“We are developing “autistic” managers – people who can’t relate to those who surround them.”

I had a client whose style was inhumane, according to how we define “humane” at schools of business.

He fired people left and right for the least transgression, or if their work did not meet his highest standards – which, let me tell you, were exceedingly high.

He demeaned, screamed, and criticized continually. People really feared him.

Another client, this time in Russia, would financially penalize any employee who did not return his calls within 15 minutes. God forbid that any written rules were violated; all hell would break loose.

I was very unhappy with both their styles and told them so, in unequivocal terms.

But after some time, I checked what was happening to the employees of these companies, and I noticed something interesting that I had not anticipated.

No one had left the company. Those who were not there anymore were the ones who had been fired. Those who stayed worked hard, liked the boss, and would do whatever they were asked to avoid being fired.

Stockholm syndrome, or something else?

What was going on?

Was it the Stockholm syndrome, the odd psychological phenomenon in which prisoners identify with and love their captors?

One of the clients mentioned above told me I simply did not understand that people love to be challenged to do their best, and that those who were fired feel like losers – and are, if they do not meet the boss’s standards.

Huh?

What happened to treating people with understanding, giving them a chance, being civilized, developing them …?

Then, while watching some top-notch sports coaches, I had an insight. These coaches are extremely demanding, and if someone repeatedly fails to meet their standards, s/he is out. They are tough as nails, curse a lot, demean people, shout, and expect the impossible.

But the teams love them, and no one wants to be fired.

It is not toughness that people resent. Rather, they resent when the manager is not fair. To be a tough and unfair manager makes those who are being managed become rebellious. But to be a humane and unfair leader makes people despise you.

We often confuse being fair with being nice. It is not the same at all.

What does it mean to be “fair”?

Whatever you do as a leader, whatever decision you take about people, be sure it is a “clean” decision – which means you must get your ego out of the way. Pay attention only to the situation, and respond to the situation. Do not let your personal agenda become involved.

A good coach would be a better coach if s/he did not scream and yell. Bit if s/he does, it must be in order to build a winning team, not to build his/her own self-confidence and sense of power.

People want to work for a winning team, one whose standards of behavior are high, and they appreciate a leader who imposes such standards.

Tough love

Whether a manager is bad or good depends on how fair or unfair s/he is, not whether his/her style is rough or soft.

Do we teach managers what “fair” means and that they should take decisions without fear as long as their decisions are fair?

To me, being fair often involves exhibiting tough love, and not all of us like being tough. We do not like being disliked or rejected.

My observation, based on teaching in several graduate schools of business or management and lecturing as a visitor at dozens of others, is that we are developing “autistic” managers – people who can’t relate to those who surround them.

We teach them how to handle computers, do research, analyze numbers, and make presentations … but how to relate to each other? Not really. We might teach them theory, but do we give them experience? No. And that is like teaching people who are color-blind the chemistry of colors and then expecting them to be painters.

It is not strange, then, that some modern trained managers spend more time on their computers, BlackBerrys, or similar devices, than talking to their staff.

Most problems in companies are not about the numbers. They are problems with people; the numbers are merely the manifestations of the problem.

We are teaching our management students how to deal with manifestations rather the causes.

Do we realize what we are doing? Can we change?