Why Do Employees Behave Like Children?

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Virtually every Human Resources person I have spoken to in the past 15 years vigorously shakes his/her head up and down whenever I ask if they regularly see employees behave like children.  Why is it that adults behave like children at work?

There are two major types of childish behavior we see from employees.  The first type of childish behavior is very useful.  Employees who are playful like children can be innovative problem solvers.  Innovative childlike behavior can offer a big advantage because employees can see things from a completely different perspective.  They are open to new ideas.  They are playful and enthusiastic about simple things.  They are fun to be around. We feel young and energetic around them.  This is the playful innovative child.  This is the kind of childish behavior we want from our employees.

The second type of childish behavior is damaging.  This is the type of behavior that caused the Human Resources people to shake their heads like bobble head dolls.  This is when employees behave like immature victims.  They avoid responsibility and blame others for their problems.  They fail to take action to solve problems unless they are told to do so.  When they do take action it is usually incomplete or of poor quality and they rarely, if ever, will be proactive to avoid problems.  Their best excuse is “It’s not my job.”

The ironic thing is, when we treat employees like adults they have a much higher probability of behaving like playful innovative children.  When we treat them like children they act like childish victims.  Here are three major reasons why employees behave like childish victims.

We have policies that scream ‘I don’t trust you’

85-90% of organizations conduct performance reviews and that policy sends a clear message, “I don’t trust you.”   Performance reviews rate employee
performance. It is like giving the employee a grade.  Pay for performance policies attempt to control employee behaviors by making them focus on specific goal achievement.  Both policies send a subliminal message that “we can’t trust you to do the right things and so we must control your behaviors.”

We teach what we allow

One thing that drives Human Resources professionals crazy is the unwillingness or inability of managers to discuss difficult performance issues with employees.   Many managers avoid these confrontational discussions.  A manager’s unwillingness to confront bad behaviors teaches employees that is is OK for them to behave like childish victims.  Without feedback the “children” will repeat the behaviors.  Furthermore,   they may either encourage others to either behave badly or become demoralized. We need to give managers better tools to have these discussions immediately.  We need to shift the  conversation fromnegative confrontation to trust building and learning.

We have all been treated like childish victims and so we carry-on the tradition

Our public school system treats us like children.  One might say, “of course we treat students like children because they ARE children for much of their schooling.”  The problem is the lack of freedom of choice.  Students have little choice in what they study and they have little understanding about why they are studying it.  Even teachers have limited choices about curriculum or learning outcomes because they are told to teach to specific tests.

This lack of freedom creates a feeling of victimhood.    People need and want to have choices.  They want to feel they have control over their own world.
They need to have freedom to act on their own (within boundaries).  Even children need that feeling to boost their innovative playful tendencies.
When we control behaviors we damage or kill that innovative playful nature.   When we create the perception of limited control we end up with 35-40% drop out rates or kids pumped up on Ritalin.  We have grown up with these limited choices and so we perpetuate the culture of control in our organizations because that is all we know.


We must capture the good childish nature of our employees and avoid the childish victim behaviors.  The only way to accomplish this is to treat employee like adults, give them more freedom, and trust them.  We need to rethink our policies that send the wrong message of mistrust and replace them
with those that send a message, “I trust you.”


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