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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?

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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.