Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Big Bosses and Bad Behavior

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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11 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Big Bosses and Bad Behavior”

  1. brucemabee

    This Speaking Up is an important, and courageous, action! A slight variation of “speak up about bad behavior” is “speak up effectively about what matters.”

    If I just speak the unspeakable, I may just get fired. or shot, everyone can see the cost, and that’s the end of it. If I speak first with a variety of allies, letting them help me craft my plan to speak up–and helping them consider their own plans–we have a chance. We’re building a coalition that will have the power to make a difference with the authorities.

    It is sort of like effective unionizing, with the key being to stand together for specifics that we learn are central values to all, rather than to carp and cut at what only I may dislike and only hope others will join.

    Thanks Kerry, for this and all the other wise prods!

  2. Sheri K Levens LMHC

    This is one of the best articles from CC. Thank you. I remember even in my youth reading about the abusive behaviors of genius movie stars and rock stars and how people paired it with their genius and let them get away with it. I remember thinking, “No! That’s not an excuse for treating people badly!”

    1. Tammie Sanders

      What the general public need to understand about “genius” is that they will use their genius as an excuse to act as they please. Who’s going to stop them? They are geniuses and people tend to idolize them, even if it contributes to more/worse bad behavior. Regardless of how high up the food chain they are, bad behavior needs to be addressed and dealt with. Sometimes, that bad behavior tends to be a cry for help, not a means of gaining attention or a following. The behavior tends to grow worse the more they are idolized because they are still not getting out of society what they truly seek.

  3. Kelvin Walker

    WOW! This is such an awesome article and one many can relate and associate. I love the points about being able to separate the “Because of” and “In spite of” perspectives. To me one improvement is to find a “how to” vs just accepting and then use the results of the “how to” approach to solve the issue… GREAT ARTICLE!

  4. georgewilhelmsen

    It’s disappointing, but my former company has this problem. People who were abusive and drove people out of organizations through their abuse were promoted. It is what it is. You can either recognize the toxic environment and move on, or rationalize why it is okay, and live in misery.

    1. brucemabee

      There are two more options: 1) ineffectively fight the toxicity and lose bigger, and 2) focus with others WHAT MATTERS MORE, for which the toxicity is merely one barrier.

      NOT focusing on the toxic person diminishes the power of the toxicity rather than fighting it in ways that fuel it. We can use the power of positives to surround the negatives, instead of always focusing and empowering the negatives.

  5. hamilton

    As I was reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of the Military’s Special Forces and the grueling training recruits are willing to go through to join these elite forces. For those who are successful, it is a badge of honor to have survived the initiation and to know that whatever the battlefield throws at them, they will be ready. The Green Beret or Navy Seal knows that they were transformed, not “in spite of,” but “because of” the grueling initiation practices.

    I know the military does not compare to the business world, but I wonder if the people who join the notorious companies you mentioned see it as an initiation. You see, before they even joined the companies, they were aware of the companies’ quirky cultures and leaders. The reason people don’t leave the culture is because they went in knowing full well what to expect. In fact, their personality is aligned to it. (Only psychologists can explain why people are attracted to these cultures.)

    The problem is that a lot of businesses place their value on talent at all cost. I recall reading that the breakout star of “Risky Business” was already quirky BEFORE he became famous. Yet, his manager chose to keep him and even let him live with her for a while. The point you make in the article makes more sense when a stable and sane business has a leader or “talent” that suddenly or gradually goes rogue.

    The answer is to align your career with your personal values. If it’s a one-off, address it with CC. But if it’s a valued part of the culture, don’t join the company in the first place or get out as soon as you realize you made an error.

    1. Tammie Mae Sanders

      Coming from a military family, I see where you are going with Special Forces. It IS a badge of honor to prove you are the best of the best and can handle anything war can throw at you.

      However, in the business world, it’s not as cut-and-dry. Once upon a time I went to work for a company that I went into thinking it would be a great experience for me with a potential for growth. I was coming off of battling breast cancer and had to find a way to make ends meet after my ex abandoned me and our three children (he had issues dealing with the ill). Everyone kept telling me how awful the woman was that I had been hired under. They all warned me that I should keep looking for another job. Well, not many companies are looking to hire you when you have been out fo the work force over a year, regardless of the reason why.

      For the first six months that I worked alongside her every day, she appeared to be a good natured woman who had a heart for helping people in hard times. But all that changed overnight. I went in to work the next business day after that six-month period and was greeted by a completely different person. She was suddenly very crass, rude, and began to show her true colors. I did my best to keep it together while working for her, leaving work each day to make the bank run, telling the facility manager on the way out the door that I may not return. Before heading to the bank, I would drive into a shaded little-used parking area to scream and cry out my frustrations. I had a family to support and was living paycheck to paycheck. Finding another job was proving nearly impossible as the town we lived in didn’t have a lot to offer, and taking a job anywhere else meant being nearly an hour away from my children or paying huge tolls to cross the bridge. None of these options were likely. All I could do was make the most of a bad situation.

      Eventually, I was offered a job with a different department, which I jumped on! It meant she no longer had any kind of hold on me. Once I was out from under her clutches, I gathered all the information I knew about her and the way she conducted business. Her new assistant quickly learned she was toxic as she didn’t give her the courtesy of a six-month act. Together we met with one of the families who were joint owners. We presented everything we had to them, proving that she was losing the company business, money, and credibility in the community (not to mention the thousands of dollars she blatantly stole from the company). These same owners had been looking for a reason to fire her for a number of years. They took all the documentation, employee and customer complaints to the board with the intent of getting rid of her. The board shot them down. We never knew why, but speculation is that their businesses overseas were doing so well that they needed a tax write-off. She definitely gave them one!

      Moral of the story, it is not necessarily that someone “made an error” in their choice of companies to work for. And she certainly couldn’t be classified as a quirky “genius”. She was just someone who fit an agenda, so rather than get rid of the toxicity they used it to their advantage, regardless of her treatment of not only the other employees, but the clients as well.

  6. Rohan

    Thank you for this Kerry. Truly appreciate this article. This is probably the best I’ve read since I was first introduced to CC 4.5 years back. I just noticed that this was written in 2005 and 17 years later it is still relevant. We need more people to know this so that hopefully 17 years later younger people actually think that this type of thing is only a myth/legend.

  7. Ronni Talmadge

    Great article! I work with physicians and there are times when the “quirkiness” and bad behavior is ignored because of revenue that is generated. I have noticed in my career the closer to genius social niceties seem to disappear and many of us just take it and go on with our day. Kerry , I love reading all your articles .

  8. James Brown

    I can find examples of poor behavior by leaders in other important areas as well. My son is in his high school play and every day has stories about how the faculty directors yell, belittle and threaten the performers to get a better play. It is a good play and the kids do a great job – but I constantly compare the means to get there with the communication and coaching we teach in our corner of the business world. Wouldn’t a supportive approach encourage an even better performance? How is it OK to yell at kids and make them feel bad because their performance makes the director look bad? Oh wait. It’s high school. Coaches of sports teams have been doing it for years. Why shouldn’t the play directors follow suit?

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