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Helicopter Conflict

Mediation and Business Consulting by Kathleen Kauth.

What do helicopters do best?  They hover.  There is a term for over zealous parenting called "helicopter parenting".  This is when the parents continuously intervene in their child's life in order to protect them from making mistakes.  This is a terribly bad form of parenting, because you don't learn and grow without mistakes.  

Helicopter parents are guilty of over protecting their children to the point of incapacitating them.  

Helicopter boss?

At some point, managers began doing this too.  Continuously intervening in employees' decisions about work so that there were no mistakes made.  This means that when a manager needs their employees to be creative or take initiative — they can't.  They simply have no experience with that boss that shows them how to try something and possibly fail.  

Setting the scene for conflict

Helicopter management sets the scene for conflict.  It becomes a game of unfulfilled expectations on the part of the manager that people will step up, and a resignation on the part of employees that even if they have a good idea, their manager will tell them what to do every step of the way — so why bother?

This can become a vicious cycle.  Each time the manager gives the answer, intervenes in a decision, or lays things out step-by-step, the employee learns to wait.  Waiting for someone else to tell you what to do is a soul-sucking endeavor, which some people just accept as part of the job.  Others will leave if they are not challenged enough.  What you wind up with is a workforce that will not take initiative.

And, each time the employee does not take action or it looks like something is going to fall through the cracks, the manager feels obligated (burdened!) to step in.  This creates resentment and a lack of belief in the employees capabilities.

How do you stop?

The first step is always to realize there is a problem.  If as a manager you are constantly fixing issues for your employees, telling them what to do and how to do it, and are frustrated that they don't seem to be taking any initiative — you may actually be the problem!  You are definitely the one who needs to fix it.

If as an employee, you are frustrated that your work isn't "good enough" or gets corrected or changed frequently, and your boss doesn't seem to want to let you make any decisions — you have to say something!

Start the conversation

  • Acknowledge that there is an issue.  Both parties should be able to bring up the fact that work isn't going well.
  • Identify concerns with what is happening or not happening
  • Develop a plan that addresses these issues. 
  • If you are the manager — pledge to provide clear expectations and broad guidelines, then get out of the way.  The only time to intervene is when there is a risk of losing a client.  If that happens, there must be an "after action" discussion about what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.  And then you get out of the way again.
  • If you are the employee — pledge to take initiative and come up with actions before your boss tells you what to do.

The key to all of this is direct, open and frequent communication.  When each party feels they can openly point out either helicoptering behavior or waiting behavior, and discuss the issue, everyone wins!


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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