The Helicopter Manager

Chris Gash

Just about everyone knows helicopter parents, always hovering overhead to make sure their children are thriving. In a survey of 725 employers hiring recent college graduates, more than a quarter had been contacted by applicants’ parents or received applicants’ resumes from parents; some even had parents show up with their children at interviews, negotiate the terms of job offers, and ask for a raise or promotion.

In the workplace, many people become helicopter managers, hanging over their employees in a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt to provide support. These are givers gone awry—so desperate to help others that they develop a white knight complex and end up causing harm instead. 

Studies by psychologist Sandy Lim of the National University of Singapore suggest that helicopter managers disrupt employees’ learning and damage their confidence, preventing them from becoming independent and competent. In focusing on the short-term benefits of helping, helicopter managers overlook the long-term costs.

Research at the Center for Creative Leadership shows that challenges—including having to work on unfamiliar tasks, lead change during uncertainty and exercise influence without authority—are important predictors of learning on the job. Three decades of evidence reveals that people perform better when they are given difficult goals. Challenges motivate them to work harder and smarter, develop knowledge and skills, and test different strategies. 

But what’s the optimal level of difficulty?

In a study led by the late University of Michigan psychologist John Atkinson, people were given the opportunity to take practice shots from three different distances in a game of shuffleboard. Here were the odds of success for each:

Very easy (1 to 5 feet away): 55 percent

Intermediate (6 to 10 feet): 30 percent

Very difficult (11 to 15 feet): 2 percent

As you might expect, participants classified as high achievers preferred to challenge themselves. More than half of the high achievers chose the intermediate level of difficulty, and more than one-third chose the very difficult distances. Just 6 percent chose the very easy distances.

But surprisingly, the low achievers liked challenges too. Only 19 percent of them chose the very easy distances, 26 percent chose the intermediate difficulty, and 54 percent chose the very difficult distances. In other studies, Atkinson found that people often prefer a 50 percent chance of success over a 75 percent chance. In Ambition (Basic Books, 1992), social psychologist Gilbert Brim writes that people strive for “just manageable difficulties” that test and stretch their skills, but don’t set them up for certain failure.

To prevent the helping hand from striking again, managers need to keep their helicopter tendencies in check. Instead of rushing to the rescue in ways that fail to benefit employees and providing help that stifles their growth and development, leaders would be wise to present manageable difficulties. Anne Frank once said, one “can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

Adam Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of  Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Viking Adult, 2013)

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

    Download
  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

    Download
  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.