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Why Yelling at People is Not the Best Motivational Strategy

September 4, 2012

I once hired a gentleman – let’s call him Aaron – on a contract basis to work with a small office team implementing a new accounting software program. Aaron was a partner in charge at a small but respectable local accounting firm, and as the expert consultant, he was to work closely with Barbara, the office manager, in training our staff to utilize the new software.

Barbara was a sharp-edged and wiry woman in her early sixties whose eye for efficiency was matched only by her short temper. Never one to mince words, she had gotten into trouble at times for her caustic demeanor, despite her proficiency with bookkeeping.

After being away for several days, I walked into the office to find a white-faced Aaron sitting in a catatonic blur at his desk, with Barbara shooting dagger eyes at him from across the room.

Friends, if looks could kill, let me tell you, Barbara had eviscerated the man and plundered his village.

Upon seeing me, Aaron quickly cornered me in my office, shutting the door.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he gasped, panting. “She’s – she’s just – she won’t…”

He gave a backwards glance towards Barbara through the office window, sitting at her cubicle. Her withering glare burned holes straight through Aarons’s head like red-hot laser beams. He turned back to me with a terrified look. This middle-aged, seasoned professional was wilting right before my eyes.

It’s not that Aaron was incompetent — he only felt incompetent, due to Barbara’s constant stream of bullying. Apparently, she had become so frustrated with his method of training — or perhaps it was her difficulty with learning? — she metered out a continuous lashing towards him from the beginning of the work day straight through to its sad conclusion.

After two weeks of this, Barbara had successfully reduced this once-confident, mature professional to a slathering blob of jello in her presence, to the point where he simply couldn’t think straight anymore.

I asked Barbara to leave him alone, and then later fired her (which is another story). However, I never forgot the destructive role a leader’s hot headed temper can play in degrading a person’s self-esteem and productivity.

Surely, this scenario is far too common among corporate offices across the globe. We’ve all had our experiences with mean bosses — the screamers, the sarcastic snappers, the manic-depressive walk-on-eggshell bosses. Enduring those tyrannical conditions on the job is nothing more than a corporate rite of passage.

The word on the street, however, is that things are changing. Yes, that’s right. The surprising new consensus among management is that screaming fails to inspire people (duh?), and just last week, the Wall Street Journal announced that explosive, demeaning bosses are now officially out of vogue.

According to the article, “Verbal aggression tends to impair victims’ working memory, reducing their ability to understand instructions and perform basic tasks.”

This is exactly what was happening to Aaron.

Listen. Forget all the crap you’ve read about high-performance leaders. I’ve worked for over 25 years in a number of corporate settings, and in my opinion, there’s just one common denominator to good leadership: it is consistency. And by that I mean, a level head, a predictable, contained frame of mind that doesn’t indulge in every negative feeling by taking the entire staff hostage.

Emotional self control in a leader, my friends, is worth its weight in gold.

Now: can you imagine what would happen if we start holding leaders accountable for managing their emotional lives at work?

Perhaps Barbara can answer that one.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2012 8:38 am

    JB – I usually find an application for my everyday life, outside of a corporate setting, and boy-howdy, I found one here today too. All of this applies to any leadership position within our family or community.

    (Was verbal aggression really an in thing at one time? yikes.)


  2. September 4, 2012 3:46 pm

    I’ve always prided myself on my emotional control. In fact, I’m probably too stoic. But, as they say, opposites attract – and my wife is a little freer with her emotions. Now as we raise children, we have to work on finding the compromise between emotional control and still allowing emotions to exist (which some would say characterizes me).

  3. September 4, 2012 5:09 pm

    Great insights and thoughts.

  4. September 4, 2012 11:26 pm

    Oh, preach it! Why have we ever thought that constant angry words do anything to make things easier. Yes, sometimes we get frustrated and need to ‘vent,’ but what you’re describing here is much more than that. It’s a form of verbal and emotional abuse, plain and simple. And it really cannot and should not be tolerated in any relationship – personal or professional. Thanks for calling it out so very well.

  5. September 5, 2012 10:15 pm

    I often wonder why people repeatedly resort to verbal aggression like that. I get a screaming 2 year old, but adults have to see their behavior isn’t getting their desired result. We are strange creatures.

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