The Corporate Shrink

Can a bad temper be a good motivator? Plus, the tale of the two-faced employee.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

One of my partners at our venture-capital firm has a bad temper and often blows up at colleagues. At a recent partners’ meeting, when confronted about this behavior, he said something startling: He believes that losing his temper is part of an effective management style. He thinks it’s an underrated way of motivating people. Do you agree? (issue 95, page 96)

I’d rank it up there with beating one’s children. The strategy might get them to eat their vegetables, but they’ll learn to hate not just spinach but you, too.

Unfortunately, the similarity between abusive parenting and abusive management doesn’t end here. Parents who blow up at their kids and managers who berate employees both tend to do so when they feel helpless, unable to control the behavior of others. Rather than acknowledging their problem, or seeing that their need to control is neurotic, they blame those in the weaker position. Making matters worse, they manufacture all sorts of rationalizations for the verbal and physical violence.

Let’s be honest: We’ve all probably lost our tempers at one time or another, and while it may feel good to let loose, most of us ultimately regret doing so. The sad part is that people who abuse others habitually and feel it’s justified have often been on the receiving end of this sort of aggression earlier in their lives. They deal with it by turning the tables, making others feel the way they did growing up.

So your partner may be right, but only in the narrowest sense. I have no doubt that things get done after he blows his top. But in addition to denying the costs of this approach, he probably can’t imagine that the same employees might accomplish even more if he treated them like mature adults. He sounds like quite a charming fellow; has he considered installing a dungeon next to the staff lounge?

When I became head of operations, I inherited the most confusing direct report. She tells her peers how frustrated she is and how much she hates her job. Yet when I ask about her concerns, she tells me she sees a bright future for herself here. She has an important role, but it’s hard getting her to improve processes and take on new responsibilities.

She’s obviously not being entirely straight with you, and that’s a big problem. Not only is it hard to manage someone like this, but over time, the situation can also undermine your leadership. The fact that she’s being so blatantly deceptive suggests to me that she’s setting herself up for a confrontation. It’s not unheard of for people to provoke their own firing, irrational as that may seem.

It’s hard to tell what you’ve already tried with this difficult employee. But just asking about her concerns clearly isn’t enough; she just says what she thinks you want to hear. I would explicitly lay out the contradictions between what she tells you and what you’ve heard from her peers. I’d also show her how her reluctance to accept new challenges is inconsistent with what she has told you about her desire to succeed. Then I’d throw down the gauntlet: If her behavior and performance don’t soon reflect her words, she’ll be out of a job – which may be exactly what she has been waiting to hear.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (