Nastiness - One of the most powerful and effective ways to turn a human-being nasty is to give them less than they expect and to take away goodies they have always had – indeed, this is one of the lessons from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research. Right now, you are probably making less money than you expected, you are taking away goodies from your people that they always had, and everyone is worried that things will get worse.
Emotions are also remarkably contagious; indeed, negative emotion is especially contagious and damaging. And once people get angry and start attacking and slighting each other, they stop being productive and devote their attention to dealing with their damaged feelings – and plotting revenge. If you want to stop such asshole poisoning from running wild in your company – or reverse it; three things are essential:
Keep your inner asshole in check. And if you lose your temper or do something that accidently is seen as a personal slight, deal with it immediately. Pull your “victim” aside and apologize or apologize to the whole company if need be. Sure, you are the boss, but if your people are mad at you, they will give you less and run for the exits as soon as the good times return.
Don’t let the superstars be superjerks. If you have employees –even stars – who are constantly flaming their coworkers and you as well, don’t let them get away with it. I know it is especially tempting to hold onto these creeps during tough times, but if they are using it as time to do a power grab, you will end-up poisoning your whole organization.
Don’t tolerate abusive customers. It is especially tempting to tolerate abusive customers when times are tough … but the cost is often too high. They can make you crazy, drive other customers away, and make your best people sick.
The message is that, if your people believe that you have their backs, they will get you through the tough times, and even in the worst cases – if you must let them go – they will remain loyal if you did all you could to protect them as the shit hit the fan. You might be able to hire them back, and if not, remember, they may turn into great customers down the road.
There is a great deal of evidence that people in positions of power often become so focused on their own needs and problems, that that they don’t realize that they are treating their people poorly. Conversely, because people at the bottom of the pecking order can be damaged – or helped – so much by people in power, they watch them extremely closely. There even appears to be some evolutionary basis to this, as a typical member of a baboon troop glances up to see what the alpha male is doing every 30 seconds or so. To combat this sickness:
Beware of the spotlight. Keep reminding yourself that your people are watching every move you are making, and are magnifying and probably distorting it massively. Make sure that people actually understand the messages you are giving. People are so freaked out they can’t even process good news. The CEO of one small company I know sent out an email saying they wouldn’t be doing layoffs and in fact would be hiring more people – his people responded by asking him again and again “when are the layoffs coming.”
Assume you lack key facts. Research on people in power shows that – even when they have no idea what is going on – they assume that they know everything that is important because, after all, they are the boss. This is called the fallacy of centrality. This gets worse during bad times because people are afraid the boss will shoot the messenger. Assume your assumptions are wrong and check them out as many ways as you can.
Really listen. Another aspect of this problem is that, even if your people tell you what is going on, people in power have tendency to listen badly to their underlings. As renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it, ““Listen to those under your supervision. Really listen. Don’t act is if you’re listening and let it go in one ear and out the other. Faking it is worse than not doing it all.”
Just being in position of power means that you are a greater risk of being overconfident in your decisions. And the threats that come with bad times make it even harder for you to let go of your beliefs and habits that have helped you in the past. Beware of these three signs that the tough times are causing your brain to shutdown:
Don’t cling to the past. If you insist on doing something because it has always worked in the past, beware. This is a recipie for disaster during a time of upheaval like this one.
Have you been learning, or just clocking hours? If you insist on doing something because you have been in the business longer than others, beware … as my colleague Andy Hargadon likes to ask, “Do you have twenty years of experience, or the one year of experience, 20 times.”
Pretend you are someone else. Try viewing our business as an outsider. Some interesting research shows that people make better decisions about what others should do rather than what they should do. If you fired yourself and brought in someone to take your place tomorrow, what things would you advise them to do that are different than what you are doing now?
Finally, I know it is a lot harder to talk about running a small business than to do it, especially now. So I would especially appreciate your comments on what I’ve missed, and what I might have done wrong as well.
Bob Sutton is professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. He is author ofThe No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't and is currently writing a book on great bosses. His blog is Work Matters.