The Toddler Years
My highly sensitive 3-year-old let out a high-pitched scream. I begged him to cooperate as I forced his school uniform onto his impossibly squirmy body. The struggle continued with brushing his teeth and putting on his coat. I pleaded with him.
“Pleeeeeease, just put on your coat. Please work with me.” I managed to get one arm in the sleeve as he twisted his other arm out of the sleeve. “We’re going to be late!” More shrieking and wrestling.
Parents, you know this scene. I was engaged in a classic toddler power-struggle. And I was losing.
Later that evening, exhausted by the millionth morning of tears, I resorted to the ol’ Google-machine and searched for advice on toddler tantrums.
I tried yelling. It didn’t work.
I tried bribery. It worked once.
I tried the sticker chart. It lasted 2 weeks.
I tried being silly, fun, singing, rhyming, acting like a robot, over-the-top positive reinforcement…they were all temporary fixes. Eventually we came back to screams and tears. Sometimes they were my screams and tears.
I finally stumbled across a website that made sense. No gimmicks. No fake personalities. It was a simple 3 step process to help children regulate their emotions while the parent enforced common-sense rules. Biglittlefeelings.com
Applying It to Leadership
It worked for my toddler (and his brother a few years later). But then I realized it could extend far beyond the ages of 2-5. This wasn’t child psychology. This was human psychology. We all have big feelings that get in the way of smart work decisions. Your toddler wants to be heard. Your team wants to be heard. Your toddler needs boundaries. Your team needs clear expectations.
Taking It One Step Further
Bosses respond with things like “I listen to my team.” But we often give ourselves too much credit in the “listening” category. As adults we’re taught that listening looks like proper eye contact, a concerned head nod, and rephrasing what’s being said to show that we understand. These tactics are ok, but we need to take it a step further. The 3-step process that I used with my toddler to help him feel heard, regulate his behavior in the future, and enforce boundaries translates effectively to team leadership in emotionally charged situations.
Since your team is not a gaggle of 3-year-olds, I’ll make slight changes to the wording from the toddler website:
- Identify the feeling
- Validate the feeling
- Enforce the expectation
You can validate your team’s concerns AND you can do it without giving in to every tantrum, ahem, I mean… every request.
A Real Life Example
I once had a very agitated employee on the phone. He was upset that we’d changed the schedule of a project for the third time. At least, those were the words coming out of his mouth. But the problem wasn’t the schedule itself. The problem was that he felt undermined when we expected him to readjust the schedule without complaint. After a few minutes of trying to defend our position, I remembered the 3 step approach.
Identify the feeling: “You sound upset. This schedule change throws a wrench in your plans, and it undermines the work you’ve done so far to keep this project on track. It’s frustrating to have to readjust your plans multiple times. ”
He interjected, “Yes! I’m trying to deliver a good project.”
Validate the feeling: “It’s normal to be frustrated by this, especially when you’re passionate about your projects. You’ve always been a team player, and I know you want to be a team player for this project.”
This time he replied in a lower tone, “Yes.”
Enforce the expectation: “The schedule has changed 3 times. That’s frustrating, but those changes are not a negative reflection of your effort. We still have to adjust the schedule.”
We still adjusted the schedule, but from there we were able to continue the conversation about the project in a calmer manner.
Why It Works
This parenting advice approach works well to de-escalate situations and reinforce unpopular decisions. I’ve learned over the years: managing people involves managing emotions. The adult version of toddler tantrums isn’t about getting a cookie or wearing pajamas to school. The adult tantrums that plague office life are frequently driven by emotional reactions and the interference of egos.
I encourage you to look up Biglittlefeelings.com and apply their approach to your management style.
If you do, send me an email at [email protected] and let me know how it goes!