How to succeed with ‘Helicopter Managers’

Last week we talked about the notion of a ‘helicopter manager’.  This is a manager who likes to micromanage everything, make all decisions and give employees little responsibility for the work they are completing.   Let’s face it, working under a ‘helicopter manager’ isn’t fun! It is challenging, on many levels, especially if an employee wants to learn, excel, demonstrate their skills and feel they are making a contribution to the organization.

Like kids of helicopter parents, employees in this situation rarely have the opportunity to think for themselves, provide their perspective and be part of a collaborative process which is so important for engagement, something most organizations want in the current competitive market.   Over time it becomes easy for employees to lose interest in what they are doing and disconnect as they feel no sense of responsibility and no accountability for the work they are expected to complete.  Not exactly the recipe for success for any party or organization involved.

We know as an employee in such a situation, life can be challenging.  The job you once loved may no longer hold the appeal and you find it more and more difficult to get up and go to work every day.

Here are some tips to help you succeed in spite of your ‘helicopter manager’:

  • Listen, listen, listen.  Although this may be challenging you need to give your manager your full attention and focus on what they are saying.  Once they have provided you with the detail, gently move into the conversation and paraphrase back what you have heard.  This will ensure you both have the same understanding of expectations.  You may even want to write a quick email summarizing the expectations and ask for agreement before moving forward.  In this way, you will know exactly what is expected and able to provide the deliverable that is requested with minimal involvement on the part of your manager.
  • Be curious.  Ask open, curious questions to better understand their perspective and gain clarity around what they want, why they want it, how they want it completed and what your role is in the deliverables.  The more clarity you have, the better you can complete the work in a way that works for them.  Being curious will help you better understand their thought process so you can provide the deliverables on time without need for direction.
  • Goal setting.  Ensure a goal is set for the work you are doing and you and your manager both agree as to what this goal is.  Be curious so you can gain clarity around the goal and both understand it.  Chances are you have a different perspective or approach as to how to complete this goal and once you have listened to the perspective of your manager, you can offer yours, framing it around the goal so the manager can clearly see how you get from A to B.  Asking questions such as ‘when we look at achieving this goal, how will my approach not ensure success?  What is different about your process that ensures a greater success?  What would it be like for you if I tried my process to achieve this goal if I report into you as I go?
  • Accountability.  Be accountable for your work.  Offer to take on new projects, new work for which you outline your accountability, perhaps with a check in process that ensures the manager feels ‘in the loop’ as you progress.
  • Detail.  You may not be a detail person and perhaps your manager is.  Be curious around this.  Find out what they need from you, paraphrase for clarity and deliver.
  • Accept responsibility.  Errors happen.  We all make them.  Even if they try to blame and shame you, be curious, accept responsibility and discuss what you have learned from the experience.

Helicopter Managers


credit: blogging innovation

We hear a great deal about the phenomenon of helicopter parents.  In fact we are doing a Parent Challenge right now  that discusses this concept from the perspective of parents.

Now we want to discuss the same notion, this time looking at managers and how they can fall into the same traps parents do and begin to do too much for the employees who report to them.

So what is a ‘helicopter manager’?  We see it as someone who micromanages every detail, making all decisions and allowing the employee little space to solve his own problems, because the manager will solve them for him, maybe faster, easier and differently than the employee would.  These managers like to protect employees, keeping news from them that might encourage transparency and then again may not be good news, so choose to protect instead of sharing.  They also like to avoid conflict with others, seeking to keep the peace at all costs.  For employees, this may seem like a cake walk, an ideal manager to report to.  In reality, this is typically not the case.

When you look at the characteristics described above of a helicopter manager, what messages do you think they are giving to employees?

Here are some that come to mind:

  • you are not smart enough to make this decision so I will make it for you
  • you once made an error so you are not capable of completing this task accurately so I will make sure your work is accurate
  • you won’t be able to figure out the details required for this project so I will tell you how it needs to be completed
  • you are not able to deal with the bad news I have heard so I won’t tell you

Etc etc.  We think helicopter managers constantly message ‘ you are not good enough’ and ‘I am better’.

In an era when organizations are continually changing if they are to thrive, constantly trying to be innovative, more efficient and do more with less, they want employees who are engaged, able to think for themselves and have the courage to make mistakes from which they can learn and improve.  Organizations need employees who are accountable, who are prepared to commit and work to achieve what is asked of them.  Employees want organizations that believe in them, who recognize their talents and support them in a way that allows them to learn, develop new skills, be accountable for the job they know they can achieve and acknowledge successes. Organizations need to ensure their employees are supported in continually learning, making a contribution that supports the organization in moving in the direction it has identified.  Organizations and employees both want to partner in a way that recognizes the value of diversity and differing perspectives all of which contribute to the rich tapestry that creates success in our current economy.

We know some people like detail and need detail to thrive.  We also know other people don’t want detail (unless it is absolutely necessary) as it bogs them down in a way that causes them to quickly lose interest in what is expected of them.   We think everyone needs to be held accountable for what is expected of them and what they agree to if an organization is to succeed.

 6 strategies that will support you as the manager in today’s workplace:

  1.  Listen to what an employee has to say.  Ensure when you commit to listen, you are able to give  your full attention.   Focus on what the speaker is saying.  This means dimming down the gremlins in your head, stopping any activity that could be distracting or message you are not listening.
  2. Be open to different perspectives.  We know as a manager, you are pressed for time.  You have so much to accomplish and if everyone would just do what you ask them to do, your life would be easier.  Not true.  Instead, be open to listening to the perspectives of others, recognizing there are many ways achieve the same results and maybe, just maybe, their way could be as good as you believe yours is.  Even if you don’t believe their ideas are as good as yours, be open to listening to and discussing these perspectives.  You may even learn something new!
  3. Be curious.  Ask those open questions that start with what, how, when, where, who and why.  Seeking to better understand without judging, you may receive wonderful nuggets of ideas that can be nurtured and developed.  At the very least, you will better understand the employees who report to you and may be offered new solutions to problems you have not yet considered.  Remember, even a genius cannot solve a problem as effectively as a team of people with average intelligence.
  4. Create a safe space for employees.  Being open and non judging with employees allows them to feel safe as they discuss ideas and new perspectives that may lead to innovation.  Providing opportunities to brain storm and discuss, even in a heated way, creates energy that can bring new life to old ideas.  Ensuring people don’t feel judged, that all ideas have possibility, allows everyone to free wheel in their heads and sometimes that off the wall idea proposed by one will lead to that very useable idea you have been looking for.
  5. Trust.  You most likely played a role in hiring and or training these employees so you need to trust in their abilities.  Being curious when starting a new task or project, you can ask those open questions that are needed for you to feel satisfied they can do the work.  Continue to be curious until you are comfortable with their approach.  Agree on follow-up dates as they progress AND then trust them to deliver.
  6. Embrace errors.  Errors can provide the very best learning opportunities.  Once an error is identified, be curious and explore all the factors that could have contributed to the error and then through curiosity explore possibilities for moving forward.  Such discussions can provide many new insights and support learning.  These opportunities are so much more valuable than the old school idea of blaming others for errors and shaming them into agreeing they will never make that error again – how does this contribute to learning and the development of best practices?

Want more? Discover the secrets of great leadership

Share with us your Helicopter Manager experiences, what is it like for you?

Your child’s success: How are you standing in the way?

We have recently been reading article after article on the trials and tribulations of ‘helicopter parents’- how we as parents don’t even know we are doing it and how it is NOT serving our kids well.

Here are but a few of such articles: 

Have  American Parents Got It All Backwards?

Hover No More: Helicopter Parents May Breed Depression and Incompetence in Their Children

A Loss Of Perspective: The Perils Of Parenting

How Helicopter Parents Can Ruin Kids’ Job Prospects 

‘Helicopter Parents’ Cause Long Term Issues 

You get the gist..

As parents we all want what is best for our kids.  We want to give them everything and of course we approach it with best intentions – yet at what cost? We are learning it is our children who end up suffering, both as young adults and as leaders, as parents fulfill their own needs rather than meeting the needs of their kids.

So how do you know if you are a helicopter parent?

You can check out the 4 Signs You Might Be a ‘Helicopter Parent’ — And How You Can Stop here

(Notice how the solutions offered are focused around communication and relationship building)

One thing that comes through loud and clear in all these articles is the importance of supporting struggle, frustration and failure in our kids at any age. It builds resilience.  When we protect our kids from failure they don’t learn.  When we constantly “fix” and “solve” our kids problems they don’t experience struggle, frustration or failure – a.k.a they don’t learn how to fix their own problems and they don’t have the opportunity to develop confidence in problem solving.

When we constantly tell our kids what to do and how to do it, how are we supporting or nourishing their ability to problem solve, make choices, be independent, rise to and experience challenges, learn, think independently, understand their needs, or connect with the others?  How can we expect them to find jobs, lead teams, accomplish goals, or have ambition?

Then when they don’t match or exceed our expectation we blame them, shame them and even judge them for it.  As parents we need to change how we show up for our kids.

Being involved in our kids’ lives is important.  However, what we do is no longer as important as HOW we do it.

What would it be like for parents to take a step back and support our children to be independent, competent and connected?

What would it be like to trust our children and their ability to make decisions that will work for them?

What would it be like to be curious about your child, inviting them to be apart of the decision-making process, or have them lead the problem solving process, making them accountable for its success?

What would it be like to be open to doing something differently?  Perhaps you could approach something from your child’s perspective and see what you can all learn from their perspective.

What would it be like to connect with your child?  To truly see, hear and understand who they are and where they are at.  And what would that be like for them?

We invite parents to stop, take a breath, and take a step back – even those parents who believe they are not ‘helicopter parents’.   So many of us have helicopter tendencies wanting to keep our kids hurt free, tantrum free, happy and successful.  Parents, it is time to get real.   In the next week we challenge you to bring your awareness to your parenting style.   Be a curious observer of yourself and keep track of:

  • How often do you let your kids struggle, feel frustrated or fail?   What is that like for you?
  •  How often do you find yourself fixing, solving and telling your kids what to do?  How come?
  • Finally, when using the strategies above what do you notice about your relationship?  How does it make you feel?  What about your kid?

Curious to know more? Check out our Parenting Challenge and how to support your child


Share with us your craziest ‘helicopter parent’ experience.. You know we have all had at least one!