Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

How Long Are You Going To Feed The Baby Birds?

Baby birds have to be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. Mother and father birds spend their time getting food, returning to the cheep-cheep-cheep of their babies, popping food in the tiny open beaks, flying out again and repeating that all day long.

This goes on for two or three weeks, at which time feeding is reduced to every one or two hours, then four hours, then after seven or eight weeks the birds are weaned and they are pushed out of the nest and taught to fly. It’s not uncommon to see a relatively large juvenile bird following its mother around hoping to be fed–but she doesn’t do it and the baby has to grow up and feed itself.

Do you have baby birds in your workplace? Many workplaces have one or more people who are like perpetual baby birds. They never have learned to provide for themselves and they don’t seem to care about the effect that has on everyone else. For all practical purposes they are in a nest that looks like a work space and they spend their work hours demanding to be fed.

Unfortunately, many supervisors and managers not only cater to them, they make everyone else do it too.

“Just go along with her. You know how she is.”
“Don’t let him upset you. You know how he is.”
“Do it the way she wants this time. You know how she is.”
“I’m going to stop that very soon, but for now try to deal with it. Otherwise, you know how she’ll be.”

Empowering Not Enabling

When employees are trained effectively and expected and required to be effective in their performance and behavior, they are more likely to become empowered. They can do what needs to be done and help others too. They appreciate support and encouragement but they also have the ability to draw from their own sense of worth and personal responsibility.  They self-initiate work and are self-motivated and self-disciplined. They have a strong sense of personal responsibility and are willing to be held accountable. What a pleasure! Supervisors need to be careful that they don’t take those employees for granted.

Baby bird employees are different. They are in the habit of  working with their little beaks open all the time–and whatever you give them is never enough. You can hear their cheeping in one or more of these ways–it varies according to the personality, interests and ego of the individual:

  • Self-promotion at every opportunity–or creating the opportunity. 
  • Unreasonable demands.
  • Making everything they do a major event.
  • Inappropriate actions or disruptive behavior.
  • Complaining, sulking, whining or pouting about many matters, big or small.
  • Taking the role of a victim–especially a saintly victim.
  • Wanting to be in charge or wanting to be considered the expert.
  • Angling to be thanked and thanked and thanked again.
  • Being hypersensitive to their own feelings and insensitive to the feelings of others.
  • Often being in the middle of a major emotional upheaval over minor issues.
  • Asking for excessive help, encouragement or support, even after learning a task.
  • Taking up more supervisory or managerial time than others but not getting more done.

How To Stop Enabling The Baby Bird Behavior

1. Accept your responsility and the need for a change in your own behavior.  If you have allowed the inappropriate behavior even a few times, it will be difficult for you to change your responses. It may seem easier to buy a little peace and quiet by catering to the employee just one more time. Resist the urge. Talk to other supervisors or managers and report back now and then. You’ll be less likely to give-in when you have to admit it to someone you respect.

2. Support the behavior and performance you want to see continue.  Thank the employee when he or she handles something the right way. Support other employees fully and let it be seen what you value and what the rest of the organization values. This also helps the mature, self-responsible employee who has been carrying the load but not getting the praise because the squeaky beak got it.

3. Stop the behavior and performance that is creating problems or that you do not want to see continue. You don’t need to do a closed door counseling session–unless you want to and think it is needed. Just tell the employee to stop. If you’ve never done that, you’ll be amazed at how effective it is! There are many ways to say you want someone to stop doing one thing and do something else instead–you’ll figure them out. The important thing is to stick with it like a broken record. It’s your way of saying, “We’re not feeding you any more.”

4. Keep the focus on good work. If you’re not careful you’ll replace the time you spent catering to the employee with an equal amount of time noticing whether or not he or she is still being a problem. Instead, focus on what must be done or could be done or on being more efficient and effective. One really good thing about work: It fills the empty time between arriving and leaving the workplace. When everyone is appropriately busy, there is little time for personal agendas and self-centered behavior. The moment you see time being wasted by the neediness of one or more employees, stop it and get the focus back on turning out a work product, whatever that may be in your business or organization.

When someone has been accustomed to only needing to chirp a few times to get attention, it isn’t easy to change things–but it can be done. Like other professional training and development, it’s for his or her own good and for the good of the organization and everyone else–including you.

August 17th, 2010 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 9 comments


  1. Kudos to you for your accurate look at these topics. I manage a good sized HR section and see “baby birds” every day. A good number of the problems can be traced back to managers who are afraid of conflict or who just don’t care. Your advice is also sound.

    Comment by HR MGR | August 18, 2010

  2. You’ve been in my office, right? We have one person who has to be stroked every five minutes. Our boss says to humor her. I’ve spent the morning listening to her call people to tell them she finished a report early! Hangs up, calls someone else to tell them. My boss just laughed and said she’ll stop when her ego gets fed enough. It’s crazy!

    Comment by wr259 | August 18, 2010

  3. You could have written this for my work. I just printed it and put it in my sergant’s mailbox. Don’t worry I signed it, so he’ll know it was me! J.

    Comment by 90-120 | August 18, 2010

  4. The bad thing is that some supervisors take any remark that isn’t happy, as a complaint or whining. Don’t you think employees should be able to talk to their supervisors without worrying that every conversation will seem like being a “baby bird.” That doesn’t seem fair to me. I agree with you that some people need a lot of attention but some supervisors don’t give any,

    Comment by G. | August 18, 2010

  5. I love the picture! Yes!!!!!!! I read this yesterday and had to watch myself all day to keep from picturing a couple of people in a nest with their beaks open!

    Comment by P.J. | August 18, 2010

  6. Tina says: Thanks to all of you for your comments. I received about 15 emails from people who didn’t want their identities known, since they wanted to vent about a coworker. I promise, there is no way for anyone to know your identity! But, if you prefer to email, that’s fine too.

    I want to add that I can well understand the frustration when someone simply wants to talk, share or express a concern, but is treated as though they are needy or taking too much time. An effective supervisor encourages, elicits and responds to appropriate conversation.

    When the conversation or comments are distracting to others or are problematic for some other reason, the supervisor should bring it to the employee’s attention and find out if there is an underlying issue, then direct them to work at communicating more effectively.

    One of the great responsibilities of supervisors is to develop a positive professional relationship with individuals, personalized to their needs, within the limitations of what is appropriate for the time required.

    Thanks again for your comments!

    Comment by TLR | August 18, 2010

  7. I just copied your great sentence and am going to use it at the next staff meeting……

    One really good thing about work: It fills the empty time between arriving and leaving.


    Re: The question above about shouldn’t people be allowed to talk to a supervisor without being considered a problem person. You answered that, but I wanted to say too that there are bad supervisors who don’t listen, and I can empathize with that.

    I took your article as being for supervisors who DO listen, but they don’t stop the person who is doing too much of it. I see what “G” is saying too, but I think that would be another article. You’ll have to write that one next! Thanks for this. I’m so glad we don’t have even one baby bird on our shift now! I have a great group to work with!

    Comment by P.A.H. | August 18, 2010

  8. Our attention-getter raises a ruckus over everything she doesn’t get her way about. She gets perks none of the rest of us get, just because our boss doesn’t want to make her mad. My feeling is to let her bring on her complaint because everybody knows what she’s like. This article at least let me know I’m not so wrong to feel that we shouldn’t keep “feeding” her ego. Thanks!

    Comment by MARA | August 22, 2010

  9. In some families parents and siblings are focused on keeping a demanding child quiet. Your advice to managers is similar to my advice to parents. I’ve always said books on parenting and supervising should be on the same shelves.

    Comment by A.L. | August 31, 2010

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