I’m lucky enough to live with a fantastic 3 year old. Something I’ve come to believe is that toddlers are little adults, minus the emotional regulation or life experience.
Inside all of us is a toddler. We’re secretly disappointed when we don’t get the last pancake. We’d like to snatch things, and when we don’t get them we’d like to stomp our feet. Fortunately, most of us manage to moderate these urges.
Understanding the inner toddler is a great insight into managing a team. These are a collection of things my toddler has taught me.
1. Have high expectations
Toddlers doubt their ability to do many things. As a parent, you need to maintain high expectations that they can do whatever it is they’ve set out to achieve.
People rise or fall to meet your expectations.
This is widely known in teaching circles and even referenced by Dale Carnegie in the slightly dated “How To Make Friends And Influence People” when he says “Give The Other Person A Fine Reputation To Live Up To”.
As a manager, it can be easy to take people at face value and assume what they’re currently capable of represents their whole potential. But all of us are capable of growth, just like toddlers. We need someone to believe in and support us to become successful.
2. Offer choices
Have you ever tried to get a toddler to put their shoes on? Nightmare.
Toddlers have limited agency, and throwing a tantrum is part of their attempt to feel a sense of control. As any parent will tell you, the trick is usually to provide a choice. “Would you like to put on the blue shoes or the pink shoes?”
Whilst offering toddlers a simple choice is helpful, adults generally prefer a little more control.
It can be easy as a manager to hand down individual tasks, but this fails to encourage your team to own the outcome. Providing your team with the parameters to make decisions and empowering them to set their own goals provides a greater sense of ownership of the challenge at hand.
3. Offer unconditional support
Toddlers will fail many times as they learn. They need to know you’re there to help pick them up, dust them off, and encourage them to try again
Like toddlers, employees will make mistakes, face challenges or simply mess up. They need to be able to rely on your support.
Companies that fire staff based on failures never learn from their mistakes. The person who accidentally overspends on a clients ad account won’t make the same mistake twice (hopefully).
This has its limits. Staff should be given the benefit of the doubt and judged on their intent, but questions should be asked and learnings taken from failure or missteps. Try the 5 whys.
4. Give them positive attention
Providing toddlers with positive attention is a key part of helping them learn and encouraging positive behaviour.
Taking the key points from RaisingChildren.net.au:
- Positive attention is when you respond to your child with warmth and interest.
- Positive attention helps your child feel secure and valued.
- Positive attention is important for your child’s self-image and development.
- You can use everyday moments to give your child positive attention.
You can replace the word “Child” with “Staff” in each of those points and they’re still relevant.
Recognise the contributions staff make and celebrate them. Not only through formal monthly recognition, but in-the-moment, as it happens.
5. Provide feedback
My toddler makes unbroken eye contact as she blows milk bubbles right to the point where they’re about to spill over the sides of the cup. She’s waiting to hear “No”. She wants to understand the parameters within which she can operate.
Feedback is important for figuring out what it is you’re supposed to be doing. Many businesses take an ad hoc approach to feedback, with quarterly reviews at best.
Setting up processes around rotating projects or having other team members check work as it goes out is an ideal way to use the collective experience to provide feedback. This should be in addition to scheduled feedback around team goals, and 360 evaluations.
6. Dunning Kruger
Toddlers are oddly confident. Mine will regularly tell me with absolute certainty that if it’s sunny outside, it must be a Sunday.
This is actually a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning–Kruger effect. This refers to a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. This comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.
Understanding this can be helpful for a whole range of situations. Dealing with clients or senior managers. Even understanding your own perspective, including imposter syndrome.
7. Make it fun
Dressing a toddler is akin to a wrestling match crossed with a 100-meter sprint. Until you’ve chased your naked child through the house with a pair of pants on your head, you haven’t lived.
Finding the lighter side of potentially difficult experiences makes it easier to keep going. This is true of toddlers and work.
Personally, I see every late night by the team as an opportunity for pizza. Early mornings as an opportunity for doughnuts. Generally difficult weeks as an opportunity for cake, hot sauce, or both
Your celebrations may not include food.
To paraphrase Shrek. People are like onions (they have layers), and in the middle is the toddler we once were.
Years of experience have given us thick skins and the experience that tells us stomping our feet might not be the best way to get what we want. All the same, those instincts are there.
Understanding that we all need someone who will support, believe in and value us can have a massive impact on our ability to produce great work.