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Your Overbearing Boss Is Turning You Into a Bad Parent

By being a jerk to employees, we ensure they’re jerks at home, too. It’s all part of a vicious capitalist cycle

You don’t need anyone to tell you that when you’re micromanaged within an inch of your life at work, you aren’t too keen on doing the job. But what might be surprising is that being treated that way will have consequences when you get home, too.

According to organizational psychologist and Wharton man Adam Grant, who reviewed decades of research on how work affects home life, people who are robbed of their freedom at work are more inclined to expect total obedience at home from their children.

In other words, powerless people take out their powerlessness somewhere, and for some people, the home may be the only place to do it. (If you’ve ever waited tables, you know restaurants seem to serve the same purpose.)

Occupational Stress and Authoritarian Parenting

Grant cites sociological research on occupational stress that looked at thousands of men working in every occupation and found that the less control the man had over his job, the more likely he was to co-sign on “authoritarian views.” Such views typically sound very militaristic: People in charge are in charge and you should follow orders whether you like it or not. Only troublemakers question the status quo.

Translated into parenting, this is the strictest, most controlling model of parenting: I’m the parent, you’re the kid, so do what I say because I said so. I don’t need a good reason. Grant notes that it’s not just men who might be submissive at work but tyrannical at home. Later studies expanded the notion to women and other countries, including Japan, where the result was the same.

And that result is bleak. Grant writes:

Mothers and fathers who lack challenging, stimulating work dole out more harsh discipline to their kids, punishing them for misbehavior before giving them a chance to explain and teaching them that children are meant to be seen but not heard when adults are around. Moms with less control and self-direction at work create less nurturing and stimulating environments at home: they’re less likely to hug their kids, read to them, and encourage them to participate in conversations.

Dads who feel controlled at work are more likely to control their children. With little autonomy on the job, fathers tend to have lower self-esteem and experience more bad moods, which means their children get less acceptance and more rejection and punishment. These dads expect more conformity and less self-direction, demanding that their kids follow rules “because I said so,” and their kids end up being more aggressive and breaking more rules.

If you’re thinking that maybe the type of people who would already be authoritarian parents are simply attracted to jobs like that in the first place, Grant notes that the researchers anticipated this skepticism. The sociologists followed up on the authoritarian men in the first study, and found that the men’s attitudes changed when the job changed.

If they found work that was less controlling, they relaxed at home, too. This should not be shocking: Happiness at work often translates to being able to enjoy your free time, friends and family.

The ‘Sludge’ Problem

Another way to think of it is simply being treated like an adult at work. Too few jobs measure your value by productivity, and instead focus on numerous other intangibles that often have little to do with whether you’re actually good at the job. The result is feeling completely hemmed in by process, and not results.

This was addressed in 2014 in the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. The authors identified a big part of the problem as “sludge,” which is a term they use to describe the way that employees are subtly policed into feeling guilty for having adult lives and responsibilities outside the job, where the fixation is about how rather than what:

Sludge is any comment that’s meant to make a co-worker feel guilty about process rather than results. For example: “Nice of you to join us, Judy,” when Judy arrives at the office a little late in the morning. Or: “I wish I had kids like Bill. He never has to be at work,” when Bill leaves early to see his daughter’s school play. These sorts of comments reinforce an outdated view of the relationship between a knowledge worker’s time spent at a desk and his overall productivity.

Bad management, which is a pervasive issue, is partly to blame. But it’s also about our unwillingness as a culture to let go of certain metrics for evaluating value, metrics that plank-walk employees onto little hamster wheels from which they never escape. Most bosses care far more about hours than productivity, and it’s a shame.

In Work Sucks, they draw upon an example from Best Buy, which tried an experiment with employees in 2003 called ROWE, or results-only work environment. The company decided to stop evaluating certain teams of workers by any metric other than productivity. In exchange for not hassling them about time off, meetings (all became optional), office hours or really anything, they demanded a 10 percent sales increase. They only looked at the work and not the person, which is the closest thing to on-the-job freedom you can get.

It was considered a raging success. When sludge was eliminated, everything got better: morale, sleep, health (people went the doctor when they got sick and stayed home, too) and even lower turnover. Productivity went up 41 percent. Still, the idea died — right beside the rise of open office plans, so-called flat culture and the notion that all collaboration happens best in person, all day long, until everyone drops dead. And it’s only getting worse: Poor work-life balance and technologies that foster the expectation of communications after hours have lead to an era of peak burnout.

Micromanaging Screws Everyone

While Grant’s points are salient, we have to wonder: If increasing productivity and profits can’t convince more employers to lay off the micromanaging, could it be motivating to note that it’s screwing over the next generation?

Being micromanaged at work is the least effective form of motivation, and fittingly, authoritarian parenting is also the least effective parenting style. Because it gives no context for parenting choices and invites zero collaboration on approaches, or freedom of (kid) choice, it tends to create timid children with low self-esteem who “rely to an unusual degree on the voice of authority.”

Of course, another way of looking at it is that this is actually the point of all this corporate micromanaging. By being jerks to workers, we ensure our workers are jerks at home, too, thereby producing future generations of obedient workers in the form of their children. Kind of genius.