Horrible bosses mean losses

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Not to be a downer but, amidst all the adulation heaped on Steve Jobs the past days, one has to remember that he probably would have hated most of those praising him if they were his employees. Jobs was an absolutely driven, dictatorial, ruthless, and incredibly harsh taskmaster. He would drive employees for days without rest, constantly screaming in their faces, and belittling them if their work do not match his standards. Despite that, I’d forgive him because he was just unconditionally freakishly brilliant.

The problem with that last statement I just made, however, is that it could lead to certain misconceptions, as illustrated by this dialogue in the TV show House:

“Inspector Conway: Okay. The rules exist because 95% of the time, for 95% of the people, they’re the right thing to do.

Dr. Cuddy: And the other 5%?

Inspector Conway: Have to live by the same rules. Because everybody thinks they’re in that 5%.”

The point is that most would still have to accept that they’re not Steve Jobs, that the better bet is for them to live out their lives as courteously and as nicely as they can be to everybody else. Clearly, that is something not recognized by a lot in corporate Philippines, many of whose inhabitants still somehow believe in being “alpha males”. But such is ridiculous. It would be all right if you’re a baboon or a gorilla. But for a human in civilized society to openly act like an alpha male is downright strange. And stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in competition. I wouldn’t be an advocate for liberalized trade if I wasn’t. What I am against is the nonsensical behavior exhibited by alpha male wannabes such as staring, swaggering, boasting, loud talking, and, yes, being an asshole. It’s quite counterproductive as it gives a very public signal to everybody that one is overcompensating for some weakness. Denzel Washington in American Gangster said it best: “the loudest man in the room is the weakest man in the room.”

Indeed, Steve Jobs is a one-off. I’ve been blessed to have worked or studied among the best and the brightest, from Manila to Cambridge to Geneva, men like Justice Ricardo Puno, James Crawford and Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, and DTI Undersecretary Tom Aquino and Asistant Secretary Tong Buencamino, Justice Antonio Nachura and Dean Mariano Magsalin, Jr. They were the nicest, most generous, and smartest people I’ve met. And incredibly low key in behavior. I’ve always had the greatest respect for those people who, despite being at the top of their profession or business, are always punctual, calm, good humored, unhurried, attentive and courteous, and would never dream of boasting of how busy they are.

I have heard though of some bosses who are complete jerks. There’s this one lawyer who’s said to wander around his office swaggering and looking very intense (or constipated). Always wanting to give the appearance of having no time for small talk. But the problem is: he never accomplishes anything. His department has the lowest revenues, his staff turnover counts among the highest in the region, and absolutely nobody respects his absence of expertise (despite corporate pamphlets to the contrary). He boasts of being up at dawn to workout, describing his exercise regime in the most violent of terms: he “hits” the gym or “pounds” the treadmill or “genocides” the pool (I made the last one up). He would have been a mere joke around the office canteen if it weren’t for the fact that he’s not very nice to his people. Nobody looks forward to meetings with him because meetings with him are never fun. I particularly remember one story of how he gathered the junior staff for a breakfast meeting to rouse their morale. Everybody left the meeting depressed. He needlessly cuts people down to size, takes credit for others’ deeds, never gives compliments, and relishes in giving impossible tasks to staff. In the end, for all his bluster, he is just a small sad failed man.

Which reminds me of an insight by Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously wrote. But I don’t think he got it quite right: power may corrupt, but absolute power corrupts a lot less than partial power. This thesis is upheld by a new study showing that people who have a little power but don’t have status can behave in nasty ways and get a kick out of demeaning others.” The research is expected to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Bad bosses, horrible bosses, are simply not worth it for the employee or the company. Bob Sutton of Stanford University found that even if the company is earning a profit, in terms of opportunities lost a company is far better off getting rid of bad bosses (he labels them “assholes”).

Bottom line: nice guys do finish first.