My friend and colleague Bob Sutton and I continue to be amazed (and a little depressed) at the ongoing popularity of his landmark book “The No Asshole Rule.” It seems that, as Ron Boire is fond of reminding us, CEOs are people, too. Somehow, it is quite possible to become a very senior leader without a corresponding and necessary amount of emotional awareness.
Visiting pity city
You really don’t want to be a leader featured in a video that goes viral for all the wrong reasons. That’s what happened to Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll, the iconic office furniture company. As reported by Fast Company, a leaked video featured her berating employees for asking about their bonuses. “Don’t ask about, What are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus? Get the damn $26 million,” says Owen, apparently attempting to motivate her team to reach a corporate goal. “I had an old boss who said to me one time, ‘You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave Pity City!”
Owen, of course, is not exactly visiting pity city herself. As reported by NPR, Owen’s pay package includes incentive-based compensation. For the fiscal year ending in May 2022, she made $3.9 million on top of her fixed salary of $1.1 million.
Tony Guadagni, a senior principal at the consulting firm Gartner, put it succinctly, “I think in a time like this, where the news cycle has been dominated by inflation for 18 months, where employees feel their paychecks not going as far as they used to — organizational leadership would be wise to be sensitive to that.”
The backlash was immediate – a clip of Owen’s statements went viral, she earned the disapproval of the Twitterverse and pretty rapidly went into damage-control mode, issuing one of those non-apology apologies for what she hoped would be a motivating statement that didn’t exactly have the desired effect. Even worse, employees report that it was suggested that they might get fired for speaking out about the CEO’s comments. The tone of the apology was a tad different than that of her video comments: “Thank you for your hard work, your grace, and for the commitment you show to one another and our company every single day.”
And then there is Clearlink…
“You have misinterpreted my kindness for weakness”
Yes, James Clarke, the CEO of Clearlink, actually said that.
If you thought Owen’s remarks were a little insensitive, Clarke went a lot further. Waaaaay further. Which is astonishing for a guy who at one point was so well regarded that he featured in the Jon Huntsman School’s entrepreneur leadership series.
Someone recorded a video of him that borders on the bizarre, in which he is looking clearly distressed and under pressure. He wants people back in the office, big time, even celebrating one employee who had to sell the family dog to comply. He accused many employees of “quiet quitting,” saying that roughly 30 of them hadn’t opened their company laptops in a month. Even better, he suggested that people (meaning women) who were caregivers to their children could not also hold down a full-time job.
All of this took place in the context in which as recently as October, Clarke had said that he had no plans to mandate in-office work, and even hired staff with the understanding that the company was “remote-first.”
As Maxwell Strachan of Vice reports, “Clarke unleashed on his employees, saying he had deduced that some 30 employees had not opened their laptops for a month (the quiet quitters); wondering aloud if some remote employees were secretly working multiple jobs; and asking the company to increase productivity to “30 to 50 times our normal production” as a result of recent advances in artificial intelligence while also making reference to the “Judeo-Christian ethic” and noting, for unclear reasons, that he went to Oxford and Harvard.”
Further, “all he was asking, he said, is that people come into the office and give their “blood, sweat, and tears” to the company. “I challenge any of you to outwork me, but you won’t,” he added. “
As many observers have noted, what happens in person in a town hall meeting is different, really different, than what happens over a screen. And I’m not unsympathetic to these CEO’s who are under incredible pressure and stress. That still doesn’t provide immunity from the way their messages are received. As my former colleague Don Hambrick often said, you have no control over the symbolic meaning people make of your actions. Everything you do has symbolic fallout – and the more senior you are, the greater the fallout.
And there are authentic ways to express frustration that can come from real feelings, as my colleague Hitendra Wadhwa, author of “Inner Mastery, Outer Impact” advises. The CEO’s could have opened up about the stresses they were under. They could have invited honest dialogue, as in “you know, when you express your concerns, I hear you – we’re all worried about economic headwinds. But when that’s the first thing you raise with me, it makes me wonder if we are all in this together.” They could also use a healthy dose of his observations on negative mindsets.
And there may be a point to many CEOs’ laments that the workforce is different from the one they were accustomed to. There is some evidence (as opposed to powerfully held opinions) that in the post-pandemic workforce all is not well. Productivity in 2022 went down, in a rare decline.
By definition, most of us are around average in terms of capability, commitment and effort. And unlike the magical world of Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average, simple math says about half of us are below average. So maybe in some circumstances, CEOs being a little “paranoid” about productivity (to borrow a phrase from Microsoft) is actually a realistic reflection of the state of things. To borrow an observation from my partner Ron Boire, you are going to have to make do, typically, with a workforce that reflects the total population, much as you might wish otherwise.
Sutton’s original observations still hold
While current incidences make headlines, the patterns are not new. Bob Sutton pointed this out years ago in his unfortunately all too relevant book, The No Asshole Rule. With respect to the follow on book, The Asshole Survival Guide, Bob observes, “The reasons for the persistence and spread of bad behavior are legion: a global economy, with its demands for rapid decisions and around-the-clock interactions, overburdens leaders, employees, suppliers, and customers. In this world, where email, texting, and social media replace face-to-face conversation and the compassion triggered by eye contact, too many jerks feel unfettered by empathy, guilt, and old-fashioned civility. Meantime, some rising executives believe that treating people badly is a path to personal success—a conclusion bolstered by journalists and a few academics, who celebrate demeaning and disrespectful leaders. One CEO I interviewed was worried he wasn’t enough like the late Steve Jobs and that his career and start-up would suffer because he was calm and treated people with dignity.”
None of these leaders woke up wanting to be noticed for the wrong reasons. And I bet they have plenty of advice-givers all around. The dilemma is that often those advice and feedback givers are not offering the candid feedback that would be truly helpful. So, if you are in a position of managing other people, some introspection is well worth the time.
Perhaps consider some leadership coaching now – before you end up as a bad example on the Twitterverse.