Caring or Care-taking?~A Fine Distinction

This post, from 2011, explores what it means to care about people and why it’s important to know the difference between caring and care-taking.


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 Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

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

  1. Gwyn, wonderful post – your thoughtfulness and care come through clearly.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts,

  2. Pingback: Caring or Care-taking?~A Fine Distinction | Krios Consulting

  3. Pingback: 5 for Leadership (9/23/13) - Gary Runn

  4. Gwyn,

    Not only an extremely wonderful post for people in leadership positions at work, but also great food for thought for this mom of a brand-new teenager. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jennifer ~ Thank you for your kind words! Looking back on my parenting experience, I recall many situations where taking my own advice would not have gone amiss…a prime example of wisdom in hindsight I expect. 🙂

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