You don’t need a management textbook to learn what management by intimidation means.
In recent years Donald Trump’s television show made it mainstream. “You’re fired!” has become popular lexicon.
It’s a practice that seemed to proliferate from the 1980s into the wee hours of the 21st Century. However, business leaders, human resources managers and psychologists alike all tend to agree it’s not the most effective management tactic.
Numerous corporate executive scandals this decade have nudged business leaders to debate whether Jack Welch’s old rules are still effective today.
“Ranking your players” – grading employees from A to F, eliminating Ds and Fs, and letting employees know it – is not a best-practices business management route for most corporations.
Almost everyone who began working the past 25 years has run across them: managers who use harsh language, threats, or just plain mean attitudes to get what they want.
Sometimes intimidation tactics were employed not for business success, but for other reasons such as personal dislikes. Some played follow-the-leader, mimicking their own direct supervisor.
Most current business management research indicates management by intimidation is a tactic of the past.
Following the Leader
It’s impossible to pinpoint where management by intimidation began. What we can do is find examples of business leaders who talked about it as if it were textbook business practices.
Trump and his television fame aside, the person most linked to employee intimidation practices is Jack Welch, the retired GE executive and guru of the so-called Six Sigma.
His principles included being “lean and mean,” and ranking employees. Welch proliferated during a period when the customer became secondary to shareholder desires.
That may hold true for some corporations today, but most have shifted to “the customer is king,” and hiring passionate people rather than robots to fill seats.
Take an Office Solutions magazine article in January 2008, for instance. “Everyone feels like they have to win, and most who get into this pattern will stop at nothing. When this happens, everyone ends up losing. And your business ends up suffering,”
Clinical Psychiatry News in July 2007 called it “Toxic leadership.”
“We have to create and employ appropriate measures to counter the impact of toxic leadership and create awareness of the enormous cost to society of this sort of behavior,” said Dr. Vineeth P. John of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, psychiatry department.
“Corporate America needs a new playbook,” Fortune magazine reported in July 2006.
Times Are A-Changing
Very high-profile corporate scandals placed the microscope on business-employee relations.
A term surfaced for the longing for power, to win at all costs: narcissism.
Costs were identified for toxic leadership, including stress, burnout, even destruction of the organization.
In short, management by intimidation was found not to be cost-effective.
Professor Roderick Kramer of Stanford Business School wrote in an article titled, “The Great Intimidators,” management involved being able to scare people into doing what a manager wanted them to do.
Bad tempers, screaming and swearing were cultivated. Veiled threats, lying and even physically threatening employees was part of the process.
Business experts today are more focused on long-term success. The concept “leading as you would be led” is more adhered to than in the past 20 years.
Certainly, there is no perfect workplace. But managers who believe in pressuring employees by finding faults, making threats, or being belligerent are not thinking long-term.
There is a cost to toxic workplace behavior, and most business leaders today are aware.