Paternalistic Care

Posted on December 28, 2009


I believe that as leaders, all of us are aware that we are responsible for not just our own success and failures but the success and failures of our team and each of it’s member as well. This includes being responsible for the team’s welfare, standards, culture and morale. In other words, anything that matters to any faction of the team matters to us. This unlimited liability of a leader only means that we are placed in a position to care about issues larger than ourselves.

The problems faced by our subordinates are not an exception. It’d be easy if the problem merely involve a particular individual in the workplace, say an employee who is facing relationship problems. However, what would be less simple to deal with would be when there’s a conflict of interest between multiple parties in the work place, say a belligerent employee. As their leader or manager, it is our responsibility to resolve such issues and manage the conflict, while doing our best to be fair and not cause more damage in the process. While we could choose to turn a blind eye to such issues, it would be considered shrieking our responsibility to the team, unless off course we knowingly choose to take the back seat when we feel that it is in the best interest of the team to allow the various parties to thrash it out and resolve the conflict themselves. At times, paternalistic measures may be called for.

Paternalistic refers to taking action on behalf of others, removing their autonomy, in trust that our actions are in their best interests. An analogy would be the ‘judge’, ‘law-maker’ or ‘policing’ roles that many fathers often play, as opposed to the typical caring image of a mother. In the context of a large organisation or country, this method of care is known as ‘laws’. That’s right. Laws are rules put in place by the government of a country which may, at times, inconvenience individuals, but serve to improve the welfare of the country. Should these laws be broken, offenders would be punished via methods such as fines, imprisonment, or even the death penalty.

I recall having a subordinate manager with the name of Jamie while I was at middle management. As a leader, Jamie strongly advocated the massive use of benefits, and would equate caring for his subordinates to satisfying their demands. Being rather new, Jamie even advocated lowering standards and cutting corners, believing that it was for the better of the team as it would make his team members happy. If you think that those ideas was damaging enough for the team, you’d be flabbergasted to know that Jamie was also the biggest critic of tough love, making the hard and unpopular decision for the good of his team. Not surprisingly, Jamie was powerless when his team’s welfare was threatened by self-centered members who chose to under perform, resulting in the other members to have to cover up for their shoddy work. Even when the core teamwork of the team is threatened and his team was on the brink of a brawl, Jamie still chose futilely to pacify both sides and was as such, paralysed as a leader.

Often, our responsibility as a leader means that we would have to make tough calls, which may make us unpopular. However, we should not forget that as the leader, we are obliged to take action to resolve the problem as it is the responsibility of the leader to do so. By choosing to shun this responsibility, we are, in fact, betraying our team and showing that we lack the will power to care for them. They may not understand your kind intentions, just as citizens of a country may not understand the dangers of speeding to themselves and the community and hence resent speed limits and seat belt laws. However, if you truly care for your team as a leader, perhaps the concept of using fines and bans for exceeding the speed limit may be the best course to apply to your team.

Leadership Lesson- we as leaders are answerable to our team in our actions. While the ‘understanding leader’ approach would certainly strengthen your team’s communication, times may call for us to make hard decisions for the best interest of our team. We should bear in mind that we may be appointed or voted to lead, and we must not betray the faith our team members and superiors place in us to lead our team with wisdom and courage.

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