Dialogue over Paternalism

Why collective intelligence and paternalism are incompatible

In the early 1980s, physicians at LaGuardia Hospital in Queens, in order to avoid legal complications, would quietly place small purple dots on the medical charts of patients who, in their professional opinion, should not be resuscitated but instead be left to die. If a patient with a purple dot went into cardiac arrest, the staff would ‘go slow’ and be ‘too late’ to resuscitate them. 

The physicians were trying to do what they thought was the right thing, trying to minimise suffering, but their behaviour created an ethical scandal. ‘Furtive’ paternalism, it was called. Why should these doctors be making secret terminal decisions without consulting the patient and their families?1

Organisational leaders at every level make similar (but usually less mortal) choices every day. They choose what information to share with whom, and what decisions to make on behalf of whom. Where on the spectrum between paternalism and dialogue these choices sit determines to a large degree the collective intelligence of their group.

Paternalistic Leadership

Zeynep Aycan defines Paternalistic Leadership as ‘a hierarchical relationship in which the leader guides employees in matters concerning their professional and personal lives in a manner resembling a parent, and, in return, expects loyalty and deference.’23

In the West, paternalism is generally perceived as negative — a contemptuous disregard for the agency of others. However, in many other parts of the world including Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, paternalistic relationships are considered important for maintaining a culture of benevolence. When employees identify as being part of ‘one big family’, teamwork flourishes.4

Trying to strike a balance between acting benevolently and exposing subordinates to the harsh realities of organisational decision-making in a VUCA environment is difficult for many leaders. The impulse of paternalism is strong, even to the Western mind. It is a deeply ingrained attribute.

To address 21st Century challenges the collective intelligence of groups needs to be mobilised. No single individual has sufficient knowledge and situational awareness to adequately develop a coherent strategy. Paternalistic leadership won’t cut it. Eric Berne’s ego states can serve as a useful model to explain why.

Ego States

Berne claimed that we operate from one of three ego-states.5 Individuals can shift with varying degrees of readiness from one of the following states to another:

  1. Parent — ego states that which resemble those as parental figures

  2. Adult — ego states which are autonomously directed towards objective appraisal of reality, and

  3. Child — those which represent archaic relics, still-active ego states which were fixated in early childhood.

That is, at any point in time we are operating predominantly from one of the above ego states. 

The structural diagram below can be used to consider the ego states of different leader-subordinate interactions.

Whenever a paternalistic leadership style is enacted, an asymmetry is established. The leader (or superior of some sort) exhibits behaviour that resembles a parent while the subordinate exhibits behaviour that resembles a child. 

There is an entirely different interaction between the members of a leadership team. The ‘Parents’ (leaders) engage in truthful esoteric conversations with each other, discussions that are designed for them alone. They then pass down a filtered subset of exoteric knowledge, only that which is deemed suitable for ‘Children’s’ (subordinate’s) consumption. 

Thus, paternal leadership becomes a form of domination: it imposes the ‘Parent’s’ rationality upon the ‘Children’. The ‘Children’ are excluded from participating in the ‘Parent’s’ world.

In this dynamic, both ‘Children’ and ‘Parents’ avoid Adult-to-Adult conversation. Paternalistic leaders effectively create a chasm between themselves and their infantilised employees. The employees are relegated to a ‘nursery’ where they can be seen but not heard. 


The alternative is Adult-to-Adult dialogue. By this I don’t mean just passively listening to each other talk, but rather tackling a problem together as equals, interchanging perspectives, challenging each other’s assumptions, helping each other to overcome ossified thinking, enabling new and emergent knowledge to take form.

For Adult-to-Adult dialogue to arise, for collective learning to flourish, then paternalistic leadership needs to cease. This does not mean the cessation of benevolence or care, just the realisation that employees are adults and can be safely treated as such.

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Image Credit

Father and Child via StockSnap

TA Structural Diagram my slides


FINS, J. (2021). Resuscitating Patient Rights during the Pandemic: COVID-19 and the Risk of Resurgent Paternalism. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 30 (2), 215-221. doi:10.1017/S0963180120000535


‘Maternalistic’ leadership, unfortunately, has not been a subject of scholarship. Paternalism is linguistically and conceptually gendered


Aycan, Z. (2015). Paternalistic Leadership. In Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (eds C.L. Cooper, M. Vodosek, D.N. Hartog and J.M. McNett). 


Aycan Z (2006) Paternalism: towards conceptual refinement and operationalization. In: Yang KS, Hwang K and Kim U (eds) Scientific Advances in Indigenous Psychologies: Empirical, Philosophical and Cultural Contributions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Berne, Eric. (1964) “Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships.