October 2017
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“I Don’t Have Time to Be Polite!”

Treat people poorly and they usually under-perform.
I had an ambitious boss once whose goal was to fix everything. Everything we did was going to be perfect. It had to be perfect. There was no other acceptable option. Anything less would be unprofessional. Within moments of meeting him, you just knew how difficult he was going to be to work with.

He had the habit of abruptly walking away in the middle of other people’s sentences. He would ask questions and not wait to hear the answers. At first it was comical, almost cartoonish, but people quite naturally began to take offence. When asked why he chose to be rude, he replied that he did not have time to be polite, because there was too much to do.

He quickly saw that his biggest obstacle to achieving success was the people with whom he had to work. We simply did not understand. We did not understand that everything we had done previously was wrong. We did not understand his objectives. We did not understand their importance. We did not understand how to do things right. We did not understand him.

As time progressed, he understood why we did not understand. It was, he said, because we were against him. We were actively opposing his efforts. This was obvious, he claimed, because there could be no other explanation. He might have been right. The effect of his behaviour on ours was swift. We avoided him. We did exactly what he said, documented it in writing, and did nothing else. People looked for jobs outside the organization. People left the organization. I was not the only one to leap at a posting overseas.

While some were convinced he was mentally ill, he was definitely unpleasant, and ultimately he was unsuccessful. When he moved on, we were neither better nor worse at doing what we did, but we were very unhappy. A few careers had been ruined. A few people had chosen to leave. The rest had done what most people do when faced with an unreasonable boss: they kept a low profile.

With his career checklist checked for management experience, the ambitious and unpleasant man left. His replacement had the benefit of not being him, but the after-effects did not simply disappear. It was hard to see the effects of what he had done – especially the damage to our trust in the organization and its leadership. The things he had left undone were also unclear – innovation delayed, employee development deferred, and opportunities missed.

The price
The effects lasted for a long time, though they were explained away. The staff that left because of him was put down to natural attrition. The absence of a decline or improvement in performance was seen as a continuation of the status quo.

The decision to remove a manager is a tough one. A good mentor might have been able to steer the ambitious man towards a more productive style of leadership. Letting the situation fester was a poor choice and one that reflected poorly on senior management. Their decision to let him sit out his time at the expense of those that worked for him had a price, one that they probably did not consider.

We tend to focus on what we can measure. We do this for many reasons, but one is that numbers are reassuringly clear. A drop in sales can be corrected by an improvement in sales. A demoralized business division can be much harder to identify and harder still to fix. The skills the ambitious man lacked are often called “soft”, but that was not the effect he had on our organization. Fixing his mess was hard, and the non-numeric tasks like restoring trust were essential, whether you could measure them with numbers or not.

Years later, former colleagues and I, now spread to the four winds, still talk about the man who did not have time to be polite – and the place we worked that let him do it. Is it how you want your organization to be remembered – and can you afford do it?

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