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More on Hard Times and Friendly Bosses

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about some intriguing (although flawed) surveys that suggest the downturn may have resulted in better relationships between employees and their bosses. An article just came out at Human Resource Executive called "Is the Recession Making the Boss Friendlier" that digs further into these rather surprising findings and quotes some of my arguments about why relationships may have improved better, especially that incompetent bosses of all kinds may have been shown the door as part of the workforce cuts that so many organizations have made. I was rather disturbed, however, by an argument at the end of the article by a management consultant that seems to be arguing for the virtues of tough bosses—and that downplays the importance of compassion, treating people with respect, and treating them with dignity. The article says:

But Alan Weiss, an organizational development consultant, author, and president of Summit Consulting Group Inc. in East Greenwich, Conn., says the results of the two surveys won't change one simple fact.
"The role of a boss is not to be friendly, but to direct, give instruction, lead and make hard decisions. You can't give honest and tough evaluations to friends," he says.
The lesson for HR is simple, he says: "Help managers to manage, not to merely try to influence; help employees understand that a tough boss who helps them succeed is far better than a friendly one who just wants to be 'one of the crowd.' "

Alan's last line bugs because it sets up a false choice, sort of like arguing that it is better to be kicked in the head than to have your eye poked out. Yes, all good bosses need to do tough things—negative feedback, giving people assignments they don't want, and implementing firings and layoffs when need be. But as I have written here before, write in Good Boss, Bad Boss, and talk about at the McKinsey site, there is a difference between what a boss does and how he or she does it, The best bosses do the dirty work with humanity and compassion. And providing support to people to help them succeed includes a big dose of emotional support.

Bosses who push for performance above all else and don't give a hoot about the dignity and respect of their people do a poor job of developing their people and—as much research shows—will be condemned to have subordinates who are less likely to make an extra effort to work harder and longer and who leave for new jobs at higher rates, Yes, I agree with Alan that your boss isn't always your friend (but sometimes this does happen, and it can be a good thing)—but I get sick and tired of people who celebrate tough and heartless bosses. I don't want to work for one and, as much research shows, most employees don't want to either. And, as I have suggested here before, a hallmark of such bosses who do succeed is that they pair up with a "toxic handler" or two to soothe those they damage and to clean up the messes they leave in their wake.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Follow him at