Meanies and Motivation


Billy’s supervisor was standing in the doorway holding work that the 36-year-old executive had turned in. As the rest of the office watched, his boss spoke very slowly, as if he were talking to a 3-year-old. “Billy, this is just not adequate, really not at all. We want to do better than this.”

Then Billy’s boss crumpled each page of the work and dropped it on the office floor as if it were something dirty. Loudly, he said: “Garbage in, garbage out. You gave me garbage. Now you clean it up.” Humiliated, Billy stooped to pick up the papers from the floor in front of his boss, and as he did, he could see his co-workers look away, embarrassed.

Abusive disrespect of subordinates is commonplace in the corporate world today, says Harvey A. Hornstein, who relates this anecdote in his book “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey” (Riverhead Books, 1996).

Billy’s boss would probably say he was just trying to hold his employee to a high standard and show others what he expected. People on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, however, usually describe it as hostile, abusive or cruel.


On the basis of interviews with nearly 1,000 workers, Hornstein estimates that as many as 20% of employees report to abusive bosses and that nine out of 10 workers have experienced abuse at some point in their careers.

When managers use coercion and fear to motivate employees, the gains are temporary, says Blaine N. Lee of the Covey Leadership Center and author of “The Power Principle: Influence With Honor” (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

“There’s always a day of reckoning,” Lee says. “People will respond, but they’ll hate you. They’ll follow you to avoid being humiliated, hurt, embarrassed or fired, and then they’ll leave the company and sue you, or sell the company secrets.”

There’s another kind of leader, one who is tough, principled and knows how to get spectacular results from people, inspiring them to go beyond their comfort zone to achieve more than they thought possible. While often described as demanding, these leaders stop well short of being abusive.


The difference between abusive and tough leaders, experts say, is that the tough leader is willing to see things from the employee’s point of view and to balance the employee’s reality and needs with the corporation’s goals.

Says Lee: “Rather than asking, ‘How do I get people to do what I want them to do?,’ I’d say, ‘Given all the choices people have today at home and at work, why would people do what I want them to do?’ ”

The tough leader never sacrifices an employee’s self-esteem to reach a corporate goal. In fact, employee self-esteem often increases under a tough leader, says Samuel A. Culbert, UCLA professor of management and author of “Mindset Management” (Oxford, 1997). Tough leaders “challenge you to be your very best and work to help you succeed,” he says.

The rule of thumb that USC management professor Jay A. Conger uses is this: " If you as a member of a team are going to benefit in the end, not just monetarily and with [job] promotions, but learn new skills, become more challenged, expand yourself, then it’s not abusive.”


Conger, the author of “Winning ‘Em Over” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), says inspirational leaders tend to set meaningful goals and know how to create the feeling of being part of an elite team.

“Leaders such as Scott McNeely from Sun Microsystems or Steven Jobs from Apple talk about revolutionizing the industry or how we work,” Conger said. “They pose goals so that they’re very exciting and meaningful. As a result, you’re willing to work very hard, usually, because what you’re doing is not mundane but meaningful.”

Skill in describing goals is a key to being able to motivate people. As an example, Conger says, imagine you work at a company that makes educational computers. Who would inspire you more, the leader who says, “We’re going to grow the product by 10%"? Or the one who says, “You and I are in the process of changing the way children learn in the world today”?

Tough leaders motivate by empowering their employees. Says Conger: “You’re 25, and I put you in charge of a whole new project that would be reserved for a 35-year-old. What you’re doing is giving people a sense that they are strong. Leaders talk about how confident they are in you to succeed.”


Along with the support, tough leaders provide gentle discipline, helping employees make course corrections and see their blind spots. Lee calls this tough love.

Not surprisingly, tough leaders are often highly respected and sought after by both corporations and employees. Their strengths are a perfect match for today’s fast-paced business environment.

When Lee lectures to business groups about the qualities of good leadership, he asks them to reflect on a person who has made a significant positive difference in their lives. “What did that person do, and how did that cause you to feel about yourself?” Lee asks them. “How do you feel about them today?”

Up to 35% of Lee’s audiences will say that the person who influenced them positively is no longer alive.


“That is sustained leadership,” Lee says. “The influence didn’t end when the person died. This is very different from other types of power based on coerciveness or deal-making.”

Says Lee: “If you want compliance, control people, make them afraid. If you want their agreement, their participation, make a deal with them or offer them something.” But, he added, “if you’re willing to be patient and kind and have integrity, then it’s about what we become together, and one plus one equals a thousand.”


Tough? or Abusive?


Tough leaders can be demanding of those around them without being abusive. Here are some characteristics that distinguish the two styles of leadership, according to “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey” by Harvey A. Hornstein.

Tough bosses

* Criticize low-quality work from employees.

* Demand that employees give their best effort all the time.


* Require that their standards be met before giving a compliment.

* Expect employees to dress appropriately at all times.

* Insist that employees work hard.

Abusive bosses


* Criticize on a personal level rather than criticizing the work.

* Treat employees unfairly at times for no apparent reason.

* Reprimand, attack or otherwise humiliate employees in front of others.

* Act as if being boss means they can do whatever they want to employees.