Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Big Bosses and Bad Behavior

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

Yesterday a colleague of mine told me that the company he works for has a rather interesting practice. At the end of every quarter, no matter the company’s financial state, the sales team holds four meetings a day for two weeks. During each, they talk via conference call with the big bosses. The first call is devoted to that day’s tactics. Twice more during the course of the day they talk about how things are going. Then at the end of the day they conduct a post mortem to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Four meetings a day sounds a bit intense—maybe even like overkill—but not particularly worth further comment.

Then my friend sprung the punch line. The first conference call starts at 4:30 A.M.; the last starts at 11:30 P.M. It seems that the execs want the sales team to put in a minimum of seventeen hours a day for two straight weeks. It’s all part of their “maximum commitment” culture. The senior leaders want to model total devotion as well as an intense passion for hitting the numbers. Apparently one of the bosses read an article that suggested that if you really care about something, you make a big show—you know, make a huge personal sacrifice. Let people know that you’re not all talk and no walk. This particular group of leaders chose to walk alright—only they chose to walk on the backs of their sales force.

Here’s the weird part. According to my friend, nobody quits. They complain a lot and heaven only knows that their families are really miffed about the practice, but somehow they’ve convinced themselves that if you really care about something . . .

Besides, the execs aren’t asking something they themselves don’t do all the time. “They’re a bunch of characters,” is a common reaction from other people. However, as employees describe the founding owners who are known for their long hours and raucous behavior—often involving lots of liquor, gambling, and cursing at their assistants—they begin to sound more like selfish curs than “characters.”

No less than an hour after hearing about these execs, I read in the newspaper about a leader who had been caught with a prostitute in his fancy car in the parking lot. But the tone of the article wasn’t critical—it sounded more like a PR piece touting the leader’s chutzpah.

It seems that this founding leader is a technical genius who is entirely misunderstood and whose contribution to the world of marshaling electrons exempts him from having to follow the rules of common decency and courtesy. Once again, the employees quoted in the article spoke of him with something approaching reverence—justifying a long list of behavior that would get anyone else fired or even jailed as a natural side effect of misunderstood genius. They spoke of him as a “genuine character.”

A dear friend called me that very same day to tell me that his sister Marinda had just completed a trip with her boss, the founder of a well-known company. He too, she explained, is a character. When the meeting with the other company’s president didn’t go well, the “character” blew a gasket and called Marinda a vile sexist term to her face. When Marinda attempted to change the subject to their client’s objections, the boss called the widely respected president the same thing—repeating the vile words. When asked why she tolerated such abuse, Marinda explained: “He’s one of those young geniuses who has carried the company on his intellectual back. I guess he’s earned the right to be a bit quirky.”

In fact, she went on to explain that the fellow’s quirky (although frequently abusive) behavior was what gave their company an edge. “When you learn to snarl at the world, break social barriers, and spit in the face of convention you get good at thinking outside the box.” So instead of arguing that her company has done well in spite of the president’s arrogant, abusive, and insulting actions, she recast them as the force behind their success. Somehow “in spite of” had transmuted into “because of.” This clever transformation, of course, not only dismisses the disgraceful actions, it also suggests that the founder’s roguish behaviors need to be both rewarded and replicated.

Here’s the scary part. As you listen to the employees of these quirky, outside-the-box (and often abusive) founders, many take the same route as Marinda. They brag about their off-kilter leaders and determine that their offensive behavior is okay because they’re being suffocated by unduly repressive social norms. They just have to strike out at those around them in order to release their misunderstood genius.

This tortured logic, of course, is nothing more than a steaming pile of . . . untruth. Anything that profoundly disrespects the basic humanity of those around you never makes things better. Anything that abuses, insults, and demeans people only makes the world a worse and less effective place. Anything that deprives people of their dignity or shackles them to their desk can only contribute to your eventual failure. And finally, anything that results in the enormous transaction costs associated with repeated abuse (e.g., complaining, hiding, getting even, giving up, etc.) will eventually bring any organization to its knees.

So how do these “characters” continue to survive? Every time there is a group of thugs whose founding genius masks their bad behavior, it is invariably the original idea—the technical breakthrough—that causes their success. When an idea is big enough to lead to a near monopoly, companies can continue to survive despite leadership actions that would cause most organizations to fail. Create a large enough competitive advantage and you can house a whole host of “in spite of” behaviors.

If it’s true that it’s big ideas that cause success and not the weird actions of a handful of leaders, then how is it that we routinely conclude the opposite? How do we find a way to transform “in spite of” to “because of”?

First, it’s hard to determine cause in complex social interactions. Who knows? The company is doing well and the bosses have created this weird culture; maybe it’s the weird aspects that make it work. Stranger things have happened.

Trust your gut on this one. If it walks like a duck, flies like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If actions appear inexcusable, they are. A healthy leadership style and work culture would make the company even more effective.

Second, we often transform “in spite of” into “because of” due to a powerful psychological effect called cognitive dissonance. To quote the renowned social psychologist Leon Festinger, “Rats and people come to love the things for which they suffer.” As counterintuitive as this may sound, when you’re forced to do something you don’t like or are treated badly, you can say it was a painful waste of your time (adding to your growing depression) or you can paint a happy face on it.

Humans often take door number two. Apparently we all have a feel-good cheerleader embedded deep inside our heads and, by golly, we routinely turn lemons into lemonade. We think to ourselves, “The poor treatment must have been good for me. That’s it—it helped mold my character.”

The third reason we label a disease a remedy stems from our tendency to bundle negative and positive attributes into one massive and inseparable thing we call personality. For example, I was recently talking to a friend who runs the HR function for a large law firm. He complained that flamboyant courtroom lawyers who are applauded as geniuses in front of a jury are allowed to be egotistical lunatics with the other members of their firm. Not only have these long-winded geniuses earned the right to be prickly and proud through their courtroom brilliance, but, according to the firm, that’s just how “those types” are.

Apparently you can’t be brilliant with the jury and a valued and respectful coworker all at once. Nope. Apparently personalities come like bills sent to the Senate—each with quasi-insane riders that nobody really wants attached—but you have to take the bad along with the good. That’s just how things are.

Finally, we often allow ourselves to conclude that bad behaviors cause good outcomes because we don’t know how to confront the bad behavior. If we speak up, we figure our career is toast. When people in positions of authority are at fault, who’s going to battle that lost cause? At first we hate what our bosses or coworkers are doing to us, but since we feel powerless to change it, we decide that maybe the mistreatment is not really so bad.

Consider the case of the salespeople who are routinely forced to work from before the crack of dawn until nearly midnight. They don’t like it. They don’t even think it’s good for them or the company. But then again, they don’t complain either—not to the big bosses anyway. This means that sooner or later they have to conclude that they’re spineless wimps, or that maybe (upon further review) the quirky strategy isn’t so bad after all.

The solution to all of this incessant “perfuming-the-pig” lies first in admitting the truth. Bad is bad and always will be. Calling bad good just makes it that much worse. Second, we must willingly and ably speak up when we observe inappropriate behavior—whatever the source and no matter how many other people are arguing that it’s good for them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to label the bad good if we know how to make it go away. I know this can be challenging, maybe even impossible in some cases, but certainly not always. I’m reminded of watching a skilled leader at Ford Motor who one day turned to his coworkers and asked, “Are we going to continue working hours that are killing our health and harming our families or are we going to find a new way?” Nobody had wanted to speak first, but this fellow finally did.

His willingness to confront their pressured brand of workaholism would have been downright dangerous if he hadn’t discussed the problem with such a wonderful blend of candor and professionalism. His ability to master crucial conversations took away all the risk. Instead of unleashing his pent-up anger in an ugly outburst that eventually would have haunted him, the Ford executive calmly raised the issue and discussed it in a way that made it safe for everyone to weigh in with their hidden concerns. It was something to behold and led to a change in the lives of dozens of people. In my view, this ability to stand tall in the face of crippling silence is the brand of everyday heroism that every organization could use.

Now, many of you may be thinking that you don’t have to work seventeen-hour days and people don’t curse one another in your company, but you do see things that simply aren’t right. Don’t let them continue. Step up, speak up, and if necessary, skill up. Learn what to say and how to say it. We’ve written two books on the topic. But here’s my addition to these two works: If nothing else, become good at pointing out one important fact. “Because of” and “in spite of” are two different animals. It pays to know which one you’re facing.

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