Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game - InformationWeek
IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
09:11 AM
Connect Directly

Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game

Short-term thinkers will pressure you to dismiss anything but scorched-earth personnel management tactics as soft, or a waste of money. But IT is a service business where nice guys win.

I love it when academic research confirms what you kind of already knew. When dealing with IT human resource management--something that I've focused on in the last decade--it's important to have that academic, impartial, third-party backup. That's because frequently, you will run into pressure from short-term bottom-line thinkers to dismiss anything but scorched-earth personnel management tactics as soft, weak, or a waste of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. IT is a service business, and being a "nice" boss is the only way to create excellent IT services in the long term.

For example, as I was reading blogs recently, I ran into an entry by Tony Schwartz at Harvard Business Review that recommends using appreciation--good old fashioned positive feedback for a job well done--to build higher performing teams. "Sure, if you have the time, but we have real work to do," might be what a scorched earth manager might say. But Schwartz pulls out the academic research to back it, saying that higher performing teams have a significantly higher ratio of positive-to-negative feedback than lower performing teams. Of course they do, but again, with research to back it up, this assertion becomes more powerful in your business context.

I recently spoke to Mary Lynn Manns, a university professor, researcher, and author of Fearless Change, a prescriptive handbook on organizational change, about our recent research into the state of project management at organizations. After significant academic research, she and her colleagues have also concluded that the ways that individuals are treated go so far as to determine the success or failure of projects at organizations.

She says that most organizations talk about what is good for the organization without also saying what’s good for the individual. And that's where they fail.

There may be no "I" in team, but if you look hard, there is a "me". Over and over again, leaders make organizational behavior mistakes by treating groups of people as if there is a group. There's no group. There's just individual people who come together to make a group. The distinction is important. Groups don't have complaints about their work-life balance, people who make the group up do.

Drill down a little bit into what "nice" treatment of your employees is. We generally consider someone "nice" when he takes our feelings into account when taking actions. We still think a boss is "nice" when someone else gets the promotion, as long as we understand that there was a rational basis for the selection, and as long as we are not humiliated. So that's what "nice" is: the ability to include others, be mindful of others' feelings, be considerate. But, guess what? This is also, in Manns' model, good change management.

Manns' research shows that participation--even a little bit of participation--in decision making processes instead of Draconian heavy-handed decrees, is one key way that organization leaders can avoid project failure.

Is it such a stretch to say that similar day-to-day leadership can avoid failures in your day-to-day technology work? She says that leaders who use the hammer to get people to comply will be subject to ambushes, passive-aggressive behavior, and so on. This all translates to a low-performing team.

Over and over again, I keep reading research and case studies about how the so-called "weak" sides of humanity--kindness, consideration, warmth, empathy, optimism, actually create competitive advantage, particularly at service organizations. So why do we still have pockets of our IT service organizations that don't believe this? Could it be that we're hiring the wrong people?

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

Micah Solomon, author of the forthcoming book, High Tech, High Touch Anticipatory Customer Service, thinks so. Solomon's pedigree as an entrepreneur and marketer makes me listen when he talks, and he says, "Attitude, rather than technical skill, is what’s most important in a prospective employee." The book offers great case studies from Zappos, British Airways, and Umpqua Bank that show that you can have all the technical skills in the world, but unless employees are human-focused, you're never going to get the level of customer engagement that makes an organization truly successful. The book, which also offers tips on how to hire those human-focused staffers, deserves a place on your shelf.

The bottom line is that those scorched-earth thinkers may think that you're being weak, but it's really the other way around. As they chase people away with horrible management and leadership tactics, they are wasting one of the most precious resources that your organization has: talented, capable people. And that's not an academic question.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
1/28/2012 | 2:31:35 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
The problem is that IT is no longer run as a business enabler, but as a revenue center, meaning it has to keep costs down and if possible at all generate income. The quarterly number think is omnipresent in leadership roles. Do good to your employees? Pah! Employees are human capital with an endless supply of cheap labor overseas. As long as the shareholder value increases short term all is golden. Who cares what happens to people or the company in three or four years when the 'good' managers moved on to their next jobs.
And yes, positive feedback is much appreciated, but most will be even happier with job security, better pay, better benefits, and more time off. But that won't happen, because it costs money. A tap on the back is way cheaper.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/28/2012 | 1:23:46 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
Scorched earth management is an epidemic given the current state of business. It exists not only in IT, but in all business sectors of every company. It is deadly for competition. Management and executive leadership must change in order to thrive in a more competitive environment. Sadly, most have not embraced this ideology.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/28/2012 | 1:23:59 AM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
It is nice to see that my preferred management style is respectable after all.
In interviews the question is often what I call a "sunburn question": how do you deal with X.
My approach is to make sure we've got sunblock and encourage everyone to use it. Real leadership develops loyalty to the nice guy, instead of the sheep running away from the wolf.
User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2012 | 11:23:27 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
Greg, thanks for bringing that up. I'm definitely NOT saying that "nice" by itself means "effective" and "accountable," those are topics for another discussion. But, would you rather have an ineffective boss who was also a jerk? Or, someone who valued you, but also held you accountable? Obviously, you need both for an effective organization that doesn't drive folks away. My question is, why is it so hard for many bosses to correct behavior without acting like a brute?
User Rank: Apprentice
1/27/2012 | 1:54:47 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
I wish I could agree with the point of the article but I find most IT bosses reward poor development practices. Where I work now everyone is rewarded all the time but the practices suck. There's no documentation of procedures so its all by word of mouth. When procedures change the old procedures are left in place so you can fall into a black hole waiting on responses. Builds are not only vendor dependent but tool version dependent. But there are no bullies where I work. Does that mean we have a high performing team?
Chris Spera
Chris Spera,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/27/2012 | 1:33:53 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
GREAT column! I couldn't agree more. I've always believed that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. I also believe that karma is a b*tch and you get what you give. Unfortunately, as JimC says, in a bear economy, incompetant managers can easily find replacements for the subordinates they sacrifice.

At some point, however, the business has to realize that the products they produce - the service they sell - is suffering due to large turn over. People make the business. Period. If you treat your people right, you're never going to go wrong. Short term gains are just that - short term.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/26/2012 | 8:34:18 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
A constant issue in IT is that the job is "product" instead of "service". They (we?) don't like to think of themselves as servants and prefer to call themselves producers. It's great to be a producer, but you are being productive at serving the needs of your clients, whether that is your boss or a third party who is buying your software or hardware.

--- Jonathon T

User Rank: Apprentice
1/26/2012 | 7:24:29 PM
re: Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game
Scorched-earth management behavior exists in IT and the vendors who sell to those IT executives. It's interesting when the two sides collide because one usually goes down in flames. They deserved each other and "what goes around, comes around." The problem in this bad economy is that incompetent managers can find replacements for the subordinates they sacrifice.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
The Next Generation of IT Support
The workforce is changing as businesses become global and technology erodes geographical and physical barriers.IT organizations are critical to enabling this transition and can utilize next-generation tools and strategies to provide world-class support regardless of location, platform or device
Twitter Feed
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.
Flash Poll