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The Pros and Cons of An Emotional Boss

Yesterday I wrote about how it’s our responsibility to ensure our managers value us and truly understand what we do — and how and why we do it. Most managers want to set their direct reports up for success (whether they care about them as people or just cuz it makes them look good), but sometimes it really doesn’t feel that way.

As we climb the so-called corporate ladder, it becomes a lot harder to empathize with the growing number of people who work for us. Managers who make a misstep — by not supporting their staff’s goals, not taking the time to provide guidance, or worst of all, not treating them with the respect they deserve — probably aren’t going as far as being apathetic; they just need to retrain their empathy muscle.

Remember, it’s a spectrum. When we encounter someone whose actions are alienating, they may just be calling out for help to get them back on track. Being the one to lend a hand means exercising your empathy muscle, too.

I happened upon a couple stories recently that demonstrate how misplaced passion and a loss of empathy can create terrible working conditions for a team, but explore the benefits of emotions at work. The first, When the Boss Is a Screamer, in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago, followed by A Good Place to Work by VC Ben Horowitz just a few days later.

In the Screamer piece, it’s noted that hothead bosses have been dwindling in recent years; on the surface this may seem encouraging, but it is actually creating greater discord in the workplace.

Anyone who has been subjected to a screamer (probably most of us) knows just how alarming and disruptive it can be. It’s a rare individual who’s inspired to do their best work after being on the receiving end of a verbal beating. And yes, studies show that it’s detrimental to employees’ productivity:

“Verbal aggression tends to impair victims’ working memory, reducing their ability to understand instructions and perform such basic tasks as operating a computer, according to several studies of cellphone-company employees and engineering students published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Workers who fielded complaints from hostile, aggressive customers were less likely even to remember what the complaint was about, compared with workers who dealt with calm customers.”

But this isn’t the whole story. Now that office yelling has become taboo, managers who may have otherwise had a way of expressing themselves are now keeping it locked up. It’s not as though they went from being loud to sharing their concerns with composure; they’ve taken their aggression underground.

“‘People are pushing things under the carpet,’ causing frustrations to seep out in other ways.”

“One favorite way of venting, angry email, ‘serves as a relief valve, but tends to inflame conflict. It takes a very corrosive role in the workplace, for gossiping and undermining others.’”

The article claims that managers spend 25% of their time resolving conflicts — it’s simply a requirement of the job. And when an emotional response to an emotional situation is discouraged, the conflicts can go unresolved.

“All this guerrilla warfare is causing workplace conflicts to drag longer than they did 10 to 15 years ago, says Steven P. Dinkin, president of the nonprofit National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, which helps resolve thousands of disputes each year. Research shows that suppressing anger can also keep underlying problems from being exposed and solved.”

So is getting angry such a bad thing? When employees aren’t meeting expectations, aren’t following through on strategy and aren’t supporting the team, the responsibility ultimately falls on their manager’s shoulders. It’s the manager who has to deal with the repercussions. When your own job is at risk due to someone else’s actions, it can be pretty unsettling.

Ben Horowitz reflects on situations like these he faced as the CEO of Opsware (which he eventually sold to HP for $1.6 billion). He is now known as a namesake partner at the powerful venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which he founded with his former Opsware co-founder Marc Andreessen.

In his post A Good Place to Work, Horowitz talks about a time he found out that one of his middle managers hadn’t conducted one-on-one meetings with his direct reports for more than six months — a requirement he had specifically trained them to do.

“How was it possible for me to invest so much time thinking about management, preparing materials and personally training my managers and then get no 1:1s for six months? Wow, so much for CEO authority. If that’s how the managers listen to me, then why do I even bother coming to work?”

“I thought that leading by example would be the sure way to get the company to do what I wanted. Lord knows the company picked up all of my bad habits, so why didn’t they pick up my good habits? Had I lost the team?”

These excerpts demonstrate two things: deep disappointment and self-blame. Even as the CEO of a billion-dollar company, Horowitz still felt emotionally distraught over the actions of just one member of his staff. He felt betrayed. He felt ineffectual. You can almost hear his exasperation all these years later.

His first instinct was to yell, to chastise this manager and make sure everyone else heard it. “No one-on-ones for 6 months?!” But he recalls a story his dad told him about a basketball coach whose team went from winning to losing once they became numb to his tantrums.

Eventually Horowitz accepted that a harsh tone was having no impact. He realized that though he had repeatedly trained his managers on what to do, he hadn’t ever told them why it mattered to him. In essence, he had failed to build understanding for what he was trying to accomplish.

“Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities. Apparently, this manager didn’t think that meeting with his people was all that important and I hadn’t explained to him why it was so important.”

In digging deep to recognize why his manager had made such a bad call, he had to put himself in the manager’s shoes. Then he had to find a way to express his needs so that the manager would be able to internalize them in turn. If this isn’t an exercise in corporate empathy, then what is?

As the WSJ piece suggests:

There are ways to express anger at work and get away with it. It can even be beneficial, helping people understand each other, strengthen relationships and improve attitudes and work performance, says a 2007 study in the Academy of Management Review by researchers at Temple and Utah State universities. Just don’t get angry too often, and when you do get angry, point out how the problem hurts other employees or the company rather than yourself, the study suggests.

Empathy is a two-way street: if you expect to get it, you have to give it. If you have a screamer on your hands, maybe you need to fine-tune your listening ear to hear what’s really being said and overtly convey your understanding of the problem. If you are the screamer, maybe you need to spend more time helping your staff understand not just what to do, but why. In either case, emotions aren’t something to fear. They help build bridges between us. And the only way a company can thrive is with effective teamwork, shared goals and open communication.

“Don’t let your emotions get in the way” should be a thing of the past; instead I advocate for using our emotions wisely, honestly and graciously as a means to create deeper connections with the people with whom we spend such precious time.

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