/// Why the Adult Supervision Cliche is Bad for Business (HBR)

August 5, 2011  |  Blog

Condescension rarely builds loyalty or trust. Describing — even dismissing — adversaries and colleagues as “childish” and “immature” seems a surefire way to inspire hostility and resentment. You’d think serious leaders and healthy organizations would avoid insultingly corrosive characterizations.

That’s why I’m astonished that some of the highest-profile Silicon Valley and Beltway elites have embraced “adult supervision” as essential nouns in their leadership vocabularies. No prizes for guessing who they think are the “adults” and who are the unruly children. Call it MBI — Management By Infantalization.

People can agree to disagree about the efficacy and outcomes of America’s unhappy debt ceiling negotiations, for example. But it’s difficult to see how a President explicitly positioned as “the only adult in the room” isn’t tacitly suggesting that his Congressional counterparts aren’t adults. Branding one’s negotiating partners/adversaries as juvenile may be good political theater. However, it corrupts the tone and tenor of the inevitable next round of negotiations.

Similarly, how Larry Page and Sergey Brin must have seethed at the notion that the company they co-founded required “adult supervision” — not great software, not bold vision, not relentless innovation, not the very people they chose to hire — to succeed. Googling “adult supervision,” “Sergey Brin,” and “Larry Page” yielded 23,800 results. How galling. I happen to know Eric Schmidt; I can only imagine how many times he had to make self-deprecatory comments (or keep his mouth firmly shut) to avoid rubbing salt into the wounded pride of his ostensible subordinates. Let’s see how often that loathsome phrase materializes now that Page has taken Google’s reins.

This noxious meme has also taken root at Facebook (googling “Mark Zuckerberg” and “adult supervision” generates 23,400 hits), as well. By contrast, “Steve Jobs” and “adult supervision” has barely 10% that number and “Michael Dell” and “adult supervision” has even less. The point is not that age is irrelevant or that young innovators can’t — or won’t — benefit from more experienced mentors. It’s that poorly chosen language undermines trust and confidence. Casual condescension — or deliberate diminution — is how organizational relationships turn bitter and sour. Anyone who’s been “jokingly” described as a “suit” by a creative type in a client meeting or as a “creative” who doesn’t really understand the business in a budget meeting knows exactly what I’m talking about.

A child actor on a Hollywood soundstage or on Broadway likely requires “adult supervision.” So do kids at reform schools and summer camps. Seeing GenX and Millennial entrepreneurs as inherently immature, however, isn’t just profoundly presumptuous, it’s counterproductive.

What dedicated and hardworking young innovator wouldn’t chafe at the thought? I’ve worked at world-class research universities and have never once heard a top-tier professor ever describe their relationship to their Ph.Ds or post-docs as “adult supervision.” (In fairness, I have heard mediocre professors at mediocre labs use that phrase.)

Maybe 成人监督 (that’s “adult supervision” in Chinese if your device doesn’t have the fonts) will catch on in China if more Tsinghua or Fudon University students leave school to start their own companies. Perhaps “surveillance adulte” is already an entrepreneurial trope in France. But global organizations that celebrate “adult supervision” as some sort of enterprise virtue are disrespecting both language and leadership. They’re also ignoring recent history. Citigroup, UBS, Bear Stearns, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of America, and AIG supposedly had “adult supervision” — and quite well-compensated and credentialed adults, at that — yet that apparently didn’t deter the most egregious misjudgment and mismanagement.

Want to be a more effective leader and manager of young, energetic and innovative colleagues? Never allow the phrase “adult supervision” to pass your lips or appear in your emails and texts. What a healthier organizational culture? Politely interrupt and correct colleagues who complain that subordinates and clients are misbehaving children. Don’t think of this as a plea for civility; it’s not. It’s a call to common sense. “Adult supervision” — not unlike “impactful” and “synergistic” — is one of those horrible business clichés that deserves to die.

By Michael Schrage

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