By the Way...Your Staff Hates You Or hadn't you heard? Subordinates rarely tell you they loathe you, but they will surely make you pay. With record low unemployment, when finding decent workers is hard and expensive, being despised is a luxury you can't afford.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – When, on the morning of Dec. 1, 1997, Golden State Warriors point guard Latrell Sprewell took umbrage at a remark from coach P.J. Carlesimo, pounced on him, and tried to fashion his windpipe into a Windsor knot, Carlesimo probably didn't think of himself as especially fortunate. But as he blacked out, Carlesimo was enjoying an advantage rare among those who manage people: At that moment he knew exactly what Sprewell thought of him. He was receiving direct, unfiltered feedback from a subordinate, without any sugarcoating or fake diplomacy. It is hard to imagine Carlesimo asking, once Sprewell had been pulled off him and he'd regained the power of speech, "But honestly--what do you really think of me?"
Few bosses will ever have such an unadulterated view of how their employees see them. The very nature of the boss-employee relationship prevents it from being perfectly honest--it is, after all, well nigh impossible to discern the difference between genuine affection and grade-A sucking up. Does Anderson really think your idea is so brilliant? Does Applebaum really like your new tie? Or would they both prefer to gouge your eyes out with a letter opener? Oh, sure, you'd like to flatter yourself and believe that everyone thinks you're a swell guy and a gifted manager. But what if...what if your staff doesn't care for you much at all? What if your staff, in fact, hates you?
"The word we tend to hear a lot is 'asshole,' preceded by [a seven-letter modifier]," offers Daniel S. Levine, editor of Disgruntled, an online magazine (www.disgruntled.com) that bills itself as a resource "for people who work for a living." Levine is describing the reader-feedback portion of the site, which includes areas like Roasting Turkeys, where workers can post their gripes about bad bosses--all kinds of them, from the truly disturbing, like the boss who had the entire office bugged so that she could monitor it from home, to the merely revolting, like the one who regaled workers with graphic accounts of his physical ailments.
Odds are, most of these managers don't even know that their style is deeply irritating to workers. The North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership, one of the leading firms that work to develop managers' skills, often performs 360-degree evaluations, in which a manager rates himself in various categories, then has his staff, peers, and superiors do likewise. Lily Kelly-Radford, the center's vice president for educational programs, estimates that about 15% of the managers who take such a test discover they are "legends in their own minds"--that is, one in seven rates himself significantly higher than do those who work for him.
"Yes," you say, "but who cares? My division's hitting its numbers! And besides, isn't it better to be feared than loved?"
Well, not right now. You can cut out that tough-as-nails, Management Secrets of Attila the Hun act--it's so 1991. The days of rough-and-tumble, business-is-war management tomes are behind us, at least for a while. The reason isn't so much a return to civility and common decency as simple economics: The unemployment rate recently hit 4.3%, its lowest in 28 years. The vogue for kick-ass-and-take-names business books peaked in the early '90s, when unemployment was high and a recession was in full swing--a time managers felt justified in wringing all they could out of their workers and got away with it because few could find new jobs.
Now the balance of power has shifted: With jobs plentiful, workers in many industries can take their football and go home if they have a personality conflict with their boss--which is, according to Tim Walsh, the marketing director at software company I.M.I., "the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs. And I wonder how many times they don't say it that it's still the case." Bosses have picked up the cue: Business bestseller lists, once home to Attila, are now dotted with warm and fuzzy titles like 1,001 Ways to Reward Your Workers (sample reward: "Cover the person's desk with balloons").
To see the high price of succeeding while alienating workers, look at someone who insists on doing it. Scott Rudin, the notoriously unpleasant producer of hit movies like The Truman Show and In & Out, is famous for his habit of throwing phones, verbally abusing staffers, and expecting 16-hour workdays and seven-day workweeks. We contacted a dozen of Rudin's former assistants, many of whom offered scathing reviews provided their names not be used (the phrase used over and over was "I would like to still work in this town"). One of the kindest assessments came from producer Beau Flynn, a Rudin veteran, who describes him as "one of the smartest and most clever and witty guys I've ever met," but says, "He runs a very tight ship. It's very intense, and it's relentless." Another ex-assistant expressed admiration for Rudin and his work but added, "I think the people that work there--most of them hate him. Nobody likes him. Everybody's miserable."
So how can he get away with this in the tightest labor market in decades? Several reasons, which may not be available to you. He's offering assistants a rare opportunity in the hypercompetitive world of film, "in exchange for which," Rudin says, "they will give me the better part of their lives while they're here." Plus, he notes, "they're paid an enormous sum of money"--$70,000 to $100,000 a year for entry-level jobs. Rudin also has the uncommon luxury of not minding turnover a bit. "I don't like lifer assistants," he says. "It's too hot an environment for people to stay in for more than two years." A former assistant recalls that during his year in Rudin's office he saw more than 20 people come and go.
What lesson can you learn from Scott Rudin? That it's perfectly fine to abuse your workers--if you're in a field that has 100 applicants for every job, are willing to shell out huge sums to buy workers' acquiescence, and don't mind seeing your entire staff turn over every two years. But for just about any other manager, Rudin's approach amounts to career suicide, particularly because, in the developing information economy, recruiting and retaining talented workers has become companies' top priority. The last time unemployment was this low, in 1970, the U.S. still had an industrial economy in which the measure of a company was not its people but its properties; now, in leading-edge companies, that equation is reversed. As boosters of the information economy love to point out, Microsoft's market capitalization is $270 billion while the value of its assets is a mere $14.4 billion. Much of that difference is made up by the perceived value of the company's intellectual capital--or, to use an archaic term, "smart people"--and if enough of that intellectual capital were to get fed up with their bosses, they could walk out the door, taking the company's value with them.
/*?#"!It happens all the time. When the American Society for Industrial Security studied how companies lose valuable proprietary information, it discovered that the leading conduits for leaks were the companies' own employees. Since companies now rely so heavily on flesh-and-bone assets, bosses who drive staffers away are apt to come in for much closer scrutiny from above. "Organizations are much less willing to allow bad management style," says Walsh. "It impacts their ability to recruit and retain people, and if you're in the knowledge business, what do you have but people?"
Even if you're not managing in a high-tech, knowledge-based company, there are ample reasons to examine your m.o. Studies have shown that happy employees are--surprise!--more productive employees. Sears, about as low-tech a business as there is, put that fact to work when it ran into trouble back in the early '90s; CEO Arthur Martinez took over and decided to focus the company's attention on customers--which meant, first, focusing on those at the front lines, the employees. In an article he co-authored in the Harvard Business Review last year, Tony Rucci, then Sears' EVP for administration, reported that the company had found a direct, measurable correlation between employees' job satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and rising sales. And if that chain of causation seems too abstract, consider the simple cost of replacing a disgruntled employee who defects. Jim Miller, author of Best Boss/Worst Boss, a compendium of stories about exemplary and appalling managers, says that when he was CEO of Miller Business Systems, an office-supply company, every time a worker left he charged $30,000 to his manager's operating budget; the figure, Miller says, resulted from his investigation of what it would cost to find, hire, and train a replacement. "That," he says dryly, "was an eye-opener."
Sometimes the best reason to treat workers nicely is simple self-preservation. There are any number of quiet ways for employees to take out their frustrations--anything from so-called vicious compliance, where workers pursue your orders with destructive literal-mindedness ("Oh, I blew off all those sales meetings because you told me you wanted my report by five, come hell or high water, remember?") to work slowdowns to outright sabotage. Calvin Morrill, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, spent several years at three large corporations researching their methods of dealing with conflicts. The most chilling story he relates in his book, The Executive Way, is that of a top executive at a Fortune 100 financial services company, nicknamed "the Pig," who alienated his team members by constantly grabbing credit for their work. To retaliate, they began subtly omitting key information from the reports he presented at divisional meetings. After several meetings at which he was caught off guard, the Pig was finally shifted to a position of zero responsibility. Even Rudin, fearsome though he is, is not immune; ex-assistants gleefully recall scratching up his cherished CD collection, or the night a team of assistants drove to his house and, er, micturated in his swimming pool.
"Okay," you're thinking, "mean bosses pay for their sins. Gotcha. But I'm not a mean boss. I treat everyone fairly, and they know it. I even get my own coffee! They think I'm a great guy! No, this story's really about schmucks like my boss, Fred."
Guess again, bucko. This story could very well be about you too; after all, nobody wants to tell someone to his face that he's a jerk. Think about it: Have you ever told Fred that you hate his guts? No? George Bailey, a global director at consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, recalls canvassing one company and reporting back to the CEO, "Most of your employees, if they saw you in the parking lot, would speed up to hit you." The chief was shocked, Bailey says, because "in his own mind, he was working for the best interests of the shareholder."
"!*#/?An astute manager can spot all sorts of indicators, large and small, that his staff loathes him. If, for instance, you're reading this story because the magazine was left on your desk, propped open to this page...Bingo! Says Levine: "You can probably tell that your staff hates you if machinery keeps breaking, or if you find telephones glued to the receivers. I think turnover rates would be a good sign: Are people leaving that you don't want to leave the firm? Look at stress claims--finding that you're paying out stress claims all of a sudden would be a big warning sign. So would finding just general anger in the office, or people not willing to go the extra mile." Adds Kelly-Radford: "Think about whether or not you know your nickname. Everybody's got one. If you don't know yours, that might be a sign that people aren't comfortable enough to tell you. Or if you do know it, and it's a rough nickname, then clearly you probably aren't well liked."
#?/"*!The nickname test is a good indicator of how plugged in you are to the single most important piece of office equipment: the grapevine. Go on, laugh. The gossip mill is usually dismissed as a repository for news flashes like "The boss seems to be spending an awful lot of time with that intern"; fun though that factoid is, it won't (usually) have much impact on your career. But often the grapevine also carries news that relates directly to your job--say, that your boss just got reamed for going over budget, so today's probably not the best time to approach him about your pet project. Watson Wyatt's Bailey says that an easy way to discover that you have a personality problem is if, when walking around the office, "you see people talking in clusters who break up and go back to their desks. How long did it take you to get wind of the latest office gossip? Or don't you think there is any?"
The more your staffers like you and feel they can speak to you, the more likely you are to find out about incipient problems. Says Rucci: "Our employees could have told you [Sears] was disappointing the customer long before anyone in Chicago knew, because they're out there every day." Jim Miller still recalls the day when three of his workers came to him, shut the door, and told him in no uncertain terms that his whole staff hated his new lateness policy, whereby Miller was penalizing whole departments for individual members' tardiness. "I told them that I didn't know it was being perceived this way," Miller recalls, "and they said, 'We knew you didn't mean it.'" Had Miller's employees been too nervous to confront him about the policy, who knows how long they might have seethed?
Miller also did something smart when his employees shared their concerns: He acted fast. The lateness policy was gone by the end of the day. Important as listening is, follow-through is even more so. Morrill, the University of Arizona professor, cautions that once you've asked for feedback, "unless you take steps that show your employees that you've listened to them and intend to take action, they will never speak again. In cases like those, the manager would have been better off never having asked at all." Or, as Ronna Lichtenberg, author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren't for the People, puts it, "How you handle bad news determines how much bad news you're going to get."
Of course, a breakdown in communication with staff is by definition hard to spot; after all, if your staff is any good at all about sucking up, they're hardly going to come right out and tell you they don't like you. Hence the rising popularity of tools such as the 360-degree evaluation, which collects anonymous assessments from every direction--below, beside, and above you on the corporate ladder--and then compiles them in a report that supplies a more accurate picture of how others truly see you. Kelly-Radford says that often, in dealing with a client at the Center for Creative Leadership, she finds that the evaluation, with its cold, hard breakouts of statistics, "usually is the instrument that gets people's attention. People want data, or else they don't want to believe it."
*"# That data can be hard to take. "It was like being hit by a two-by-four," says Anne Hussey, who went through a rough 360-degree evaluation at the center last year. Hussey, general manager for a sales division of Hussey Seating, a family-owned business in Maine, knew going in that she wouldn't get all high marks; what she wasn't expecting was just how harshly her staff of eight would grade her. "I was in tears," she says. "I'd gone through a lot with this group, and I thought we were in a different place than we were. For me it was a wake-up call, saying, 'Hey, not everybody's on the same page you are.'" After her initial shock, however, Hussey began to examine just how she'd engendered such hostility. What she found was that her staff felt she was such a driven perfectionist that she ran roughshod over them; since the evaluation, she says, "I'm relaxing more, trying to focus more on the relationships with the people I work with instead of focusing so much on the task at hand." Now, she says, the office is working far more smoothly. "Things are not always done the way I want them," she says, "but there's a tradeoff: Do I hold on to wanting to be a perfectionist or do I look at the longer-term objective, which is to have my team operating at a high level and being able to delegate more responsibility to them?"
Even those who specialize in smoothing human relations can be startled by these evaluations: As part of an employee morale campaign at Sears, Rucci decided to tie managers' compensation to their employees' satisfaction, as measured through surveys and 360-degree evaluations. When his own staff returned their surveys, he was astonished to find that while they ranked him highly in many areas, they felt he was stingy with praise. Though stung at first--"Like any human being, I got a little defensive"--he upped the amount of compliments he paid subordinates and raised his score significantly.
Interestingly, Rucci's shortfall--a failure to do something as simple as praise a worker--is a typical complaint among employees. Often what rankles workers isn't something huge that requires a massive personality overhaul; it's something small but irksome that over time becomes a major irritant. Says Lichtenberg: "People can get upset over things like someone not saying hello, and that'll drive them nuts. It's the little stuff that makes people feel bad. It's the stuff that someone may not even notice they're doing that'll grind down a staff. It's things like being insensitive to an expressed need. If someone says they're going to need to leave at four, and you schedule a meeting at 3:45 and they miss little Susie's stage debut as a snowflake, it's that kind of low-level insensitivity that can send you into being most-hated."
Indeed, while workers and human resources experts all know horror stories of abusive managers, the most common complaints concern mundane matters like communication. Kevin Metheny, for instance, earned himself the sobriquet "Pig Virus" not because he threw phones but because he never sat down and explained himself to his most notorious employee, Howard Stern. Metheny was the director of programming and operations at New York City's WNBC radio station when Stern was a new hire, a successful shock jock in Washington who'd been recruited to add some spice to the station's lineup. As depicted in Stern's autobiography, Private Parts, and the 1997 film of the same name, Metheny dogged Stern with petty complaints; in the movie Metheny comes off as one of the most incompetent authority figures to grace the big screen since Rufus T. Firefly. Now operations manager at a station in Cleveland, Metheny shrugs off the depictions; he maintains that Stern never understood that Metheny and his staff were actually trying to keep Stern safe from the station's higher-ups. "Although I'm sure he'll never believe this," Metheny says, "we were doing our best to shield him from any more intrusions than were necessary from the lawyers and the dweebs in the standards and practices department." That said, Metheny notes that he could have done a better job of listening to Stern's concerns: "I would like to believe, with the benefit of perspective, I would handle the whole thing better today."
/*?#"! Even worse than being a poor communicator: being untrustworthy. In sifting the Best Boss/Worst Boss entries, Miller has found that trust between boss and staff--both ways--is a recurring theme in workers' horror stories, from the mundane, like bosses who fail to deliver on promised incentives, to the outrageous, like the boss who was so insecure that he pretended to leave the building every day around 3, then sneaked back and hid in a supply cabinet to hear what his staff said about him. (Note: This is not an acceptable substitute for the 360-degree evaluation, though it's certainly cheaper.)
If you want to know about trust, talk to the military, where officers' orders can send soldiers to risk their lives. Building trust among troops is a significant issue for Lt. Col. Gregory Dardis, an academy professor of leadership at West Point. "Every time a leader's behavior denotes that he doesn't trust his staff, he loses favor," Dardis says. "Every time he doesn't take into account the position of his staff, every time he asks for input but ignores it, he loses favor." Disgruntled's editor Levine concurs, noting that common complaints among his readers are hypocritical bosses who appear to hold different standards for themselves and for their employees, or who gratuitously invade workers' privacy to see whether they're getting their job done. "What gets them more than the invasion of privacy," he says, "is the lack of trust."
But avoiding staff hatred isn't even as simple as abjuring such classic vices as duplicity. Fact is, there's one more type of behavior that is especially grating to workers, one that may seem, at first, to run counter to the rest: It's the desire to be loved. John Miller, a regional vice president with the outplacement and career-management firm Drake Beam Morin, describes the symptoms of the disease: "We all know the person who wants to be loved by everybody and is basically a wimp. The person who's dodging people all the time, who's not accessible, who's afraid to manage." Employees hate working for people like these, often because their good intentions end up in a muddle of contradictions and broken promises. Leadership is not a popularity contest. While the objective of any savvy manager should include avoiding the enmity of one's staff, that does not necessarily imply that the ne plus ultra of managing is a staff that loves you, or even one that likes you. Nice though it is when it happens, it's not an end in itself. Rather, a good leader's goal should be to win the respect and loyalty of one's own staff--and maybe their affection will follow.
And if you should find yourself unable to do this--if, indeed, you find yourself thinking, "Respect those chimps at the office? What are you, nuts?"--then at least take with you one piece of advice: Whatever you do, don't let them near the pool.