Home Business St. Thomas business Source Manager's Journal: Managers–Liked, Respected, Disliked and Disdained

Source Manager's Journal: Managers–Liked, Respected, Disliked and Disdained

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In 1775, Samuel Johnson uttered his famous line, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” We don’t know for sure but it is fairly certain that Dr. Johnson was talking about false patriots, a breed that each generation has in abundance. In managing organizations, a similar statement could be made: “(False) respect is the last refuge of the loathsome and despicable.” During his long political career, which started more than half a century ago, Richard Nixon would regularly assert that he would rather be respected than liked. He was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to create the impression that being respected and liked were somehow incompatible. As in many other areas, Mr. Nixon was wrong, but given his inherent unlikability, it was a nice try to put the best face on things.
Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval have just written The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness. Whether their book is a blip or the start of a more sustained reaction to the last quarter-century of tough, lean–and-mean, take-no-prisoners management is not clear. What is clear is that we have been through a prolonged period in which arrogance, aggressiveness, narcissism, rudeness and incivility have all been celebrated or given a pass in the name of “tough” management. These business qualities have trickled down into the public and nonprofit sectors, as business has come to be seen as a universal model for managing everything.
What exactly is “toughness” and what is the connection between being tough and being disliked? In my experience, managerial toughness is a positive quality. It is the willingness and ability to make and execute difficult decisions under less-than-optimal circumstances. It is being disciplined and expecting others to be disciplined. It has nothing to do with the negative qualities listed above. People almost always have legitimate reasons for disliking someone, and managerial toughness is rarely one of them. People often dislike someone for the same reasons that they don’t respect them. Conversely, rather than being in competition, in most instances likability and respect go together.
But – like many things in life – it’s not that simple. We have all known people in the workplace who were likeable but for various reasons could not earn our respect. I recently worked with a manager who was universally liked by his deputies. He cared about the work and about them and worked long hours. At the same time, he was not respected. His office was like the Roach Motel: things checked in but they never came out. His communication style, intended to be friendly and supportive, was infantilizing and a model of ambiguity. He was liked but not respected.
In contrast, there is a manager who is very effective but not liked by her staff. She zeroes in on problems, is a clear thinker, makes solid decisions and communicates them to staff, and she never asks people to do things that can’t be done. She is also distant and unemotional, largely uninterested in the lives of the staff. She can be abrupt. They don’t like her, but they certainly respect her.
These are the complicated middle groups. What about those people who are neither liked nor respected? They are the hard cases. These people tend to have a three-way negative multiplier effect: first, they repel talent. Good people will find a way to not work with them if at all possible. Second, they attract people like themselves so that the toxicity spreads. And finally, even in a small organization or unit, they define the culture and its norms and values.
The most dramatic example of this trifecta that I have seen in years is Donald Rumsfeld in his role as secretary of defense. Even though the Pentagon is unique, a vast organization that may be truly unmanageable, the organizational lessons of Rumsfeld’s tenure make up a cautionary tale with universal application. He systematically drove out those who “weren’t on the team,” that is those who challenged the prevailing wisdom. In addition, he neutered many others, producing a military leadership that was timid because it saw what happened if you confronted him or his deputies. He then surrounded himself with deputies who emulated his worst qualities, in particular the belief that they were smarter than everyone else and could shape complex global realities because they were so smart.
The culture at the top of the Department of Defense became one of arrogance, deceit, contempt for others, systematic blame shifting and blame avoidance. Relationships with every other federal agency were poisoned as Rumsfeld and his inner group created a super-silo, all focused on his defective personality. The difference between Rumsfeld and others like him, who rise to managerial and leadership positions in organizations, is that many people died unnecessarily, a nation’s reputation has been stained and the consequences of his mismanagement will be felt for years. In most organizations, the CEO would have seen what was happening and taken action at a fairly early stage. Unfortunately, the CEO in this case was a president who was willfully ignorant, surrounded by personalities similar to those of Rumsfeld’s group and too weak to go up against his Secretary of Defense.
There are uncountable other examples of this kind of management at every level of many organizations. Here is a recent story: A middle manager in a large health care organization went to her manager after having received a big new assignment from a third party, not her superior. She told her manager, “I don’t know where to start.” The top manager’s response was “that’s the nature of the beast.” When she was told that this response was not helping solve the problem, the top manager told her she had to set priorities, as if priority setting were not her job. The top manager then returned to her office to take a personal telephone call. While I am opposed to capital punishment on moral grounds, this is the kind of thing that begins to give you doubts.
There is a flip side to this problem: the manager who sets a goal of being liked rather than having it be an outcome of his or her management approach. This desire generally leads to a bad end or, at a minimum, ineffectiveness. It blurs the line between manager and staff and creates a false sense of equality. This blurring is particularly prevalent in the nonprofit sector, where hierarchy is sometimes considered to be a negative force and there is confusion between equality of people and equality of work roles and functions. If my goal is to have you like me, it feels better if decisions are “shared” and directives are suggestions. After all, we are a family.
When crunch time arrives, and someone has to be disciplined for some error or failure, it becomes very difficult if we are all friends and I want everyone to like me. What is particularly interesting about work environments in which the manager has a goal of being liked is that, quite often, in the end nobody likes anybody and everyone feels betrayed and disappointed because the workplace wasn’t what it was supposed to be.
In the end, the qualities that will assure that a manager is both respected and liked are all of the basics. They include being honest; respecting other people; communicating with clarity; not asking people to do things that are not possible, and avoiding what is now known as the "John Bolton Syndrome," after the former U.N. representative, which is the quality of kissing ass up and kicking ass down. Finally, a sense of humor always helps.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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