What is “Parentship”? and why it should be part of your workplace culture.


Samin Saadat
Executive Director

During my first year at the University of British Columbia, I was intrigued by the concept of the parenting license. This is the idea that people should only become parents if they go through a series of basic training, for example, physical education (sexual health, eating habits, etc.) and how to foster healthy mental development in children. As I researched this concept and discussed it with the government agencies, the idea was repeatedly met with resistance. While the idea is intriguing and well-meaning, the concept as it currently stands risks potentially violating basic human rights.

How are parenting and leadership similar?

Now, as I learn more about organizational behaviour, and work more with different leaders and employees, I realize how ideas related to parenting can be applied to leadership. Similar to parenting, “good” leaders will have a significant impact on individuals and society, while less stellar leaders can leave a streak of emotional and performance setbacks that damage individuals and snowball into damaging society.

Using the analogy of parenting as a form of leadership can help us understand and learn more about the developmental psychological process involved in leadership and its impact on individuals’ wellbeing and organizational success. Similar to parents who protect and guide their children to grow into successful, independent and autonomous adults, leaders help their followers grow and become autonomous and competent individuals. Therefore, we can benefit from this analogy by applying the insight gained from “good parent” to our leadership style.

A Focus on Transformation and Growth

The development process of individuals is highly dependent on the relationship between leaders and followers, particularly for the transformational style of leadership — one of the most effective styles (Bass, 1995; Conger and Kanungo, 1998). Bernard Bass, a researcher at the State University of New York at Binghamton, described a transformational leader as one who empowers the followers and motivates them to work on transcendental goals instead of focusing solely on immediate interests. Transformational leadership elevates the followers’ level of maturity and encourage them to reach self-actualization and promote their concern for the well being of others, the organization and society.

As you can see on the table below, the similarity is apparent in several quite diverse domains — good leaders and parents alike are sensitive, responsive, reinforce autonomy and growth in a supportive way. Moreover, “good” parents and transformational leaders are similar in terms of the outcomes for their “proteges” — promoting trust in others, self-confidence and self-esteem and being achievement-oriented.

M. Popper, O. Mayseless / The Leadership Quarterly 14 (2003) 41–65

Morality and Empathy: An example of the development process in parenting and leadership.

The moral influence of parenting and leadership reflects on their proteges’ motivation, goals, prosocial behaviour, their concern for others and their concern for the organization they work for or for society more generally. How morality and empathy develop are key areas of overlap between parenting and leadership.

What are the key aspects of promoting moral and prosocial behaviour?

  • First of all, one key aspect of promoting moral behaviour is establishing expectations and demands for behaviour that is considered morally appropriate. Parents (leaders) should clarify expectations and set a standard for how children should behave. Parents who simply accept any behaviour, known as permissive parents, usually do not raise children who are self-regulated and prosocial. (Patterson, De Baryshe, & Ramsey,1989).
  • Secondly, whether the child (or employee) is willing to accept and adopt the parental expectation is related to whether warmth and trust are the basis of the relationship. (Darling & Steinberg, 1993; Hoffman, 1970; Kochanska & Thompson, 1997).
  • Thirdly, parents (leaders) provide explanations and reasons for the nature of the (mis)behaviour. In other words, parents provide a rationale why the behaviour is desirable or unacceptable, and they also have a discussion of the consequences or the feelings of the people involved (Burns, 1978).
  • Lastly, parents model the ideal behaviour themselves making them a role model for their children (Hoffman, 1975; Radke-Yarrow & Zahn-Waxler, 1986)

Interestingly, the leadership literature reports similar findings. Transformational leaders promote a higher level of moral behaviours and values by:

  • introducing clear expectations and demands that clarify what’s morally appropriate;
  • maintaining trustworthy and communicative relationships;
  • directing attention to consequences, particularly in terms of feelings; and
  • and by modelling empathy and prosocial behaviour. (M. Popper, O. Mayseless 2002).

In addition, prosocial behaviour seems to be related to directing children’s attention to the consequences of their actions in terms of feelings of the people involved (empathy), as well as encouraging the child to feel and express their emotions. The same principle can be applied in our leadership style to encourage empathy within our workforce. It is critical to create an environment where people can freely express themselves, while being responsible for their actions and how people feel when in that environment.

Daniel Goleman who introduced the notion of emotional intelligence (EQ) as a central and prominent aspect in the workplace, found that excellence at work is twice as dependent on EQ as IQ and technical skills and there are many studies to support this finding at the organizational level.

Are leaders born or made?

Most of the research on leadership has been on adult leadership and there has been very little research on the origins of early leadership capabilities in adolescent youth. Although most adults have described that their most important leadership training occurred after they began their careers, there are some reports that early life events are the most important developmental leadership experiences (Van Velsor, 2011).

It is more surprising to find that adult leadership training and interventions only have a small positive impact on work outcomes: approximately nine to 10 percent of the overall outcome. (Avolio et al., 2009a). Therefore, it is increasingly apparent and important to explore the role that parental practice plays in the development of potentially transformational leaders in adolescent youth.

Perhaps we need to rethink where we should spend our leadership training budget to get the highest ROI. We need to understand how some people can demonstrate many transformational leadership characteristics without having social or cultural capital to gain access to high-level leadership positions in government or business. How does a working class person who does not attend elite school become a leader? On the other hand, why are there privileged elite children who attend the best universities and have generations of family and business connection but often can’t exhibit leadership skills?

Authoritative Parenting and Autonomy

I would like to address some of these questions by looking at the most effective parenting strategy, the Authoritative Parenting Style, (as opposed to the most effective leadership style, the Transformation Leader) based on the seminal work of Baumrind (1967,1971) and Maccoby and Martin (1983). Authoritative parenting is defined by the level of demanding-ness and responsiveness of parents (Baumrind, 1971; Maccoby and Martin, 1983). Authoritative parenting is where parents exhibit high-level expectations of their children while providing the needed level of support and warmth, or what researchers call responsiveness.

In addition, the Oliver et al. (2011) study showed how a family that is open, supportive, and cohesive lays the foundation for a positive self-image in children, which is a critical component of developing transformational leaders. In other words, children who experience family environments in which parents treat the child in a valued manner, develop a positive view of themselves, which facilitates the making of a transformational leader. These crucial findings implicate the importance of positive family interactions, as represented by an Authoritative Parenting Style, in the development of both a positive self-concept in youth and later, adult transformational leadership attainment.

Bowlby (1969,1973,1988) believed that at any point in time, an individual may be vulnerable to negative experiences due to a lack of security within the family environment — but that same individual may also derive benefits from positive experiences or “corrective experiences” such as a such as a supportive and sensitive relationship with a significant other, boss, teacher or a friend. These benefits that come from initiating and experiencing new relationships foster the ability for an individual to begin developing the foundation of transformational leadership qualities (Bowlby, 1988; Lieberman, Weston, & Pawl, 1991; Van IJzendoorn, Juffer, & Duyvesteyn, 1995). Therefore, it’s important to note that leaders play a decisive and significant role in maintaining or initiating such corrective experiences (Popper, Mayseless, & Castelnovo, 2000).

What can you do as a leader?

To address this question, we need to learn more about Attachment Theory. In the last 15 years, adult attachment style has been considered to play a primary role in work behaviour and leadership. Attachment Theory, based on the work of John Bowlby (1982) illustrates that all individuals are born with an innate sense to seek proximity to others in times of need and distress. Based on how the proximity is shaped in early childhood, individuals develop a sense of security or insecurity that becomes the base of their own individual attachment style, which then remains relatively fixed over the lifespan.

Research by Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Behar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) used a technique called “Strange Situation” to learn more about how the attachment system operates. This procedure involved separating infants from their parents for a short period of time and observing their reactions. The research studied 3 types of attachments:

  1. Secure Attachment Style: When parents left, children engaged in attachment behaviour (crying, grabbing, clinging and etc). But when their parents returned, children were easily soothed.
  2. Anxious Attachment Style: Infants who displayed attachment behaviour upon separation but when their parents returned, the children were not easily soothed and continued in a display of distress. Researchers interpreted this response as still reflecting a desire for proximity to the attachment figure, but also a desire to punish their parent for leaving them in the first place.
  3. Avoidant Attachment Style: Infants failed to show distress when separated from their parents. Also, when their parent returned, they appeared to be actively avoiding contact with their parent.

Both of the latter styles are considered “insecure” attachment style. This research also suggests that the individual differences in attachment responses were related to prior histories in the parent-child relationship. That is, secure infants typically had parents who were responsive to their needs while insecure infants often have a parent who was either insensitive to their needs or inconsistent in their responses to the attachment-seeking behaviours of their children. (P.D. Harms / Human Resource Management Review 21 (2011) 285–296)

While the majority of prior research on attachment theory has been on romantic relationships, Kahn & Kram (1994) believed that the same patterns of attachment would be found in other relationships such as leader-follower relationships. The logic of attachment system is based on the idea that attachment relationships are formed with individuals that are close, who can provide “safe haven” in times of stress and who encourage and support new experiences (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). Therefore, beyond the parents, other individuals such as romantic partners, bosses, close friends, teachers or coaches can play a significant role in adults attachment establishment. Also, The transference of attachment relationships to non-parents is even more likely to occur when one is no longer able to rely on their original attachment figures (parents) or have de-idealized them (Mayseless & Popper, 2007), particularly in situations where stress is felt acutely (Kahn & Kram, 1994; Mayseless, 2005).

Because of the assumption that many individuals have of leaders (e.g. they ought to provide support and encourage autonomy), it can be anticipated that followers will have a tendency towards establishing attachment relationships with their leaders (Keller, 2003). As a result, transformational leaders play a significant role in creating, disrupting or correcting attachments with their followers. For example, individuals with “Insecure” attachment style expect their leaders to be rejecting or unavailable, particularly in times of stress. However, in a stressful situation, transformational leaders will respond with secure caregiving behaviours such as responsiveness, sensitivity and individual consideration. Therefore, Insecure Individuals who expect insensitivity and unavailability get caring and accepting responsiveness instead.

This corrective experience can present Insecure Individuals with an alternative worldview which they may eventually come to adopt. This concept can also be true for the other case where secure individuals may adopt insecure attachment due to having a leader with insensitivity and lack of individual considerations. Consequently, as Hill (1984) suggested, transformational leaders can have corrective effects either in initiating such a change and/or by maintaining and strengthening a process of change that has been triggered in another context such as parenting.

How does adult attachment style impact your workplace and employees?

Allen and Meyer (1990) suggest that organizational commitment is a psychological state that has three components: affective, normative and continuance. Affective commitment refers to an individual’s identification with, involvement in, and emotional attachment to an organization. Normative commitment reflects a feeling of loyalty toward the organization based on a perceived obligation to be loyal; and Continuance commitment is a tendency to maintain one’s membership of the organization based on recognition of the costs associated with departure.

Employees with secure attachment often have affective commitment to their organizations; they have more positive experiences at work and they have more positive attitudes toward others due to strong interpersonal skills as well as prosocial action. By contrast, insecure employees, who lack self-regulation, interpersonal coordination, and prosocial orientation, can have problems committing themselves to an organization and engaging in productive organizational behaviour.

As Hazan and Shaver (1990) argued, secure attachment is likely to promote effective workplace behaviour, marked by a sense of confidence and by positive relationships with coworkers; hence, this attachment style may be related to the affective dimension of organizational commitment, which refers to employees’ emotional attachment to an organization. Consistent with these arguments, Mikulincer and Shaver (2007) found that insecure attachment orientations (both avoidance and anxiety) were correlated with lower levels of organizational commitment, prosocial action, and spontaneous productive behaviours.

Attachment theory also highlights the link between attachment anxiety and negative working models of self. Insecure individuals tend to perceive themselves as unworthy and inadequate, leading to an obsessive need for reassurance from others, over-dependence (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005), and hyper-vigilance to social and emotional cues from others (Fraley, Niedenthal, Marks, Brumbaugh, & Vicary, 2006). So, we may argue that insecure individuals can be committed to an organization because they perceive a high cost of losing organizational membership.

Where do we go from here?

Although I believe we can be more proactive by investing more resources to empower parents with the knowledge of developing future leaders, I understand regulating parenting can face many obstacles with many unintended consequences.

I believe that the impact that workplace and community leaders have on an individual can have just as much influence as a parent’s. It can easily be argued that by increasing our understanding of how leaders are attachment figures for individuals at work and how the consequences of a leader’s action can have a significant impact on an individual’s well being as well as their commitment to the organization, we will be able to create workplaces where everyone can thrive.

From an applied perspective, HR managers and those who are responsible for reducing employees’ turnover and growth, can invest more resources on learning about adult attachment and transformational leadership styles and provide support accordingly. HR professionals and leaders facing high turnover or low morale should support and develop strategies to adjust their adult attachment patterns and provide corrective experience to tap into the hidden potential of individuals.

The human brain, behaviour and interactions with their environment never fail to intrigue Samin Saadat. After spending long hours in psychology labs at UBC and completing her Masters at the Sauder School of Business, she entered the workforce and observed a gap between what research suggests and what companies actually do to increase productivity and profitability. Now, Samin is on a mission to bridge this gap through Jalapeño Employee Engagement — leveraging technology and professional human services to bring research findings to life to help companies save invaluable dollars and to help individuals enhance their quality of life.