There has always been a school of management thought that says you get the best out of people through fear. Make them scared of you. Make them feel they’re not good enough. Bully them. Take for granted what they do well. Magnify and publicise their mistakes. Make them feel their job’s on the line every day. And, once in a while, fire one of them pour encourager les autres.
You could call it the Regimental Sergeant Major school of management. Or the Apprentice school. I’ve no idea whether Alan Sugar or (when he was creating his tremendously amazing and fantastic business empire) Donald Trump actually ran their companies like that, but my sneaking suspicion is that they did. They (and other multi-millionaires who pop up on TV and who appear to have the same mindset) have been undeniably successful. Is this a vindication of their techniques?
The corollary of the question is to ask whether it is a coincidence that millions of us who have employed and managed other people, and who have not used these techniques, have failed to become multi-millionaires? Does success in an organisation depend on being brutal to the people who work for you?
Once in a while, life produces evidence that helps to answer such questions. Some of us will have worked in companies where a change of management produced an immediate change, for better or worse, in the whole atmosphere of the company, and in its performance. But these examples are evident only to a handful of people. One area where they can be evident to the whole world is in football.
It is now routine that, in December or January, several Premiership clubs that are underperforming, or in danger of relegation, will replace their managers. Sometimes there is no change to the performance. Sometimes there is an immediate uplift. Sometimes that uplift is maintained, and sometimes it isn’t. A change of manager doesn’t necessarily mean there has been much of a change in management style, however. The impact, if there is one, is often made more by a change of face than by a change of substance. But sometimes there has clearly been a change of substance too. One such case this season is Manchester United.
On 9 December last year, this blog urged that José Mourinho should be fired forthwith. Ten days later, the Board of Manchester United wisely complied with my (and everyone else’s) request and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed his temporary replacement. Smiling, cherubic (and definitely smart), Solskjær went to work telling his players that they weren’t the useless failures Mourinho had told the world they were, and giving them space and time to prove it. It didn’t take long.
Of the 11 Premiership games in which Solskjær has been in charge, United have won nine and drawn two, scoring 26 goals and conceding seven. In Mourinho’s last 11 Premiership games, United won four, drew four and lost three, scoring 20 goals and conceding 20. Mourinho – 16 points; Solskjær – 29 points.
These contrasting records have been achieved with the same set of players and within a period of ten weeks. All that has changed is their attitude, which is a reflection of the different styles of management. In December, I wrote: “I would be astonished if there was a single member of United’s squad who believed that Mourinho had improved his self-confidence.” Now I would write: “I would be astonished if there was a single member of United’s squad who did not believe that Solskjær had improved his self-confidence.”
Whatever the merchants of fear think, most people surely give of their best in circumstances where they feel secure and appreciated, and are constantly encouraged. That in itself is not enough, of course. Managers need to be smart, to insist on discipline, to set clear boundaries and, where necessary, to be tough. But these qualities are not incompatible with empathy or positivity.
If these statements are overwhelmingly obvious to most people, which I think they are, and conform entirely with their own experience, which I think they probably do, why do bullies still get top jobs and even, sometimes, a grudging admiration? The bullies would say that it’s the only way to get results, and that their success proves it. I would say that it’s the only way they can get results, because they know no other. They get those results not because of their management style, but despite it. Their principal characteristic is an all-consuming ambition, usually accompanied by megalomania. This, unfortunately, tends to get results in most situations.
Only once in my career did I find myself working for a complete and utter bastard. When I told him I was leaving, he informed me that the firm I was joining was useless and would go nowhere. A few years later, it was bigger than the bastard’s firm. Life doesn’t often work out quite so well, but it did in this instance because not only was he a bastard, but a fat, lazy, useless, drunk bastard. (Sorry … got a bit carried away there.)
But other bastards will not fail. And they will always grind people down. And they will always be convinced that theirs is the only way to manage. And they will be wrong. And, for anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in such a situation, I suggest you keep a picture of Ole Gunnar Solskjær on your desk to preserve your faith and sanity.