Teenager-ish corporates

Teenager-ish corporates

Teenager-ish corporates

Businesses are amusingly volatile, judgmental and fashion-conscious. To lead them, executives should integrate their younger selves with the wisdom and perspective that comes with adult thinking.

Jonathan Yudelowitz

“Truth is a pretty literal matter, it’s a matter of details, what you can explain and get clear. I saw the danger signals. As soon as you start chasing after what’s large and shadowy you get involved in lies. The lies in the soul, the things you can’t quite see and can’t quite work out but which you accept, because you’re in love with the whole.”

Iris Murdoch, Henry and Cato

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, created the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model in his efforts to explain human behaviour.

I would like to modify his model to that of Adult-Teenager-Child (ATC) as a way of explaining corporate business and its behaviour. Especially its teenager-ish behaviour.

But let’s start at the beginning. If you imagine the cross section of a tree, the inner rings are those you were as an infant and then as a child. You don’t shed them; rather they remain at the core of your being, forming the very essence of your behavioural DNA.

Your essence will always be pre-verbal: intense feelings of fear, anger, curiosity, and joy. They will always be deeper than any words you find to talk about them. Whether they are Nature or Nurture is not relevant. It doesn’t even help to classify them as good or bad. What is important is, your essence is how you initially learnt to be in the world – and it is what gives your life meaning now. Your early wiring will always be deep within you, throughout your life, no matter how mature you become.

This childish part is already in place when you go to primary school and into a classroom full of kids. For the first time, you are confronted with the real world. You find are challenged to compete and succeed in the classroom and on the field. You are faced with a hierarchy, the rules and demands of which supersede your own emotional needs and experience. Being part of a hierarchy, the big question is, where do you fit in? You must rise to the challenge. You must fit in or be left out.

The impact of coping with this social structure is no trivial matter. Even as a middle-aged executive, your behaviour, your thoughts and your emotions will be similar to those you first experienced at school. You will constantly replay these coping patterns.

Your Inner Teenager.

Your Inner Teenager plays out on a very public stage: the Cinema of Life. Here, as you will know if you have teenage kids, you have to look perfect. Are you lit, as they say these days? Everyone is hyper-aware, hyper-sensitive – and hyper-judgemental. A good, achieving label matters far more than what you actually feel and think – or what you know. You will hide your authentic parts so that you can fit in.

Before you laugh too loudly, bear in mind that I will soon apply these characteristics to teenager-ish corporates.

Belonging is so important as a teenager. It makes up for your vulnerability and uncertainty. The group you belong to is merciless. Good and right are in; bad and wrong are out. There is no in-between.

You’re Absolute. And Volatile.

Of course, as a teenager, you insist you’re grown up. You may remember this for yourself – dimly. You know everything there is to know. Your views about the world are absolute. You have All the Answers. And then, just like that, overnight, you will have Different Answers. Today, you’re a Climate Change Warrior, tomorrow a Climate Change Denialist. You’re on This Side, then, def-def, on That Side.


Greta Thunberg can’t see why an executive of an energy company may have a legitimate view. While she has logical, even morally sound concerns, she cannot design a practical policy that will retain the ‘baby’ of jobs and economic stability, whilst throwing out the ‘bathwater’ of carbon emissions.


The nuances and particulars of how policies get implemented and become real – be it free education, socialism or the coming climate catastrophe – are too much for a teenage mindset to cope with. Nuance, the bigger picture, contradictory views… the complexities of life are too threatening, putting you in touch with your vulnerable Inner Child.

Absolutism is your defence. Labelling is your strategy. “You’re a racist! I win! You’re part of the toxic male hierarchy! You lose!”

Which is why libraries get burnt down, authors from another era become abhorrent, and wise yet fallible elders are vilified.

Your Inner Adult.

But, here’s the thing. When you’re a 35-year-old exec, climbing the ladder – hopefully the correct ladder – do not rubbish your Inner Teenager. Why do I say that?

Firstly, you are who you are – and your Inner Teenager will be with you for life. Think of it as valuable armoury. The habits you learnt as a vulnerable 15-year-old remain reflexive coping styles that will help you triumph over adversity at the office.

Secondly, your teen spirit will be at the heart of your competitive corporate drive. It will determine in no small way where you land up in the hierarchy.

As with an ordinary teenager, if you, the adult in the room, fail to acknowledge, respect or work with your Inner Teenager, it will kick up a fuss. It needs your tempering insight. Then it will work with you – and your Inner Child – in an integrated way; reasonably and with perspective.

While your Inner Teenager may hinder you in negotiating an effective trade-off between competing imperatives, it will be just the thing when driving competition, achieving sales volumes, market share, turnover, etc. Why wouldn’t you want to exceed your target? Why wouldn’t you want to win a lucrative contract? Or be publicly recognised for your achievements?

As an adult, the challenge is: Can you turn your Inner Teenager on and off according to the context you are in? Can you integrate it with the deeper wisdom that comes from emotional intelligence, and with the perspective that comes from grown-up, mature thinking?

There’s good reason to develop this ability.

Corporate business behaves remarkably like a teenager.

For a start, business loves to label people. Who, for example, are your company’s Stars, Dogs, and Employees of the Month?

And business loves to categorise. It applies 2×2 matrices to Everything. In/Out, Yes/No, Good/Bad.

And business loves the latest. Who is up to speed? Who is laughably Last Century? Business schools are more enthralled by fashion than teenage girls. They jump from fashion to fashion, not bothering to clear out their closets.

Your Inner Child’s natural curiosity and capacity to listen are replaced with a propensity to jump to conclusions: where assumptions, interpretations and labels are readily confused with fact.

In a corporate, there is little time or encouragement to delve beyond a label or a score, for example, in a performance management cycle. Everyone is under pressure to rush from one thing to another without pausing to explore the substance of what has been learnt. It’s all about your score on the performance appraisal or the valuation number, or risk assessment decided upon by the experts for a new deal.  But what is the real risk or real value of what you’ve created? What are the key facts that matter?

Generally speaking, what you’ve learnt along the way isn’t a consideration, especially when it challenges the original planning assumptions. It’s all so judgemental. Performance management. Talent management. Business Analysis.

The problem isn’t that all this exists, let me be clear about that. The problem with most corporates is, as with a family watching TV, the teenager has the remote. They call the shots.

You start to doubt yourself. You lose confidence in nuance. In unintended consequences. In knowing that all upsides have downsides.

Things are not right or wrong as the Greta Thunbergs would have it. You cannot judge the catastrophes of 2008 or countless corporate failures since then against fixed criteria. You cannot respond to Governments’ responses to Covid-19 against fashionable ideas. Rather, they demand iterations of judicious appropriate or inappropriate decisions about experiments, investments and trade-offs, where one calculates risk, takes action, confronts feedback and learns as one goes. This process depends on context – on the particular, sometimes subtle facts of a situation.

But, as with most teenagers, it’s the semblance of winning, of being in control, of being in the know that is so compelling – even if it means being seduced by false assumptions at the expense of what is real.

Listen to people’s stories.

What is the leadership imperative? In the business world, a leader can’t wish away his shop steward or regulator. Or vice versa. You must talk. Where is the trade off? Well, it depends. Look at the facts. But also listen to people’s stories, and to their feelings and experiences. Until those have been integrated, you haven’t unpacked reality.

A teenager is like a lawyer – arguing anything in order to win. A leader should be like a judge – considering all sides of the situation.

“As soon as you start chasing after what’s large and shadowy you get involved in lies,” as Iris Murdoch put it. “The things you can’t quite see and can’t quite work out but which you accept, because you’re in love with the whole.”

As an adult leader, learn to show new respect to your Inner Child. Allow it to inform your judgment, so that you remain true to your values and interests. Remain curious and aware of others’ needs, but with the confidence afforded by granularity of language and experience that is the hallmark of mature adulthood.

As an adult leader, help the Inner Child work with the drive of the Inner Teenager; use your humanity to resolve difficult business issues.

And while the teenager regards vulnerability as weakness, an adult leader accesses it as a source of meaning. What is life really about?

Don’t become self-righteous or self-critical of your Inner Teenager. Instead, remain wryly, as opposed to derisively, amused. Work with your Inner Child and wise adult side in a way that is properly fit for context and purpose.

In short, don’t dismiss your teenagers. Instead, create the time and space for context, conversation and nuanced consideration.

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