HR: Be Rude To Be Effective?

July 15, 2011 by Tim Gould

Now we know why it’s so difficult for HR people to “get a seat at the table.”

With all the talk about the importance of “employee engagement,” conventional wisdom says the most effective managers are the ones who treat their employees with respect, listen to their concerns and make unbiased and balanced personnel decisions.

True enough, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. But here’s the rub: Research shows those “fair” managers are seen as weaker than their counterparts with fewer social skills — by both employees and upper management — and are often passed over for key leadership positions.

Given the people-oriented nature of the job, it becomes clear why HR managers sometimes struggle to get taken seriously by upper management.

A matter of perception

The research was conducted by Batia WiesenfeldNaomi RothmanSara Wheeler-Smithand Adam Galinsky.

Here’s how the HBR article described the experiment:

In a laboratory setting, students watched as a “manager” delivered a compensation decision to an employee.

Manager A communicated the decision rudely, Manager B with respect.

The students were then assigned to work in a group led by the manager they’d observed. Later, they rated their leader’s power.

Rude Manager A consistently scored higher than respectful Manager B — even though there was no difference in how they’d treated the participants themselves.

Simply having witnessed the rude and respectful behavior was enough to create the bias.

An object lesson

The authors do offer a lone example of how making upper management decisions based on this “power perception” can backfire.

They cited the case of a pharmaceutical company that was naming a new CEO.

The two main candidates were very different in temperament and approach — one “treated subordinates and colleagues with respect and was respected in turn”; the other “was known for his assertive negotiating style and no-nonsense, occasionally abrasive manner.”

The no-nonsense candidate got the job.

But things didn’t work out well. First, a group of executives associated with the runner-up resigned, en masse. The new CEO was eventually pushed out because of disappointing company performance, and his rich retirement package outraged shareholders.

Maybe there’s some justice in the business world after all.

And maybe HR’s growing role in keeping companies together in the post-recession era will convince more C-level folks that the concept of “we’re only as good as our people” deserves more than just lip service.


Posted on July 16, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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