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?