Dealing with Gordon Ramsey et al

There has been an ongoing debate in the media about whether bosses should be nice or tough. One of the earlier “not so nice” bosses to brag about his toughness was Jack Welch at GE. He famously made a top manager pee his pants at a workshop. It also has come out, that Steve Jobs was not a nice guy to work for. This was even after he came back to Apple. He just scared the hell out of people. It may be that Jeff Bezos also is not all fun and games to work for. And this has led some commentators to argue that you might become a better boss by scaring people. Call it “tough love”.

This is not a new idea. Sir Kenneth Clark talked about the “intensity” of barbaric life that created great art and accomplishment. That life glorified conflict at least in part, in order to produce that intensity. We call this now “animal spirits”. And it is the rallying cry of folks who want less government regulation and more market orientation. Let the games begin!

On the other hand, you also see arguments that “level 4 groups” work best. Dave Logan has presented this rather well. Level 4 groups feel great about the group they work in and what they are doing in that group. They shout out, “We are great”! Not just “I am great and you suck!” The value of being part of the group for the task is greater than any of the individuals included could generate on their own. And we know that nasty bosses can have a deeply negative effect on this kind of team development. Imagine Conan the barbarian trying to lead a yoga class. Something like that.

So who is right? More recent comment suggests that both nice and tough behavior patterns may be appropriate in different circumstances. One reason, as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi pointed out long ago in his book “Flow”, is that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. We crave happiness because it adds meaning to our lives. And we are willing and glad to work for it. So as Dan Pink and others have pointed out, finding meaning in work is highly motivating. Dan Ariely brings out this point in his TED talk. So nasty bosses who destroy the meaning we get from work (damaging the team spirit or the result) are not going to motivate creative work.

Does giving pleasure work as well? Well, that idea inspired hippies and others (like Joe Campbell) to elevate the idea of “following your bliss”. But pleasure does not stimulate work. It stimulates a craving for more pleasure until you are sated. So we discover that smiling bosses who only reward (call them the “candy men”) are less effective than they could be.

So how does one be tough enough but nice enough? Managers do have to be clear about the importance of standards that achieve meaning. That is the idea of public punishment. But does publicly punishing folks who don’t meet standards pay off? Jobs thought so. And others do that too — to make a point to the others. Gordon Ramsey makes money on TV by doing this. Here is the rub. As Gordon Zein points out, there is always risk in making and implementing business decisions. And the presence of risk implies that hard work might lead to failure. So witnessing public punishment for failure is likely to reduce the aptitude for taking risk. That may be good if you need people to stop taking certain risks – like missing deadlines. It is less good if you need people to take more risk in coming up with new ideas that may or may not add value. In other words, the value of punishment to enforce standards appears to be relative to the amount of creativity and risk that you need to promote.

This relates to conflict management. When we use standards in life, we are bound to create conflict. We will fail and others whom we rely on will fail too. Ooops. That is just life. When this happens, you have conflict by definition. What happens next is important. If you reward and punish solely based on meeting standards, you distract from the meaning of the standard in the context. You also implicitly make people risk averse. Whether that is good or bad depends on the strategy that you have adopted.

Something to think about.


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