feelings can be helpful.

Parenting books taught me to be mindful of the behaviors I reinforce in my family and my company. We can apply parenting techniques to business management because the rules of conditioning don't change. Your employees' habits – i.e. the company's real culture, not what's written on your website – reflect what leaders reward and punish.

What are you reinforcing?

About the author: Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of JotForm, the first and only full-featured online form building tool that is completely mobile friendly. JotForm allows anyone to create forms and collect their data, without writing a single line of code.