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?

”Want better employees, Ask better questions”

We are constantly discussing the importance of communication skills and how they affect relationships and the culture in the workplace.  Organizational culture is fundamental to how the organization does what it does.  The ‘how’ is about relationships, how the members … Continue reading

Want to get or KEEP your job? The focus is on communication

We are constantly discussing the importance of communication skills and how they affect relationships and the culture in the workplace.  Organizational culture is fundamental to how the organization does what it does.  The ‘how’ is about relationships, how the members of the organization do what they do.  As a member of an organization, perhaps an ‘employer’, we wonder how often consideration is given to the culture of the organization when interviewing perspective employees AND we wonder how often perspective employees are curious about the ‘how’ of the organization, prior to joining it?

Wallace Immen’s article in the Globe and Mail “Want better employees? Ask better questions in job interviews”, published Jan 5, 2012, is an interesting example of this.  Now more than ever, the importance of how we show up in the workplace and how we communicate not only affects our relationships and culture, it could affect keeping our jobs.

Times are tough.  Organizations aren’t hiring as many people as they used to in the past and so it’s becoming increasingly important that they hire those few who are the ‘perfect fit’, meaning the ‘how’ of what they do meshes with the ‘how’ of the organization.  By meshing, we mean aligns sufficiently to ensure relationships can be built and the fit will ensure respectful communications with a common focus.  However, as described in this article, a study done by Leadership Coach Mark Murphy showed that at least 70% of employers aren’t quite getting it right, employees end up not working out and it’s not due to the lack of skills, it’s due to attitude.

According to the article, the study tracked 20,000 new hires (United States, Canada, Europe and Asia) over a three year period and within the first 18 months they found that 46 per cent of them had either been fired or received poor performance reviews.  Mr. Murphy goes on to say “I’m regularly told by employers that their low performers have really good job skills, but other factors such as being negative, feeling entitled, blaming or being change-resistant turned out to be the reason they didn’t work out”.  To us, this reflects a lack of alignment between the employer and employee in the ‘how’ of what they do.  If the ‘cultures’ of the two are not aligned, relationships falter.

What is needed at the interview stage to include the ‘how’ of the organization, the culture of the group?


How would you describe your organizational culture?  Looking at the group where a perspective employee will be working, how would you describe that culture?  What are the 3 non-negotiables of how work is completed?  Once these have been identified, look at how you can incorporate these into the interview, what open questions you can ask to ensure the perspective employees are asked about each of these non-negotiables?  For example, if an employee is expected to be a team player where innovation is created through collaboration, ask the perspective employee how they work in a team, even asking for examples of what has worked well for them in the past or ask them how colleagues, members of previous teams would describe them, how they worked together.

 Perspective employee:

You really want this job because you know you have the required skills and can achieve success when you look at the job description.  However it may be challenging to succeed if the culture of the organization does not align with you, ‘how’ you do what you do.

Reflect on what you need from a cultural perspective in an organization.  ‘How’ do you want to do what you do?  Once you have identified 3 fundamental needs for you, craft questions around them so you can be curious and learn about the organizational culture during the interview.  For example, if you need to receive feedback on what you are doing, you could ask the interviewers how the reporting manager communicates with their team, how the manager provides direction, supports learning for team members etc.  If feedback does not come up, you can then decide if this is a deal breaker or if you can learn and feel valued a different way.  Perhaps the manager could be open to providing feedback and you can ask this.  The clearer you are in the interview about your needs, the better the fit can be.  For example you could indicate you thrive in an environment where you receive frequent, specific feedback and wonder how this manager provides feedback.  You will be able to learn quickly if feedback is something she is comfortable with.

In either case, if the fit is not there, listen to your inner voice.  This may seem like the ideal job and yet maybe it is not.  If the alarm bells start ringing in your head, how can you continue to be curious and open to ensure you ask ALL the questions needed to dim down those alarm bells?

We want to hear from you, what’s working and what you find challenging?  What do you contribute to the culture of your organization?