Angry Bug - Flickr

As Jake sat in the meeting with the other members of the leadership team, it was apparent that they were not happy with the progress on the corporate initiative they had been discussing. This initiative kicked off a month ago with substantial time and money invested by the leadership team. Unfortunately, deadlines were not consistently being met. After a few more minutes, Jake shared, “it looks like I need to be an a–hole [AH] to get the results that are needed.” Upon hearing this, the rest of the executives in the room chimed in that they also needed to use this approach to get results.

In my work with executive teams and individual members of these teams, I have found an AH approach like Jake’s frequently being referenced and used. Forms of this approach can include yelling, threats, displays of anger, directives, steamrolling and failing to understand problems. The intention behind Jake’s approach is to ensure accountability which is good, but the approach itself is not the optimal one to use if you want to build commitment through collaboration instead of motivate through fear. When the AH approach is used excessively, it creates unneeded stress and negatively affects employee performance. Daniel Goleman’s work found that stress (one of the most common triggers is ineffective leadership) and the related body-chemistry response can cause employees to:

  • Fixate on the threat from the boss rather than the work at hand
  • Forgo lessons learned, planning and creativity
  • Rely on old habits even though they will not help address immediate challenges

While the value of an AH approach is questionable, there is nothing wrong with executives being candid in order to help ensure accountability for results. In fact, top-ranked companies in the 2014 Rittenhouse Rankings Candor Survey outperformed the S&P 500 by an average of 7.4 percent between Q2 2014 and Q2 2015. Over the past five years, top-quartile companies have outperformed the market by an average of 9.5 percent.

In order to keep your initiatives moving in the right direction, here are some steps to consider:

Keep the AH in Check

Although the AH approach can be an easy one to utilize, consider trying other strategies to have a better impact. Leaders tend to overuse this approach, because they have not taken the time build their proficiency in other approaches. If you feel the AH approach still needs to be used, do so sparingly.

Employ Empathetic Candor

Based on my experience with organizations, I have found that leaders increase the likelihood of ongoing accountability and subsequent success by balancing candor with empathy. This entails genuinely trying to understand the perspectives of others and what they are facing as you are honest with them about performance.

Connect the Dots

If you want to help colleagues or employees take more ownership, take the time to show them how their actions (or lack of them) affect outcomes. Then link what they value (e.g., rewards, recognition, opportunities, etc.) to these actions and subsequent outcomes.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Angry Bug, Flickr)