Family Skills Aid Workplace Performance

Conventional wisdom may suggest that having children is a liability when climbing the career ladder. This view suggests parenting responsibilities interfere with work, infringe on productivity, demand time away from the job and distract staff from the task at hand.

Some organizations may think staff with kids have chosen to avoid the fast track and may be less willing to promote them. They may question these workers’ commitment and dedication to the job and view family as an excuse for slacking off or being an unfair drain on childless employees (taking time off when a child is ill, for instance).

Some research even backs these views up. For instance, some studies have shown interference at work due to familial responsibilities has affected psychological well-being and to lead to counterproductive behaviours at work.

However, a new study, published in January, 2007 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, indicates that being a parent has positive rather than negative effects on workplace performance.

Researchers surveyed 346 middle, upper-middle and executive managers from a variety of organizations in the United States regarding their commitment to their marital and parental roles and performance at work– work performance ratings were obtained from the manager’s bosses, superiors (not a direct boss), peers and direct reports.

Authors Laura Graves, Patricia Ohlott and Mariane Ruderman found that commitment to being a parent was related to positive work performance, even more than commitment to a marital relationship. The authors believe the parental role enhanced the manager’s work performance and as such was a benefit to the manager and the organization.

The researchers suggested that particular parenting abilities may enhance managerial job performance. Here are five ways that being a parent can enhance work performance:

1. The Ability to Multitask

Having to juggle many tasks at once is central to parenting. The ability to handle an onslaught of demands, competing needs and priorities is a skill they practise daily. Meanwhile, managing multiple projects with different timelines, teams of staff and relevance to the organization is an important skill managers need to possess.

Coping well with interruptions and being able to return to tasks quickly after an interruption is a skill learned when dealing with children’s demands. Managers and parents alike have to master new knowledge quickly—parents typically have to learn on the fly with rapidly growing and changing offspring. Being able to be flexible, acquire new understandings quickly and being decisive are all part of being a parent and are transferable tools to the manager position.

2. Skills in Developing Others

New parents immediately become educators. Concern for teaching children about staying safe, making decisions and learning life and academic lessons is part of what parents need to provide their children. This orientation towards learning and growth nurtured at home is integral to the manager role too. Managers who focus on developing people, teaching new skills and encouraging learning are successful. The parental role provides a potent resource for this way of thinking and is directly transferable to the office. Maintaining a consistent focus on learning takes patience and perseverance—both lessons learned parenting. Being willing to provide assistance and guidance consistently, calmly and in an encouraging manner is a parental virtue suited perfectly to what’s required in the management role.

3. Empathy

Compassion and understanding for others are important components of the parenting role – and skills every manager can use. Learning empathy while parenting enables managers to consider that there may be another viewpoint. Children provide a unique opportunity to both experience and teach empathy. When a child looks at a hurt puppy and is given the vocabulary to understand another’s pain, she develops empathy. It is usually the parent who provides these lessons and managers too must help staff see the merits of other people’s perspectives. Team work demands it.

4. Being Less Self-Focused

Parents learn quickly that their needs can be quickly subsumed by the demands of a child’s. Focusing more on someone else rather than oneself can be a humbling experience and one that managers benefit from. Parents’ needs often come second to those of their children. Caring for another makes people step outside themselves, gain a more realistic perspective about their importance and contributes to personal well-being. When managers focus on staff and their needs, they underscore employee importance, recognize staff contributions to the organization and the manager’s success. Knowing that others have made one’s success possible comes from focusing on other people’s efforts rather than one’s own. Parenting is an ideal training ground for learning to focus on another’s efforts and welfare. Meanwhile the ability to put oneself second is an essential leadership tool for managers.

5. Maturity, Wisdom, Responsibility

Parenting provides lessons in keeping one’s perspective, remaining calm in the face of adversity and chaos, and taking the high moral ground. These elements of being a parent are all important characteristics of leadership. Mature leaders will accept more blame and take less credit than less mature ones. Looking at oneself honestly is key to parenting, especially when our children’s behaviour is the best feedback we can get. Making mistakes as a parent and as a leader goes with the territory, how we handle those errors is what makes the difference. Taking quick corrective action when feedback warrants it is the hallmark of an effective leader and parent. Spending time blaming others only detracts from what needs to be done and increases the time needed to remedy the situation.

Managing and parenting both require people to have faith in themselves and others, making hard decisions (letting an employee go, following through on fair consequences with a child), and knowing what to attend to, when to take a stand and what to let go of. These are judgment calls that parents and leaders must both make regularly.

Parenting and leading have much in common. Recognizing that parenting skills are transferable to the work context is important. Organizations that recognize the value of this life experience to leadership effectiveness benefit from increased worker performance. Managers and staff do not have to be parents to learn these skills, being a volunteer, caregiver or dedicating oneself to a cause, can develop these skill sets. However, seeing the parenting role as an interference misses the mark. Parenting is an excellent training ground for leadership and supporting parenting is in an organization’s best interests in the long run.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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