The Nonsense In The Phrase "No Nonsense" Manager

What exactly is a "no nonsense" boss, anyway?

What exactly does "no nonsense" mean when describing a manger? Business writers are fond of using that expression as a compliment of sorts, but it's unclear what it means. Does it mean a manager—male or female—who wears No Nonsense hose? I don't think so, although if it does mean that, it puts a different twist on all those manager profile stories I've read that use that term. With Boss's Day just around the corner, let's explore just what this phrase means so we can have some context if we encounter it in countless blogs and articles leading up to October 16.

What comes to mind for you when you read that Mr. or Ms. Smith is a "no nonsense" manager? What images do those words conjure? I get a picture of someone who is humorless. Dour. Unforgiving. Not very approachable. Someone who would never tolerate anything called "team building." Someone "by the book" to a fault. Someone who reminds you of the strict teacher from high school who generated universal enmity.

However, in practice "no nonsense" doesn't seem to mean that. I think. For instance, the bank CEO profile featured earlier this week in the business section of one of America's largest dailies extolled the executive as a "no nonsense" manager, yet also described him as "jocular." Wouldn't jocularity qualify as "nonsense?" This CEO is described among other things as being blunt, focused, and disciplined, but having read the piece several times, I'm still not sure why those qualities make him "no nonsense."

I'm not picking on that writer—I've seen it and read it many times over the years in the business press. Holding people accountable makes a manager "no nonsense?" Making tough choices makes a manager "no nonsense?" That's what they're supposed to do! I do a fair amount of executive coaching and work with 360-degree feedback tools and have never heard anyone ever use that term to describe themselves or anyone else. Nor have I ever seen it on a performance review. The label might be a journalistic convenience to create a sage-like sound bite but in my book is more likely to be a nonsequitur.

Let's approach it from another angle. If there are "no nonsense" managers, then by definition everyone else must be an "all nonsense" manager? And does that mean whoopee cushions in the conference room? Paintball Fridays? "Bring Your Armadillo to Work Day?" Or perhaps there's another category of "partial nonsense" manager to cover those in the middle?

Actually, some companies with playful and irreverent cultures (often on the West Coast) do offer things like ping pong rooms, come and go as you please (just get the work done), pizza for breakfast, shoes optional, etc.. and despite all that "nonsense," they are among America's most creative and profitable companies. Or perhaps partly because of all that "nonsense."

If a boss is driven, focused, and doesn't tolerate excuses, let's describe him/her that way and move away from the phony archetype of "no nonsense." 

Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net

[Image: Flickr user slworking2]

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