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

[Image: Flickr user slworking2]