‘Tough love’ is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly with the intent to help them in the long run. The phrase was coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book ‘Tough Love’ in 1968. The idea has been around for a long time, and most people would associate it with parents helping their children to overcome challenges in order to help them grow up as better people.
So how is it relevant to Leaders?
Firstly, lets address the issue of the Parent/Child relationship dynamics that shouldn’t exist in the Leader/Direct report relationship in an ideal world. In this ideal world, everyone at work would be working from their ‘Adult’ ego state (Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne et al, 1964) and having logical discussions, treating each other as equals and respecting the diversity that working in a team offers. In reality, this rarely happens; people are humans and subject to changing ego states, ranging from parental to child-like depending on the situation and how resilient they are feeling at any given time. This fluctuation happens within us all, irrespective of our role. This shifting behaviour may be an external sign of something happening internally that doesn’t feel good.
So whilst it would be easier for us to work with ‘adults’ all the time, it doesn’t happen in the real world, and often as Leaders, we find ourselves inadvertently taking on the role of ‘Parent’ in reaction to the ‘Child’ ego state being demonstrated by our direct reports. It’s not ideal, but it is extremely common.
When we find ourselves caught up in the transactional loop or Parent/Child with a team member, it is common for us to rush to rescue them, coming to their aid, playing the role of ‘nurturing parent’ in order to care for them, to protect them, to restore their equilibrium. This behaviour comes from a good place, it is positively intentioned and often well met by their corresponding ‘child’ ego state. The problem is, does it really help them in the long run? The question we may wish to ask ourselves; ‘Is my rescuing behaviour helping this person to build their resilience level, or am I in fact, diminishing it?’
Tough love might be one approach to take to help your team members to develop their resilience levels. Even the absence of being rescued, and having to resolve their own emergencies a few times, can be enough to shift someone’s ego state from Child to Adult, and to reinforce the behaviours needed to resolve their own problems without relying on outside help. Taking it one step further, holding your team responsible for their decisions and actions can elevate their thinking and decision making habits so that they are thinking of the bigger picture, thinking of future consequences, rather than the here and now, and just getting the immediate problem resolved.
We advocate tough love as one approach to consider using in conjunction with some more ‘friendly’ feeling strategies, including these four elements (Robertson-Cooper, 2011);
Boosting confidence levels – Having a strong sense of your self-worth and confidence in your abilities is important for resilience. As a Leader, consider ways of boosting your people’s confidence levels by giving them opportunities to excel in something they are really talented at, and making sure that they know how well they have done.
Purposefulness – Having a purpose provides people with a foundation that allows them to be more resilient in the face of obstacles, stress and strain. Purpose in life is associated with higher levels of happiness and satisfaction, and lower levels of depressive symptoms. Make sure your people are crystal clear on what value they add to the business and their purpose in coming to work each day.
Adaptability – NLP talks about having flexibility in your approach by quoting the law of requisite variety; ‘In any system the person in the system with the widest range of behaviours or variability of choice will control the system’. In other words, the more flexible you are, the more likely you are to have power and influence.
People who are able to think flexibly and re-frame events positively are more resilient than those who are ‘stuck’ or inflexible. Those who accept challenging situations tend to be more psychologically resilient than inflexible thinkers. Help your people to re-frame any negative thoughts by asking two critical questions:
‘What else could it mean?’
‘Where else might this be useful?’
Social support – Greater levels of social support are associated with more positive outcomes following a wide range of stressors. Social support has been linked to a reduced rate of high-risk behaviours. Higher levels of social support foster adaptive coping strategies. How easy is it to ask for support and help in your team? Is there a hidden undertone or judgement about people asking for help being perceived as weak? As a Leader, it is your role to remove any barriers that prevent your team from providing each other with the support required to be effective – what more do you need to do to achieve this?
By helping your people develop their levels of resilience, their ability to keep functioning intelligently in tough times and by providing the right balance of tough love and support that’s right for them, you are in fact, acting as a responsible parent, helping them to develop their skills and resources, so that in the long term, you can achieve the utopia of working in Adult/Adult relationships (except when you choose a bit of ‘free child’ just for fun!).