When I first started managing people, the common wisdom was that the less certainty someone had in their job, the more that fear would drive them to produce. I was told that familiarity bred contempt and that I should never open up to my employees. On the other hand, I remember being told that the moment someone sees you as an employer rather than a human, they are more comfortable treating you like an enemy. I was also instructed that employees need to prove their loyalty to a company through sacrifice.

In the years since I have been struck by how much of my earlier career’s lessons seemed to apply better to a dictatorship than a company.

I have heard a lot of reasons why tough love is essential in the workplace if you want to be an effective boss. After years of consideration and experimentation, I have come to the conclusion that this perspective is a load of crap. I have worked on teams for bosses that have been award-winning SOBs. At times, I worry that I may have been one myself. But, I was extremely gratified to discover that not only was it much more pleasant to be a kind and compassionate person at work, it also yields far better results.

I have read a lot about organizational behaviour and psychological safety in the workplace. I am not an academic or an expert in workplace dynamics. I am just an entrepreneur that has spent the last 10 years actively trying out a different theory than the one I was taught: that being an asshole does not make you a good boss.

Here are some of the things I have learned along the way:

  1. People are people, not resources. If you treat human beings as interchangeable pieces to whom you owe nothing more than a salary, you are pretty much guaranteed that they will not demonstrate any loyalty or commitment to their job. It requires only a little bit of empathy to realize this - if you were being treated like that would you really feel any differently? So, if you want your team to treat your company like it matters for more than a source of funds, then you should treat them as more than a source of output. This is not a difficult concept and has the added benefit of just being the right thing to do. Being able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning without flinching is a real benefit.
  2. Informational asymmetry has the opposite of the intended effect. Management is often trained to not be transparent with their teams. If you have more information than they do then you have more control. Except that control is a figment of your imagination. You cannot control interactions your team has with their friends, their family, their co-workers, or your customers. So, if they lack the necessary information to pursue the best possible outcome for your company, then they won’t be able to reach it. Not ever.
  3. The only unforgivable sin is one against the team. Every time someone is hauled in front of you for punishment, think of their transgression in terms of what it does to your team. If a customer service person mouths off to a customer, think about it in terms of how much harder it makes everyone else’s job. If they purposely injure another team member, that is not something to let go. But if they fail to fill in a piece of paperwork on time and it doesn’t really impact anyone else on the team, then making a federal case out of it helps no one.
  4. Blame is a waste of time. Focus on how to fix a problem rather than who is at fault. I have rarely found any benefit to making someone feel bad for making a mistake.
  5. Let people see that you genuinely care about them and they will more easily forgive your mistakes. Especially if you acknowledge the mistake sincerely. This one works for your kids as well btw.
  6. Don’t be greedy.

So those things, amongst hundreds of other lessons, make me a not “asshole” boss (I hope). Apart from fuzzy good feelings, what do I gain?

  1. A genuinely happy and loyal team. The secret here is that they are as much loyal to each other as they are to any company.
  2. Our team’s output is truly stellar both in quality and quantity.
  3. I never have to watch a clock. Wait, that’s not true. I often have to tell people to work less because they are constantly sneaking in extra hours on evenings and weekends because they care about our team, our customers, and our product.
  4. The team, and even people who have left it, are often some of our best brand ambassadors.
  5. Our team often refers friends to our recruitment program.
  6. We can’t afford to pay the highest wage in the industry. As a small but growing company, we can’t compete with Google or Amazon on salaries. But as long as we are fair and transparent about that, and that we will all succeed together, they are more motivated by how interesting their work is and who they work with.

There are a lot more benefits to not being an asshole, but that’s a decent start. The real secret is that I try not to think of myself as a “boss” at all. A leader, sure, but never a boss. If you can figure out the difference between the two, then you are moving in the right direction.