THE BLOG

In Praise of Mother F------ Bosses

02/27/2015 06:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

There was a time when being the boss was pretty straightforward business. If you had the title, you made the rules. It's doubtful that Henry Ford ran many employee satisfaction surveys. Likewise, President Lyndon Johnson probably didn't spend a lot of time thinking about employee engagement, once offering the definition that, "A leader is someone who, if you cross him, can do something terrible to you."

Or as Moe Green said to Michael Corleone: "I got a business to run. Sometimes I gotta kick asses to make it run right."

Lately, though, things have become complicated in the world of organizational authority. We're well into an age of empowerment, and a celebration of collaboration, communication, and consensus. We talk about how to be a "good boss" in the context of getting employees to like us, or at least their jobs, and about how to be compassionate without undermining our own authority. We talk about how to collaborate as much as we delegate, and about "fostering positive workplaces." Engagement equals productivity equals profits, right?

Maybe. Except that the evidence of the power of collaborative leadership is largely anecdotal. Remember that this is also an age of outsourcing, downsizing, the near-death experience of the global financial system and -- for developed economies -- competition from places that don't particularly care about their employees' emotional well-being.

Stagnating wages and seeing tearful co-workers leave the building with their things in cardboard boxes, too-small severance packages in their pockets, may have sapped the hopeful magic from empowerment. A recent Gallup survey, in fact, found that almost 70 percent of U.S. employees are not "enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace." That is, they're "actively disengaged" with their work. Which begs the question: Is there any good anymore in being a "good boss"?

Perhaps very little, if by "good" we mean "nice." There is ample evidence that, these days, the tough boss may be more effective. A 2011 joint study out of Cornell University and Notre Dame found that disagreeable leaders were considered more formidable managers -- in the positive sense -- than agreeable ones. (They also had higher salaries.)

The key, the study found, was in striking a balance between "tough" and "love," and being sure that the criticisms they delivered were always professional, and not personal.

Indeed, tough love at work can encourage employees to learn to defend themselves and withstand pressure. A 2007 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that "deliberate practice," which requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, as opposed to going through the motions, is what helps employees become better at their jobs; that true expertise "requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback," and that "real experts ... deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who could challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance." In uncertain times with unprecedented issues, a few thorns might be just what an office needs.

Arguments for the tough boss are mirrored in the dangers of the nice boss. Friendliness, empathy and openness are great qualities in any human being -- including the person that does your performance review. Niceness dissolves to weakness, however, when the right decisions are deferred or ignored in the name of office harmony or avoidance of unpleasant confrontations. As Jared Sandler wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article about "too nice managers," the biggest work problem isn't office bullies. It's managers who "won't say a critical word to staffers who need to hear it."

As a result, problems fester and poor performers slide because "You can't fix what you can't say is broken."

There's a limit, of course. Being tough doesn't mean being nasty, or belittling. Nor does it mean micromanaging. Being a tough boss works best when the boss displays trust of the employees (and, not only that, when the boss has actual trust of the employees). University of Chicago researchers found that when people are being monitored, or monitoring themselves, too closely, they under perform. Yet while too-high pressure situations can have such negative impacts there is considerable reason to believe that, when applied correctly, high-pressure does yield high performance. A 2013 Fast Company case study of Google found that employee performance at the company was high precisely because expectations are set high. This proves the workplace theory that employees tend to rise to meet high expectations, and particularly if they believe you think they have it in them.

This is especially evident in certain fields. Wall Street traders, for example, famously thrive on pressure from others. I asked one rising bond trader how a new promotion would change his job. He said, "Basically, I get to yell at more people. And fewer people get to yell at me."

Even Millennials, who have a reputation for being too sensitive and too entitled -- too soft -- seem to crave the structure and education a tough boss can provide. My daughter is at the younger end of the millennial age range, and I often talk to her and her friends about what they want out of life. One told me, "Business isn't the Army, and hasn't been for a long time. If somebody tells me, 'My way or the highway,' chances are I'll pick the highway. But if somebody pounds on me in a way that shows me how I can be better, I'm fine with that. I want that."