Rage as a business tactic

Graphic: TheAwesomelyAwesome via DeviantArt

Today I attempt to answer the question, “Is it ever appropriate to berate someone in your workplace?” with an example from my own experience.

Note to readers: there is more profanity in today’s post than usual.

Let’s start with a bit of background about me. I’m not the model get-along-with-everyone employee. Among the things I have done wrong and been reprimanded for, from a workplace peace perspective, are frowning, being defensive, being too passionate about what I believe in, staring, telling people they are wrong, being sarcastic, and failing to go along and get along after a decision is made.

I’m blunt. Ask anyone I’ve edited.

Lest you think I’m irredeemably bad, there are also other qualities I have. I’m honest, frank, very creative, extremely collaborative, happy to share credit with others, good at mentoring, thorough, and generally talented with writing, mathematics, and analytical thinking. I’m also open to changing, growing, and learning. These are all essential qualities in an analyst.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m not modest either. I’ll cop to that.

I once took a 360-degree review. I rated my strengths and flaws. My colleagues and superiors anonymously rated my strengths and flaws. Our ratings were virtually identical. So I think I’m a pretty good judge of my own character, especially after nearly 40 years of working in intense, collaborative environments.

While I have been known to shout, I don’t tend to shout at people. Being angry at things (and people) in the workplace is normal, if you care at all about what you do. Showing your anger is counterproductive. Shouting at bosses is suicidal. Shouting at subordinates is abusive, and just makes them afraid. Shouting at colleagues is just bad manners, and tends to get in the way of collaboration. So while I can be a hothead, I don’t tend to abuse other people.

There are many chances to test this. For example, a friend of mine, a woman I admire greatly, just published her first book. When my copy arrived, I was amazed to see that the quote she’d solicited from me was actually printed on the front cover. This had never happened before. But upon closer examination, I saw that they’d made an error in the quote, causing it to say something a little different from what I’d actually said — and making me sound a little confused.

This upset me, but what can you do? They’re not going to reprint all those books. While I could have shouted and ranted at my friend, what would that have accomplished? It would just make both us feel bad and hurt — and she did put my quote on the cover. So I contacted her, told her about the problem, and suggested that she get it fixed in the ebook and future printings, and we sympathized with each other about how you have to carefully check everything publishers do. There’s no need to trash this relationship over an honest mistake; shouting to indulge myself would have just been childish.

That incident pretty neatly sums up why I don’t express rage at people in the workplace. Except once.

Out of control?

Here’s the situation:

I’ve been at Forrester research for a decade. In that time, I’ve gained a fair amount of respect and been promoted to senior vice president. While I have no direct reports, I have a lot of soft power — call it influence. After helping to create Technographics, the company’s highly successful data product, and coauthoring several successful books, I’ve gained a reputation for being somebody you’d like to work with — and somebody whose opinion you need to respect. I know this soft power exists only to the extent that I can work well with people, so I have tried to be a good collaborator and co-creator whenever possible. And as far as I know, I don’t have any enemies.

But I’m having a problem.

There’s a guy, let’s call him Bart. Bart is in a key marketing role with Technographics. I’ve been creating research and marketing content for the Technographics team, and he’s been rewriting it without checking with me and publishing the results. This is not how things tend to work at the company — if an analyst writes something and you need to change it, you show him the changes. I’ve tried complaining to him. I’ve tried complaining to the people around him. It doesn’t work. Stuff I write continues to end up changed around, and nobody checks with me on it. And Bart has a reputation as a very pushy guy, one who won’t back down.

I’m angry, because I really don’t like people changing what I write without checking with me. While Technographics isn’t a central part of what I do, it is something I feel proprietary about, as is my writing. And Bart is messing with that.

But I’ve been angry lots of times at work. The question is, what to do about it?

I make a careful and deliberate decision about what to do.

I invite Bart to a one-on-one meeting in a conference room, just the two of us, to talk about how I can best help him work with me.

When I’m there, I explain my position in three steps.

First, I explain why I don’t like people rewriting my text unless I get a chance to see what they changed and comment on it, and why I think that’s rude. I show some examples where he has done this. This part is calm.

Second, I explain who I am what I have created and the reputation I have and how I got it. During this part, I raise my voice. I am shouting. I am screaming. I am ranting. I am threatening. I shriek, “Don’t fuck with me! You’ll be sorry. Do you understand that? Do not fuck with me!” This goes on for an uncomfortable length of time, several minutes.

Finally, I calm down, and explain that there are two paths forward. Bart can work together respectfully with me, and I’ll use my soft power to help both of us succeed. I’ll do everything I can to help Technographics meet its goals. I’ll contribute in ways that only I can. And as I show him very clearly, we can both succeed together.

Or, Bart can keep fucking with me, and I will undermine him at every turn, fail to cooperate, fail to help, and when people ask why, I will tell them that I just can’t get along with Bart.

A few things about what happened that day:

I had a clear objective, which was to get Bart to understand more clearly why there was a problem and how I needed him to change his behavior. Based on his reputation, I wanted to show both the carrot and the stick. And I did, exactly as I had planned to.

I knew that this guy would respond to power. I would never behave that way with someone in a junior position, or anyone I thought I could win over with reason. Basically, that sort of shouting is almost never the right thing to do. This was a one-time thing which I did carefully, and purposefully, although I was genuinely angry.

I did not do what I did in front of anyone else. Humiliating anyone in front of others is not just bad behavior, it’s bad strategy. No one needed to know what I did. And unless Bart has told anyone, no one ever has learned about it.

My reputation was the same after I did this as before: that is, passionate, smart, and difficult. But not abusive. Because getting a reputation as abusive is never a good thing.

And you know, it worked. Bart and I did fine after that. I never shouted at him again (it was never necessary), and we worked together as productively as we needed to.

But I still wonder if I did the right thing. I’d rather say that I’d never shouted at anybody, not that I’d done it once and it worked.

So I ask you: Do you think I did the right thing?

Is there ever a call for this behavior in the workplace?

What would you have done?

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  1. Interesting! I think I would not have shouted. But, coming from a woman in “corporate world” where the perception is still “shouting women are crazy people” lends to my inclination. Would you have shouted if the colleague had been a woman? (just curious if gender would change your plan) I can understand why you went there since it seems you thought it out and had a good take on the outcome. What is your hindsight on that situation?

    1. A woman would probably not behave in a way that would make me this crazy — and then not listen to objections. But if she was that annoying and hidebound, I ought to behave the same way.

      That said, the idea of berating a woman — even a pain-in-the-ass woman — feels wrong to me. Perhaps it has to do with the way I was brought up.

      I can think of one woman I worked with who lied about me and called me dishonest in front of coworkers. I remain very upset with her. But I can’t imagine shouting at her.

  2. Perfect. Results prove it. There is no other way that I know of to get some people’s attention. As a former female IT exec, I had to use a different affect – icy cold, absolutely intense stare (became known as “the look”), and the completely unexpected and effective use of profanity reserved for special occasions.

  3. I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know how the rant went, but I hope it wasn’t a “Do you know who I am?” kind of conversation.

    You were right to take the conversation private. But it sounds like a good part of the rant was personal, and not professional. That’s tricky territory. It’s OK to blow up about something on a professional level and then leave as productive co-workers with a better understanding of the process or direction.

    But if Bart’s work was sincere, his intent was to improve the copy. Taking that away from him is like fitting him for a WWJD (What Would Josh Do?) bracelet. Bart’s creativity, influence and independence suffers. If it was a “respect my authority or else” one-way conversation, he has to question every change he makes with an eye toward pleasing the boss, not focused on a successful business result.

    As professionals, neither of you want the work or the environment to suffer. The private meeting likely prevented a toxic work environment. But if I was Bart, I might emerge from such a meeting with a crisis of confidence.

  4. Dunmo if you did the right thing, though you did what you thought—or even believed—was necessary. Not like you did all that just because you can without some basis or reason.

    Ultimately, what you did worked for both of you and you NEVER had to do it again.

  5. In general, while effective, I suspect there may have been a way to handle it without a rant. On the other hand, maybe not. I was talking to someone we were laying off one time. His immediate manager and myself had previously had multiple discussions about some performance issues. These didn’t rise to the level of warranting firing, but when we needed to have a reduction in force, it put this person on the list. He expressed surprise and didn’t think we thought that the performance issues were that important, because neither his immediate supervisor or I had ever shouted at him.

    I look back on some of the things from my first job after college that I’d now call “unprofessional” and to be avoided, even though they were effective. One of my supervisors was a retired naval aviator. We had several shouting matches on technical issues. For example, “Well I worked on a UYK-7 and that’s not how it works.” “I don’t care if you worked on a UYK-7, this isn’t a UYK-7 and that’s not how this works!” Not ad hominem shouting, just technical. Probably not the best approach in a cubicle environment! We got along great, however, this was just part of the dynamic.

  6. When the biggest monkey in the cage hits the medium-sized monkey on the head and steals his banana, does the medium-sized monkey fight back? No, he finds a smaller monkey. What you did was effective in fixing your issue, Josh, but it did nothing to address the fact that ranting was the way to get your way in this environment. Your description of the situation hasn’t convinced me that you could have accomplished your objective through reasoned conversation. In other words, I am convinced that your should have stopped short of the rant, and seen what effect that would have had before escalating the issue.

    1. I posted this because, many years later, and after having only done it once, I have had many thoughts about it. The fact that you commenters are also in disagreement is interesting.

      I don’t regret it. But I have wondered if it is was the best choice.