October 10, 2023

Mistakes That Ruin Next Generation Leadership Initiatives Part II: The Parent Trap

My previous newsletter looked next generation leadership development initiatives and how a lack of planning causes them to fail even before they get started. Now I want to look at a second reason why these programs tend to fail and this time, we're going to zoom right in on one specific behavior team leaders are guilty of committing.

Has this ever happened? An employee comes to you with a problem, say a client is asking for something outside of the project scope, and you think, here we go again. Immediately you respond, "don't worry, I'll handle it." You do this because you have a ton of things to do and solving the problem yourself is the fastest way to fix the situation.

The problem is that the employee has not learned how to solve the problem. In fact, they have learned that the easiest and quickest way to solve problems is to bring problems to you to solve. Give yourself a slow hand clap because you have just conditioned the employee to bring more problems to you rather than solve them on their own.

Don't feel bad, it's not just you. In fact, behavioral psychologists have studied this sort of thing for a while. One model I find helpful for understanding and correcting these mistakes is TA, or, Transactional Analysis.

Transactional Analysis looks at how we speak and respond to others, and at the roles we play. In this model, there are three ego states, Parent, Adult and Child.

If the Parent is always solving the problems, the employees bringing the problems never have to think for themselves. They remain in the Child state. Why? Because their manager, the Parent, is doing all the heavy lifting.

Let's call this the Parent Trap and it is one of the leading reasons why employees aren’t able to advance leadership skills.

Managers and leaders can solve for this by changing how they receive and handle problems that come across their desk. Thinking about it through the TA framework, the goal is to get both parties into the Adult role. This is the ego state that is logical and rational and best for problem solving. You want everyone in this state of mind rather than Parent / Child.

One great question to ask to avoid the Parent Trap:

“If I weren’t here, what would you do to solve this problem?”

Another great way to begin solving this problem is by using the "Plus 1" rule which requires that whenever the employee brings you a problem, they must also bring at least one idea as to how they might solve the problem. The idea doesn't have to be right, but it will get them thinking about problem solving rather than seeking someone else to solve the problem for them. It helps get them into an adult state rather than a child state.

A common downside to this approach is that if an employee tries to handle an issue on their own and get it wrong, this can take up more of the managers time who now has to fix the larger problem.

Fair enough. The idea here isn’t to send your employees out into the wild to fend for themselves but to consciously adjust how you work with them when problems arise and to begin thinking about these teaching moments as an important piece to developing next generation leaders.

Take a look at these two books I recommend on driving autonomy and accountability (both have links to their amazon.com page):  


For those of you who do not know me, I build sales pipelines and develop leadership training programs that help companies increase business across regions and prepare next-gen leaders for tomorrow's global threats and #hybridwork opportunities. My new Next Gen Leadership Program is launching soon, so stay tuned.

I wrote a book about the lessons learned, good, bad and ugly, when expanding into foreign markets called The Accidental Business Nomad: A Survival Guide for Working Across a Shrinking Planet.  It makes fun of the hyper-growth expectations over the last few decades and won the 2021 Axiom Business Book Award and has been translated into traditional Chinese.

Download PDF


Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.