Last week my eldest child started middle school. As we prepared for the start of school we discussed the ways our morning routine would change, including his need to wake up an hour earlier. The day before school started he said, “Mom, you don’t even need to get up tomorrow morning with me. I’ll make my own lunch.” He was cutting all ties. He had this.
The next morning, I lay awake listening first to the shower running, then to the sounds in the kitchen: a clanking breakfast bowel, the rustle of a sack lunch coming together. Only when I heard the bathroom sink signaling the brushing of teeth did I emerge and greet my proudly independent son.
“Ready for school?”
“Yep” he said, grinning from ear-to-ear.
And then I blew it.
“Well, have a great day. And remember, if it seems overwhelming today, it’ll be OK. Just go with it. I can help you sort out the paperwork when you get home.”
I watched as the light in my son’s eyes faded ever so slightly. “Mom, don’t worry; I’m fine.” I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late. The seed of doubt had been planted and I was the gardener who sowed it.
Where I had meant to be reassuring, I was instead assessing his competence, anticipating what might go wrong that first day. My son didn’t need reassurance; in his mind he had this. What he needed instead was an acknowledgement of my faith in his abilities. How much better if I had said, “I can’t wait to hear how your first day went!”
As a parent, my worries got the best of me – what if he forgets his locker combination? What if he gets overwhelmed with complexities and sheer size of the middle school building? Will he remember his bus number to get back home?
Parenting is a form of leadership and though there are many ways that parents are not like workplace leaders, there are also commonalities. Both parents and effective workplace leaders care about those they lead. And both types of leaders must avoid projecting their worries onto those who are ready to take on a new challenge.
How many times have you seen team members tell their leader, “I’ve got this” only to have the leader list the many cautions to keep in mind? Leaders do their best work when they express belief in their teams’ abilities and affirm the confidence of those around them.
If you are a leader, don’t extinguish the light in your excited team member’s eye. Take a deep breath, look him or her in the eye and say, “You’re going to do great. I look forward to hearing how this project unfolds.” No matter how well-intentioned, save the discussion about “what might happen” until something actually does transpire.