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Managerial style

Updated Friday 3rd July 2009

John Gaynard ask whether brutality is ever acceptable in a manager?

“How brutal do you have to be as a manager?” is a leading question that seems to expect an answer ranging from "slightly brutal” or “only occasionally brutal” to an extreme of “very brutal”. Many young managers, before they learn better, think that brutality has to be a part of the job, probably encouraged in that viewpoint by Alan Sugar in his TV job as the prototypical, patronising dictator on The Apprentice television show. Sugar’s viewers take sadistic pleasure from hearing him bark, “You’re fired!” at his hapless candidates for entrepreneurial stardom.

"brutal managers, who live in a black and white world, usually lack the skill of self-regulation"

The real world of management is very different. Daniel Goleman has argued that the difference between good and bad performance among leaders in the 21st century is down to their 'emotional intelligence', a term which encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Brutal managers, who live in a black and white world, usually lack the skill of self-regulation – defined by Goleman as “having integrity, accepting ambiguity and being open to change.”

As we heard on the Bottom Line, one managerial style will not fit all situations. Good managers, with a fairly high degree of emotional intelligence, all adopt "a contingency approach to management," in which their style varies according to the circumstances.

In 1991, Gareth Morgan highlighted the competencies that were then becoming evident for the modern manager, such as being able to read the environment, the ability to manage complexity and what he termed 'contextual competencies' – related to appraising the situation in which you find yourself and doing what is effective in that context.

You do not manage an apprentice in the same way as you manage a very competent and trusted colleague, who has come up with you through the ranks. But there was a strong opinion amongst The Bottom Line panelists that both should be treated with the same respect.

In the UK, at difficult stages of a company’s life it does seems permissible to shout, as long as it doesn’t become a habit and lasts only briefly, for example when a large company has become complacent and it needs to be brutally shaken out of its torpor in order to save it from itself. Such 'barking' should be used with parsimony and never descend to the level of brutality.

In companies that have to move extremely quickly all the time – for example those selling discounted hotel nights over the internet, or empty airline seats, where what is not sold today will never be sold – it also seems acceptable for a manager to raise his voice occasionally, especially when business has to be executed at a certain pace: when “slower than that won’t do”.

Manager shouting at colleague [image © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
Is shouting at a colleague ever acceptable?

But in Japan shouting at a colleague of whatever rank is simply not done. In Japan, all is civility. Quite apart from the Japanese aversion to losing face, or making somebody else lose face, managers and employees know that it pays in the long run to be deferential to their colleagues of whatever level in the company. Companies, like trees, can die.

As explained by John McLaren, when a big change is to be decided, the metaphor of 'root wrapping' is used. Before a tree is moved its roots are wrapped in bamboo matting. The idea of change is carried around the company and its roots wrapped with increasing levels of consensus to protect it. Only when there is total agreement at the lower levels of the company will it be taken to the board. The role of the board is not to reject brutally what has been decided elsewhere, but to rubber stamp what has already been agreed by middle management, who favour a middle-up-down process such as that described by Nonaka & Takeuchi in their 1995 book, The Knowledge-Creating Company.

Boards do not act in the same way in the United Kingdom. But even here, there is also a wish to avoid conflict. If there is latent conflict that could lead to use of brutal language at a board meeting, it will usually be sorted out over dinner or drinks the night before. In fact, the governance of boards may be too 'clubby'. Important and valuable debates can be avoided out of the desire to not annoy people.

However some boards and business owners do seem to encourage brutality in their senior managers, feeling that there are (unproven) advantages from management by fear. These managers may seem to get good short term results – as in the case of Al Dunlap, who made himself a reputation in the 1980s and 1990s as a brutal turnaround artist, but most of the companies he purported to have saved went out of business a few years later; nearly all of the reductions in cost and workforce cuts he had conjured up proved to be value-destroying and ultimately fatal.

"talent has options, talent can walk"

The manager of an enthusiastic, growing company needs all the talent he or she can get, and she knows that even in the midst of the present downturn, as I heard on the programme, “talent has options, talent can walk”. And that is why the style of management recommended in today’s knowledge economy is one where the manager is first among a group of equals, for whom she is responsible but without whose willing cooperation she will not be available to get her job done. Brutality will be a hindrance, not a help in getting that job done.

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