Are You A Mother Hen?

Here’s a great leadership question that was asked during  the EntreLeadership Live Chat. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to it, so I’m going to tackle it now.

I’m a female supervisor of mostly men. I get criticism from my boss for being a “mother hen” to the employees, but I see it as team building. Could this hurt my career in the long run?Sandra

I think the thing that’s missing is what you’re doing that your leader is questioning. I also think that it’s funny that he referred to you as a “mother hen.” Why didn’t he just say control freak or something? In other words, I wonder why he felt he had to use a feminine reference?

As a leader, it is your job to make your team successful, not the other way around. Click to Tweet You need to do everything you can to make sure:

  • They have every tool needed to win.
  • They have all of their questions answered.
  • They are clear on all that they need to do each day.
  • There are no enemies of unity destroying the process.

If you’re spending time with the team growing them in their roles, then you’re doing a great job! The only thing left in my mind that would be an issue is if you’re micro-managing them when they have proven themselves to be competent.

If that’s the issue, then, yes, you need to back off. If not, perhaps you need to sit down with this leader and ask him to help you understand what his definition of a mother hen is.

Question: What would YOU tell Sandra?




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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

43 thoughts on “Are You A Mother Hen?”

  1. While in the team building stages, I think a mother hen is a perfect analogy. Watch a hen with her chicks. She acts more like a shepherd than a micro manager. She will hover toward the back and watch over the entire team. Nudge them back in line when they get off course. She lets them make their own decisions along the way. But, when there is danger(or a challenge), she will jump to the front and lead them straight to safety (or the objective in this case). Sandra should ask her boss how he would mentor someone and make them a successful team member. She could probably learn what type of a leader he is based on his response to the question.

  2. First I would ask Sandra if she is spending at least 5% of her “work” time looking for her next job? That is something I started a while back and has paid huge dividends. I keep my network fresh and warm, so that if I ever need them…and I did once in a bad way, I literally left one company and had multiple offers within 24 business hours.

    I say that because it might not be the best environment for her. That doesn’t mean just pack up her toys and go home, but I would certainly be keeping my eyes open.

    That being said, there is usually some level of truth in any critical statement (no matter how poorly worded or discriminatory it might be). So I would indeed take a good, long, hard look at my management skills. In fact, I would do that anyway…and I do…every day.

    Are you micromanaging? Are you crossing the line between spending time with your team and watching over their shoulders all the time? Maybe not, but it’s worth asking.

    It’s worth evaluating all of your methods. It’s worth asking your boss exactly what he meant and asking for more feedback.

    You can actually learn something from him. Just slapping a label on someone (i.e. “Mother Hen”) does no good. It must be explained and a leader must provide solutions – suggestions for improvement, action items, support in the form of coaching, books, seminars, etc. Saying “you suck at managing” does no good. At best it causes a person develop an inferiority complex and give up and at worst it becomes even more true while they are still managing. The same goes for any label. Labels must be accompanied by solutions and assistance.

      1. You should tweet that 🙂

        Sorry but that just reminded me of Acuff’s line about his daughter saying “My feet stink, but in a good way. you should tweet that.”

        Him not helping would kind of be like if Dave just told every caller “Wow, you suck at managing money” or labeled them in some other way and then hung up.

        If I were Sandra I would demand (in a nice way…I hate the nice way sometimes…grrrr) that he provide more information and solutions. At the very least, examples of how she is a mother hen and his suggestions for improving it.

  3. I’ve been in a similar situation once. Here is the story. Tennis is a big part of my life, and I have been teaching it, almost as long as I can remember. In my early 20s, I worked with a terrific group of about 14 guys (I was the only girl), teaching kids, promoting tennis, and doing all we could to get as many kids to play. Being the only lady in the group, meant I got to chaperone a lot of the girls junior teams, as they travelled around the country and around the region. So far so good. Being older almost meant being a “Mother hen” to the girls, which I didn’t have an issue with, although the term never came up.

    I then got the opportunity to move to this country, and pretty soon, I had a lot of the guys following my steps (more or less). I was kind enough to host them, and show them the ropes, even though in my mind, I was just being a good team member and would expect them to do the same for me. As happens, when you put a group of very ambitous young people with different goals in life together, we started having some problems.

    In desperation, I turned to one of my best friends (Still is), and without hesitation he pointed out to me how my generosity and wanting to help, and going way out of my way was the classic “Mother Hen” syndrome. It was the first time in my life, I’d been called a mother hen, and I wasn’t too pleased with him at that point. But in subsequent conversations, he helped me to see how I’d put myself in that position, over the previous couple years, starting with the girls team, as well by “spoon feeding” my team and not allowing them to go through the same experiences I’d gone through to get to where I was.

    It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve recieved, and I still refer to it almost daily. Chris I agree with you, she needs to sit down and have a nice long conversation with her boss, and get the boss to explain it as he sees, and if posible, give her specific examples. Its also worth checking in with a few trusted people that won’t be afraid of telling her the truth.

    1. I’m sad to see the term mother hen used so negatively. It’s a cute term to denote someone who DOES know how to manage people to bring out their best. It has nothing to do with being a control freak. And, having a mother hen on board to make your business better (retain employees, make customers happier) is much better than not giving staff the support they need – not too much nor too little – to reach their potential.

  4. I’m going to go ahead and say it: What’s so wrong with being a Mother Hen? Don’t all baby chicks need a mother for a season? Even Luke 13:34 compares God the Father to a Mother Hen. Without knowing more about the team she is leading, I can’t say that being a Mother Hen is not exactly what the team needs her to be!

    I question wether or not the remark was appropriate or not, due to her being female, but I also question wether he was a bit envious of her team working well together under her leadership. If to him it appears that the team is functioning at a high level, but seems to be all because of her, well, maybe that’s not a bad thing either. Don’t all real mother hens give their children what they need, appropriate to the season?

    I’d say that the only true way to not take it personally is to take what he said with the potential to have some truth in it, because we all can use extra perspective regardless of the messenger sometimes, and think of ways to let the individual team members take even more ownership, responsibility and risks, and the praise or flak that comes with trying and failing and succeeding. That way, even if he was off base, she benefits as a leader, the team members grow, and she either proves her boss wrong, or right. Either way it won’t matter because it’s not about him!

    1. Thank you that helps me as I am currently perplexed with the fact that someone at my current job,told me that during a reveiw.I have been at this job for nearly four years.Of course I am going to do my best to ensure that all people work together as a cohesive unit.I am currently considering wether or not to remain at this position because of this remark.Your explanation helped me because I like helping people,I think thats what we are on this earth to do.I am not going to alter my beleifs because someone else wants me to become sloppy to savepay roll time or skip tasks,with no regard for others feelings, and or not have a conscious about good work ethics.

  5. I agree that I would ask Sandra if she is giving her team the tools to succeed or guiding every single action.

    When a team or a team member is new, there needs to be a lot of oversight to make sure they understand the expectations and are proficient at the necessary skills. After that, you just need to touch base and redirect as necessary.

    I would also ask for clarification from the boss on what the comment meant. Sometimes an off hand comment means nothing, but there might be a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

  6. .. I think any label without the specifics of what results are expected (through what actions) is bound to lead to a less effective leader in any circumstance. Spoon feeding certainly is helpful when the child can’t maneuver fine motor skills to utilize utensils. Feeding them when they are 23, highly inappropriate A good leader knows what the team needs, when they need it. The team members should respond with the ability to fly on their own, make small mistakes but count on the leader to have their back, keep them from falling completely off the ledge or wending their way to the danger zone. The difference between mentoring and enabling is teaching what should be done, vs allowing poor systems to remain in place. As long as the growth curve responds to the agreed timeline then mentoring/ mothering/ coaching/leading should be a positive experience. .
    I would tell Sandra that if she felt the term was used in offensive manner, then she needs to sit down, figure out what she is doing to make her boss feel uncomfortable, have the time to explain her actions with the boss but to realize you rarely ever change someone’s point of view and it may be best to change pastures.

      1. I think it is her responsibility to ask if he hasn’t offered. Yes, if he was a good leader he should have gone over how he wants he to succeed. Sometimes it can be a difference in expectations (here is where a functional agreed on reviewed KRA is helpful) or a difference in perspectives. The boss may view the overachieiving assistance as a detriment to his team, Sandra may view it as getting it done for the team while teaching people how to hustle it and get it done- by modeling if it were. For some of the personality styles it comes down to getting it done and apologizing later, for others they want the course laid out.
        If a worker needs something (tools, guidelines, equipment) to succeed and it is not being proffered then asking for them is key, then leaving if the needs still aren’t met.

      2. I think the leader should have explained–it’s his responsibility. But since he didn’t, it’s an opportunity for her to “be the better person” by seeking resolution.

  7. Clarification would be the first step in this situation. What do you mean by “mother hen”? Is it because I care about my team and don’t view them as commodities? Then, yes, I like to be a “mother hen”.
    Granted that it may be a sexist remark, it would be nice to learn from her boss why he doesn’t like the way Sandra is leading her team… and also to get some feedback from her team directly. Is that how they feel about her style also?
    A mother hen, contrary to what the label indicates, will protect her chicks from predators, including other hens, only when necessary. Her job is to keep them alive long enough so they can be on their own. She feeds them only when they cannot feed themselves, and then she lets them do their thing and run off on their own. She teaches them how to scratch the ground and look for bugs and leaves them alone when they can do it their on their own. We raise poultry. I’ve seen mother hens kill the newborn chicks that are too weak to make it. So not all of them are overprotective cute creatures.
    I’d say let the boss spend a day observing the chicken coop and see if the still thinks the same way about mother hens.

      1. I’d also like to see mother hens given more responsibility to kick out of the nest those who aren’t team players!

  8. I think clarification is needed as well. If she is micromanaging, then that could be the issue. Learning to lead your team by helping people realize their strengths is difficult. She could also be overly helpful and go out of her way for them, which he views as being a mother hen and is somewhat countercultural in many organizations.

  9. I would say that perhaps her boss thinks that she is getting “too close” with her employees. Like maybe he thinks that the supervisor is supposed to be above them. I would find out if that is indeed what he means and if so express that her leadership style is more of a team approach versus a boss and subordinates approach.

    1. Great way of putting it! This is also probably a leadership style more common in women who tend to be the ‘tenders’.

  10. I agree with other people who have commented that you should
    get some clarification of what your boss was referring to in his comment. I would also suggest that you be sure this
    not an issue of management style. What
    looks like micromanaging to your boss could look like coaching to you and your

    I like Chris’s bulleted list of things your team needs to be
    a success but not every leader is going to supply these things they same
    way. If your leadership style provides
    your team with what they need and you and your team are comfortable with
    leadership style, then don’t change just because that is not the way your boss
    would do it.

  11. Have to be careful about about covering your team’s tracks. If they are making mistakes, coachong and traing would be meeded. If it still continues, why should they continue to get psid for you to do their work? If that is what the manager is seeing, then change that. If mot, just mark this as a rant.

  12. As I read the question I was getting more and more excited..I was thinking that this person was having the EXACT same problem that I had….then, I realized, that it WAS my question!!!! So first, thanks for answering it Chris.
    I read through the comments and I really liked the definitions of a Mother Hen that were provided…I’m going to have to remember those.
    I am, for sure, not micromanaging them..there are too many and there simply isn’t enough time. I often tell them that they are the professionals at what they do and I trust them to make the right decisions. I view myself in a support role for them and strive to work with them ‘to get the job done..whatever it takes’. i like to think of it as team building..that we all play for the same team and when they win its a team victory.
    That being said, I feel my management skills are lacking. I think I cross the line into ‘friendship’ role sometimes and that is a trait that I really need to fix.
    I think my boss would like to see me ‘get in their faces’ sometimes, which has sadly been the norm for some managers, and I think that is where the Mother Hen comment stemms from. It’s not in my nature to be verbably combative with an employee, there is no reason to escalate it to that level..ever. We are all adults.
    An interesting side note… I just received an award for being the 3rd highest ranked onroad supervisor out of more than 100 other onroad supervisors in a three state area…and the only female supervisor I have ever seen in the top 5—and that was shortly after his Mother Hen comment.

  13. The phrase almost reminds me of what Love & Logic Parenting calls a “Helicopter Parent”. The kind that hovers around their kids, waving their arms and generally getting over-involved. Think, “overparenting.”

    The biggest question I’d have for her supervisor is, “Exactly what do you mean by ‘Mother hen’?” His definition might be telling. It might also not be what any of us think.

  14. When I googled “mother hen”, one of the definitions was “….a person who cares for the needs of others – especially in an overprotective or interfering way.” As others have said, there needs to be a conversation between the boss and Sandra to discuss what his challenge is with her method of leadership. Since she calls it “cricism” from him, I am assuming he does not approve of the way she is leading. I would say that definitely is going to hurt her career if it is not resolved. But start with a conversation……

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