Bossy Boots

Image: Erik Herbert
Image: Erik Herbert

Some people are jerks. And so, when they become bosses, they become bosses who are jerks.

But, as Melissa Korn and Rachel Feintzeig note in today’s Wall Street Journal, “At a time when the default mode of the workplace is one of cooperation and consensus, being a hard-edged leader is riskier than it used to be.” Some companies, such as Netflix, have explicitly stated that they don’t have room for “brilliant jerks,” in the belief that the costs far outweigh the benefits.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that employees want squishy bosses. On the contrary, while workers prefer to have kind bosses, they do not wish for that at the expense of performance. “A September survey from workforce-management company Kronos Inc. found that 40% of respondents listed ‘compassionate’ as one of the most important attributes of a good manager,” the Journal reports, and yet, “when asked to choose between a high-achieving but demanding boss and a nice but ineffective manager, three-quarters opted for the high achiever.”

All of this makes good sense. If Peter Drucker were to summarize it, he might say that people want bosses who are demanding without being distressing. Some supervisors frighten people. They instill what Drucker, in The Practice of Management, called the “wrong kind of fear,” one that’s internal rather than external. As we’ve noted, Drucker felt external threats unite, while internal threats divide and destroy.

But motivation isn’t automatic. And it doesn’t come from affection. It comes from establishing a sense of meaning, of effectiveness, of morale—all the products of seeking excellence and demonstrating integrity of character.

A case in point was IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson, who was a “demanding boss and not one bit permissive,” Drucker wrote. Yet he “demanded the right things: dedication and performance to high standards.”

While Drucker advocated courtesy and manners in the workplace (a topic we’ve explored before), he cautioned bosses against attempting such a dramatic change in demeanor that they wind up drawing attention to themselves. The idea is to have employees keep their eyes on the task, not the person trying to get them to successfully complete it.

To stress behavior and attitudes—as does a good deal of current management literature—cannot solve the problem,” Drucker cautioned. In fact, it can cause a manager to convert “a fairly satisfactory relationship into a nightmare of embarrassment and misunderstanding.”

Plus, if you keep everyone’s eyes enough on the task rather than on you, maybe they’ll even forget what a jerk you are.

Have you ever worked for a particularly hard-edged boss? What was your experience like?