Rubbing People Raw

When Peter Drucker saw strengths and ability in people, he felt it was important not to dwell on their weaknesses—lest you unnecessarily deprive yourself of potential talent. In this respect, his role model for hiring and staffing was General George Marshall.

As Drucker noted: “A discussion would come up, and Marshall’s aides would say, ‘Colonel So-and-So is the best trainer of people we have, but he’s never gotten along with his boss. If he has to testify before Congress, he’ll be a disaster. He’s so rude.’ Marshall would then ask, ‘What is the assignment? To train a division? If he’s first rate as a trainer, put him in. The rest is my job.’”

But sometimes weaknesses, or character flaws, can be a deal-breaker.

Such was the case, it seems, in the recent departure from Microsoft of Steven Sinofsky, head of the Windows operating system. Despite Sinofsky’s abilities, the New York Times reported, “his abrasive style was a source of discord within Microsoft.” Many coworkers found Sinofsky disagreeable to deal with, creating a problem for morale and performance. The Times summed up the essential question as follows: “When do the costs of keeping brilliant leaders who cannot seem to get along with others outweigh the benefits?”

Even Drucker was no absolutist when it came to emphasizing strengths over weaknesses. There were, he said, “people who for psychological or emotional reasons simply cannot work with other people; they are noisy, intrusive, abrasive, rude.” If they can’t be shuffled over to a job where they don’t bother too many people, then they must be dismissed. “The alternative is that the executive, and all those who have to work with the person, lose capacity to contribute,” Drucker wrote. “Bad manners rub people raw; they do leave permanent scars. And good manners make a difference.”

Photo credit: foxypar4

Ultimately, the staffing decision comes down to deciding whether a candidate’s strengths for a given assignment are so great that the weaknesses become of minor importance. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case with Sinofsky. “A person may be excellently qualified for the technical aspects of the job,” Drucker explained in The Frontiers of Management. “But if the assignment requires above all the ability to build a team and this ability is lacking, then the fit is not right.”

Have you ever seen abrasiveness outweigh the brilliance of a leader—and, if so, what happened?