This article was originally published by Business Insider, May 18, 2017.
Recently I was settling into my seat on a flight when a woman stomped onto the plane and barreled down the aisle while talking loudly on her ear piece. She was dressed in professional clothing as though she just got out of a meeting, and was visibly flustered trying to talk into her Blackberry while trying to find overhead space for her bag.
Her seat happened to be right across from mine so I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation. I could tell she was in talking to one of her employees because she was reviewing his (I heard the name ‘Jeff’) work and telling him what to change.
I cringed at her conversation and the tone she took with Jeff: condescending, impatient, and downright rude. She made disparaging remarks about his work, remarking she was surprised he graduated from an Ivy League school given the quality of his work. She offered suggestions to improve his work, but in a way that must have made poor Jeff feel like he was the most incompetent person on the planet. She may have been right to reprimand Jeff for poor performance, but her delivery was disrespectful.
As much as I disapprove of this woman’s behavior, I can also relate because I’ve been her before. I’ve been the no-nonsense, take-no-crap from anyone boss who doesn’t hesitate to yell at a subordinate or use a harsh tone in the hopes that a scolding will be the motivator he or she needs to do better next time.
But what I learned over time, and what my neighbor on that flight will likely learn too, is that being the mean boss won’t get you anywhere. That being condescending, sarcastic, disrespectful, or rude might feel good in the moment when you’re angry, but is a guaranteed way to lose the trust of your team.
My flight neighbor probably believes her team respects her for being so tough, but they don’t. You cannot respect someone who has no control over their own emotions, who doesn’t understand that moving forward and up is always better than laying down in the mud.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my flight neighbor was a woman, and her gender certainly colors the interaction she had with her colleague. Women in leadership positions often feel they need to overcompensate and defy the perception that women aren’t tough enough for the job. And to some extent, women do have to be assertive to be taken seriously, but crossing over into abusive behavior is something both women and men need to guard against.
These were hard lessons for me to learn. The first time I managed a team, I adopted a “hard ass” persona, quick to chastise or criticize the team working under me for anything I perceived as less than a perfect performance. One person I worked with at the time described me as “quite prickly” to work with, though I think that was actually a euphemism for being a total jerk to my teammates. I didn’t like being a mean boss, but I felt I had to assert my authority and show how hard and harsh I could be to command respect. But the thing is, yelling at my teammates didn’t improve their quality of work or inspire them to work harder. It made them resent me and broke down the essential ingredients of trust and mutual respect that a team needs to succeed. If anything, being a jerk at work only made my team’s work suffer.
As difficult as it is to recount these cringe-worthy experiences, I am ultimately a better leader and colleague because of them. I learned that being an effective leader is about uplifting your team, not stomping all over them. My approach to solving workplace issues became all about finding the solution, rather than reprimanding or punishing without a plan to move forward. This didn’t mean I let employees slack or let them off the hook, but it did mean that instead of getting angry and firing off rude, condescending e-mails, I approached problems at work in a new way. I started demonstrating more patience and respect and showed that my number one goal was always to move forward and up—to find solutions, implement them, and focus on producing the best possible work, together as a team. Now, when I talk to my colleagues about their performance issues and work with them to find solutions to the problem, they know I’m on their side and that I want them to succeed. Showing them I’m interested in communicating with them to solve the problem, not just demand they work to my standards, motivates my team to do better next time.
Interpersonal communication is a critical skill for any professional to have and will lead to more productive, inspired teams.