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Editorial
Is The Manager-Mother Syndrome Hurting Your Leadership Potential?
elnariz / Adobe Stock
AnnaMarie Houlis

Kishshana Palmer is a jack of all trades — she’s a sought-after strategist, speaker, trainer, social good matchmaker and nonprofit coach who’s managed high-performing fundraising and sales professionals for over 15 years. 

Through her business, Fabulously Fundraising, Palmer helps social impact organizations design development infrastructures, create diversified fundraising programs and manage high-performing teams, and she’s raised over $45 million dollars for her clients thus far. But that’s not all Palmer does; she also tackles a whole lot of “office housework.”

“Think of me as your ‘fixer,’” she says. “I am passionate about helping nonprofits and entrepreneurs who want to do social good — grow their organizations, grow their boards, grow their funding and grow their teams.” 

Perhaps because she’s a self-proclaimed “fixer,” Palmer is also oft-conscious of her “mother/manager syndrome” — a managerial style some women use, most often toward male colleagues and subordinates, in which they adopt a motherly manner of relating to employees and in which they assume “office housework.” The housework includes person-oriented tasks, usually unrelated to one’s actual job description, that add up over time and consume the bulk of a woman's day.

The “office mom” is usually an older woman, and sometimes even a senior executive, who buys coffee for everyone, who recognizes when the refrigerator is low on milk and the bathroom on toilet paper, and who makes sure her team is content. 

“I would describe the ‘mother/manager syndrome’ as wanting to have a more personal relationship with your team than is reasonable at work,” Palmer explains, noting that the “office mom” also looks to boost company morale by making the team comfortable sharing personal experiences — travel, illness, family and all things that influence how we interact with our teammates.

“Frankly, many women are nurturers. We are gifted at building relationships and our desire to build relationships and have authentic connections can influence our management style. I think many of us are conditioned from really early on — doll play, play dates, teaming — to socialize while working, and that spills over into our careers as we manage people.”

Palmer isn’t the only woman using this style of management, of course. Other women like Sooinn Lee, CEO and co-founder of education technology startup Enuma, use the “mother/manager syndrome” in an effort to actually support other mothers.

“In the beginning, our team was comprised entirely of flex-time parents, and I wanted to build a company where I and all of our team members could balance family and work,” she says. “I dreamed of a workplace where we did not have to compromise being a mother and being a valuable team member. I dreamed of a workplace where we can bring our kids into the office when the nanny couldn't make it or when schools close for a non-holiday.” 

After five years in business, 20 of Enuma’s 24 members are parents and half of them are female. As such, she says all of their management styles can be characterized as “motherly,” and they each take pride in and focus on supporting mothers in management.

“We often ask how the kids are doing and take action to support our team's work and family balance,” she says. “We have very flexible rules on working hours, scheduling meetings and modifying work schedules to avoid drop-off and pick-up times. This is true even for board meetings. It helps that most of our board members are also actively-involved parents. If someone can easily depart early to help a sick child, they don't mind working after the child's bedtime to make it up. One of our team members regularly leaves work at 3 p.m. to take her child to a rock climbing gym and then works from their Wi-Fi. When one staffer's family member started chemo therapy, she reduced her work schedule to half to support her relative.”

Lee says her motherly managerial style is about retaining the company’s top talent in Silicon Valley, and she’s proud to have a workplace that “feels like a village.”

While the aforementioned “motherly” tasks seem both subtle and simple, however, the problem lies in the societal assumption women will take care of things at the office when no one else will. We’ve accepted the “mother/manager syndrome” as the norm when, in fact, women have responsibilities that actually pertain to their positions to which they need to be prioritizing. Regardless, women still earn less than men, and they’re expected to take on work that is not delineated in their job descriptions.

Feminist Fight Club” author Jessica Bennett has called the syndrome the “perfect example of both external sexism and internalized sexism.” She told CNN, “We think we need to be ‘helpful’ and ‘nurturing’ and take on these roles that are traditionally female.”

Besides the issue of assuming women will take care of the office and its employees, there’s also the issue of exploiting a motherly managerial style in an effort to motivate or accelerate a team. Palmer adds that, when forced, this managerial style can create an “unbalanced and super uncomfortable relationship” between managers and their subordinates.

How? The “mother/manager syndrome” is actually deemed a representation of a negative parenting behavior pattern. Parents who are guilty of this behavior are known as Verbose parents, according to occupational therapist, business owner, psychologist and life coach mentor, Julia Harper.

“That negative parenting style is furthermore based on a brain pattern of reactivity — not wanting to deal with conflict with a child or, in this case, an employee, the mother-manager uses negotiation, over-explaining and convincing to get the child or employee to do what they would like,” she explains. “This style functions to reduce or avoid conflict. It is a reactive pattern of flight, running or fleeing from the conflict via manipulation and control.” 

Whether a woman uses it with her own children, with her spouse or with her colleagues at work, Harper says “mother/manager syndrome” is always a reaction.

“Bottom line: The mother-boss managerial style is one based in manipulation and control,” she puts blankly, adding that it is often subconscious. “It’s a passive-aggressive controlling style. It is a reaction style that women use often because it is how women are socialized. We don’t see this pattern of behavior as negative because it’s a hidden reaction. We actually think that it’s positive and helpful.”

But Palmer says, as a woman, she’s burdened with a lot of pressure on how she manages and leads at all times.

“You’re always thinking about how things will land, and how decisions you make for your team will look, as well as who will be affected,” she explains. “This can take the focus off setting the bar (and the pace) for your team to operate, and get you caught in the weeds of managing the personal aspects of work relationships when you might not need to.”

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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