What it is & how to handle it.

Baby Bird Syndrome is an environment where direct reports tend to bring problems to their boss expecting to be fed “the answer” and next-step instructions rather than assessing the situation, options, and solutions themselves. 

It’s happening a lot at work. For example, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll study, 

  • +66% of U.S. employees report that they’re not doing their best or making their strongest effort to be a meaningful contributor
  • 80% of the U.S. workforce says that their performance is not managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work 

I have the opportunity to hear from confiding leaders and employees, alike, across various sectors. Common perspectives are:

Leaders say they have a baby bird problem because their direct reports lack the initiative to solve routine daily challenges. Instead, employees return to their boss like baby birds, waiting for the boss to feed them the next step or answer. They say,

“It creates an unmanageable burden on us – we can’t be all things to all employees. It’s their job to figure problems out. Meanwhile, we’re all losing hours in a day.”

Employees say they don’t know what more their boss expects from them. They’re doing the job functions they’re hired for based on the information and directives they’ve been given. Direct reports say, 

“I want to deliver, and I think I do. Then, when I do more than the basics, it goes unrecognized, unappreciated, or it’s not what my boss expected anyway, so what’s the point?” 

It’s a multi-faceted dynamic. It’s as if everyone is trying to fly, but they’re often not on the same flight-path. 

2 Practical Ways to Handle It

Tactic 1. Assess the Nest: Ask yourself, why is the employee hesitant to leave the nest and to fly? Is it a lack of confidence or skills issue? (This question applies across the board: Whether you’re the leader, manager, or direct report. It’s important to get this part right.)

Often, it’s a lack of confidence issue.  In these cases, remember

  • employees are chosen for their role. It’s because they very likely do have the ability to handle challenges and problem solve
  • the experience factor. If an employee has moderate to high levels of experience, chances are she/he has seen and handled this or a similar issue before. Ask about prior experience and successful outcomes

This tool opens up channels for critical thinking, self-awareness, and confidence to grow.

Tactic 2.  Ask, Don’t Tell. This means the manager and employee should be routinely engaging in meaningful exchanges of ideas and information to build trust, relationship, and confidence in one another.  It’s a 2-way flight path, here.

  • Managers, ask the homing pigeon how they think the problem is best solved or what should come next. Be Silent. Open. Patient. Respectful. Let them figure it out. Then acknowledge and empower them to act. (Hold back any perfectionist or micro-managing tendencies.)
  • Employees, want to impress your boss or set yourself up for higher visibility for the next opportunity but not quite sure what they expect or want? Treat them like a respected thought-partner, rather than expecting them to deliver the answer to you. 

Employees, here’s a simple formula that often makes bosses smile – on the inside, even if not on the outside.

Next time a problem or issue arises, walk yourself through these steps, find your proposed solution, and then share it with your boss, something along these lines:

“The challenge we’re having is ‘X’. A couple of ways to handle it are ‘Y and Z’. I recommend ‘Z’ because [explain]. If there aren’t any objections or concerns, I’ll move ahead with Z and give you an update. What do you think? Does that sound like a good plan to you?” (Be open and welcoming to feedback, of course.)

What’s next?

Find an opportunity to use the “assess the nest” and “ask, don’t tell” tactics over the next couple of weeks. Over time, you’ll likely see incremental improvements in relationships, successes, and outcomes. (By the way, the two approaches also work in our personal lives too.)

Your experiences, stories, and solutions are welcome. Please share them!

Their story ended happily. Yours will too.