Caring or Care-taking?~A Fine Distinction

In this blog I write a lot about caring in leadership.  I write about it because I strongly believe that if leaders care about people, their efforts will be rewarded in a multitude of ways, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

In my experience though, ‘caring’ in organizations takes one of two forms.  One provides the best possible opportunity for people to thrive, grow and contribute and the other does just the opposite. The challenge is that not unlike identical twins, each kind of caring, though sounding like the other and looking very much like the other to the naked eye, is not, and has a very different impact when applied to the workplace and the people who work in it.

So, what is the difference between caring and caretaking?

Well, for one thing,there is a difference in the assumptions we work from.

Caretaking assumptions look like this:

  • I know what’s best for those who follow me.
  • If I take care of them, they owe me.
  • My people are not capable of solving their own problems.
  • If they do as I ask, I will keep them safe
  • As leader, I am also protector.

Caring assumptions look more like this:

  • Those I lead know what’s best for them.  They like to have choices.
  • If I care for them, they will care for others including those whom the organization serves.
  • People I lead are responsible adults
  • People are fully capable of solving their own problems
  • As leader, I am also facilitator.

For some, the notion of being taken care of can actually be appealing, at least at first.  In this scenario, when I have a particularly sticky problem, I simply have to take it to my boss and s/he will take it off my hands. As well, decisions that affect me are not usually discussed with me and so if things go wrong I feel quite justified in grumbling about it without having to take responsibility for it.  And that can be perversely satisfying.

Eventually though, even people who initially like the idea of being taken care of tire of it and either strain against its limitations or retreat, taking their best game them.

There will be some who believe that creating a caring work environment is akin to the notion of laissez-faire leadership. But really, caring workplaces typically operate from clearly stated boundaries communicated through their organizational purpose and a set of values that provide both focus and a guide for problem solving and decision-making.

Using those boundaries as a guide, organizations and leaders who care will, among other things:

  • Hold people accountable for the commitments and decisions they make
  • Provide opportunities for learning and growth
  • Encourage, coach and challenge people to build capability
  • Liberally share problem solving and resist the temptation to “do it themselves”
  • Acknowledge and reward fine work regularly
  • Create structures and mechanisms that encourage autonomy and allow for help to be available when it is most needed.

There are of course other characteristics associated with leaders who care but the bottom line is this:

Those who caretake exercise power over others and operate from the perspective of ownership.  Those who care are more likely to value collaborative effort and operate from the perspective of shared responsibility.

Given a choice I know which one I’d go for.  What about you?




Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

8 responses to “Caring or Care-taking?~A Fine Distinction

  1. Lawrence "Larry" Berezin

    Good morning. This is absolutely one of your best posts, ever (a little Sunday morning hyperbole before breakfast). I am currently training a new hire, and recognize some of my missteps by offering safety rather than accountability for decisions.

    How do leaders become enlightened and recognize the benefits of caring vs. care-taking?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry, frankly I think we all take missteps when it comes to caring vs care-taking. Often, it comes from wanting to help someone else avoid mistakes we might already have made at one time or another. I don’t know exactly how enlightenment blossoms when it comes to leaning toward caring rather than care-taking but I believe it begins with recognition. Awareness of the distinction between the two allows us to consider our impact. And of course, to realize the benefits, those leaders who are consistently in care-taking mode, have to be willing to try new approaches for themselves. After all, the proof, as they say is in the pudding. 🙂

  2. Hi Gwyn,

    Excellent post, thank you. I especially appreciate the distinctions between the assumptions that are central to Caring vs. Caretaking in leadership. Well done.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ The English language is such that so many words convey different meanings. I admit to having to scratch my head a bit in coming up with these few distinctions. I’m sure there are more but I’m happy that you found them useful. Thank you for your kind words and for coming by 🙂

  3. Ginny Teatro

    Great topic. In my younger years I can say that I was exposed to both types of caring, and as a manager I can say I have been both caring and caretaking. As you stated, the caring definitely trumps the caretaking and everyone wins. You drew a nice line between the two.
    Excellent post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ginny ~ You have made me think that at one time or another we all engage in both caring and care taking. We *take care* of children more often because they are wholly innocent and vulnerable. In that scenario, it is our job to keep their boundaries quite restricted until they learn and grow and are able to make bigger and bigger choices for themselves. It is a hard habit to put aside but one that must be tempered to allow for growth to happen. In workplaces, it is usually appropriate to assume that this growth process has happened and those who work with us are quite capable of making rational and quality decisions without interference. The trouble is, old records can play for a long time. Thanks for coming by. It’s always nice to see you here 🙂

  4. Pingback: Caring or Care-taking?~A Fine Distinction | digitalNow |

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