I help people build high performing teams. That’s my job, and more importantly, it’s my passion.

In my personal life, I am an equally passionate advocate for mental health. This week, those two parts of my life will come together when I speak at a conference on building resilience in children. The theme of my talk is how we are failing to teach our kids how to work effectively in teams.

I see three primary areas where we need a significant change in how we parent to save our organizations and institutions from impending doom.

Seeking, valuing, and accepting feedback

When I look at my clients assembled around board room tables, it is clear that they struggle with feedback. Most people don’t ask for it (no news is good news). Many don’t value it. A few don’t even accept it.

Then I watch my kids and their peers and I see where their bad relationship with feedback starts—with their parents! We are so obsessed with building our children’s self-esteem that we throw ourselves in front of the feedback bullets that we think might destroy their fragile self-worth.

Here’s the problem—we are the ones making it fragile! It’s not real self-esteem; not forged in genuine exploration of what they can and cannot achieve. Not strengthened by risk taking, gumption, skinned knees and bruised egos. It’s false esteem propped up with 2 foot high trophies for sixth place.

It’s not going to travel with them to college or into the workplace because it will be shattered the moment we aren’t there to protect it.  It has never actually become a part of them, it’s only an illusion that we—their Paula Abdul parents—are projecting onto them “you’re the you-est you that you can be!!!”

I’m not saying you should crush your child’s spirit, I’m saying that you need to get real with them. When they ask you for feedback (children naturally seek it out), give them some.  Here’s my half of a conversation I had with my Grade 6 daughter when she read me her speech. “Mom, do you like my speech?”

“I’m so glad you shared that with me. What inspired you to write about that topic? I love your opening line—it really grabs me because I can picture it in my mind—what gave you that idea?  I got a little confused when you moved from the first section to the second section—how could you make that transition a little smoother?”

She tells me she wasn’t crushed by the interaction. (Actually, she said it was “fine.”) Sure, she would have preferred in the moment if I had simply said “oh my goodness, that is the BEST speech I have ever heard!!!”  But this way she had a chance to make it better before sharing it with her classmates.

Practicing conflict

The next thing that is going terribly, terribly wrong in our board rooms is that we have no idea how to have conflict productively.  We have the screamers, the sarcastics, the whisperers, but what’s missing are the people who calmly and rationally put the different options on the table and work through them.

Again, we can see the seeds of this in our kids—and in our parenting style.  On this one, I have been guilty.  My younger daughter (now in grade 2) has had a couple of interactions with kids where my advice has been “just walk away.”  Now that can be perfectly good advice in some situations, but I realized I was teaching her to avoid conflict, rather than teaching her how to deal with it.  I’ve righted my wrong. Here’s a snippet of a recent conversation.

“I had a fight with Sarah because she was cheating at hide and seek.” “What did you say to Sarah when you saw that?” “I told her that we agreed the field was off limits and she couldn’t go there.” “What did she say?” “She covered her ears and wouldn’t listen.” [That’s the point where I would have said to just walk away.]

“What do you find works to make things better with Sarah?” “She needs a little time before she can talk about things. Sometimes I ask the teacher if she can help us problem solve.”  “What could you do next time you’re setting out rules for a game that might make things work better?”

I could see her really trying to work it out.  She’s motivated to make things better.  So much so that she came to me to talk about how her other friend is totally different than Sarah and could I help her figure out how to deal with conflict with her.

I’m trying to teach her the conflict is normal, that she plays a role in it, and that she needs to be open and curious about how she can make it better.  The goal is that she doesn’t find conflict as aversive as most people do. Yelling “bullying” at the first sight of a conflict is doing us a big disservice.

Learning to be uncomfortable

If there’s a general problem with the people I meet on teams it’s that they just don’t want to be uncomfortable.  When they get close to something uncomfortable, they retreat at lightning speed.

Again, we can see where it’s coming from.  We’re teaching our children to avoid discomfort.  My daughter had a young, feisty grade 4 teacher who took a pretty tough stance against the rangy boys in her class.  If they didn’t write down their homework in their agendas (and therefore their parents weren’t aware and didn’t force them to do it), they faced the consequences.  That teacher lasted about 6 weeks before a group of parents forced her out of the school in tears.

The result was a revolving door of teachers for the remainder of the year—a travesty that many parents couldn’t get over (taking no ownership for the fact it was a problem of their own making).  I decided that it was a pretty close approximation to the real world and spent the time talking about how to make a first impression with a teacher—a skill she had to use 6 times during the school year.

At a more serious level, anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions in our children—it is replacing ADHD as the most common issue seen by child psychologists.  Although the full story of how and why anxiety is proliferating is an issue for the scientific and medical community, it’s clear that parents who respond to anxiety by protecting their children from the experiences they find stressful are only making the issue more severe.

It is our job as parents to teach our children how to thrive.  We have the opportunity to set the tone for a lifetime of experiences that will be challenging, uncomfortable, and even anxiety-provoking.  If we make the mistake of trying to protect our children from these situations, we fail them in a very real and profound way.

We must teach our children to team. Every class we graduate without these skills puts us further behind the countries where teamwork comes naturally.

Sorry…too long, I know. That what happens when two passions intersect!–L

Further Reading

How to Take the Sting out of Conflict

Standing up to Powerful Bullies

Avoiding Work-Life Collisions: A Lesson from the BBC’s Professor Dad