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Taking the Helm: Treating co-workers like children results in childish resentment

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Here’s a wild idea: How about leaders and people in positions of authority treat employees and co-workers like adults instead of children?

I’m working with a team in the Canadian coast guard who have hard feelings toward the boss of the crewing department – let’s call her Jill – because she has a take-it-or-leave-it, mother-knows-best attitude.

Like any large business organization, the crewing department of the Canadian coast guard asks its employees to submit their annual holiday and time-off requests at the beginning of the year so that schedules can be created and absences accommodated.

Unfortunately, there is now conflict between crew and the crewing department because, even when the crewing department has approved requested time off well in advance, Jill often informs crew members a week before the holiday that they can’t have the time off because there’s no one to replace them. Crew have followed the rules, yet are suddenly denied scheduled time off, even though they have made plans.

This uncertainty has created a passive-aggressive situation among the crew, where it seems everyone now waits to request time off until almost the last minute, forcing Jill into a corner.

This situation results from a lack of communication between the crewing department and the crew. If there were more discussion earlier on, so that schedules could be shifted around, everyone would be much happier.

Instead, Jill demands the crew fall obediently into line with her requirements, no questions asked. That isn’t any way to treat adults.

The same applies on yachts. Plenty of boats have a family mindset. The captain is seen as the father figure and the chief stew as the mother figure, while the deck and interior crew are like the children. To complete the analogy, the engineers are often seen as the black sheep.

Unfortunately, this family attitude, or viewpoint, can lead to problems of our own making since it sets up a hierarchy where one doesn’t belong. Crew members on a vessel have different responsibilities from one another. That doesn’t make one person smarter or wiser than another.

The last time I checked, job descriptions for chief stews or captains didn’t include babysitting grown co-workers. If deck crew behave poorly or aren’t doing their job, it’s up to the department head or captain to have a job-related conversation with them. If the deck crew are treated like children because of a family hierarchy, they’ll act like children.

In the workplace, childlike behavior in adults is often a cover for anger toward another person. Sulking, withdrawing, getting defensive, displaying passive-aggressive behavior, acting self-righteous and other such behaviors all become the norm. This explains the behavior of the coast guard crew toward Jill – they’re angry and acting out.

In order to limit childlike responses from coworkers, strive to set clear expectations. Communicate early and often. Leaders or supervisors should be clear in their own minds about the expectations before they try to explain them to a co-worker.

Setting clear expectations begins at the hiring stage. New crew need to know everything expected of them from the beginning. If a supervisor skims over details, the details won’t be done. Every little part of a job must be clearly explained and demonstrated as necessary.

Crew members should be able to demonstrate or do the task to the level expected. If they can’t, training should be immediately provided.

If an employee doesn’t meet expectations, find out if they were told about all aspects of the job. This includes administrative details such as booking time off for holidays. If there’s a specific process set up, make sure all crew know it.

If a co-worker is angry and displays childlike behavior, a leader or supervisor might want to consider whether they have had a part in setting up poor lines of communication.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.

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