As leadership styles lean kinder, how do bosses make unpopular decisions?
For CEOs, being liked and making good decisions can be a tricky balance.
A mensch in the corner office — admired and generally well-liked — is good for morale. But what about the balance sheet?
A CEO can certainly coax good work out of appreciative subordinates. And being tight with the rank-and-file can lead to valuable intel about what’s really going on with the company.
But new research suggests “prestige-oriented” leaders — that is, those who rely on the esteem of colleagues rather than the fear inspired by traditional “dominance” types — can struggle with one key aspect of the job: decisions that are good for the organization but unpopular with underlings. “That desire to be respected and admired can be an Achilles’ heel,” says Charleen Case, a professor of management and organization at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Indeed, it may be the signature problem of the post-power-suit office. It’s the bosses, after all, who have to reconcile our desire for a warmer, more inspiring workplace with the chilly realities of the bottom line.
The Globe Magazine asked executives at companies that scored well on leadership in our annual Top Places to Work survey to weigh in on the quandary. All of them identified as prestige-oriented leaders. And all of them acknowledged the difficulty of making unwelcome decisions. But they say they’ve found ways to conquer the problem — or at least forge worthwhile compromises.
Kronos chief executive Aron Ain works hard to cultivate good relations with his workforce. He drops in on job interviews with potential employees. He’s constantly chatting up fellow “Kronites” in the elevator at the Lowell-based maker of workforce management software — think payroll, recruiting, and scheduling. And a couple of years ago, he instituted an unlimited-time-off policy for workers.
As a young manager, he sometimes froze in the face of popular opposition to difficult decisions. But as his relationships with employees deepened over the years, he says, something curious happened: It got easier — not harder — to deliver tough news. Why? “They know me,” he says. “They trust me.”
The key variable is time. Now in his 40th year at Kronos, Ain has had plenty of time to build social capital and earn the benefit of the doubt. That sets him apart from his younger self. And it sets him apart from the subjects of Case’s study, too. When participants stepped into the lab to take the lead on a puzzle or other task presented by researchers, they weren’t working with people they’d known forever. They were coming in cold.
Case is the first to acknowledge that. But as she points out, in the real world, leaders sometimes have to come in cold, brought in from the outside or assigned to an unfamiliar team.
In that situation, she says, one way to build trust while making tough calls is to be transparent: Let the team know exactly what went into your decisions. Greg Casale takes that approach at Woburn’s Reveneer, an outsourced sales firm he founded and leads.
Reveneer is about five years old and growing, with customers like IBM, Office Depot, and a string of small tech companies. Casale works from a tiny stand-up desk right on the sales floor, so he’s surrounded, quite literally, by new, or newish, faces. No matter: he constantly shares information. Information on sales. Information on strategy. “I will share just about everything I can,” he says.
It’s part of a larger effort to keep his workforce happy and equipped to succeed. And in a company that’s about people rather than widgets — Reveneer provides teams of salespeople — that feels like a critical job.
Casale says transparency doesn’t always have the unifying effect he’s after. The company is searching for a larger office. Recently, after homing in on a handful of potential locales, he pulled employees together and asked them to signal their preference with a polling app that immediately displayed the results for all to see.
He got some useful feedback, but there was an unintended consequence: Employees split into two camps, one supporting a certain town and one backing another. Casale says the incident has him thinking a little more carefully about when, and how, to share. Still, he says he’ll probably always share too much, too soon, even if it gets a little messy: “I’m kind of incorrigible.”
There are practical advantages to opening up the lines of communication with employees. When Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich opened a poolside bar called LiBAYtion, bartenders and waiters almost immediately called for a redesign to ease bottlenecks. Managers initially resisted the idea; maybe the staff just had to get used to the setup. “But truth be told, they were right,” says Mark Novota, Wequassett’s managing partner. The resort split the bar into two service stations, and it worked.
Not all employee ideas have panned out. But for Novota, the trade-off has been worth it. At bottom, prestige-oriented executives say, that’s what it’s all about. Their style may not allow for the cleanest of decisions; it might even mean caving to the poorly thought-out preferences of the staff. But the payoff, in employee creativity and satisfaction, is worth the cost.
Besides, a more traditional, top-down approach comes with its own downsides. Joey Cheng, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says research she has conducted with collaborators in the United Kingdom and Germany suggests dominance-style leadership can decline in effectiveness over time. Subordinates may even work together to undermine an overbearing boss. “Nobody likes bullies,” she says.
And everybody likes a mensch.